Dear Fr. Joe: What is social justice?

Dear Fr. Joe: What is social justice?

Q. At Mass on Sunday, one of the intentions was for social justice. I hear this term all the time in church – what does it mean?

A. This is a great question! These are confusing times for American Catholics, I think. We’ve got a strong sense of allegiance to our American political system, be it conservative or liberal, and are, at times, in danger of letting our political affiliation define us more than our Catholic faith.

Let’s look at what the Catholic Church means when she requires us to be concerned with social justice. As for me, I’m neither liberal nor conservative – I’m Catholic. With all that in mind, let’s get right to it. What is social justice?

We’ll start where any good answer does: the catechism. In section 1928, the CCC says this:


Society ensures social justice when it provides the conditions that allow associations or individuals to obtain what is their due, according to their nature and their vocation. Social justice is linked to the common good and the exercise of authority.


The catechism helps us further by breaking down the idea of social justice into a few core ideas, each one with pretty serious consequences.

We start with the idea of human dignity. A society that is socially just is one that promotes the fact that we are all made in God’s image and likeness. Each person we encounter is a treasure God puts before us. Any law or policy that doesn’t enhance this belief works against human dignity and, therefore, works against social justice. If our hunger for social justice is not rooted in a firm and heartfelt conviction that all life is sacred, then we do not understand social justice at all.

Because of this inherent dignity, a socially just society promotes and proclaims policies that allow all persons within it a legitimate shot at earning their due.

This idea that we all share equally in God’s dignity means then that we should, as a country, work hard to reduce/alleviate any “excessive social and economic inequalities. (Human dignity) gives urgency to the elimination of sinful inequalities.” (CCC 1947)

Also, keeping in mind the value of each person, a society that lives a commitment to social justice recognizes that each person should “… look upon his neighbor, without any exception as ‘another self.’” (CCC 1931) This goes beyond “accepting other people” and right into the heart of our belief that we were made to be dependent on one another. It is not a bad thing; this interdependency is God’s plan.

This brings us to the final idea of social justice: solidarity. In sections 1939-1942 of the catechism, the idea and importance of human solidarity are broken down so well, I’d be hard pressed to explain without missing some very important ideas. The core idea of solidarity is that we are all connected, you and I and every person in the world. We are connected by God’s love for us and by our dignity. This connection should compel us to identify with those who suffer and want justice for the poor and “little ones” – at least as much as we want it for ourselves.

See that? A society that is socially just is one that starts with a recognition of human dignity and continues with a deep respect for the way God manifests himself through the many people we encounter and the spiritual and physical gifts they bring with them!

What’s amazing to me about this is that this teaching on social justice is not about any political party. It’s about you and me. You and I are all called to be just. With our hearts, our words and our actions, we are called to recognize the value of every person we meet and let that recognition transform the way we live and love.

In summary, when we pray for social justice, we are praying that God will increase in each of us our recognition of our human dignity and the dignity of all his children. we are praying that, as a country, our policies and laws will promote an honest and open society that offers each person a chance to earn their due. We are praying that life will be honored and protected at all stages – it’s a big prayer, but one well worth praying!

Enjoy another day in God’s presence!