What is social justice?

Here is an explanation of ‘Social Justice’ – its roots (origin), its development and some examples.
Its roots go all the way back to the Old Testament days of helping the poor and needy when the prophets raved at the wicked who needed to change their ways. We can see it back to the time when Moses gave up his princely lifestyle to lead his people to the promised land. We also see it back in the Jubilee Years when the poor were given a chance to redeem their lost property.

The New Testament was just as strong, or stronger in its display of Social Justice. We see it when Jesus helped the poor, the sick, and the disabled through his many miracles and parables. St.Luke used Jesus’ parable of the “Good Samaritan” in his Gospel to get his wealthy followers to help the poor. Just as the parable shamed the Israelites who passed the poor man in need, it should shame Christians of today who pass the needy on the street or in their neighborhoods. We are also reminded by the beatitudes that “those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are promised the kingdom of heaven”. ‘Righteousness’ is a good strong word, and a word that leads us to the importance and meaning of Social Justice.

What do we know of the early days of America? Most of the early settlers came to America to do better financially than they could possibly do in Europe. As time went, they slowly prospered. But the agrarian period was eventually replaced by the industrial revolution in Europe, as well as in America. Jack Beatty, a historian and senior editor of Atlantic Monthly, wrote a “scathing assessment” of the period from 1865 to 1900. The title of Beatty’s book describes well the happenings of this period – Age of Betrayal: The Triumph of Money in America. The dreadful power of business was so great that President Rutherford B. Hayes wrote in his diary that government of, by, and for the people had been replaced by government “of, by and for the corporations”.

England and America were both having problems with the economy. Inspired by English Cardinal Manning and Baltimore Archbishop Gibbons, Pope Leo XIII showed the concern of the Church in 1891 through the encyclical Rerum Novarum. Forty years later in Quadrogesimo Anno, Pope XI’s encyclical (1931) showed the commitment of the Church to a just social order. That marks the passing of the term ‘righteousness’ to take on the meaning – Social Justice. The year 1931 marked a two year time after the stock market crash in the U.S. and the continuation of the great depression.

In the interval between the two papal encyclicals, the Catholic Church in America showed a more local concern. At some point it instituted the National Catholic Welfare Conference. The first executive director, Msgr. John Ryan, wrote the book The Living Wage in 1906. In it he traced the roots of an adequate family wage to Catholic social teaching. Eighty years later (1986) the United States Catholic Bishops issued a pastoral letter, “Economic Justice for All”, in which they stressed the importance of the living wage. (In 2006, articles called attention to the 100th anniversary of Msgr. Ryan’s living wage idea.)

It should be noted that the depression of ’29 and the 30’s ended; rich and poor were drafted to fight in World War II, a war that was not one the U.S. had initiated. Returning veterans from the war had great economic benefits from the G.I. bill, such as funding for a college education and a lower mortgage rate to help in purchasing a home. Not only were the college educated young men getting better jobs, but the immigrant generations of the 1800 and 1900’s were better established by now.

Back to Church accomplishments…Pope John XXIII issued two encyclicals –Mater and Magistra – with Catholic social teaching (1961) and Pacem in Terris, a call for peace, justice, and liberty (1963). But John XXIII did more than write encyclicals, he called together the great Council of the bishops of the Church, Vatican II (1962 – 65).
The first of the 16 documents of the council and the one most familiar to most Catholics is the “Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy”. It not only gave us the Mass in English, but it also got the laity more involved in the participation of the Mass as lectors and Eucharistic ministers. Why? Because the Church is all God’s people, all those baptized into the Church. Those of us living before Vatican II thought the Church was only the building and the hierarchy. It was wonderful to find out that WE were the Church also. That prepared us for the 16th document also – “The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World” (Gaudium et Spes). A great part of the document makes the point that the Church is not to turn its back on the world, instead it MUST serve the world. An important section of the document is Part Two which stresses the need for social justice. With Social Justice being an important part of the Church … so it points to it being important for us as part of the Church. In 1986 our American bishops made Vatican II’s “social justice” call to us very clear in their pastoral letter “Economic Justice for All”.

We have heard from popes, cardinals, archbishops, and bishops (by the gross). Can a call to action come any closer than that? Yes it can, and it has. Fr. Bill is asking our community of St.Thomas More to expand our social justice activities. Where do we start? We need more ideas !! We need more help to evaluate suggested ideas. We need more people to carry out the ideas…extra hands make the task lighter. Blessed are the social justice workers. Where are you? We need you now or as time permits…Come to our meetings on the 4th Wednesday of the month in the rectory. Call to let us know you are coming and if you have an idea that we can tackle on the Social Justice committee.