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.

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  1. “…today’s meritocratic class, the primary beneficiaries and proponents of a globalized system of talent strip-mining.” An important insight captured in a brilliant and memorable turn of phrase. Kudos on a fine piece of writing, Patrick.

  2. With the recent influx (myself included) into Orthodoxy from “conservative” evangelicals and mainline Protestants disaffected from their former brothers and sisters as much by the infection of Progressivism as heresy, Orthodox circles have begun a sort of social convulsion between fusion conservatives (particularly in the south and west) with what might be called populist democrats in the north corners of the country. Clearly eastern bloc countries were the very one’s open to communism partly because the people’s had a long history of a unified Church and State. That is the state, which was the church which was all of us, fed the poor.

    We are separated, as we ought be (at least at the level of state), and so bear the responsibility to do such work also outside the state. Charity was always a mandate of communion from man to man. It was not merely the preserving of “some person’s” meal, but caring for one’s brother, which is much more than a meal (though even a meal takes on quite a different significance). Localism without charity is a fetish.

  3. Prof. Deneen,

    I’m a fan of your work, and I agree with your critique of the way “social justice” is often used by liberal Catholics. However, I thought Reno’s piece was awful. Wearing a tie as a more robust form of the preferential option? Please. And why are First Things conservatives unable to talk about the ugliness and poverty of consumer capitalism in a context like this?

    Here’s an engagement with Reno’s essay that challenges it from a deeply Christian perspective. It is noteworthy that Reno’s conservative gloss on the “preferential option” leaves him where he confesses he begins—i.e., with not doing much on a daily basis in connection with the poor.

  4. Charlie, that poserorprophet piece makes excellent points, the main one being that, for many reasons, middle-class Christians should live in more solidarity with the poor, but its liberation theological rant betrays its Marxist ignorance of other cultural goods besides money/material goods like chastity, which the writer constantly belittles. For example:

    So, look, I have no problem with people who only want to sleep with a spouse or with people who want to have babies. In and of themselves, those are mostly okay goals, I guess.

    Please. This betrays a destructive naivete about sexuality and culture and reeks of arrogant partisanship: “We follow liberation theology! They follow bourgeoisie morality! They have mostly nothing of real value… I guess!”

    Still, apart from his truncated understanding and disparaging rhetoric concerning significant aspects of culture (e.g. tradition and investiture–just ties?) which don’t fit into his short-sighted LT paradigm and which tend to undermine his main arguments, his post is worth reading.

  5. Hi Albert,

    Just thought I would write a brief note to say that your final sentence is one of the best (i.e. one of my favourite) compliments that I have ever received. Cheers!

    PS — related to the comment you quote, let’s not forgot those who take vows of celibacy, those who are infertile, those who are unable to marry (legally or otherwise), and so on. Let’s also remember that the world is much bigger than you or I or our immediate families (after all, I’m married and have kids!).

  6. “And why are First Things conservatives unable to talk about the ugliness and poverty of consumer capitalism in a context like this?”

    Anyone who mentions the ugliness and poverty of consumer capitalism without also mentioning the ugliness and poverty of consumer socialism is probably not a critic of the ugliness and poverty of consumerism.

  7. “trumpeting a concern for the poor – particularly when it can be outsourced to the government – assuages the bad conscience of today’s meritocratic class”

    Why outsourcing charitable acts to government, who can then use coercion and police powers to enforce the majoritarian view of whatever passes for charity, would allow anyone to assuage their bad conscience baffles me.

    It abuses the basic notion of the best function of government, and simultaneously removes any aspects of the individual character of true charity that distinguishes it from any other impulse. Once outsourced to society at large, it is no longer charity, and is no longer worthy. In fact, it is no different than holding a gun to your neighbors heads and forcing them to contribute to things you deem worthy. It becomes theft, no more, no less. There is no such thing as charity by proxy.

    This is a sin not relegated to liberal Catholics, but the entire Socialist Left portion of the political spectrum. One just expects Catholics to be more aware of the nuances involved, given the individualized nature of sin, confession, and repentence. Otherwise, why not elect some government official to go to Confession as proxy for everyone else?

  8. Stevo, you introduce an important point. Thomas Sowell performed an elegant takedown of the phrase “social justice” some time ago. I don’t recall it exactly, but do recall my conclusions having read it.

    All justice (we’re limiting ourselves to human, earthly justice here) is social. A man alone cannot be just or unjust. The word “social” tacked onto the word justice is a needless modifier and as such indicates that the thing being offered is less than that thing unmodified. Otherwise the adjective wouldn’t be needed. Justice as a concept is thorough and complete. An adjective can only limit it.

  9. Sowell, being a libertarian, is wrong about social justice. It’s a concept rooted in traditional Catholic social thought (hence the name) which has been unfortunately co-opted by the Left. It is not Leftist per se, however, which is what many modern Conservatives seem to think.

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