Social Justice Priorities: Life and Religious Liberty

At this critical moment in history, there are two social justice priorities for the Catholic Church in the United States: the defense of life at all stages and in all conditions, and the defense of religious freedom for all. During this Fortnight for Freedom, in which the U.S. bishops are calling all Catholics to pray and work for religious freedom, it’s important to reflect on the linkage between these two great causes.

As the language of the First Amendment to the Constitution indicates, religious freedom in the United States has always been understood as one of a cluster of fundamental freedoms–spheres of free thought and action essential to individual liberty and civil society. That idea of constitutionally limited government–a government that makes no theological judgments (religious freedom), that does not control the media (freedom of the press), that does not control thought and culture (free speech), and that does not occupy all the “space” in society (freedom of assembly)–rests, philosophically, on the premise of fundamental human equality.

Yet the premise is counterintuitive. We know that all men and women are not created equal in intelligence, beauty, wealth, linguistic skills, or ability to hit a curveball. Everything we see, every day, everywhere, speaks of human inequality. How, then, sustain a constitutional order of freedom on the basis of human equality? Is equality a pious fiction, a noble lie we tell ourselves?

In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson tried to solve this problem by reference to a fundamental human equality, and to “self-evident” rights reflecting that equality, that were “endowed” in us by “Nature, and Nature’s God.” Today, when the idea of divinely constructed “human nature” has disappeared from our high culture (and a lot of our law), that argument is under severe pressure. Jews and Christians can argue that their commitment to the premise of civil equality derives from obedience to the commands of the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus, in various forms of the Golden Rule; but will such an argument convince non-believers?

In his 1993 encyclical, “Veritatis Splendor” (“The Splendor of Truth”), Blessed John Paul II proposed an imaginative solution to this problem, which is fundamental to all democracies and especially acute in democracies soaked in the solvents of aggressive secularism and its companion, radical skepticism. There is a way in which all men and women, unequal-in-every-other-aspect-of-their-lives, are equal, the Pope suggested: “Before the demands of morality all are absolutely equal,” he wrote. Everyone is equal before the demands of the fundamental moral law that we can know by reason.

What are those demands? What are those moral truths? Lying is wrong. Theft of what rightly belongs to another is wrong. Everyone must honor promises, vows, and legal contracts. All must be free to seek truth in the depths of conscience, without social, cultural, or governmental coercion.

And the inviolability of every innocent human life must be respected from its beginning to its end.

These fundamental moral truths can be known by anyone willing to think carefully. Recognizing them does not require any prior theological commitments (although belief in the God of the Bible certainly shortens the path toward those truths). These truths are, if you will, built into us. We do not invent them; we discover them.

The fundamental democratic premise of the radical, inalienable, civil equality of all citizens is at the root of the American constitutional order–the American way of being a political community. That premise is no pious fiction, no noble lie. It can be “demonstrated” and defended, by reason. And that defense leads inexorably to the right to life as the primordial human right, and the right of religious freedom as the “first freedom” in the political order.

In defending religious freedom and the right to life from conception until natural death, U.S. Catholics are not just defending what is “ours.” We defend America. We seek to give America new birth of freedom, rightly understood. We act, not as sectarians, but as free citizens. We act on behalf of all, and on behalf of truth.

George Weigel


George Weigel is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., and the author, most recently, of The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II⎯The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy.

  • Social Justice remains a scam

    Lovely message – that will never make it out of a ridiculously small echo chamber of a too small portion of the Catholic episcopacy This interpretation and statement of ‘social justice’ has lost out to the materialist definition that has been promoted and articulated in for the last 60 years with the majority of the Catholic hierarchy aligned with the liberation theologists, draft dodgers, peace at any cost, anti-free market/capitalist, socialists spreading the ‘gospel of materialism, class envy and income transfer’.

  • ReadtheCatechism

    Human equality and differences are described beautifully in the Catechism. 

    Catechism 1935: The equality of men rests essentially on their dignity as persons and the rights that flow from it…

    Catechism 1936-1937: On coming into the world, man is not equipped with everything he needs for developing his bodily and spiritual life.  He needs others.  Differences appear tied to age, physical abilities, intellectual or moral aptitudes, the benefits derived from social commerce, and the distribution of wealth.  The “talents” are not distributed equally.  These differences belong to God’s plan, who wills that each receive what he needs from others, and that those endowed with particular “talents” share the benefits with those who need them.  These differences encouraged and often oblige persons to practice generosity, kindness, and sharing of goods; they foster the mutual enrichment of cultures

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  • Alecto

    Please!  Pretty please with sugar on top, can we forever banish the loaded and loathsome term Social Justice?  After all, Social Justice is defined for most people as, “Redistribution based on group affiliation, regardless of
    anything the actual individuals in question did, or even their specific
    ancestors did, but instead based on the actions of other individuals in
    the past who just kind of looked vaguely like those in the relevant
    groups being discussed now, both victim and oppressor. Also applies to
    redistribution of any kind, whether based on actual unfairness, or on
    simply outcomes liberals do not like.

    Alternative definition: Unspecific. Just a meaningless phrase that screams “I am liberal and this phrase sounds liberal and nice with just a hint of revolutionary sexiness.”

    Antonym: Justice (which, even if it must be applied broadly to address real group-wide wrongs, is always and everywhere an individual notion)
    Courtesy of

    Thanks and Happy Dependence Day!

  • crakpot

    Envy in youth, Pride in your prime, Anger in decline.
    That is the life they have to offer you.

    Hope in youth, Charity in your prime, Faith in decline.
    That is true happiness, your God-given right to pursue, unfettered.