Social Justice is a complex conceptFATHER ROBERT SIRICO
A column by Anthony M. Stevens-Arroyo, a Catholic writer for the Washington Post, makes the claim that "Catholic social justice demands a redistribution of wealth."
He also betrays a strange split in thinking common to those on the religious left, who are quick to denounce the profit motive and commercialism. Yet, they seem to think that the key to happiness is giving people more stuff – by enlisting the coercive power of government. This perverse way of thinking holds that "social justice" demands that we take money from those who have earned it and give it to those who have less of it. That's not social justice; that's materialism.
A friend and colleague, Arthur Brooks, a social researcher who is now president of the American Enterprise Institute, has shown that what makes people truly happy is a system that "facilitates earned success among its citizens and does not create disincentives to achieve or squash ambition." That's the market economy.
The incredible growth of economies in places like China and India isn't happening because wealth was being shifted around, but because wealth is being created.
What happens when wealth is "redistributed" is obvious now.
We're seeing the train wreck of the "social assistance state" in Europe.
In his 1991 social encyclical Centesimus Annus, Pope John Paul II warned that a bloated state "leads to a loss of human energies and an inordinate increase in public agencies, which are dominated more by bureaucratic ways of thinking than by concerns for serving their clients, and which are accompanied by an enormous increase in spending." I call that prophetic.
Let's also be clear that the Church's teaching condemns the idolatry of money and material goods.
The Church finds another way, neither condemning market activities nor exalting them beyond their rightful place in the grand scheme of things. It asks us to work for the highest good and to contribute as we can our time, talents and wealth that we have earned for the betterment of the world. The Church also demands that we build just systems of trade that enable the poor to be the agents of their own betterment.
So let's drop these false notions about what constitutes the Church's understanding of social justice.
A system that pits the haves against the have-nots, with politicians and bureaucrats acting as referees, should be rejected by anyone sincerely interested in building a just social order.
And this brings us to the core of the issue: not one of right, but a matter of prudence and culture. Surely, the right to private property, eroded in so many ways by politics and legislation, is indispensible and necessary if we are to have a free society.
Yet, it is not sufficient if we are to achieve a good one. For that we require forbearance with one another, that is not mistaken for agreement. The greatest moments in our history have been when we have exceeded the requirements of the law to create a society that is more than "just" but is also good.
That sage commentator on religion in America, Alexis de Tocqueville put it about right when he asked how "society should escape destruction if the moral tie is not strengthened in proportion as the political tie is relaxed?"
Rev. Robert A. Sirico. "'Social Justice' is a complex concept." Detroit News: Faith and Policy (February 15, 2010).
Reprinted with permission of the author Rev. Robert A. Sirico.
Copyright © 2010 Acton Institute
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