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The Virtue of Social Justice


The expression 'social justice' has been particularly well marketed. Everyone, it seems, is a champion of social justice. Groups may disagree with each other on nearly every moral issue but, when it comes to social justice, they all stand up and salute.

aamountainIt is only too clear that social justice means different things to different people. One essential point that distinguishes the Catholic Church's notion of social justice from its secular counterpart has to do with the concept of personal virtue. The Church's great social encyclicals, from Leo XIII's Rerum Novarum to John Paul II's Centesimus Annus, emphasize again and again that there can be no separation of social justice from personal virtue, as there can be no divorce between the sphere of social responsibility and that of personal responsibility.

The secular world compartmentalizes the personal and the social, holding that what one does in his personal life -- whether as a private citizen or as the president of a nation -- has little or no relevance to what he does on a social level. The Church understands social justice as a continuity of the personal and the social, the secular world does not.

"I am personally opposed, but cannot impose my private values on the public" is a catch phrase that appears only too often on the lips of a secular politician. The truth about anything, however, is not the kind of thing that literally imposes itself. The Second Vatican Council has put the matter this way: "The truth cannot impose itself except by virtue of its own truth, as it wins over the mind with both gentleness and power."

The Church maintains that, in order to have social justice, we must first have virtuous people. The secular world maintains that social justice does not require virtuous people, only good programs. For the Church, social justice is a personal virtue; for the secular world, it is a political accomplishment. The Church believes that good people make good social programs; the secular world believes that good social programs make good people. Concerning social justice, the Church and the secular world have very little in common.

Philosophy professor Christina Sommers provides an illuminating as well as amusing example of the folly of waiting for good programs before one can be a good person. She relates an incident involving a colleague who adamantly held that social justice had nothing to do with personal virtue. The colleague said to her: "You are not going to have moral people until you have moral institutions. You will not have moral citizens until you have moral government." She emphasized her point by berating Professor Sommers for wasting her time and even harming her students by promoting bourgeois morality and bourgeois virtues instead of getting them to do something about the oppression of women, corruption in big business, and the evil of multinational corporations.

The Church maintains that, in order to have social justice, we must first have virtuous people. The secular world maintains that social justice does not require virtuous people, only good programs. For the Church, social justice is a personal virtue; for the secular world, it is a political accomplishment.

But a curious thing happened at the end of the semester. More than half of this colleague's students cheated on their social justice take-home exams. "What are you going to do?" Professor Sommers asked her distraught associate. "I'd like to borrow a copy of that article you wrote on ethics without virtue," she replied, with a self-mocking smile.

There is no ethics without virtue any more than the combustion engine operates without fuel or sailboats are driven without wind. Without personal virtue there can be social reform through legislation, power, and coercion, but such impersonal and unvirtuous acts do not produce a condition of social justice in the truest sense of the term. There is no social justice without a civil society, and a civil society cannot exist without personal virtue. Getting good marks on a social justice examination by plagiarizing hardly makes the student a more ethical person.

Consider a counter example illustrating an approach that is consistent with Church teaching. On February 26, 1997, members of Christendom College in Front Royal, Virginia, raised $1,107.40 for a local pregnancy center by donating blood. In all, 56 people, representing faculty, staff, and student body, gave blood. The number of participants that day was particularly substantial for the relatively small liberal arts college, necessitating one student to wait four hours before he could finally make his contribution.

There can be little doubt that this collective act of giving blood is an act of social justice. And a particularly instructive one as well, inasmuch as the unselfishness implied by giving blood, together with the additional significance of transferring blood from one person to another, beautifully illustrates how generously and profoundly people can participate in each other's lives as they work together for the common good.

We must be both the benefactors and the agents of social justice. If we sever personal virtue from social reform, we hope for the impossible: to reap the harvest of a crop that was never planted.



DeMarco, Donald. "The Virtue of Social Justice." Lay Witness.

Reprinted with permission of Lay Witness.

Lay Witness is the flagship publication of Catholics United for the Faith. Featuring articles written by leaders in the Catholic Church, each issue of Lay Witness keeps you informed on current events in the Church, the Holy Father's intentions for the month, and provides formation through biblical and catechetical articles with real-life applications for everyday Catholics.

The Author

Heart-of-VirtueMany Faces of VirtueDonald DeMarco is adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary and Professor Emeritus at St. Jerome's University in Waterloo Ontario. Donald DeMarco continues to work as a corresponding member of the Pontifical Academy for Life.  DeMarco is the author of twenty books, including How to Remain Sane in a World That is Going MadPoetry That Enters the Mind and Warms the Heart The Heart of Virtue, The Many Faces of Virtue, and Architects Of The Culture Of Death. Donald DeMarco is on the Advisory Board of The Catholic Education Resource Center.

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