Social Justice: Catholic Virtue or Trap?

Recently in these spaces, Father Peter J. West published an apologia of the Catholic Church's promotion of social justice, arguing that conservative distaste for that pervasive meme is misplaced and is essentially a product of co-optation of the term by the left.  He notes the importance of the Catholic vote in American presidential elections, and he urges conservatives to embrace a proper understanding of "social justice" if they wish to win the support of Catholics in November.

His argument is unconvincing.

Father West writes:

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.

And "[s]ocial justice has nothing to do with socialism" -- stressing the Church's steadfast opposition to that "murderous political ideology which decimated Europe."  Hmm.

Father West goes on to quote both the Blessed Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI respectively speaking out against an overreaching "Social Assistance State," and the state's proper role in defending human life from conception to natural death.  He further takes to task columnist and self-proclaimed "progressive" Catholic E.J. Dionne for Dionne's complaint in a recent essay that the Church's teachings on the right to life, homosexuality, and stem cell research detract from the more important work it does in the realm of social justice, arguing that Dionne has his priorities backwards.

For the record, no objections on that point.

But what Father West fails to address is the consistent promotion by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) -- the Church's Episcopal Conference within the United States -- of overtly statist policies over the past decades.  This is a big omission; far from the result of a facile misperception, as Fr. West suggests, this conservative's aversion to the "social justice" narrative flows largely from its inseparable connection to leftist political projects, and the USCCB's regular embrace of such.

The list is long, but only a few examples are required to make the point.  The USCCB supported passage of the so-called Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act -- recent provisions of which are so exercising the Bishops, who apparently never considered that in calling for (and urging Catholics to support) expanded government control of America's health care system, the government, upon achieving such, would then make the rules by which that health care is dispensed.  They support intrusive governmental policies to promote "environmental justice."  While insisting on the dignity that derives from work, the bishops want the government to continue paying people not to work, in support of "economic justice."  They opposed the landmark 1996 welfare reforms, and they continue to support legislative efforts to dilute said reforms' core provisions.  And so on.

In his chronologically challenged protestation that socialist ideologues have hijacked the Christian aspirations of social justice, Fr. West might have noticed that the USCCB apparently has been similarly compromised. 

In fact, political leftists from Plato to Marx, from Dewey to Piven have consistently advocated expanding the power of the state -- always under the explicit or implicit guise of promoting "social justice" -- at the expense of the freedoms of the individual and private civil associations, both secular and religious.  This is because at its core, the leftist worldview is devoted to the destruction of the traditional nuclear family, recognizing correctly that this construct forms the first and last defense against the unlimited state power sought as a means to transform society.  Welfare policies that, irrespective of rhetoric, in fact encourage economic dependency and fatherless families, and social narratives that destigmatize and encourage essentially consequence-free sexual activity for anyone past the age of puberty, all are attempts to erode the coherence of the traditional family and the moral foundations upon which it is based.  To wit: it is no accident that the first major rule on what "health care" employers must provide under ObamaCare involved contraceptives -- and not, say, annual physicals or generic antibiotics.  Moreover, on a practical note, the utter failure of welfare state policies to actually achieve their professed aims -- the alleviation of human suffering and elevation of human dignity -- is clear for any who care to examine the data.

That is why it is both curious and sad to see a body ostensibly devoted to promoting the sanctity of life, marriage, and human dignity through work so consistently engaged in supporting a broad leftist agenda that seeks to marginalize those very goals.  Even if the USCCB protests against specific bits and pieces like abortion and gay marriage, it bears responsibility -- intentionally or not -- for legitimizing and frequently promoting a fundamentally leftist worldview in which government policies and mandates increasingly usurp and enervate personal conscience and individual Christian duties to one's fellow man.

As others have ably pointed out, religious leaders of many stripes have been seduced by leftist thinking over the past half-century or so.  The American Catholic Church in particular has been under the sway of the "seamless garment" teaching promulgated by the late Cardinal Bernadin, whom Fr. West approvingly cites in his article.  This is a view that inter alia explicitly encourages greater governmental activism in pursuit of social justice for "the powerless among us."  In other words, what Fr. West apparently fails to grasp is that the groundwork for the "increasingly radical policies of the current administration" which he decries in his essay have been laid in no small measure by the advocacy of Catholic leadership over the past several decades.

Father West is undoubtedly right about the importance of the Catholic vote in American elections, and of emphasizing to those voters conservatives' Catholic-friendly opposition to abortion, support for traditional families, and promotion of economic and social policies that benefit the rich and the poor alike.  But he is seriously in error -- or perhaps simply trying to square an impossible circle drawn by his ecclesiastical superiors -- when he urges conservatives to court the Catholic vote by professing support for the insidious conceit of "social justice."  That, in fact, is what Obama does, and it is what he will continue to do in his deeply dishonest "fair share" shtick advocating greater expropriation and redistribution of private property.

Rather, conservatives should make the case why Catholics -- along with Americans of every creed and tradition -- should reject such leftist rhetorical vehicles and policies, and expose them as the truck of delusional (at best) and, at worst, totalitarian demagogues, of which our just-past century saw far too many.  The disastrous record and ominous trajectory of the Obama administration provides ample evidence of the very real harm inflicted upon our society by progressive elites who enthusiastically promote "fairness" as a means to "social justice."  That the American Catholic Church has not yet awakened to the reality of its complicity in legitimizing this pernicious lexicon is no excuse to encourage its continued somnolence.