February 8, 2001
volume 12, no. 39

Social Justice

    Capital and Labor should work together, and not against each other. Neither can exist without the other. There must be co-operation for the common good, or order ceases. Order is the law of the universe. Around the sun revolve the planets; around the planets revolve their moons and satellites. A watch runs smoothly as long as each part, however small, does its share; otherwise the watch goes out of order. The humblest laborer must be treated justly by his employer, and in turn must be loyal to the employer, otherwise order will cease.

    For the modern industrial problem, two remedies have been proposed: social reform, involving the exercise of social justice, and Socialism or Communism.

    The Church advocates social reform, and the extreme Socialists called Communists advocate Communism.

    It would be well for present-day social reformers to take a leaf from the history of the guilds of the Middle Ages, when religion was of prime importance in social life.

    A guild was a society or organization formed among certain groups belonging to the same trade or occupation. There were guilds of shoemakers, tailors, goldsmiths, etc., as well as merchant and artist guilds. The purposes were social, economic and professional, and religious. The guild took care of old or incapacitated members, their widows and orphans. The guild contributed greatly to the excellence of work produced, since the alm was quality rather than quantity production.

    Social justice is the exercise of God-given individual rights taken in relation to common welfare.

    In order to carry out its primary objective of sanctifying and saving men, the Church defines certain principles-of what we term "social justice"-applying the law of God to conditions of present-day economic life.

    The attitude of the Church on social justice is best summarized in the papal encyclicals "Rerum Novarum" (1891) of Pope Leo XIII, "Quadragesimo Anno" (1931) of Pope Pius XI, and most recently in numerous encyclicals by Pope John Paul II, specifically "Laborum Exercens" (1981) and "Centesimus Annus" on the 100th anniversary of Leo's landmark encyclical in 1991. The aim is to direct everything in accordance with God's law, to have everything subject to the law of justice and charity, with the principles of religion faithfully followed.

    It is said that in Leo XIII's encyclical "Rerum Novarum" the Church is not only collectively, but also individually, identified with the masses. Pius XI himself referred to it as the "Magna Charta" of the social order, with doctrines "capable, if not of settling at once, at least considerably mitigating the fatal internal strife which rends the human family. John Paul II has called it essential to human dignity.

    These encyclicals have formed the basis of many a modern political doctrine on social reform. If their teachings were faithfully followed, there would not be continual violations of the 7th and the 10th commandments, resulting n jealousies and enmities among social classes as among nations.

    A person has obligations towards his fellowmen; this fact is fundamental and immutable. Social justice defines not rights alone, but duties as well, in the social-economic side of life.

    Men are created equal, all made in the image of God, all destined for immortality. But there are, and there always will be, differences and inequalities of condition, arising from mental, physical, material causes. A person must not exploit the inequalities, taking advantage of those less fortunate than himself.

    Social justice enunciates Christian principles in economic life, with full considerations for the law of justice and charity, regarding:

  • individual and social aspects of private ownership and of labor
  • rights and duties of the employer and of the employee
  • conditions of labor-including wages, hours, protection, security, woman and child labor, workingmen's unions
  • evils of economic domination, and of Socialism and Communism; the role of the State.

        A practical recommendation is made for the formation and development of cooperative associations, leading towards mutual understanding and aid, towards union in the pursuit of objectives for the common good.

        With cooperation there naturally is harmony, with no division into classes. Arrangements like these are bound to contribute towards efficiency and peaceful relations. In many establishments of the present day, labor leaders are themselves made members of the directing management.

        Labor unions are voluntary associations of workingmen, aimed at the improvement of conditions under which they work, as free members of a free society.

        The general aim of many labor unions is not only economic, but also social and political. Many unions make provisions for unemployment, sickness, old age, and death of members.

        In spite of their faults, labor unions have surely brought benefits to the Labor being used by Capital. More than any other force, they have obtained a measure of justice for Labor, helping to equalize forces in the economic conflict. For the preservation of Labor's rights their existence is needed.

        John Paul II showed his support for this in the Solidarity movement in Poland. It began with the UNIA - Christian Resistance Movement in 1939 when the Nazis invaded Poland and continued to grow under the persecution of the ensuing communist government in Poland. The Holy Father always has upheld the rights of workers for rightful wages and conditions without exploiting the employer. He has shown this in his support for Solidarity with Lech Walesa in toppling the communists.

        Man has a natural right to organize, to form organizations that will help him in his chosen work. One can easily see that a single workman trying to sell his labor at a fair price bargains at a great disadvantage with a large business corporation. But if he is a member of a labor union, by the collective bargaining of that union he will be able to obtain reasonable terms.

        The strike is justifiable for just reasons. Such reasons would be: when rights are violated or ignored, when lawful contracts are broken, or when other difficulties of a serious nature exist. The strike should be used only as a last resort, when no other means are available. An example was Walesa's leadership in leading dock workers and factory workers in striking.

        Workingmen in a strike must use no violence; they should not unreasonably lower the reputation of the employer. Rights and needs of the community affected have to be well considered.

        The Church applies the tenets of charity. Christianity holds that the rich are not entirely free to do whatever they wish with their wealth. "The strong shall help the weak" is not advice, but a command. In the Second Great Commandment charity is laid down as a law, just as strict justice is, in the last seven commandments of God. "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself" (Matthew 22:39). "Even as you wish men to do to you, so also do you to them" (Luke 6:31). "A new commandment I give you, that you love one another" (John 13:34). Love of neighbor includes not merely a respect for his rights, but a consideration of his needs be they spiritual or material, eternal or temporal.

        Those who have must share with those who do not have. All men are children of one Father; the Son of God came to save all. "When necessity has been supplied, and one's position fairly considered, it is a duty to give to the indigent out of that which is over" (Leo XIII). "A man's superfluous income is not left entirely to his own discretion…The grave obligations of charity, beneficence, and liberality which rest upon the wealthy are constantly insisted upon in telling words by Holy Scripture and the Fathers of the Church" (Pius XI). "The immense number of propertyless wage-earners on the one hand, and the superabundant riches of the fortunate few on the other, is an unanswerable argument that the earthly goods so abundantly produced in this age of industrialism are far from rightly distributed and equitably shared among the various classes of men" (Pius XI). Let us as children of one Father practice Social Justice, and our modern industrial problem will be solved.

        For this reason also, the Vatican has the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, ably headed by Cardinal Francois Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan.

    For past installments of this catechetical series on My Catholic Faith, see APPRECIATING THE PRECIOUS GIFT OF OUR FAITH Archives

    February 8, 2001
    volume 12, no. 39
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