The Church’s Role in the Attainment of Justice

September 13, 2019

In my new blog, I explore the intersection of Catholic thought, culture, law and politics. In particular, I plan to use often the lens of Catholic social teaching through which to view contemporary issues – asking the question of how we best promote justice and human flourishing. Catholic social teaching is a beautiful gift that the Church offers not only to Catholics, but to all people of good will. Sadly, Catholic social teaching (CST) remains largely unknown by many Catholics. Thus, it has been described at the Church’s best kept secret. Correspondingly, too few priests and bishops utilize the principles and vision of CST in their teaching and preaching and remain unaware of some of the important nuances of CST.

The fundamental mission of the Church is to continue the saving work of Jesus Christ – to be a sign and instrument of salvation. The main goal of Catholic social teaching is to promote and help build a more just and humane social order. While the salvation of souls is the primary mission of the Church, the Church’s work in the areas of charity and justice is integral to her identity and mission.

Today’s saint and great Doctor of the Church, St. John Chrysostom, is one of many saints who emphasized the importance of the Church’s work of serving the poor and marginalized as well as the work of attaining justice. The Church has been masterful in the former – there has been no greater servant of the poor and marginalized in the history of humanity. But, what is the Church’s role in the latter dimension of promoting the social gospel – the important work of justice? For guidance on this important question, I would like to turn to Pope Benedict XVI.

My primary area of teaching is in the intersection of Catholic social teaching and law. There is no thinker I use more often than Pope Benedict. I find his writings – including when he was Cardinal Ratzinger – to be illuminating and compelling. His style is clear and his mastery of the Catholic tradition extraordinary. In looking at the question of the Church’s role in the ministry of charity and justice, I would highly recommend his first encyclical – Deus Caritas Est – God is Love. Particularly, I would draw your attention to sections 25 – 29 of DCE, which serve both as a helpful introduction to CST as well as wonderful articulation of the Church’s role in attaining justice. Below, I briefly present a few critical points of Benedict on charity and justice.

First, Benedict, teaches that the ministry of charity – diakonia -is as integral to the identity and mission of the Catholic Church as proclaiming the gospel and celebrating the sacraments. This is an extraordinary claim and has not garnered the attention it deserves. Benedict goes on to state in DCE that charity and justice are an indispensable expression of the very being of the Church and a task agreeable (opus proprium) to her.  

Second, regarding justice, Pope Benedict makes an important distinction. The primary responsibility of the just ordering of social life lies in the sphere of politics.  He teaches that the building of a more just and humane social order is not the primary task of the Church – and she is not to replace the state. Nor, he cautions, is the Church to remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice. While the temporal and spiritual realms remain distinct and enjoy rightful autonomy, they also remain interrelated. The primary aim, then, of Catholic social teaching is to propose principles, purify reason and form consciences as to the authentic requirements of justice – namely by putting forth a compelling vision of what justice looks like and what it demands.

In conclusion, on my part, I would only add that the Church also serves the attainment of justice by prophetically critiquing injustice and structures of sin which inhibit human and social flourishing. In order for the Church to credibly fulfill her prophetic role of promoting justice and opposing injustice, she must manifest a resolute determination for justice within her own communion – she must act with integrity.

Given the important correlation between integrity and the credible proclamation of moral truth on the part of the Church, we cannot help but confront one of the devastating effects of the current Church crisis. Too many Church leaders violated basic principles of justice and the principles of Catholic social teaching in the treatment of victim-survivors and in attempts to cover-up wrongdoing. This has left the Church reeling and the credibility of its moral voice gravely compromised. We cannot teach and advocate for justice if we so fail to adhere to its demands within our communion. The best teachers practice what they teach. The credibility of the Church’s moral voice will only be regained through resolute and determined acts of justice. 

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