The phrase “social justice” tends to trigger a wide range of responses depending on where one lands on the political spectrum. For some, it’s a pejorative. For others, a badge of honor. Either way, from a secular perspective, social justice is often viewed through the prism of partisan politics.
But for Catholics, it’s something much different. For us, social justice is a central component to our faith, a key part of Catholic Social Teaching (CST). If the mass is how we celebrate, enrich, and renew our commitment to Christ, then social justice is the manner in which we live and practice that commitment. As defined by the USCCB:
Catholic social teaching is based on and inseparable from our understanding of human life and human dignity. Every human being is created in the image of God and redeemed by Jesus Christ, and therefore is invaluable and worthy of respect as a member of the human family. Every person, from the moment of conception to natural death, has inherent dignity and a right to life consistent with that dignity. Human dignity comes from God, not from any human quality or accomplishment. Our commitment to the Catholic social mission must be rooted in and strengthened by our spiritual lives. In our relationship with God we experience the conversion of heart that is necessary to truly love one another as God has loved us.
What’s particularly important to note about the Catholic commitment to social justice is that, unlike its secular counterpart, it is consistent and enduring, not changing with the political seasons or latest political trends.
The rich theological tradition of Catholic Social Teaching is based on recognizing the inherent dignity of each human person through the unconditional love of God. Therefore, justice, in the eyes of the Church, is owed, not earned.
The worker is owed a living wage for his or her labor.
The unborn child is owed the right to life.
All persons, sick and healthy, are owed quality healthcare.
The earth is owed good stewardship.
The homeless are owed shelter.
The naked are owed clothing.
The hungry are owed food and drink.
Unfortunately, this is one of the biggest shortfalls in American society, even in many Christian circles. We have a bad habit of putting politics before Christ and allowing challenges—such as cost, labor, and time—to become excuses for inaction.
We operate under the impression that works of mercy and justice come strapped with contingencies, and only those we deem deserving—those who meet a particular set of standards—may receive them. But this is not the spirit of social justice or the gospel.
In fact, not only are humans inherently owed justice, but it’s our Christian duty to ensure that justice is properly distributed—especially to the poor and marginalized. This is not a suggestion. It’s a non-negotiable obligation, and the scripture makes it clear that we will be judged on how we treat the least of these.
That means that American Catholics must have a presence in social and political life. It means we are responsible for ensuring that the workers are paid justly, that unborn children are protected, that the earth is cared for, that the sick have quality medical care, that the homeless have homes, that the naked are clothed, and that the hungry are fed. We simply cannot shy away from civic involvement.
And to that point, we must remember that Catholic Social Teaching, with its commitment to social justice, is not a political ideology. It does not conform to any party platform, and so we cannot put our trust entirely in the Republicans or the Democrats. What we must do, instead, is look to the Church first, adjust our mindset to see social justice as the Church sees it, and then work together to find solutions that protect the dignity of all people.
Matthew Tyson is a Catholic writer and marketing strategist from Alabama. He is an advocate for pro-life ideology on the Left and a co-founder of The New Pro-Life Movement.