By Father John Bayer
Special to The Texas Catholic
I’ve come to realize that the phrase “social justice” provokes very different reactions in Catholics, often according to their knowledge of the Catholic tradition and to their political sympathies. My sense is that some Catholics are very frightened by it. So, what should we think when our schools and parishes use this phrase? What could it mean?
I grew up in a religious and socially conservative family that was committed to community service. Over my life I’ve seen my parents offer their time and resources to serve others, and they talk about social justice as the Christian duty to promote the good of those in need. At the University of Dallas, I had a great course on social justice. With the professor I could explore the profound “social teaching” of the Catholic Church. We focused on the modern form of that teaching, or the encyclical tradition beginning in 1891 with Pope Leo XIII, and on how businesses could work in ways that serve the “real economy” and authentic human flourishing. But the tradition of Catholic social teaching reaches far back into antiquity, to Aquinas and Augustine, and of course to its roots in the Bible. This is the great tradition to which Rev. Martin Luther King appealed, when in his Letter from Birmingham Jail he argued for peaceful or civil disobedience to unjust laws.
This tradition of social justice makes me proud to be Catholic. So, it was much to my dismay when, a few years ago, I first heard the term “social justice warrior” used as a term of derision. For many people today, social justice doesn’t refer to the Gospel but to forces that want us all to see the most fundamental dynamics of society as conflicts between “oppressed” and “oppressor” groups. To pursue “social justice” is to unmask the claims to knowledge and authority that alleged oppressors use to enslave the oppressed. As far as I understand this tradition, it has roots in Marxism and the “critical theory” of the so-called “Frankfurt school” of philosophy. Today, critical theory shapes a lot of cultural and academic reflection on topics like race and gender (thus, we hear about “critical race theory” and “critical gender theory”). In this tradition, it is not possible to speak about an eternal truth or a natural law, since that would define, limit or channel freedom. Such claims about truth or nature are seen as cynical justifications for existing power structures in society – as forms of oppression. If someone speaks, for example, about human nature as an “objective” or “universal” reality to be explored and respected humbly, critical theorists respond by claiming that such “essentialism” serves to support the power of the speaker’s group. In this tradition, there is no genuinely universal truth; there are only historical or contextualized “truths” or “knowledges” that cannot be unified harmoniously. All we are left with, it appears, is a plurality of groups, each speaking “their” own truth and endlessly jockeying for power.
So, what should we think about social justice? With regard to social justice, just as for everything else, Catholics should take their first cues from the Gospel as it is preached in the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. If we believe Jesus meant what he said when he promised to be with us until the end of the age (cf. Mt 28:20), then we ought to strain our ear for his voice above all others, and where better to hear it than in the Church he founded and to which he promised to send his Holy Spirit (cf. Jn 16:13)? So, if I am a Catholic who identifies more with the political Left, I should feel responsible for taking my cues in the struggle for justice from the deep social teaching of the Church, and I should beware lest I be duped by dubious social analyses and the bitter division they foment. Likewise, if I identify more with the political Right, I, too, should feel responsible for taking my cues from the Church, and I should not dismiss concerns for “social justice” (a phrase first coined by Fr. Luigi Taparelli SJ, a Catholic theologian) simply because someone is spuriously trying to redefine it.
Finally, we should keep in mind just how important it is for us to renew our effort to read seriously and broadly, and of course to pray. If we are vulnerable to being captured by ideologies that are in some measure hostile to the Gospel, or to being ignorant about our own tradition of social justice, it is likely, at least partly, because we too often give our minds and hearts to superficial news media and entertainment, instead of studying and discussing our incredible tradition as Catholics. We have much to learn and do in order to conform to the Gospel, so that our hearts and society reflect the saving justice of God. It will be exciting!
Father John Bayer, O.Cist., is a monk at the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas in Irving.