I feel the need to come to the defense of social justice—both against those who discredit it and against those who have abused it. It is a concept that lies at the heart of Catholic social teaching, and I am not going to sit by, as a Catholic professor of law and of philosophy, as it is disparaged and regrettably sometimes even cursed!
When Marxist teaching was setting the world afire and catching the imagination of the workers of the world, the Church perceived the threat to the faith, not only because of its avowed atheism but as importantly because of its skewed philosophy of the human person and its understanding of human society. Rerum Novarum of Pope Leo XIII faced the social situations for which the communists audaciously claimed they had the solution. It strongly defended the right to own, insisting that the goods of the earth, meant for the welfare of all, can often be optimally used best only when owned. Examples are not difficult to come by. But there was also that very impressive argument that that portion of nature on which the human person expended his toil bore his imprint and could not therefore, without doing him injustice, be alienated from him. This was alienation other than that which figured prominently in Marx’s persuasion. This was an elementary articulation of one of the fundamental principles of social justice: that any person who labors has a claim to that portion of earth that is transformed into his handiwork. Rejecting the claim that to the proletariat belonged all that was gained, Leo XIII asked what good labor would be if there was no capital upon which to expend it. Not labor alone then, but capital likewise was entitled to the gains of human toil.
In succeeding pontificates, the Popes would refine the notion of social justice and explicate its component principles, key among these—solidarity and subsidiarity. Not one class alone, neither entrepreneur or capitalist nor laborer or peasant had an exclusive claim to profit. Neither alone was entitled to the fruits of development. And this train of thought reaches its acme in the Venerable Paul VI’s Populorum Progressio where he announces the principle that “development is the new name of peace”—by which, of course, he meant the development of all. Now, to reject Populorum Progressio because one has sentimental attachments to the Tridentine Liturgy and therefore has an aversion for the reform in Church life that Paul VI took over from John XXIII is cretinous, to put it charitably! What argument might there be against the insight that peace is the fruit of that justice that consists in inclusive progress? And why should “inclusive” be a bad word? Was it not the demolition, the deconstruction, of so many exclusions that has been key to our moral maturation as a race?
Very usefully, the social doctrine of the Church has looked beyond the injustice that one unjust person does his victim into the social structures —such as the unabated application of the laws of succession—that “institutionalize” injustice. And the State has been heedful. Law students are treated to a fare of “social legislation”, and this will include agrarian reform law, labor laws and standards, and more recently, indigenous people’s rights law, because in truth, all these laws have to do with giving all a fair access to the resources of society as well as distribute its burdens. Labor law, for one, transgresses established tenets of law and its myth of the “meeting of minds”, because when one hires another, even if minds should indeed meet but the wage agreed upon falls below that which the law characterizes as the minimum living wage, then liabilities will still arise, no matter the supposed perfection of the contract. Traditional commutative justice is not enough. You need a new title for this other aspect of justice—and “social justice” is a felicitous choice.
In St. John Paul II we have the boldest pronouncement yet that as between capital and labor, labor has priority—a principle he upholds on the basis of theological anthropology: that the human person is homo laborans, a being who must work not only to eat, but to be himself. Personhood unfolds itself in human labor, and this is the reason that there is such a thing, recognized by the “Covenant on Social and Economic Rights” as the “right to work.”
Rawls “theory of justice” is a theory of social justice. Studious at avoiding unwarranted assumptions, Rawls hypothetically takes himself—and his readers—back to an “original position”, in which one is blind to one’s own preferences, inclinations, idiosyncrasies and bases. From behind this “veil of ignorance”, what would reasonable persons choose to be the principles by which society is to be organized? The principles are, by now, well known—the first, being non-negotiably first: that all be afforded as wide a range of liberties compatible with a like swath for all. It is the second that is particularly attentive to social justice: whatever disparate treatment there might be will be tolerable only in the measure that they are to the advantage of the least advantaged. But of the lexical order between the two principles, Rawls is understandably inflexible.
It was not social justice that the Kadamay house-grab embodied. That was downright criminal—usurpation of real property. Homelessness is not necessarily entitlement to a home, just as landlessness is not necessarily entitlement to land. What makes social justice distinctive and truly just is the erasure of concepts as well as dismantling of institutions that systematically exclude certain sectors, groups, classes or strata from sharing in the wealth and promise of society and of earth.