In recent years there has been a renewed tendency towards questioning the Church’s emphasis on “social justice”. Whether it is the refugee crisis unfolding as a result of world events (like the recent news about Afghanistan), potential ecological crises or anything else, some people might snub their nose a bit, thinking: Come on. This isn’t what the Church is about.
The Church, they might say, is about saving souls. That is the Church’s mission. Why, then, are we spending so much time on things that are just distracting?
Unfortunately, this emerging divide between factions in the Church is the result of an ever-increasing polarisation within Western culture. Social justice is seen by some to be an exercise in secular, “left-wing” politics, rather than constituting an essential ingredient in a holistic faith. The Catholic Church has a strong and ancient tradition of employing the corporal works of mercy: feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, giving shelter to travellers, visiting the sick, visiting the imprisoned and burying the dead. This has never been an optional element of the faith because Jesus never made it an optional element.
In Matthew 25, with the parable of the sheep and the goats, Jesus seems to suggest that our salvation rides on this very thing.
It is true, though, that the spiritual and corporal works of mercy must be taken together. They complement each other and both are essential to living the Christian life. Maybe this is what people are actually complaining about: Maybe we over-emphasise one to the detriment of another. But there is something else wrong with people’s critiques of social justice, something that goes far deeper to the very idea of salvation itself.
There is a brand of evangelical Protestantism that speaks of “salvation” as referring simply to the “salvation of souls”. In this view, what Jesus did was come to get us out of here; he hatched, in essence, the greatest escape there ever was: An escape from this sinful, fleshly, material existence into a purer, more spiritual existence with him. This is what people mean by “heaven”. The job of the Church, according to this view, is to get people to heaven. The problem with this view, as many scholars have pointed out – notably N.T. Wright – is that this isn’t a biblical view of salvation.
The Bible doesn’t have the same negative view towards creation that some versions of Christianity do. From the beginning, we read in Genesis, creation was meant to exist as a kind of temple, one in which the presence of God dwelt, reflected by his “images”: human beings. We know that this was the Jewish understanding of Genesis because the Temple was ornately decorated with images from the Genesis creation narrative. Throughout the Old Testament what we find is God engaged in a process of re-creation, of trying to get humanity to fulfil its original vocation. Thus, when St Paul says that ‘for anyone who is in Christ, there is a new creation’ (2 Corinthians 5:17), he is saying that Christ brought to completion this process of re-creation: He did it. A renewed creation is here in Christ, not an escape from creation. Salvation was never about escaping creation, but renewing it so that it was no longer defined by slavery to sin and death. Through the resurrection, that is now a reality. This is why we profess to believe in “the resurrection of the dead”, because we believe that when Christ comes again in judgement, all of creation will finally be liberated from death and sin and be transfigured.
The Christian hope, as it states in Revelation, is the hope for ‘a new heaven and a new earth’ (21:1).
Part of living as a new creation is ordering our whole lives towards God’s purpose for us: a life of radical love. This is what it means to be human: The revelation of Christ is also a revelation, according to the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, of the ‘vocation of the human person to love’ (§34). As St Ignatius of Antioch put it: “Faith is the beginning, love is the end.” What this doesn’t mean, however, is leaving earthly matters behind. This is why the Compendium also states that to separate the work of love from the work of justice is to have nothing more than ‘a disembodied spirituality’ (§583). In fact, it even goes so far as to say that love requires the practice of justice towards our neighbours. If we do not practice justice, then we cannot love, and if we cannot love we cannot fulfil the very essence of what it means to be a Christian and follow the way of Jesus Christ into his renewed creation. There is a unity between the two that must be preserved.
The philosopher Alasdair McIntyre once asked through his book, Whose Justice? Which rationality? (1988), the famous question: What do we even mean when we talk about “justice”? We don’t live in a world where we have a shared understanding of anything, it seems, but especially justice. This might get to the heart of some people’s problem with the language of “social justice”: They’re not quite sure what’s being suggested by the word justice. Whose politics is it? Whose agenda? Can we really get behind this or that social justice cause and be a faithful Christian?
These are all really important questions. They also get to the heart of one of our most basic spiritual practices: Discernment. How do we discern what is truly just?
In Fratelli Tutti, for example, Pope Francis lays great stress on listening to the stories of those who have been affected by war and violence:
Let us not remain mired in theoretical discussions, but touch the wounded flesh of the victims. Let us look once more at all those civilians whose killing was considered “collateral damage”. Let us ask the victims themselves. Let us think of the refugees and displaced, those who suffered the effects of atomic radiation or chemical attacks, the mothers who lost their children, and the boys and girls maimed or deprived of their childhood. Let us hear the true stories of these victims of violence, look at reality through their eyes, and listen with an open heart to the stories they tell’ (§261).
Listening to the stories of those suffering injustice is essential to this discernment. One of the problems we suffer from is forming opinions about the way the world should work without taking the time necessary to listen to those most affected by the problems at hand. The reason this is so important is because fundamental to Christian living is doing what Jesus said: Caring for ‘the least of these brothers of mine’ (Matthew 25:40). Listening to them is integral to being able to effectively care for them.
The 2021 Bishops’ Social Justice Statement, Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor, takes the same approach. With such complex crises facing us, all of which are, at some point, interrelated, how do we respond? The statement adopts Pope Francis’ posture with the opening chapter entitled, "The Signs of the Times Through the Eyes of Those Most Affected". This approach affects their thoughts on a whole range of topics, from caring for the poor to caring for creation:
We need to listen with a discerning heart to the voices competing to be heard in discussions about the future of our world.’
There are many voices out there, but discerning what is truly just should always take into account and provide for the voices of ‘the least of these’, whoever they are.
One of the ways in which we can move beyond this perceived gap between social justice and Christianity is by hearing the stories of people who lived a deeply integrated Catholic life. One of those people was Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement, and her mentor Peter Maurin. Both of these people displayed a dedication to Catholicism in its totality, especially to the Gospel. But they also displayed a deep devotion to the work of justice, knowing in their bones that this wasn’t optional. Let's also let their voices ring loud.