Social Justice and Catholic Higher Education

It seems to be in vogue to write about one’s alma mater these days. blogger Lauren Hoedeman recently defended the University of Notre Dame by calling on those who discount the school’s Catholicity to reconsider their assertions. In a similar fashion, First Things junior fellow and Georgetown University alum Matthew Cantirino lamented that even though he was proud to attend the nation’s oldest Catholic institution, the school’s decision to invite Kathleen Sebelius as a guest of honor for its commencement ceremonies was “absurd.”

I do not share in the school pride Lauren and Matthew have for their alma maters. But in the spirit of unity, a summary of my own time spent at Loyola University Chicago – the Jesuit Catholic institution where I received a master’s degree in social justice – seems appropriate.

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “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 rightly understood is not a code word for communism, as Glenn Beck once proclaimed. Although he was right to demonstrate how the phrase itself has been hijacked by the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, social justice within the Catholic faith actually means something entirely different.

Ryan Messmore, a Research Fellow at The Heritage Foundation, clarifies this confusion by reminding us of its original meaning. “Today,” Messmore writes, “political activists often use the phrase ‘social justice’ to justify government redistribution of wealth.” However, Luigi Taparelli D’Azeglio, the ninetheenth- century Jesuit Italian priest who coined the phrase, prefaced the word justice with social in order to “emphasize the social nature of human beings” and “the importance of various social spheres outside civic government.” Social justice to Taparelli entailed a “social order in which government doesn’t overrun or crowd out institutions of civil society such as family, church and local organizations.”

Catholic scholars like Michael Novak and George Weigel have attempted to recapture Taparelli’s definition by framing debates about social justice around subsidiarity and religious freedom, but many Americans have been conditioned to view social justice as something that needs to be avoided, partly due to the efforts of F.A. Hayek’s The Mirage of Social Justice and groups like the Chicago based White Rose Catholic Worker.

In the week leading up to the latest NATO summit in Chicago, White Rose activists stormed the headquarters of President Obama’s re-election offices in what was dubbed the start to their “Week without Capitalism” campaign. Precisely what type of economic system these former Loyola classmates of mine would like to see replace capitalism was not exactly articulated, but based on our classroom discussions and their pro-Occupy Wall Street message, it’s likely some variant of Eastern European style socialism. Unfortunately, their understanding of economics betrays a naïve understanding of both social justice and capitalism in the first place, says Fr. Robert Sirico of the Acton Institute. In a column that appeared on not long ago, Sirico writes:

In countless debates and conversations with modern proponents of social justice, I have noticed that they are less interested in justice than in material equality. They borrow the language of justice and the common good but have either forgotten or rejected the classical meanings of those terms.

Their exclusive focus on income and wealth as the sources and markers of equality is, ironically, merely another variety of the greed and consumerism that they are quick to excoriate.

This is not really social justice; it’s materialism.

Unfortunately, Sirico’s views were practically nonexistent at Loyola. Though the program itself claimed to provide an “interdisciplinary foundation in justice theories and social ethics,” it was anything but open to the oft-referenced “oppressive” dictates of the Church’s white-male dominated hierarchy. Instead of preaching the teachings of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church, Loyola’s social justice program educated its students with the writings of Unitarian ministers, eco-feminists, liberation theologians, liberal philosophers like John Rawls, dissenting Catholics like Charles Curran, progressive Christians like Jim Wallis, and radical groups like the 8th Day Center for Justice.

In many ways, Loyola is not unlike the multitude of Catholic universities that have embraced the postmodern trinity of multiculturalism, diversity and tolerance. During my time as a Rambler, the school:  1) hosted a lesbian, bi-sexual and transgender drag show, 2) refused to allow (but eventually approved) Karl Rove from speaking to the Loyola Republican club because administrators feared that he would invalidate the school’s nonprofit status, 3) welcomed well known Catholic bashers Michael Eric Dyson and Rev. Al Sharpton, and 4) disallowed yours truly from making an announcement at the Sunday night campus mass because a Jesuit priest took umbrage with a blog post I wrote in reaction to a column in the student-run newspaper that claimed Jesus was pro-choice.

Since that time, the school has strengthened its fetish-like commitment to interfaith dialogue by having a Buddhist monk address incoming freshman about spirituality and the Dalai Lama speak to faculty and students about “interfaith collaboration.”

There is good that can come from such interactions, but, as the editorial board at the National Catholic Register recently said, this type of passive-aggressive behavior is all too common at Catholic institutions of higher learning and can lead administrators to view “Catholic teaching as the enemy of academic freedom.”

Progress, however, is being made. Many small liberal arts schools, such as Aquinas College, the Catholic Dominican college located in Grand Rapids, Michigan where I received my bachelor’s degree, are turning away from their diversity-first mentality, establishing Catholic studies programs, inviting orthodox Catholics to speak about the importance of being true to the Church’s teachings, and inculcating an authentically Catholic environment. Pope Benedict has likewise expressed a heightened interest in Catholic higher education.

Catholic universities that cling to this Catholic lite mentality seemingly do so out of fear of being labeled bigoted, close-minded or intolerant by potential students, benefactors, and by the media in particular. In reality though, the Catholic Church is one of the few institutions that tolerates dissent from its members. As Catholic League President Bill Donahue recently said on EWTN’s “The World Over,” the editorial board at the New York Times allows for less disagreement than the Catholic Church. That may be fine for the Times, but it’s definitely not acceptable for the Church. I think it’s time to embrace St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians and urge our fellow Catholics to unite in what we say, what we do, and especially in what we teach.

Stephen Kokx


Stephen Kokx is an adjunct professor of political science, a featured columnist at, and a blogger for Follow him on twitter @StephenKokx.

  • Social Justice remains a scam

    As the writer so eloquently points out ‘social justice’ today is ‘not-even-thinly-disguised’ materialism. It is quite elegant and accurate to point out this is entirely out of phase with its original meaning for the Catholic Church. Unfortunately, no one, and I mean absolutely no one is paying any attention to the original meaning. The continued harping from the pulpit by pastors, bishops and ‘jesuit’ apologists about social justice – is heard as an endorsement of the left’s message of class envy, materialism, transfer of income and wealth from societies producers to societies parasites.  THAT is why ND will honor, showcase and tacitly endorse the  divisive message of the pro-abortion president. THAT is why SAN FRAN NAN and Senator ‘Let’s kill the babies’ Shaheen in NH are seen and honored as representatives of forward looking Catholic politicians.

    The Church has attempted to leverage and advance its message about ‘social justice’ in an alliance with pro-abortion materialist. A crowd, who are all to eager to drag their naive allies into the sordid ground of income transfer and forced financial extortion under the guise of ‘it’s for the children’ and the evils of a market economy.

    The result has been to demean and cheapen the message, and discredit the message and the messenger. Pretending anything else by emphasizing the earlier ‘pure’ meaning of ‘social justice’ is delusional and self-defeating. The voices of the materialist left are too many and too seductive to overcome by any such exercise in intellectualism.

    • ReadtheCatechism

       I can’t imagine Jesus referring to the poor or anyone else as “societies parasites” .

      • poetcomic1

         Man,  America has the RICHEST poor people I’ve ever met and I’ve been all over Africa and Asia.  They are spiritually bankrupt though.

      • Carl

        The truly poor are generally not “societies parasites” as you confound here.   The term “poor” is used only by you here and I don’t believe the original writer meant it like you are interpreting. 

        And besides:Jesus called the Pharisees a Brood of vipers, snakes, serpents, hypocrites, whitewashed tombs, and told Peter “to get behind me satan.”Jesus called the Dealers in the Tempe “robbers”Any abled-bodied person who works the government entitlement programs wrongfully for personal gain is a parasite.  And any government and its supporters that create unsustainable economic and social systems that bankrupt society are parasites!  What possible better term could be used?Motivationally Challenged Citizens? Diseased by work phobia anxieties?  LOL 

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  • Adam_Baum

    I don’t look to Beck for theological advice, but for practical political purposes, he’s right-and I arrived at that conclusion long before he was a public figure. Whatever the phrase “social justice” once meant in theory, in recent practice it has been completely hijacked by the left to mean something else, and in fact it is now a code word for a variety of left-wing political impulses with the common themes of statism, collectivism and rebellion.

    I live near a “Catholic” (Holy Cross) college generally afflicted by a softer form of this intellectual virus. Years ago, they would have their students spend a night outside to show “solidarity” with homeless, a practice I found contemptible because one night, with the certain promise of a return to three squares and a warm bed and access to Mommy and Daddy’s checkbook provides no understanding of a more-or-less permanent condition and does nothing to alleviate it, even temporarily.  Interestingly, this practice disappears when there is a Democrat in the White House, and I’ve observed no similar efforts to  provide the students with say, the unemployment that afflicts so many in the last few years. Of course, the job market they aspire to enter may provide a fuller understanding upon graduation. The harder forms are pure Marxism and various unrepentent insurrections against the Magisterium. 

    Most of the people that I’ve met (including clergy) that are attracted to “social justice” are either leftists looking to subvert the Church or panderers to widespread economic ignorance who proselytize not for the Faith but the various economic alchemies and Rube Goldberg devices of the left. 

    Your efforts to redeem the term are noble, but futile-you might as well attempt to redefine “gay” to its original meaning.  

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  • I believe in the redistribution of wealth…wealth that I voluntarily hand over to the Church for it to redistribute.  There is nothing just about governmental redistribution of wealth.  If freedom is the ability to do what is right, then when government mandates wealth redistribution in any form it will be unjust to someone, or typically to almost everyone.  You give up some freedom whenever you turn any responsibility over to the government.

    Higher Education touts the postmodern trinity of multiculturalism, diversity and tolerance (along with the mother of those gods, Academic Freedom) until those “values” no longer go its way, as in the case of the censorship of Karl Rove and the article’s author for whatever thinly-veiled excuses given.  More disturbing is when so-called Catholic institutions proclaim those “values” to promote anything and everything contrary to Catholic teaching while discarding those “values” to berate, diminish, and otherwise exclude the Church.  When values are so unevenly applied they fail to be values and become agendas.

    • Zizek101

      If you think paying taxes is an abdication of freedom, you should see what happens in rentier States like Saudi Arabia, where no one pays taxes because the government is funded from oil profits (the royal family owns the land where the wells are – this is private property, or capitalism); if you’re not paying taxes, the government has literally no obligation to listen to anything you say, no matter how many similar voices you surround yourself with.

  • poetcomic1

    Social Justice…the very words make my FLESH CRAWL   Funny, but in the thirties the term would have immediately brought to mind Father Coughlin, friend of fascists and  the Jew-hating outlaw priest of the Shrine of the Little Flower. That was the name of his weekly paper of hate filled rants and smug ‘pieties’.  Whether Nazi or ‘progressive’ these associations cling to the phrase.  In this case a half century of putrid Alinskyite treason in the name of ‘charity’ has done its work.  I’d no more use the phrase ‘social justice’ than I would use the term ‘gay’ to mean I was ‘joyful’.

    • ReadtheCatechism

       Flip to page 468 of the Second
      Edition of the Catechism and you’ll see, in bold the article titled
      “Social Justice”.  It’s very Catholic.

      • poetcomic1

         Thank you, but the letter and the spirit thingie still applies.  The Catechism can’t be blamed if it’s reduced outside the church and by traitors within the church to Orwellian Newspeak.

      • Carl

        “Social Justice,” is but one small part of one of the four pillars of the Catholic Social Doctrine—Common Good.   Subsidarity, Human Dignity, and Solidarity being the other three and the foundation guiding the faithful in implementing the Common Good.

        Social Justice for simplification sake can be written also as “Social Laws”.  Laws written  for example against  insider trading, for Government Balanced Budgets,  Public school funding, and so on.  

        The Common Good is mostly about how we interact with our fellow man, how we are going to fund, were we are going to build, and what standards we will use to create a public school… The Social Justice part is almost entirely the enforcement of things we create—-Truancy rules and punishment.

        Your over emphasis of “social justice” is what gives Glenn Beck and I the Shivers!

        • ReadtheCatechism

          That’s true that social justice is one of several components to Catholic Social doctrine.  The state shouldn’t interfere with how one raises one’s children or lives one’s life (subsidiarity principle) provided that human dignity is respected (one can’t harm other people) and one contributes one’s fair share of taxes for the common good in accordance with social justice.  Solidarity and charity are important to living a Christian life.  The concepts work beautifully together – as I imagine you would agree.

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  • ReadtheCatechism

    As clearly described in the Catechism, God’s gift of this world and its resources is for ALL humanity and it is society’s job to prevent excessive hoarding of the world’s resources by a small group.  Catechism
    1938: “…Their equal dignity as persons demands that we strive for fairer and more
    humane conditions.  Excessive economic
    and social disparity between individuals and peoples of the one human race is a
    source of scandal and militates against social justice, equity, human dignity,
    as well as social and international peace.”  Catechism 1910: “It is the role of the state to defend and promote
    the common good of civil society” Catechism 2240:  “Submission
    to authority and co-responsibility for the common good make it morally
    obligatory to pay taxes.”

    Seriously, read the Catechism.

    • Carl

      “society’s job to prevent excessive hoarding,”……..really, how?
      And that’s far different than “we strive for fairer and more
      humane conditions”

      Where in the Catechism does it say to confiscate the wealth of rich people?
      Define “too much wealth.”  By what authority does anyone have to confiscate the wealth legally obtained and legally used according to existing law?

      Indeed, read the Catechism…

      • ReadtheCatechism

        The answer to your last question can be found in Catechism 1897 -1904 (which describes the basis for authority) and Catechism 2240:  “Submission
        to authority and co-responsibility for the common good make it morally
        obligatory to pay taxes.” 

        While “too much wealth” is not defined in numeric terms, Catechism 1938 states that “the equal dignity of human person requires the effort to reduce excessive social and economic inequalities.”  So taxing people to reduce excessive social and economic inequalities is a very good thing (since taxes are good and reducing economic disparity is good).

        I will re-read more of the Catechism tonight – it’s my favorite book, thanks!

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  • Tom Murtagh

    Your commentary criticizing some of our so-called “Catholic” universities are appropriate.  The term “social justice” has been re-defined to mean redistribution of income and large state-run programs designed to eliminate all disparities in society. As a social studies teacher in a Catholic high school, I am routinely confronted by students demanding to know how the laws, not opinions, of economics squares with what is being taught in religion class.  Students are being taught it is permissable / acceptable to “vote for a pro-choice candidate as long as your vote is not for pro-choice but ‘social justice.'”  A student’s response is “why are we being told to vote for the Democrats?” 

    Presenting the US market system (capitalism) as the most efficient means of providing for society’s needs conflicts with the mantra of “standing in solidarity with the poor” and results in being labled as one who is ignorant of church teaching.  Religion departments demand a renunciation of capitalism, confiscatory tax rates for the “wealthy” (however defined), and a “more fair” distribution of the nation’s goodies.  Most of our students reject this call to the social justice barricades but in so doing, reject most of what is being taught in religion class.

    • ReadtheCatechism

       I hope high school students aren’t “learning” we have a capitalist economy.  We actually have a mixed economy – with capitalist and socialist elements.  This is in keeping with the Catechism (2425):

      “The Church has rejected the totalitarian and atheistic ideologies associated in modern times with “communism” or “socialism.”  She has likewise refused to accept, in the practice of “capitalism,” individualism and the absolute primacy of the law of the marketplace over human labor.  Regulating the economy solely by centralized planning perverts the basis of social bonds; regulating it solely by the law of the marketplace fails social justice, for ‘there are many human needs which cannot be satisfied by the market.’  Reasonable regulation of the marketplace and economic initiatives, in keeping with a just hierarchy of values and a view to the common good, is to be commended.”

      • Tom Murtagh

            Yes, they are “learning” the market system – how else do you teach economics?  In addition, I have read the Catechism, encyclicals, and other pertinent material.  I have studied economics, which explains why I find myself on the receiving end of sanctimonious rebukes (from the religion department)  for explaining how the minimum wage causes unemployment, rent control causes homelessness, and government subsidies distorts the efficient production of goods and services required of society. 
            Recognizing the “dignity of labor” is one thing. Implementation is quite another.  When one begins with the view of a pre-existing rigid class structure the result is an “us versus them” (class warfare) mentality and moral exhortations for the wealthy to pay their “fair” share of taxes despite the FACT the richest 10% pay 1/2 of federal income taxes and 45% of US workers pay no federal income taxes at all.  (Proposals for a federal flat tax, the method state and local governments employ, have been defeated.) “Fairness” is in the eye of the beholder – my “deduction” is another’s “loophole.”  It is no wonder calls for “redistributing” society’s goods ring hollow and oftentimes are threatening.
           The “progressive” platform has been, or will shortly be implemented in our society.  The culmination of progressivism currently resides in the white house. 
           Seriously, as a Catholic – not necessarily employed by the Church – how is that working out for you?

        • ReadtheCatechism

          As you know, there’s no ‘us vs. them’ mentality in the Catechism – it’s about solidarity.  In keeping with social justice and solidarity, we should strive to prevent the formation of a rigid class structure.   A good society provides the conditions for people to develop and share their talents no matter what their socioeconomic situation at birth.  An example of socialism in this country is that all children are allowed an education even if they can’t afford it.  A good society also should encourage people to work and contribute – and therefore capitalist elements have a place.  It’s a balance – the degree of this balance is where the debate lies…

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