Can “Social Justice” Be Saved?

Over at, my friend Deacon Keith Fournier makes the argument that Catholics need to “take back” the phrase “social justice” in its true meaning. 

His argument is a continuation of an exchange we shared at the Catholic Leadership Conference in Philadelphia a few weeks ago.  Deacon Fournier was in the midst of making the same argument, when I exerted my rights as moderator by interrupting to say, “That won’t work – the phrase ‘social justice’ is far too corrupted and become a veritable code phrase for pro-abortion Catholics in politics.”

Deacon Fournier disagreed, and has now published a full-length version of the argument I so rudely interrupted. 

Yet I still disagree.  It’s one thing to stress the desirability of a thing, quite another its feasibility.  And the redefinition of “social justice” for generations of Catholics is not feasible. 

We need a new phrase altogether to recapture what is meant by Catholic social teaching. 

What could that new phrase be?  Maybe we use “social teaching” or “pro-life social justice”?  I’m not sure, but I know that plain old “social justice” is lost, at least for the next 50 years. 

I know that 50 years is not a long time in the life of our ancient Church — but, oh, the damage that will be done; the damage that has been done.

In his article this morning, Deacon Fournier describes what happened after he and I stopped our friendly argument, which, I think, demonstrates my point rather well:

I continued to press for an authentically Catholic vision of social justice as set forth in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. As the lively discussion continued a man in attendance became so angry about my use of the term social justice that he began to shout and rushed the platform. Fortunately, he calmed down. He was angry because he insisted it was a term used by ‘leftists’.

I am well aware of the co-opting of the term by the “left” – so is the leadership of the Catholic Church. She has rightly condemned the errors found in versions of what was called “liberation theology” and other errant politicized efforts to usurp the term.  However, the Catholic Church has not stopped using the term “Social Justice” and neither should we who are her sons and daughters.


Deal W. Hudson


Deal W. Hudson is ​publisher and editor of The Christian Review and the host of "Church and Culture," a weekly two-hour radio show on the Ave Maria Radio Network.​ Formerly publisher and editor of Crisis Magazine for ten years, his articles and comments have been published widely in publications such as the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post, and U.S. News and World Report. He has also appeared on TV and radio news shows such as the O'Reilly Factor, Hannity & Colmes, NBC News, and All Things Considered on National Public Radio. Hudson worked with Karl Rove in coordinating then-Gov. George W. Bush's outreach to Catholic voters in 2000 and 2004. In October 2003, President Bush appointed him a member of the official delegation from the United States to attend the 25th anniversary celebration of John Paul II's papacy. Hudson, a former professor of philosophy for 15 years, is the editor and author of eight books. He tells the story of his conversion from Southern Baptist to Catholic in An American Conversion (Crossroad, 2003), and his latest, Onward, Christian Soldiers: The Growing Political Power of Catholics and Evangelicals in the United States, was published in March 2008. He is married to Theresa Carver Hudson, also a Baptist convert, and they have two children, Hannah and Cyprian who was adopted from Romania in 2001.

  • Carl

    Social Doctrine has four basic elements: Human Dignity, Subsidiarity, Common Good, Solidiarity.

    Social justice is for the most part a subset under the Common Good element. Labor laws and just wages.

    Deacon Fournier is wrong.

    CCC 1928 Society ensures social justice when it provides the conditions that allow associations or individuals to obtain what is their due, according to their nature and their vocation. Social justice is linked to the common good and the exercise of authority.

  • Carl

    1 the maintenance or administration of what is just especially by the impartial adjustment of conflicting claims or the assignment of merited rewards or punishments b : judge c : the administration of law; especially : the establishment or determination of rights according to the rules of law or equity
    2a : the quality of being just, impartial, or fair b (1) : the principle or ideal of just dealing or right action (2) : conformity to this principle or ideal : righteousness c : the quality of conforming to law
    3: conformity to truth, fact, or reason : correctness

    1archaic : teaching, instruction
    2a : something that is taught b : a principle or position or the body of principles in a branch of knowledge or system of belief : dogma c : a principle of law established through past decisions d : a statement of fundamental government policy especially in international relations e : a military principle or set of strategies

    CCC 2421 The social doctrine of the Church developed in the nineteenth century when the Gospel encountered modern industrial society with its new structures for the production of consumer goods, its new concept of society, the state and authority, and its new forms of labor and ownership. The development of the doctrine of the Church on economic and social matters attests the permanent value of the Church’s teaching at the same time as it attests the true meaning of her Tradition, always living and active.

  • Deacon Keith Fournier

    This is a healthy discussion. Please read Article II in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, entitled “Social Justice” for the best synthesis of “Social Justice” from the Tradition. It leads into the wonderful sectionon the Moral Law. That is because thr Social teaching of the Church is a division of moral theology.

    Try taking the word Justice out of the Sacred Scripture and the Tradition! You end up with a scissorred work not unlike what Thomas Jefferson did with the Bible! It is the wrong approach. Justice is an attirbute of God Himself. It is is meant to be an attribute of those who belong to Him, in and through His Son Jesus Christ. Obviously we should use both Social Teaching and Social Doctrine as terms. However, just because the left have stolen a phrase or word does not mean we should surrender. As CS Lewis reminded us in his “Essay on Words”, verbicide is not new. I hope we do give up on words like marriage, or freedom…. I could go on and on. When we see “NewSpeak” we must work all the harder.

    So, let me even more controversial. We are not first “conservatives” or “neo-conservatives” or and other popular political term. We are first, last and all in between Catholics. Catholic is the Noun and we must inform our political and social participation first based on what the Church teaches no matter what we end up being called in the current Dictatorship of Relativism.”To those to whom much is given, much more will be required”.

  • Kamilla

    I hve to agree about the wisdom of attempts to “redeem” the term “social justice”. I feel the same about feminism.

  • Zoe

    The Church uses the term “social justice” and I think giving up an important term because it’s been mis-used is a mistake. If you want to differentiate it, you could place a qualifier in front of it, like “authentic” social justice.

    It’s seems to me a lot like what happened with the identifier “Catholic” — people started putting the word “orthodox” or “faithful” in front of it to make a distinction between those who follow Church teaching and those who are Catholic in name only.

  • Carl


  • Jerry L. L.

    As CS Lewis reminded us in his “Essay on Words”, verbicide is not new. I hope we do give up on words like marriage, or freedom…. I could go on and on. When we see “NewSpeak” we must work all the harder.

    – Deacon Keith Fournier

    Did you mean “I hope we do not give up on words like marriage and freedom”? If so, I agree with your statement. We shouldn’t give up so easily on using words and terms just because some people misuse them for their own agenda. Zoe’s suggestion of using qualifiers is helpful in some circumstances, as would educating others on what the Catholic Church really means by Social Justice.

  • Carl

    I’m with you. A crusade to take back the meaning of gay would also be a fruitless endeavor.

    But, social justice is not a principal of the Social Doctrine. I argue that there is nothing to

  • Deacon Keith Fournier

    To Jerry L: In my enthusiasm over this great discussion, I did not proof my comment. I meant we must NOT give up on words like marriage and freedom. Thanks for pointing that out. Words really do matter. By the way, the real question is whether we give up the word Justice. Social is an adjective. I certainly hope that those who want to jettison the term Social Justice because the “left” has attempted to redefine it do not mean we should surrender the word “Justice”.

  • Deal W. Hudson

    Interesting discussion thus far, but may I remind everyone we are arguing about the words, not the proper conception to which these words refer. There is an authentic conception of “social justice,” one that has been corrupted by what is now commonly associated with the two words, “social” and “justice, used side by side.

  • JesseA

    Let’s use the terms “Interpersonal Morality” and/or “Intercommunal Morality.”

  • Daniel Molinaro II

    It may be worth considering whether the term “social justice” should ever have been introduced into the language of the Church. People no longer see social justice as part of the virtue of justice and associate justice only with penalty for a crime committed. The great American theologian Father Ernest Fortin wrote on this topic and it can be found in his collected works.

  • Ender

    There is no possibility of “taking back” the meaning of the term so long as the positions within the Church dedicated to implementing Peace and Justice programs are controlled by people who like its meaning just fine the way it is. Nor would it matter if the meaning was redefined; if the staff remains unchanged the terms are irrelevant.

  • Ted Seeber

    The biggest expression of the sin of greed in our society is telling the unborn “Our property rights are more important than your life, you must die to preserve those rights”.

    THAT must be primary in all social justice teaching. Until it is, the term will continue to be hijacked.

  • Kathryn

    Why can’t we just talk about “justice”? What does “social” have to do with anything? Doesn’t “social” pertain to the group? And interactions within the group, and maybe outside the group? So are they talking about “group justice?”

  • Mother of Two Sons

    It seems even in reading the post and the comments here, Social Justice has not only been hi-jacked, we have 1000 million commentaries and interpretations of what Social Justice means. We have found ourselves highly educated with much of the world’s population using their mind… perhaps a product of an aspect of the work of social justice? albeit social justice without a moral compass?
    Now what do we do…. we have all these thinking for themselves Catholics, setting out to make the existing world around them more socially just with under-developed moral compasses….
    I believe instead of speaking and arguing we need to be creating socially just and morally sound Parishes and Businesses and Communities. I do not believe, personally, collecting food in the back of the Church so as to fill up Food Pantries checks off our corporal work of mercy duty, nor does it do much to promote social justice.
    Taking God’s perspective, in an obviously minor way, I look down on Sunday morning, in the pews of Parish after Parish and I see Joint Ventures a plenty that could be modeling amazing new compensation structures that elevate the return on the gifts and talents He has so generously showered us with…. Instead many families are leaving the pew to go home and struggle to make ends meet. This is just the tip of the iceberg of my thought.
    Having been in the convent early in my life and entering into my first JOB at an older age, I was shocked at how much tax was taken out and how little money I actually had to make ends meet. I couldn’t believe that individuals would stay in those jobs for years and just “take it!” I worked to add more value to the company so that I could get promoted and earn enough money to where I wouldn’t have to worry if I was going to be able to pay bills and have money for retirement. (which by the way, I don’t see myself happy retired at age 65… I would go crazy after a while) Being in Human Resources I soon learned how the currently acceptable Corporate structure looked like and again I was SHOCKED that so many Americans tolerated it. What I believe is missing is the utilization of God-given creativity to build a new Corporate structure that pays people in a manner that is fair and just… I hate the idea of a government coming in and taxing the current Corporate structure to force this equity into being..Can you imagine that being a methodology God would use?
    I don’t know if my thoughts are clearly stated but in a nutshell, we are using our powerful thinking to argue instead of build new innovative models…. I assure you, they will silence the argument… action always speaks louder than words!

  • Father of Seven

    No, nor should the term be saved given its current meaning. It has simply been corruppted into whatever the left’s agenda wants it to be. How about, instead, Catholic Social Doctrine. Then again, getting agreement on the use of the word “doctrine” is probably too much to ask.

  • Lee
  • WebPoppy8

    I don’t think ‘Social Justice’ can be redeemed. I’m not sure it’s a good term for what Deacon Fournier describes, but at least I now have a reference for understanding where this term came from.

    “Social Justice” scares me, the way it is used. It’s always deployed in an accusation of some sort, and similarly pits collectives of ‘rich’ against ‘poor’ with overtones of retribution.

    Mercy is so much more important to my life with Christ. I pray to practice justice, yes, but I spend a lot of my time begging for mercy.

  • Fred


    You can’t rescue a term that does not properly belong to the Church. Ignoring context, I could imaging Social Justice fitting in with a term something like the Social reign of Christ. The problem is, the term is a fabrication, not based on a truly Catholic concept, but on the product of Marxist/Catholic dialogue. Catholic Social Doctrine, as it is labelled on the Vatican website, seems suitable enough. Besides, justice is justice. It is automatically social. To label it social is obtuse. What is REALLY being addressed in Catholic Social Doctrine is applied morality to social sciences and public policy. The social justice crowd is woefully, sinfully ignorant of anything like genuine, substantial social sciences let alone morality. The are dupes, even if multi-generational dupes, of the Communist Internationale. Their ideas were formed from the seeds of Marxist-Leninism, and wrapped in the language of the Gospels/Scriptures after redefining those terms into atheistic meanings.

    Perhaps if the Catholic colleges and universities in this country taught CSD as part of their social science curriculum’s and integrated the material into those disciplines we’d be witnessing an army of catholic social science scholars capable of producing an apologetic for the faith and morals of the Church rooted in these disciplines, and thus offering a clear, unambiguous path to transformation of the temporal order under the spiritual order. An authentically Franciscan ideal . . . as opposed to planet worship via the Green movement.

  • Camille

    It now implies a lack of justice. As in justice only for certain social groups rather than equal justice across all groups. As a Catholic who went to Catholic school K-12, it was never discussed (at least not in a meaningful, memorable way) as a tenet of our faith and so the secular version of it is what stands out every time I hear the term. As stated above, even in the Compendium on Social Teaching, Social Justice does not occupy a Part, Chapter, Section, or even a lettered subset be it capital or small case. It is a term we should abandon in the near term and focus on mercy and justice for all.

  • Deal W. Hudson

    Daniel, can you be more precise about where Prof. Fortin wrote his critique of social justice? We used to publish his work at Crisis Magazine, but I don’t recall whether he addressed exactly that issue — it’s been a long time. A great man and a great thinker.

  • Joe

    “Why can’t we just talk about “justice”? ”

    Amen. Love or hate Glenn Beck, he is right. SOCIAL JUSTICE = liberation theology. As Catholic clergy start talking straight, they will regain some lost credibility. Unfort., too many think they still have it. Chaput does. Fournier here, not.

  • Steven

    I hate the term ‘social justice’. It is now an automatically emotional response that when I see or hear the words I am instantly repulsed. I agree it has been corrupted and don’t think that it is a term worth fighting for. ‘Social Justice’ is the the noisy gong and clanging symbol of our day.

  • Jack Carlson

    In a book of moral philosophy in preparation for the Catholic University of America Press, titled Achieving the Good, I treat the concept of social justice. After introducing the general idea of justice and then the traditionally listed commutative justice, legal justice and distributive justice, I offer the following:

    “Elements from these broad categories often are grouped together under the general heading social justice. For example, the website of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops uses this heading; beneath it are listed, in alphabetical order, a number of discrete areas of concern (with each heading serving as a link to pertinent materials)

  • Kim

    Social justice is about the right to life of the ALREADY BORN, including mothers who need abortions to avoid grisly childbirth deaths, intersex gays, and ALL non-Catholics genocided, tortured, enslaved, raped, and force-converted by Catholic extremists. Liberation theologists fit Christ’s ideal of mercy far better than theocon pharisees.

  • Deacon Ed

    that the term ‘Social Justice’is so elusive in definition is actually what is intended by those who use it. In other words, it means whatever you want it to mean. I have read Church documents on social justice and I have often come away scratching my head.
    I prefer banning the term altogether since it tends to compartmentalize our understanding of the human person. Rather, I suggest, talking about the Doctrine of the Dignity of the Human Person. We know so little in our current culture about who the human person is as God created him to be so how can we talk about social justice? And always the starting point for any discussion of the Doctrine of the Dignity of the Human Person begins with the basics – the right to life from the moment of conception to that of natural death. That’s where the seamless garment of the Doctine of the Dignity of the Human Person begins!

  • Carl

    Definition of MARRIAGE
    1 a (1) : the state of being united to a person of the opposite sex as husband or wife in a consensual and contractual relationship recognized by law (2) : the state of being united to a person of the same sex in a relationship like that of a traditional marriage

    States that have allowed same sex marriage actually use the terms partner A and B. This scheme creates a brave new world because who or what is an A or B and then what about C, D, E


    i’M OLD ENOUGH TO SAY THAT i LIVED AND WORKED IN cHICAGO IN THE 1960s’ and while it’s sometimes difficult to see the nature of the forest for all the trees, there was a known fact that seminarians from Mundelein Seminary sought out the marxist Saul Alinsky who was hapopy to provide his marzist philosophy, “Rules for Radicals”, suggesting to them the term “social justice” as a cover for his poison. What I have experienced through 50 years as a Church Volunteer is that if the Church (that’s all of us) would provide as much support (response and positive action) for the pro-life cause as we have for social justice the term abortion would be a dying ember. I continue to pray for the time when administratively weak bishops are a thing of the past.

  • thereserita

    Fascinating to me that neither this post or Keith’s or any of the comments allude to the Pope’s last encyclical “Caritas in Veritate” re: this very important issue. In that encyclical, the Holy Father doesn’t hesitate to use a variety of titles for this topic. He obviously isn’t fixated on the tags but on the teaching he’s seeking to communicate. We might do well to follow him.

  • Anne

    The problem with discussing “Social Justice” is that Liberal or Socialists who do not want a balance and leave out the other equal part of Church teaching which is “SUBSIDIARITY”.

    “Social Justice” without “Subsidiarity” which protects the rights of the individual and family is wrong. (CCC 1883, 1885, 1894, 2209, 2211)

    Socialism, Communism, pure Capitalism, Collectivism, and excessive intervention by the Government are wrong. (CCC 1883, 1885, 2425, 1907)

    When in doubt about Church teachings on Faith and Morals, read in full content the “Catechism of the Catholic Church, Second Edition” first printed in the USA in March 2000.

    The CCC is the “sure norm for teaching the faith” and an “authentic reference text” per Pope John Paul II with the Imprimi Potest by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger.

    True Church teaching really is about helping only those who are unable to help themselves, NOT Country-wide socialism.

  • Paul

    Each Bishop (or Cardinal or Archbishop) is responsible for what happens in his own Diocese.
    He has the RESPONSIBILITY to teach and to correct, and to excommunicate if necessary.
    If you have an issue, take it to your Bishop.
    If your Bishop does not respond after a reasonable period of time, send a letter to the Pope with a copy to the US Papal Nuncio.
    We all have a responsibility to make certain that the “Catechism of the Catholic Church, Second Edition” is adhered to.

    Many Bishops do not require the “CCC, 2nd Ed” to be used in the Parishes, Seminaries, Universities, Convents, or 11th & 12th grades of Catholic High Schools in his Diocese as student texts.
    This is why there are so many problems and heresies. (The average Catholic does not know what is says in its entirety.)

    Enemies from within the Church do not want Catholics to know and understand the Church teachings so they can propogate whatever they want.

    Regarding “Subsidiarity” #1883 – – –
    “Socialization also presents dangers. Excessive intervention by the state can threaten personal freedom and initiative. The teaching of the Church has elaborated the principle of subsidiarity, according to which “a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to co- ordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good.”

    “Social Justice” without “Subsidiarity” leads to Socialism or Communism which is against Church teachings. Some of our Catholic friends need to be reminded of this.

  • Rex

    Since the words “Subsidiarity”, “Social Justice”, “Solidarity” all have different meanings;
    and must used together for a proper Church meaning and balance;
    and are all included in the “Catechism of the Catholic Church, Second Edition”, we probably have no choice but to use the terms.

    However – – – If one term is used to the exclusion of the other, or one is relgated to a lessor status than another – – then it is the responsibility of each of us to make certain that the CORRECTION is made. This correction should be made in public and in writing.

    It does not matter if the correction has to be made about the writings of an individual, Priest, Nun, Bishop, or even a USCCB organization.

    We all need to be reminded from time to time.

    It behooves each one of us to know our Catholic Faith and Morals as written in the “Catechism of the Catholic Church, Second Edition” without taking anything out of context. – – – So enemies within the Church can not propogate false teachings.

  • Kamilla

    I’ve been thinking about this since hearing Richard Doerflinger speak here in Denver this weekend.

    I think the answers lies in the origination of the term. If it originated with the Church, then she should reclaim it. If it did not, it seems time to let it die. I don’t know why Social Doctrine wouldn’t be a good and acceptable “replacement” term since that clearly marks out the boundaries and origins of the concepts in view.


  • Carl

    Good Point. In Caritas in Veritate the term social justice is used only twice (2)and when discussing narrowly welfare, distributive justice, and market economy.

    Whereas Human Dignity, Common Good, Subsidiarity, and Solidarity, the four Basic Elements of the Social Doctrine, are taught throughout dozens of times.