Social Justice for Dummies: A Guide to What You Can Do to Give Social Justice a Good Name

By Sullivan, Joe | U.S. Catholic, July 1997 | Go to article overview

Social Justice for Dummies: A Guide to What You Can Do to Give Social Justice a Good Name


Sullivan, Joe, U.S. Catholic


A guide to what you can do to give social justice a good name.

Includes bonus information on:

* The easy way to know the difference between justice and charity

* The pitfalls that lead to "fringe-ism"

* What's in it for you

"He's on the social-justice committee she said, a sound of fear, wariness, even a little contempt in her voice. Here, in the middle of a parish potluck dinner, that phrase came up again.

Social justice.

How is it that the concept of justice--so central to both the Bible and Catholic theology--has gotten such a bad name in many parishes? With a little education, it doesnt't have to be that way. Let's take a look at what social justice is. The U.S. bishops refer to social justice as part of a larger umbrella of activities called social ministry. This broad term includes direct services that most Catholics would call charity: food pantries, clothing drives, and homeless shelters. Our faith calls us to respond immediately to the requests of individual families by providing them with the temporary assistance they need: a bag of groceries, a winter coat, or a place to sleep. But it is only one part of social ministry.

The other part is the social-justice side. This includes actions aimed at resolving the root causes of injustices. Here, the key question is, Why? Why can some people afford to buy food, clothing, and shelter, while others cannot? Perhaps the cause is lowwage jobs or a rent system controlled by a handful of landlords. In any case, social justice involves working for change that is focused on systems (the economic system, the health care system) and institutions (banks, schools, governments) rather than addressing the specific needs of individual families. The goal of social justice is to transform public policies to be more responsive to human needs over the long-term.

In their 1993 pastoral letter "Communities of Salt and Light," the U.S. bishops reminded Catholics that they are all called to participate in both kinds of social ministry activities:

Catholic social teaching calls us to

serve those in need and to change

the structures that deny people their

dignity and rights as children of God.

Service and action, charity and

justice are complementary

components of parish social ministry.

Neither alone is sufficient; both are

essential signs of the gospel at work.

Causes for concern

If both charity and justice are important, why are there so many charitable activities in Catholic parishes but considerably fewer actions for justice? In the parishes that do have active justice committees, why are the members avoided or discussed with disgust at parish gatherings?

Part of the explanation for such reactions may lie in the controversial nature of social-justice issues. Take a look at the contrast between charity and justice activities. Most people will sing your praises if you volunteer at a homeless shelter. However, suggest to a land developer that not enough affordable housing is being built in your community, and you are likely to get a scowl. Brazilian Archbishop Dom Helder Camara put it succinctly: "When I gave food to the poor, they called me a saint. When I asked why the poor had no food, they called me a communist."

Tinkering with a system--whatever system that might be--has its price. If you attempt to fix an unjust system that provides certain individuals with rewards, those who benefit will likely resist any change. This is the case with many decision makers in business, law, government, and other institutions. It hits even closer to home when we are the beneficiaries of an unjust system. For instance, would you be willing to sell your stock in a well-performing company if you found out the firm paid its workers less than a livable wage?

"Communities of Salt and Light" acknowledged that there are "difficulties and dangers" in the implementation of parish social ministry. …

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