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, November 9, 2021

What is “Social Justice”?

If you google the term “social justice,” you will get a flood of results . . . few (if any) of which have an accurate definition or even description of the virtue.  As a result, people generally go away with the same understanding they started with.  If they thought social justice is another term for socialism, nothing changed their mind.  If they thought that social justice means replacing individual justice with coercive, large-scale “charity” (actually redistribution), little was done to modify their position.


Admittedly, we at the interfaith Center for Economic and Social Justice (CESJ) may have contributed to this lack of understanding — in a small way, of course.  Part of this is due to how we describe social justice.  As stated on the CESJ website under “Defining Economic Justice and Social Justice“ —

Defining Social Justice

Social justice encompasses economic justice. Social justice is the virtue which guides us in creating those organized human interactions we call institutions. In turn, social institutions, when justly organized, provide us with access to what is good for the person, both individually and in our associations with others. Social justice also imposes on each of us a personal responsibility to collaborate with others, at whatever level of the “Common Good” in which we participate, to design and continually perfect our institutions as tools for personal and social development.

Father William J. Ferree


This definition is correct, as it is derived from the work of Rev. William J. Ferree, S.M., Ph.D., who was an expert in the social doctrine of Pope Pius XI, who developed today’s understanding of social justice.  Father Ferree’s analysis is presented in his doctoral thesis, The Act of Social Justice (1941, © 1943) and summarized in his pamphlet, Introduction to Social Justice (1948).

Correct, yes, but evidently not convincing.  This became apparent from a comment we got on the free internet version of the pamphlet, which includes an introduction prepared with the input and assistance of Father Ferree’s students — who declared when we finally phrased things to their satisfaction that we had nailed it.  A fairly well-known commentator on Catholic social teaching (probably not the one you’re thinking of; he’s not THAT well-known) stated that he agreed completely with what Father Ferree wrote, but that we were absolutely wrong in our understanding of it!


What we have here is a failure to communicate.

That being the case, we thought today we’d put our understanding of social justice in very simple words and leave all the explanation for another time.  Of course, this will never convince the people who insist that social justice is simply another term for socialism.  The most we’;ll get from them is an acknowledgement that we really are using a different definition of social justice than the one they accept.


If such “Social Justice Warriors” (a somewhat oxymoronic term) are feeling charitable . . . sorry, “socially just” . . . they might let us live on in our lamentable ignorance, but they will never agree that social justice means anything other than redistribution.  The only question for them will always be how much redistribution, and how much force may be used to carry it out.

Be that as it may, social justice is not a substitute for charity or any other virtue.  This is simple common sense and is consistent with the first principle of reason: nothing can both “be” and “not be” at the same time under the same conditions, so you cannot have a particular virtue that “takes over” any other particular virtue or virtues.

It doesn’t make sense to have different virtues for the same thing.  You can’t use a hammer instead of a saw to cut lumber and expect to get a good result.

Doesn't make a good glass cutter, either.


No, just like the tools in a carpenter’s chest, each of the particular virtues has a specific role to play and a job to do, and you’re asking for trouble if you try to make one particular virtue do the job of another particular virtue.  It’s different for a general virtue, but general virtues don’t do anything directly and have no specific or particular acts associated with them.  You can’t carry out the act of a general virtue because the particular act of a general virtue doesn’t exist by definition.  Any virtue that has a defined act is — by definition (duh) — a particular virtue.

John Paul I


That is why so many of the popes have reminded people (especially Catholic Social Justice Warriors) that charity is not a substitute for justice.  That charity is the soul of justice is one of the few things that Pope John Paul I managed to declare during his month-long pontificate.  This was in the General Audience of September 6, 1978.

Yes, John Paul I also reiterated another thing Paul VI said (and Paul VI was quoting Leo XIII, who was quoting Aquinas, who was quoting Saint Paul and Jesus) that when someone clearly has more than he needs to “live becomingly,” the surplus in a sense “belongs” to the poor and should be given to them as alms.  This, however, is not justice — except in “extreme cases” — but charity.  It does not, and cannot, abolish private property or make it less than “sacred and inviolable.”  It only applies to an unneeded surplus, not to everything.  As Leo XIII explained,

Pope Leo XIII


“It is lawful,” says St. Thomas Aquinas, “for a man to hold private property; and it is also necessary for the carrying on of human existence.” But if the question be asked: How must one’s possessions be used? — the Church replies without hesitation in the words of the same holy Doctor: “Man should not consider his material possessions as his own, but as common to all, so as to share them without hesitation when others are in need. Whence the Apostle with, ‘Command the rich of this world... to offer with no stint, to apportion largely.’” True, no one is commanded to distribute to others that which is required for his own needs and those of his household; nor even to give away what is reasonably required to keep up becomingly his condition in life, “for no one ought to live other than becomingly.” But, when what necessity demands has been supplied, and one’s standing fairly taken thought for, it becomes a duty to give to the indigent out of what remains over. “Of that which remaineth, give alms.” It is a duty, not of justice (save in extreme cases), but of Christian charity — a duty not enforced by human law. But the laws and judgments of men must yield place to the laws and judgments of Christ the true God, who in many ways urges on His followers the practice of almsgiving — ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive”; and who will count a kindness done or refused to the poor as done or refused to Himself — “As long as you did it to one of My least brethren you did it to Me.” To sum up, then, what has been said: Whoever has received from the divine bounty a large share of temporal blessings, whether they be external and material, or gifts of the mind, has received them for the purpose of using them for the perfecting of his own nature, and, at the same time, that he may employ them, as the steward of God’s providence, for the benefit of others. “He that hath a talent,” said St. Gregory the Great, “let him see that he hide it not; he that hath abundance, let him quicken himself to mercy and generosity; he that hath art and skill, let him do his best to share the use and the utility hereof with his neighbor.” (Rerum Novarum, § 22.)

"No contradictions allowed."


The only way this passage can be construed as abolishing ownership as an absolute right is to ignore virtually every word in it.  The right to be an owner is absolute in every single human being:

We have seen that this great labor question cannot be solved save by assuming as a principle that private ownership must be held sacred and inviolable. The law, therefore, should favor ownership, and its policy should be to induce as many as possible of the people to become owners. (Ibid., § 46.)

So, what is NOT absolute?  The use of what is owned.  That is the true meaning of “private property is a right, but not an absolute right.”  “Access,” the right to be an owner (the generic right of dominion) is and must be clearly distinguished from “use,” the rights of ownership (the universal destination of all goods).  Anything else means that Aquinas and the popes were contradicting themselves . . . which means that the Catholic Church would not be what it claims to be.

No, the bottom line remains the same: no particular virtue can substitute for another particular virtue, or you descend into nonsense.  Social justice is not, and can never be, a substitute for either justice or charity or anything else.  It is its own thing and no other.

So, what is it?

Social justice is the virtue that makes other virtues possible.

That’s it and is the simplest way to say it.  When justice, charity, or any other virtues aren’t working, you don’t step in and force them to work by imposing desired results and call it “social justice.”  Instead, you organize with others and change the system so that justice, charity, and all the other virtues can function properly once again.

There are, of course, countless ramifications and nuances to all this, and how to carry out acts of social justice can be a real puzzler, but if you want to know what social justice is all about, that’s it, right there.