The do-gooders at Our Lady Queen of Peace Parish in Brodheadsville, Pennsylvania didn't alarm anyone initially. They formed a social justice committee in 2009, figuring they would help the poor, mostly those in their own rural parish community, south of Scranton in the rolling hills of the Poconos.
The group set up a St. Martin de Porres fund to cover the cost of bereavement dinners for the parish's needy families--meatloaf and such, nothing extravagant. A subcommittee reaches out to mourning families in the months following their loss. The group sponsors the parish's pro-life activities and hosts a monthly Sunday supper, which welcomes anyone who'd like to share a meal, donation optional.
Admittedly, with the possible exception of their uncontroversial pro-life work, these are all works of charity rather than true social justice, which works to change the underlying societal structures that cause inequality instead of simply providing material assistance. But the committee still operated under the "social justice" name.
It all seemed innocent enough. But then in March 2010 talk show host Glenn Beck, a former Catholic, urged people to leave their church if it had anything to do with social justice--code, he suggested, for socialism.
Deal Hudson, head of Catholicvote.org and former director of Catholic outreach for President George W. Bush's campaigns, concurred, writing, "Glenn Beck hit the nail directly on the head.... Social justice and economic justice are code phrases of the religious left who prefer government solutions to human problems funded by the redistribution of wealth."
Other conservative media personalities defended Beck, taking up the drumbeat against what theologians and everyday Catholics alike might have thought was a well-established aspect of Catholic teaching, making social justice suddenly a highly controversial and politicized term in Catholic circles.
Concerned parishioners at Our Lady Queen of Peace soon lobbied for the social justice committee to change its name to anything but social justice. The pastor asked the group's members and its critics to democratically resolve the issue.
"It was a chance to educate," says Father Sean Carpenter, assistant pastor. "The preferential option for the poor is a central teaching of Christ: 'Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.' We try to meet people where they're at and bring them closer to what the church teaches."
The next few meetings of the committee were devoted to spirited debate. Parishioner Dick Dikant led the defense.
"It just kind of frosted me that Glenn Beck said it was socialism, and to walk away from the church," Dikant says. "So I looked into it." What Dikant found astonishes him even now. "Even though we'd been reading encyclicals, I hadn't noticed the term social justice earlier," he says. "But it's all over the place. The church is into social justice!"
Dikant mostly quoted Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI as he made the case that social justice is key to the Catholic faith and therefore acceptable as a committee name. When it came time to vote, the ayes had it--by just one vote. The committee kept its name, but the good-natured Dikant regrets that the parishioner who led the opposition left the parish because of that outcome.
Justice for all
Considering the quarrel over the term social justice--which does appear frequently in encyclicals, the catechism, and canon law--it's easy to imagine the blow-up that might occur if the parishioners at Our Lady Queen of Peace engaged in actual social justice projects, such as helping to improve conditions for low-income workers or providing better access to affordable housing. Many Catholics, however, still seem uncertain of what social justice looks like in action.
William Droel, author of What is Social Justice? …