Catholicism, to the surprise of many, barely supports capital punishment. In fact, the robust history of Catholic social justice seems to be unknown to many Catholics, let alone non-Catholics. Otherwise I don’t think there would have been such a collective sigh of relief when Pope Francis shifted Church rhetoric away from procreative issues.
Just for fun, let me list a few of the more interesting historical bits of Catholic social justice:
1. The Church preached absolute religious equality between socio-economic classes, effectively signaling the equal dignity of slaves to their masters…in 54 AD.
2. The Church fought for women to have the freedom to choose their spouse…in 220 AD.
3. The Church created the progenitor of the English legal system…in 1184 AD.
This is not to say that social justice and the Church have always had a smooth ride together, but the principle is an integral part of Catholicism.
So why does it surprise so many that Catholicism has a deep concern for more than abortion and birth control? I think it is because in its current iteration the principle of social justice has been stripped of its full metaphysical importance.
Think about many of the current social justice issues: socio-economic disparity, human trafficking, homosexual marriage, rape culture, euthanasia, and a failing educational system. Why are these wrongs that need to be corrected? Simply put, people are being denied access to the ultimate purpose of human existence: to be happy. Aristotle classified happiness as the ultimate end of life because it is a goal that doesn’t lead to anything else. Happiness, for the Philosopher, is a virtue; a way of life. It’s not an object to possess. This is why we consider a person’s “dignity” as the litmus for any breach of justice. On this point I think modern social justice and Catholic social justice are in complete agreement.
How then do they differ? The metaphysics of modern social justice lies in man himself. Happiness is a man-made virtue where God is supportive, but not instrumental. Catholic social justice is based on the belief that happiness, and human existence, starts and ends in union with God.
The problem with the metaphysical orientation of modern social justice is that man has only so far to go to reach his ultimate goal; there is a ceiling for natural human potential. This ceiling is the example of Jesus Christ. By imitating Jesus, man will find happiness, but its only a human happiness. Eradicating poverty would be a coup for human dignity, but what then? What if by some miracle man was able to also eradicate illiteracy, rape, sexism, racism, and ageism in the world? Where does man go from there? Ostensibly this scenario is the endgame for human life; if we succeeded would we just stop being? Where does God fit into this?
Metaphysical happiness for Catholics is union with God. That’s where we began, and that is our ultimate end. Jesus is the bridge between our beginning and our happy end, but not in a symbolic way. His Incarnation is the physical union of human nature with God. Man is brought to the fullness of human potential, then punched through to his supernatural potential by the Word made Flesh. This is what Jesus does for us. We are supposed to recognize that the ultimate purpose of human existence is divine, not human, in nature, just as Mary did with her fiat.
In terms of Catholic social justice, this means that the consideration of a person’s dignity in regards to justice is not only about human dignity, but our dignity as creatures of God. The latter is really the primary consideration; human justice should reflect divine justice.