What Is Social Justice? | J. J. Ziegler | Catholic World Report
From Taparelli to John XXIII
(Part One of a three-part series)
Few terms have become as unmoored from their Catholic origins, and have thus lent themselves to misunderstanding in contemporary discourse, as has the term “social justice.” What does the term mean when it appears in papal documents—particularly when it appeared in the formative years of Catholic social teaching?
It is an important question, because all of the Christian faithful, according to the Code of Canon Law, are “obliged to promote social justice and, mindful of the precept of the Lord, to assist the poor from their own resources” (Code of Canon Law 222 §2; Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches 25 §2). Pastors of parishes are obliged “to foster works through which the spirit of the Gospel is promoted, even in what pertains to social justice” (Code of Canon Law 528 §1). It is also “desirable that the Catholic faithful undertake any project in which they could cooperate with other Christians, not alone but together, such as works for charity and social justice” (Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches 908).
In his Church, State, and Society: An Introduction to Catholic Social Doctrine (Catholic University of America Press, 2011), J. Brian Benestad of the University of Scranton notes that “a Jesuit philosopher by the name of Luigi Taparelli D’Azeglio was the first to use the concept of social justice in his major work, Saggio teoretico di diritto.” Father Taparelli (1793-1862) served as rector of the Roman College and helped found La CiviltÀ Cattolica, the Italian Jesuit periodical.
“For Taparelli, social justice is not a metaphor, nor the extension of virtue language to anthropomorphized collectives,” Thomas C. Behr of the University of Houston said in a paper delivered in 2003 at the annual conference of the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas. According to Behr, Taparelli held that social justice is distinct from both commutative justice (defined by the late Father John Hardon as “the virtue that regulates those actions which involve the rights between one individual and another individual”) and distributive justice (defined as “the virtue that regulates those actions which involve the rights that an individual may claim from society”).