The True and False Meaning of “Social Justice”

American universities used to be a place where difficult ideas were encountered and built in biases challenged. The universities, an inspiration from the Catholic Church, were the home of diverse ideas that were meant to inspire wisdom in students in addition to the learning of practical skills that would help build the economic strength that enabled America to dominate the globe. A fine example of this thinking is ensconced in the motto of DePaul University, Viam sapientiae monstrabo tibi, or I will show you the way to wisdom. Wisdom enlightens the mind and strengthens the individual, which has direct consequences for the broader culture and society. But our universities have turned their backs on promoting wisdom and instead have adopted a mission of promoting a distorted sense of social justice.

Social justice is a concept that originates in Catholic Social Teaching. Indeed, it could be said to be foundational to Catholic Social Teaching. The concept emerged in the mid-nineteenth century in the writings of the Italian Jesuit Luigi Taparelli d’Azeglio. Taparelli coined the term to defend the rights of landed nobles during the turbulent mid-nineteenth century nationalization process that led to the founding of the Italian state. Later the term would be invoked and defined broadly in papal writings, most notably in Pope Pius X’s 1904 encyclical Iucunda Sane, which sang the praises of Pope St. Gregory the Great, whom Pope Pius X called a great defender of social justice and the essential foundation of society, the family.

The Catechism defines the just society as one that “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” (CCC 1928). Social justice requires the recognition of the transcendental dignity of man as a creature made in the image and likeness of God and that as a result rights are prior to society. Social justice is concerned principally with promoting human dignity and strives for promoting the common good, which according to Gaudium et Spes “embraces the sum of those conditions of social life by which individuals, families, and groups can achieve their own fulfillment in a relatively thorough and ready way” (GES 74). Little mention of power arrangements are made in the Catechism and the body of Catholic Social Teaching, and for good reason, as the Church is principally concerned with the spiritual health of the person and the earthly health of society beginning first with the traditional family. Power and politics is only of concern when it conflicts with our duties to our neighbor and to God.

This is a far cry from those definitions promoted at secular and nominally Catholic universities. These institutions define the just society as one that promotes the equal distribution of political and social rights and an equal distribution of wealth while being one that opposes structural injustices of power and unearned privilege. This is a definition that comes from Marxism, which is concerned primarily with the two facets of materialism—productivity and power—which are the false idols of the secular world.

Power arrangements, as the Church teaches, are of concern when they violate human dignity and cause harm to the family. This is where many Christians fall into the secular trap of social justice, as seemingly unjust power arrangements are highlighted by secular authorities (including Marxist professors) to present an image of society that draws the mind of Christian students away from the teachings of the Church and instead focuses on the solutions presented by cultural Marxists. Insidiously this is enabled by these professors using some of the same language that the Church uses, such as love, and human dignity, in addition to social justice.

The principal difference between what the secular Left calls “social justice” and what the Church teaches is that, for the secular world, social justice is equated with a proper distribution of goods, chiefly power. For the Church social justice is a right arrangement of relationships and arrangements that do not prevent man from pursuing his relationship with God and with his neighbor. The secular world is concerned with material goods and the power they bring and represent while the Church is concerned primarily with the common good. Pope Paul VI defines the common good in Gaudium et Spes as “the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily” (26). The qualifying statement is “reach their fulfillment,” which is found by fulfilling our duties to our families, neighbors and society through a relationship with God. It is the culmination of what Our Lord said to his disciples when he said “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (Jn 15:13), for as we are in relationship with Christ and expected to live like him, so too are we expected to sacrifice ourselves for our neighbors and family.

Contrasting that with the secular definition of social justice we see that the secular definition is logically incoherent, as it plays off the selfishness that secular culture promotes while advocating Marxism as a remedy. The Marxist solution will fail (as it always does) because it is opposed to the will of God who has written his moral law on our hearts. We cannot live dignified lives in rebellion against his will. Yet the Christian position is being expelled and suppressed at our universities while the Marxist position is becoming more and more enshrined within their formal power structure. From the universities this position gets promulgated to the greater society. In any case, our duty is to turn to God and be witnesses for Christ and his Church in opposing these ideas in the public square, regardless of the cost.

Editor’s note: Pictured above is a nineteenth-century print of Fr. Luigi Taparelli d’Azeglio, SJ.


Anthony P. Stine is a doctoral candidate at Portland State University where he is writing his dissertation on Catholic Social Teaching. Until recently he was on the staff of St. Gregory's University in Shawnee, Oklahoma and calls Oklahoma home.

Join the conversation in our Telegram Chat! You can also find us on Facebook, MeWe, Twitter, and Gab.