Aparecida, Reclaiming “Social Justice” 

brazil-popeWe are in Part Three of the Aparecida Document: “The Life of Jesus Christ for Our Peoples.”  Having discovered Christ as life for ourselves, we turn to bring that life to the world we live in.

This is about evangelization: if we really believe that Christ is Life, we must share that Life with others.  But it is also about ourselves.  Ultimately, the question is whether we let Christ be life-giving to us.

In Chapter 7, we saw “the Mission of the Disciples in the Service of Full Life.”  Christ who is life does not just affect one part of life, but all of life.  He makes everything better: family, community, culture, the intellectual life, our appreciation of nature.


In chapter 8, we apply this teaching to the infamous words “social justice”:

1.Kingdom of God and Promoting Human Dignity

a. Kingdom of God, Social Justice, and Christian Charity

b.  Human Dignity

c. Preferential Option for the Poor and Excluded

d.  A Renewed Pastoral Ministry for Integral Human Promotion

e.  Globalization of Solidarity and International Justice

f.  Suffering Faces that Pain Us

“Social justice” has gotten a bad name among many Catholics.  It is vaguely associated with liberalism: both an unrestrained welfare state and wimpiness on the “social issues”: marriage, abortion, etc.  But look at that second part first: those who do not defend marriage don’t really care about social justice.  If you care about marriage, you believe in true social justice!  Don’t dismiss this phrase too quickly!

Nor does social justice mean an unrestrained welfare state.  In Centesimus Annus, St. John Paul II argued we might often oppose welfare systems precisely because we do care about social justice: because we do not think they “promote human dignity,” or the kingdom of God.

Listen when Pope Francis talks about the “right to work”.  Work is part of human dignity.  A welfare system that lets people sit on the couch all day watching television is a system that does not care about human dignity.

Let’s take back the words “social justice.”  Christians are supposed to “hunger and thirst for justice,” and they are supposed to be engaged in politics and in non-political social action.  “Social justice” doesn’t mean you have to vote for Hillary Clinton.


Chapter 8 poses the question in terms of the “Kingdom of God.”  What does God want for our social life?  What does it mean to pray “thy kingdom come”?  Ultimately, only God can bring about the true heavenly kingdom.  But if we are people who long for that kingdom, we must also be people who work for that kingdom, who choose for that kingdom, every day.

The first section of this chapter puts together “Kingdom of God, Social Justice, and Christian Charity.”  There are those terrifying words, “social justice” – but in a theological context.  Those who love as Christians love are moved to act, socially.  “Social” means politics, yes: we cannot separate our faith – or our love of neighbor – from our politics.  But it also means non-political action, in all the other ways we treat our neighbors.

What does true social justice want?  First, to “promote human dignity.”  To treat people like people.  Again, that doesn’t mean blind support for welfare, which sometimes treats people like mouths to feed, without dignity.  But it also doesn’t mean we can shrug our shoulders at the disadvantaged.  We are called to be creative: to look for ways, both in policy and outside of politics, to restore the human dignity of all people.

Aparecida goes on to speak of “integral human promotion.”  This is a phrase that comes from Paul VI’s great encyclical Populorum Progressio – a favorite encyclical of Benedict XVI’s, on which he based his Caritas in Veritate.  “Integral human development” means we promote all aspects of the person: we don’t just give them food stamps, we also worry about their soul, and their relationships, and their education, etc.  It means we feed the hungry, but also promote marriage, and education reform, and evangelization.  That’s real Catholic social justice.


We do this here at home, and also, in this globalized world, internationally.  In our politics, our economic choices, our travel, our education, and our prayers, we should work to discover the dignity of all people.  That doesn’t necessarily mean new rules: the main point is not that there’s now a ban on chocolate.  The main point is just that we should think about other people, including people far away.

Finally, we should think especially about “the poor and excluded” – because it is they who most need our aid, they whose dignity is least respected, and they whom we are most inclined to forget.  Next week we will consider in greater depth the “suffering faces that pain us,” and call us to mercy.

How does your faith impact your politics?  Your view of society?


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