THE Global Justice Movement Website

THE Global Justice Movement Website
This is the "Global Justice Movement" (dot org) we refer to in the title of this blog.

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

The Virtue of Social Justice

As we saw in the previous posting on this subject, by the beginning of the nineteenth century it had become obvious that the old individualist way of doing things was insufficient, and by the end of the nineteenth century it was just as obvious that the collectivist way was even worse.  The only thing left was what most people simply couldn’t get a handle on: the personalist way of doing things.


There needed to be some way in which ordinary people could gain access to the common good and act socially without being absorbed into the collective.  That was social virtue, specifically social justice.

We may never know what put Pius XI on the track of discerning social justice as a particular virtue with a direct effect on the common good instead of a general virtue limited to allowing individuals to affect the common good indirectly.  He had studied Taparelli’s works in great detail, and even recommended them to Fulton Sheen very early in his pontificate. (Reeves, America’s Bishop, op. cit., 50.) This is an intimation that Sheen was being groomed for some important task such as cleaning up the mess Msgr. Ryan had created at the Catholic University of America. (Sheen, Treasure in Clay, op. cit., 23.)

Thomas Aquinas


However he did it, Pius XI realized that something Aquinas said about legal justice in the Summa Theologica was radically different from the usual understanding.  For 800 years, people had assumed Aquinas was simply repeating Aristotle, and legal justice was a general virtue that did not look directly to anything.

Aquinas, however, contradicted this in the Question on the cardinal (particular) virtues, among which he included legal justice.  As he said, “Legal justice alone directly looks to the common good.” (Ia IIae, q. 61, a. 5, 4 mm.)

That was not the usual interpretation!  Correlating this with the Question on justice, Pius XI would have seen the traditional understanding of legal justice: “Legal justice, which is general, directs every [other] virtue to the common good.” (IIa IIae, q. 58, a. 6, 2 mm)  That is, legal justice is a general virtue with no act of its own, but functions through the acts of other virtues.

Pope Pius XI


Here was Aquinas talking out of both sides of his mouth, and saying that legal justice both is, and is not, a particular justice!  Investigating further, however, Pius XI would have seen the statement, “Legal justice directs man to the common good directly, but to the good of the individual indirectly.” (IIa IIae, q. 58, a. 7, 1 mm.) Another contradiction!

At some point Pius XI realized that Aquinas was using the same term for two different things.  There was traditional legal justice as a general virtue, just as Aristotle said, but also legal justice as a particular virtue.  The latter seems to have been Aquinas’s own contribution, although he made it sound as if he was merely commenting on Aristotle.

In The Act of Social Justice, Ferree carried out an extensive analysis of Aquinas’s technique of transitioning from Aristotle’s concept of legal justice to his own by appearing to comment on Aristotle instead of making an obvious correction.  (Ferree, The Act of Social Justice, op. cit., 19-31.Aquinas performed a similar transition correcting Aristotle’s natural slave argument in the Politics (1254b16-21) by commenting that what Aristotle “really” meant was that it is natural for men in need of guidance and rehabilitation to be slaves, not that some men are slaves by nature.  (Commentary on the Politics, I.2; Summa, IIa IIae, q. 57, a. 3.)

Father William Ferree


Pius XI decided to clarify matters.  He would restrict the term “legal justice” to the Aristotelian general virtue (“[give] it to the lawyers” (Fr. William J. Ferree, Social Charity.  Arlington, Virginia: Center for Economic and Social Justice, 2003, 16), and apply the new term “social justice” (that the socialists and modernists had coopted) to Aquinas’s particular legal justice.  He “announced” (after a fashion) the change in Studiorum Ducem, his 1923 encyclical on Aquinas. (Studiorum Ducem, § 27.)

Appropriately, this was in the same paragraph that the pope closed by commenting, “It is therefore clear why Modernists are so amply justified in fearing no Doctor of the Church so much as Thomas Aquinas.”  Of course they feared Aquinas.  According to Pius XI, “the Angelic Doctor” had explained why their whole theory of “social justice” was completely wrong centuries before they thought of it! (Cf. Chesterton’s account of the debate between Aquinas and Siger of Brabant in Saint Thomas Aquinas, op. cit., 91-96.)

Simply put, Aquinas’s particular legal justice — henceforth to be known as social justice — is not directed to the good of individuals at all, but to the common good: that vast network of institutions within which individuals realize their particular good.  As Pius XI explained in Quadragesimo Anno and Divini Redemptoris, the job of social justice is not to substitute for the individual virtues, that is, to make direct provision for individual good.  Instead, the job of social justice is to make the practice of individual virtue and the realization of individual good possible.

And what that meant with respect to socialism is what we will look at in the next posting on this subject.