One of the most unexamined terms in regular use among left Catholics today is “social justice.” Vague and often closely aligned with support for national government social programs, “social justice” often strikes me as particularly popular on those Catholic campuses that otherwise seek to soft-pedal their Catholicism with the implicit argument that compassion for the poor constitutes the more-or-less the whole of Catholic teaching – thus avoiding those more prickly issues that don’t meet approval by elites who dominate academia. It also strikes me that trumpeting a concern for the poor – particularly when it can be outsourced to the government – assuages the bad conscience of today’s meritocratic class, the primary beneficiaries and proponents of a globalized system of talent strip-mining.
The trumpeting of “social justice” as the presumed alternative to Catholic “traditionalism” has always irked me, in part because it implies that traditionalist Catholicism and Christianity is less committed to the “preferential option toward the poor.” (One can consider the recent letter from liberal Catholics to House Speaker John Boehner, a flip-side criticism of his graduation address to that of traditionalist Catholics who denounced the President Obama’s address to the 2009 graduating class of Notre Dame. Not that I’m proposing that Boehner be considered the poster-child of social traditionalism – it’s the narrative I’m interested in). The dominant narrative today suggests that liberals (whether Catholic or otherwise) care for the poor and conservatives protect the privileges of the rich. As a traditionalist Catholic, I have never found this to be a compelling or true story-line (though I would agree that too many Republicans do in fact seek to protect the privileges of the rich – but rarely are they traditionalists).
R. R. Reno – the new editor of First Things – has written a wonderful and powerful reflection on why social traditionalism ought rightly understood to reflect a deep and profound commitment to the less fortunate. He articulates just the argument that needs to be made by traditionalists in seeking to overturn the dominant narrative. Today it’s widely held that those who defend the traditional family and stable communities do so out of a misplaced nostalgia and a deep-seated commitment to inequality, and don’t adequately or sufficiently attend to the needs of the poor and less-fortunate. Reno ably argues that social conservatism is a deeper and truer expression of charity. I hope this argument is made more often and aired more widely. We need a different story-line.