The term “social justice” effectively entered Catholic thought in Pius XI’s encyclical Quadragesimo Anno (1931). The term is still often used unclearly and sometimes as an invocation intended to bless as Christian teaching the personal opinions of those who use it. Considerable care is needed to grasp its authentic meaning.
Social justice is the virtue by which human beings organize themselves to ward off evils that injure the common good and, second, to produce those goods, services, and actions which contribute to the common good. It is important to state the defensive purpose first because in history the very task of establishing the rule of law, affording protection against brigands and hostile predators, and bringing order out of chaos supplied the first and indispensable agenda for civilized life. But the creative agenda is clearly the more fundamental thrust of social justice. It is virtuous to organize against injustice; it is more daunting still to organize to build up institutions of justice.
Two further points. The chief activity of social justice is the act by which human beings organize themselves to act in an associative, rather than in an individual, capacity. That is why this virtue is called social justice. A human being is not an individual alone, but a social and a political animal. It belongs to human nature that humans should act not simply individualistically but socially.
Second, the aim of social justice is to achieve some social good, not simply an individual good; and this aim is directed, ultimately, toward the social good of all human beings together. The classic expression for the ultimate reference of this concept is “the common good.” In other words, social justice inclines human beings to be public-spirited, to lift up their eyes to the needs and purposes of the whole human community, and to organize themselves, even in a small and humble way, to contribute in their particular location to the good of all. Obviously, different persons will see the good differently and different groups will act in many contrasting ways. The expression “the common good” does not imply that any one community sees it whole; on the contrary, it draws our attention to the fact that all human beings share a common nature, a common earthly home, common needs, common sufferings, and at least the early stirrings of desire for an orderly and mutually respectful human order.
In a sense, the concept of social justice took many centuries to develop (from its roots in Aristotle and in the Prophets of Israel) because human beings were for so long dispersed in relative isolation across the earth, and separately involved in dimly understood problems of finding food and overcoming tyranny. The dream of building a just Republic occurs even in Plato; Aristotle saw clearly that ethics is a branch of politics, and individual virtue a part of political virtue. But not until modern times did human beings gain confidence that new political, economic, and cultural institutions could be created, as in the eighteenth-century expression “the new science of politics.” Social justice implies that human beings have moral responsibility for the institutions they construct. A precondition thereof is that they have some knowledge about how to do so.
In this connection, whereas one can find considerable wisdom in the ancient and medieval world about both political and cultural institutions, it remained for the modern era for knowledge about economic institutions to rise to a comparable level. Whereas earlier treatises confined themselves to “politics,” beginning in 1615 the new conception of “political economy” stirred many new discoveries.
Thus, in a powerful way, knowledge (both theoretical and practical) about economic activity is a decisive characteristic of modern life. Such knowledge is widely diffused; billions of the world’s citizens engage in self-directed economic activities. In another sense, however, knowledge about economics seems to be far less widely diffused, even among educated people, than knowledge about politics or culture. Journalists, for example, often treat economics with far less sophistication than they treat politics. Similarly, there seems to be much more theological literature about political topics such as church and state than about economic topics. When the U.S. Catholic bishops sponsored a conference on theology and economics at the University of Notre Dame in 1983, one of them admitted that it was very difficult to find for the four panels any theologians who had previously written on economics at all.
In bringing social justice to bear on economic life, therefore, one sees at the outset both that many false preconceptions are likely to be encountered and that much new ground must be broken. The critical mass of persons intellectually experienced both in economics and in theological discourse is not large.
To practice social justice is to organize to produce goods, services and actions that contribute to the common good. Christians engaged in economic activities believe that this is what they are already doing. How can they be helped to do it better? What are they now doing that they ought not to do?
To answer these questions well, one must begin with a theory of wealth and how it is created. For in creating new wealth, human beings share in the work of the Creator, who made this earth richer in resources than human beings for centuries even dared to dream — and richer, still, than we have yet discovered. Social justice is, therefore, a creative virtue and those who practice it are creators.