Social Justice and the Catholic Vote
Catholics make up about one quarter of the American electorate, and the majority of the Catholic vote has gone to the winner in every presidential election since 1972. With that said, conservatives -- whether they like it or not -- will have to engage the concept of "social justice" if they wish to earn the sizable Catholic vote in November 2012.
Of course, the term "social justice" makes some conservatives cringe because it has been co-opted by those who crave moral legitimacy for their political ends even as they seek to marginalize the Church. But these leftist distortions are meant only to mislead.
Justice is commonly defined as giving each person his due. Social justice is simply an extension of this virtue into the public realm, concerning how society is ordered, with particular concern for the most vulnerable. Working for social justice means nothing more than respecting the dignity of every human person and defending the rights that flow from that dignity.
Social justice has nothing to do with socialism, the murderous political ideology which decimated Europe and which has been condemned by practically every pope since the 19th century*. Nor does social justice require a big, intrusive government. The Church teaches that government has a role to play in providing a "safety net," but she has been harshly critical of the modern welfare state. For example, Blessed Pope John Paul II, in his 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus, said:
[D]efects in the Social Assistance State are the result of an inadequate understanding of the tasks proper to the State. Here again the principle of subsidiarity must be respected: a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to coordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good. By intervening directly and depriving society of its responsibility, the Social Assistance State leads to a loss of human energies and an inordinate increase of public agencies, which are dominated more by bureaucratic thinking than by concern for serving their clients, and which are accompanied by an enormous increase in spending.
Another distortion of Catholic Social Doctrine is the attempt by some to separate the Church's teachings in defense of human life, marriage, and the family from her teaching on social justice. An example of this confusion can be found in a recent column by the Washington Post's E. J. Dionne, who calls himself a "progressive Catholic." Mr. Dionne supports President Obama and defends the phony "accommodation" that the president thought would placate those who rejected his administration's attempt to force many religious organizations to do what they in good conscience cannot.
What bothers liberal Catholics about the arguments advanced by some of our conservative friends is that the Catholic right seems so eager to focus the church's witness to the world on issues such as abortion, gay marriage, stem cell research and, now, perhaps, contraception that they would effectively, if not necessarily intentionally, relegate the church's social justice work and teaching to second-class status.
With this sweeping and unsubstantiated claim, Dionne, while invoking Catholic teaching, assumes a false dichotomy between the Moral and Social Doctrine of the Church -- an error foisted on the Church in America by those who decided decades ago that some human beings (pre-born children) weren't worthy of the same rights as the rest of us. In essence, Dionne and those who accept this false dichotomy would try to build the house of social justice without first laying its foundation.
Pope Benedict XVI addressed this distortion when he received President Obama's ambassador to the Vatican, Miguel Diaz, in October of 2009. In his address to Ambassador Diaz, the pope expressed his hope that the relationship between the Holy See and the United States would "continue to be marked by fruitful dialogue and cooperation in the promotion of human dignity, respect for fundamental human rights" and the "cultivation of the values of 'life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.'" But, he continued:
I think particularly of the need for a clear discernment with regard to issues touching the protection of human dignity and respect for the inalienable right to life from the moment of conception to natural death.
The Pope then urged the Obama administration, via Mr. Diaz, to promote "the protection of the right to conscientious objection on the part of health care workers, and indeed all citizens." Shortly thereafter, the Obama administration overturned conscience protections put in place by the Bush administration, and the president now is forcing Catholic institutions to pay for abortion-causing drugs, contraceptives, and sterilization.
Toward the conclusion of his address, the Holy Father added:
The Church insists on the unbreakable link between an ethics of life and every other aspect of social ethics, for she is convinced that, in the prophetic words of the late Pope John Paul II, "a society lacks solid foundations when, on the one hand, it asserts values such as the dignity of the person, justice and peace, but then, on the other hand, radically acts to the contrary by allowing or tolerating a variety of ways in which human life is devalued and violated, especially where it is weak or marginalized." [Evangelium Vitae, 93; cf. Caritas in Veritate, 15]
The Obama administration has not only ignored the pope's plea, but it has rejected it with a cynical aggression that has not been seen since the days of the anti-Catholic "Know Nothings" of the 19th century. Even worse is the fact that they have done so with some "Catholic" cover provided by "progressives" like E.J. Dionne, who acts more like the president's cheerleader than like a faithful defender of the Church
Dionne also fails to recognize the hierarchy of goods within Catholic Social Doctrine. After all, without the right to life, all other rights are meaningless. Even the late Cardinal Bernardin, who advocated the "seamless garment" approach to social justice, wrote in a statement he issued for Respect Life Sunday on October 1, 1989:
Not all values, however, are of equal weight. Some are more fundamental than others. On this Respect Life Sunday, I wish to emphasize that no earthly value is more fundamental than human life itself. Human life is the condition for enjoying freedom and all other values. Consequently, if one must choose between protecting or serving lesser human values that depend upon life for their existence and life itself, human life must take precedence.
So while the term "social justice" has been distorted, one should not be afraid to use it in its proper context. It's a concept that appeals to Catholics and others who believe in fairness. Conservatives can appeal to Catholics if they can demonstrate how conservative economic policies benefit families and all classes, especially the poor. Given the increasingly radical policies of the current administration -- none of which is likely to result in better conditions for the most vulnerable -- it becomes easier, and more necessary, to make the case that progressivism is not the natural political ally of the Catholic Church.
Conservatives should also point out the false dichotomy between life and family issues on the one hand and caring for the poor on the other. To profess admiration for the Catholic Church's care for the poor and the marginalized, while rejecting her stand in defense of life and family, is schizophrenic and hypocritical. Social justice begins with our most vulnerable brothers and sisters in the womb.
Father Peter West is vice president for missions for Human Life International, the world's largest international pro-life organization.
*Pius XI in the encyclical Nostis et Nobiscum: 1849; Leo XIII in the encyclicals Diuturnum (n. 23), 1881; Humanum Genus (n. 24), 1884; Quod Apostolici Muneris (n. 1), 1878; Libertas Praestantissimum (n. 16), 1888; Rerum Novarum (n. 4 - 6), 1891; Graves de Communi Re (n. 21), 1901; Pius X in the apostolic letter Notre Charge Apostolique, 1910; Benedict XV in the encyclical Ad Beatissimi Apostolorum (n. 13); Pius XI in the encyclical Quadragesimo Anno (n. 111, 117, 120 "... no one can be at the same time a good Catholic and a true socialist."), 1931; Pius XII in the encyclical Summi Pontificatus (n. 60), 1939; John XXIII in the encyclical Mater et Magistra (n. 34), 1961; Paul VI Octogesima Adveniens (n. 31), 1971; John Paul II in the encyclicals Solicitudo Rei Socialis (n. 15, 20 - 21), 1987 and Centessimus Annus (n. 12 - 13), 1991; and Pope Benedict XVI in the encyclical Deus Caritas Est (n. 28), 2005.