Through and since the last election, we have increasingly heard
terms used in campaigns and press conferences that resonated because
they were familiar. But they’re being applied in an oddly uncomfortable
way, so there’s growing dissonance between what we hear, and what those
familiar words now mean.
Michael Novak breaks this down in a talk he gave last month on “The
Summons of Freedom”, which First Things has turned into a three-part
summary clarifying these terms.
To which genus does social justice belong? Is it a
virtue? Is it a vision of a perfectly just society? Is it an ideal set
of government policies? Is it a theory? Is it a practice?
Is social justice a secular, nonreligious concept? Many secular
sociologists and political philosophers use the term that way, trying
to tie it down as closely as they can to the term equality in the
French sense, in which the word égalité also means the mathematical
Or is social justice a religious term, evangelical in inspiration?
Has social justice become an ideological marker that favors (in the
American context) progressives over conservatives, Democrats over
Republicans, and social workers over corporate executives?
And which writer was the first to use the term? In what context was he writing, and in connection with what social crisis?
Aha, I love great sleuthing. Especially when it involves words and how they’re used.
Novak historically traces two radically opposed social ideals:
socialism and radical individualism. And the third way (or new
response) Pope Leo XIII called for in his encyclical Rerum Novarum.
The pope noted that because the family has always been
the most central and intimate institution for handing down the faith,
the new fractures and stresses in the family demanded that the Church
enter into the battle for the shape of the future. Leo XIII saw that
new institutions and new virtues among individuals would be required
for the new times. For specific reasons that he carefully spelled out,
he feared the socialist state. He also feared the radical individualism
that, he predicted, eventually would drive the undefended individual
into the custodianship of the state.
Good time to revisit this. Novak’s conclusion:
Social justice is practiced both by those on the left
and those on the right. There is, after all, more than one way to
imagine the future good of society; and humans of all persuasions do
well to master the new social virtue that assists them in defining and
working with others toward their own visions of that good.
Not only Leninism and Stalinism but also fascism and
Nazism exalted the collective good over the good of the individual and
coerced the sacrifice of individual purpose for the sake of the
communist, fascist, or Nazi collective future…
An important point lies embedded here. We often use the words individual and person interchangeably, but there is a distinction to be made. Statist ideologies have set out to diminish the individual in the name of the common good; the Church affirms the dignity of the person.
Continuing on the Church’s view of the person…
In 1961 it was Karol Wojtyla, the young bishop of
Krakow, who, in two long letters to the preparatory commission for
Vatican II, suggested that these two themes, the person and the common
good, ought to undergird all the work of the council. Later, as pope,
he described the common good as “not simply the sum total of particular
interests; rather it involves an assessment and integration of those
interests on the basis of a balanced hierarchy of values; ultimately,
it demands a correct understanding of the dignity and the rights of the
person” (Centesimus Annus, 47).
But, as Novak points out, achieving the common good is a moving target.
Naturally, when questions of practical wisdom are
directed to pluralistic peoples, there arise not only many competing
ways of identifying the temporal, earthly common good, but also many
competing ways of discovering how best to achieve it. In these matters,
therefore, to assert that “X” is the common good is not to close the
question but to submit it to the competition of ideas, which is
essential to a free society.
That requires an openness to the exchange of differing ideas.
This is why the achievement of the temporal common good—That “sum,” in the words of Gaudium et Spes,
“of those conditions of social life which allow social groups and their
individual members relatively thorough and ready access to their own
fulfillment” —requires full measures of civility, of humility, and of
the willingness to admit mistakes and learn from them. It is through
such acts of self-government, in fact, that we achieve true personal
Which is the subject of part three in this clarification of terms.
“By its liberty, the human person transcends the stars
and all the world of nature,” Jacques Maritain once wrote. No one has
reflected more deeply on the phenomenology of the human person than
Karol Wojtyla—John Paul II. The person, in his view, is an originating
source of creative action in the world. The human person is able to
reflect on his or her own past, find it wanting, repent, and change
direction. He or she is able to reflect on possible courses of action
in the future, to deliberate among them, and to choose to commit to—and
take responsibility for—one among those courses.
Only the human person is free to choose which among his or her many
impulses to follow. An animal’s freedom is to do what simple instinct
impels. A human’s freedom is to discern a higher, more complex, and
more demanding rationality in the field of action. A human person is
free to become a gentle master of all his or her instincts, so as to
choose appropriately among them. He or she is free, in short, to do
what a person ought to do.
But personal liberty has been redefined in the language of ‘rights’.
In our time, alas, many people have come to think of
human liberty as the ability to flow with their instincts, let go of
restraint, and do what they feel like doing. Such people like to invoke
animal images of their dream of liberty: They are “born free” like a
lioness on the African plains or “free as a bird.” They look on animal
nature as innocent and unrestrained, separated from social customs,
traditions, mores, and moral rules imposed from outside the animals’
own instincts, urgings, and longings…
Another way of describing this difference is to say that animal
freedom is given to us with our instincts. But human freedom must be
wrested from our instincts—cultivated, learned by practice, gained
slowly by trial and error. For the most part, human freedom is taught
to us by spiritual guides, by favorite teachers, by historical
narratives, and by the moral example of our parents or loved ones.
Animal freedom, with its contradictory impulses, often generates war
within the breast. Human freedom derives slowly as we learn to find,
within a large number of instincts, the most fruitful inner order that
brings not only peace, but also wisdom.
We need this wisdom to resist the latest efforts to restrain human freedom in the name of the common good.
Personal liberty is a fragile achievement, and a single
generation can decide to turn out the lights, surrender, and walk away
It is by this fragile and precious liberty that (in the words of
Jacques Maritain) “the human person transcends the stars and all the
world of nature.”