- - Tuesday, October 22, 2019

We usually situate the term “social justice” at the left end of the ideological spectrum. And that’s not surprising, since it’s a frequent theme of politicians and activists who present themselves as “progressives” or who advocate for “liberal” causes.

Even within the Catholic Church, social justice is assumed to be the province of “liberal” Catholics or “post-Vatican” Catholics or “Dorothy Day” Catholics.

In truth, concern for social justice extends far beyond those folks. It’s at the heart of the Christian vision.

The Gospel of Luke (16th chapter) recounts Jesus’ parable about a rich man who ignores the suffering of a poor beggar named Lazarus lying in his doorway. The rich man is well aware of the poor man’s plight. He even knows him by name. But he steps right over him, going about his comfortable life with no apparent effort to help the unfortunate fellow (whom the Bible describes as ill and “covered with sores”).

Many people cite this parable as a condemnation of wealth — or in current economic terms, of “income disparity” — and they present it as a call for social justice.

That’s a misreading. While in other scriptural passages Jesus notes how hard it is for the rich to free themselves from worldliness in order to focus on salvation (his famous remark about a camel passing through the “eye of a needle,” for instance), Luke 16 isn’t really a commentary on economics.

The sin of the rich man, as presented in the story, isn’t his wealth. Rather, it’s his lack of compassion for a fellow human being. In other words, this scene is a call to charity.

In truth, social justice permeates all church teaching. It’s a basic element of moral theology. But, what does the church mean when it speaks of social justice?

There are three aspects of this concept — essentially, three types of justice involved.

The first is commutative justice. If you sell me something, I have an obligation to pay you for the merchandise at the agreed-upon price. If we make a contract, we both must live up to its terms. Failure to meet our obligations is unjust.

The second type of justice is a bit more complicated. This is called distributive justice, and it’s often misunderstood. Distributive justice refers to creating what’s often referred to as a “level playing field,” that is, promoting the conditions whereby people have a fair chance to improve their situation in life or to attain individual or family goals. Distributive justice doesn’t guarantee success in achieving one’s desires, of course. Other factors come into play — most prominently among then, talent (which is to say, physical or intellectual capability) — and there’s no guaranteeing an adequate supply of that. I might wish to play center field for the New York Yankees, but I can assure you that ain’t gonna happen.

The third type of justice is what’s called proprietary justice. This is justice that takes into account the human situations within which we make our life choices.

Consider the plight of Jean Valjean, the protagonist in Victor Hugo’s famous 1862 novel, “Les Miserables” (reinterpreted in several movie and TV versions, along with a Broadway musical of that title). In the story Jean Valjean steals a loaf of bread because his sister’s children are starving, and he’s pursued relentlessly by police inspector Javert. Does Jean Valjean have a right to steal the bread?

Proprietary justice is an expression of mercy that accounts for extenuating circumstances and reflects higher rights, in this case the right to life. Under the precepts of proprietary justice, Jean Valjean may have been broken the law, but this theft would be justified. His situation is such as to make him morally innocent.

Social justice, expressed in these three forms, is the moral basis for the “social safety net,” our cluster of assistance programs — welfare, food stamps and such — designed to aid individuals and families that have fallen on hard times or are incapable of providing for themselves.

Some types of assistance are offered by various levels of government, some by private organizations. Some are intended as short-term help to get people over their rough spots, some provide support indefinitely.

Acknowledging that not all such efforts are wisely conceived, well administered or consistently effective, the church supports the general precept that we, as a society, have an obligation to assist the less fortunate. It holds that there is justification for funding public programs through taxes, and it certainly encourages both individual giving and organized charity.

In the government sphere, these considerations become political questions. In the area of private charity, they are important philanthropic judgments.

At the present time we’re seeing increased interest in socialism, especially among young people steeped in the “progressive” atmosphere that prevails on many college and university campuses. They are drawn to the idea of forcing wealthy people to bear a “fairer share” of society’s costs.

They would see the rich man’s callused disregard of Lazarus in Luke 16 as an argument for confiscating and redistributing wealth.

The problem is, however, that even if you believe rich people have a greater obligation to society, you very quickly run out of rich people. 

While their holdings may be disproportionate to their small numbers, the overwhelming portion of the nation’s wealth is spread across the much larger middle class. And if you’re going to institute a policy of wealth confiscation, the threshold at which you start confiscating drops very quickly to the level of ordinary wage earners and small business operators.

Pretty soon you’re confiscating everything.

Jesus said, “The poor will always be with you.” The church’s job is to remind us that we have an obligation to care for those in need. And believe me, they are there. I live in Naples, Florida, one of the wealthiest communities in the country, and every day I see a long line in front of our local soup kitchen.

We must never forget our own obligations to our fellow human beings. It’s up to each of us, individually, to ask: “Am I stepping over Lazarus?”

A clear answer to that question is what makes for true social justice.

• Michael P. Orsi, a priest of the Diocese of Camden, New Jersey, currently serves as parochial vicar at St. Agnes Parish in Naples, Florida. He is host of “Action for Life TV.”

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