The gospel reading of Sunday was striking to me in how it both confirms certain Catholic commitments to "social justice" even as it rubs against the grain of other aspects. Here are the lines from Matthew 25:31-46:
Jesus said to his disciples:
"When the Son of Man comes in his glory,
and all the angels with him,
he will sit upon his glorious throne,
and all the nations will be assembled before him.
And he will separate them one from another,
as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.
He will place the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
Then the king will say to those on his right,
'Come, you who are blessed by my Father.
Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.
For I was hungry and you gave me food,
I was thirsty and you gave me drink,
a stranger and you welcomed me,
naked and you clothed me,
ill and you cared for me,
in prison and you visited me.’
Then the righteous will answer him and say,
'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you,
or thirsty and give you drink?
When did we see you a stranger and welcome you,
or naked and clothe you?
When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?’
And the king will say to them in reply,
'Amen, I say to you, whatever you did
for one of the least brothers of mine, you did for me.’
Then he will say to those on his left,
'Depart from me, you accursed,
into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.
For I was hungry and you gave me no food,
I was thirsty and you gave me no drink,
a stranger and you gave me no welcome,
naked and you gave me no clothing,
ill and in prison, and you did not care for me.’
Then they will answer and say,
'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty
or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison,
and not minister to your needs?’
He will answer them, 'Amen, I say to you,
what you did not do for one of these least ones,
you did not do for me.’
And these will go off to eternal punishment,
but the righteous to eternal life."
Having now taught at Georgetown for some three years, I have come to learn that the officialdom of the university is most apt to embrace its Catholic identity when it comes to issues of "social justice." The phrase is used promiscuously and without reflection: there seems to be a widespread assumption that we know what social justice is, and thus there is no further need for discussion about it. Yet, as someone who regularly teaches the Republic of Plato - a long dialogue devoted to the subject of exploring what justice is, and which concludes with some ambiguity whether it has been adequately defined much less made realizable - I am deeply uncomfortable with the notion that we can bandy around such terms within a university that is supposed to be devoted, in part, to the exploration of just what such terms mean.
In particular, I am constantly struck by the strain implied in the combination of the words "social" and "justice." Justice, according to the ancient definition, is according to each what is due (whether reward or punishment). Justice thus - as the word suggests - requires judgment and discrimination. By this definition, justice is a thing pertaining to individuals - according to your actions you can and will be judged. Strikingly, in last Sunday's gospel reading, Jesus (as he does often) asserts his role as judge of individuals who do, or do not, act in accordance with his precepts. It is widely the view today that Jesus preached a message of love and forgiveness - which he did - but he was also a harsh judge to those who did not measure up, even promising damnation in "the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels" for those who do not "do for one of the least ones." Judgment shall be rendered upon individuals, and they shall be rewarded or condemned according to just deserts.
By contrast, adding the word "social" to justice implies that justice is a collective quality. Justice, it would seem, consists of treating everyone equally. According to Georgetown's "Justice Report" of 1999, "justice issues" that can occupy the faculty include:
specific issues-focus, such as poverty, prejudice and tolerance, slavery, human rights, and language minorities; Catholic social thought; and ethics across a wide range of applications. In the social sciences, faculty research covers policy applications; structural inequalities of race, gender, and class; diversity issues related to religion, nationality, language, sexual identity, gender, and ethnicity; and specific episodes or manifestations of injustice, such as slavery, the holocaust,
and colonialism. In the natural sciences, the topics seem to fit into few categories, such as environmental justice issues--that is, differential access to resources; varying burdens imposed by exposure to pollutants or toxins; and access to technology and the effects of technology transfers. In business, the research topics include business ethics and socially responsible business practices; labor and management issues; and economic justice issues such as access to credit for minorities and the "glass ceiling."
Many of these "justice issues" imply (without reflection on what justice is) that justice has the aim of achieving equality, particularly material equality. By implication, social justice incorporates the commitment to treating unlike things equally, and thus contradicts the classical definition of justice simpliciter. It's interesting to raise the question of what would be lost by removing the word "social" to the language of justice. It could be suggested that the addition of the word "social" allows one the appearance of a commitment to justice while in fact rejecting its substance.
Still, it would be wrong to suggest that a commitment to justice implies an embrace of a Darwinian world in which each person gets what they deserve from a cruel and unforgiving world. After all, Jesus asserts that he will render judgment based upon what one does - or does not do - "for the least of these." We are called to a life of charity - of love - on behalf of those who are less fortunate. Jesus does not imply that our aim or goal is to relieve their condition of poverty or inequality - after all, he insists that "the poor will always be with you" in John 12:8. He does not claim that our efforts on behalf of the poor will have the effect of eliminating poverty or suffering from the world; the human condition is one in which we will always have inequality, including the unequal capacity for charity. Rather, this gospel seems to say that what matters less is the ultimate effect of our charity - the aim to give aid and comfort to the poor - than our willingness to engage in charity for the right reasons, above all, our capacity for selflessness, the governing of our self-centeredness and self-satisfaction. In the end, charity is not the sometimes condescending actions of haves providing for have-nots, but a universal call to govern the aggrandizement of self and the call to act in the manner of Christ - a person who was himself arguably quite poor, yet who dedicated his life to helping others. According to contemporary versions of "social justice," it would be all but inconceivable that the poor and disadvantaged would be similarly called to act with charity toward others, yet this seems to be precisely what Jesus calls for. We will be judged not for alleviating poverty in this world, but on the basis of whether we acted on behalf of our own advancement, comfort and position, or whether we chastened and at times overcame our devotion to self.
We are entering a time when it will become more evident than ever that the poor are always with us. In the midst of a still wealthy and bountiful world, more people are going hungry and are put in a condition of desperation by harrowing economic times. We will see greater and more fervent demands for "social justice" accompanying these arduous days. But even as structures and programs are initiated with the aim of effecting material equality, I suspect that the proper motivation - charity born of the chastening of self - will be widely lacking. From those who will be relieved, there will likely be greed; from those whose goods will be distributed to others according to law, there will be resentment. There will perhaps be more "social justice," but little charity on the part of anyone in these coming transactions, and thus we will ALL be subject to the righteous judgment of Christ when "all the nations shall be assembled before him."