By Thomas Storck
Just as in our work toward chastity, or any other virtue, so in our work toward social justice, we should be aware of "the essential imperfectability of man's action within history," but that we are "charged to go toward the Kingdom through justice and love." We will never reach that Kingdom in this world and life, but that is not reason enough never to try.
But what concrete steps, if any, could we take to try to bring about economic justice? Before answering this question, let me deal briefly with one more objection. In view of the many grave problems in the world today, the horrible reality of abortion, the probable impending legal acceptance of euthanasia, the attacks on the family by militant homosexuals and others, the defection of hundreds of thousands of Catholics from the Church, is now the time for us, for anyone, to work actively for the establishment of economic justice? I believe that it is, or rather, that it can be. I concede that abortion and euthanasia are certainly graver issues, for it is a worse injustice to take someones life than merely his job or his home. But everyone has a different vocation, and those who think that they are called to work in pursuit of justice in economic life ought not to be criticized by, nor to criticize, those who believe they are called to work to prevent the murder of the unborn or the aged or in some other area. There are many legitimate apostolates in Christ's Mystical Body.
Having said this, what is to be done? In the first place, there is a great need for education, simply of spreading the idea and desire for economic justice. So many have been warped in their thinking by capitalism that they do not realize the necessity of applying ethical criteria to economic activity. They do not understand that an economy has to be judged by how well it is performing its function. What is an economy's function? To provide the necessary and helpful material goods for the human race so that we can then in turn devote our energies to the more important matters - to our families and friends, to learning, to God. If an economy has instead fixed our attention on acquiring more and more material goods, many of them useless; if it has disrupted settled communities by shifting about jobs for no good reason; if it has enabled some men to grow rich not by making useful goods but by manipulating money and monetary instruments - then that economy is a failure, despite the abundance of glittery things it has produced. Americans tend to congratulate themselves because the shelves in our stores are full. But this is not how to evaluate an economy. As John Paul II wrote in Centesimus Annus (no. 36),
It is therefore necessary to create lifestyles in which the quest for truth, beauty, goodness and communion with others for the sake of common growth are the factors which determine consumer choices, savings and investment.
I submit that in our economy this is far from being the case.
In the much-maligned days before the Second Vatican Council there existed among many Catholics a consciousness that there was something wrong with the economy, and that it must be reshaped in accordance with papal teaching. This consciousness was simply one effect of the relative health of the Catholic mind at the time - Catholics took the Faith seriously, including the social apostolate. And this being the case, actual schemes were created to bring about a greater degree of social justice. There were, for example, labor schools and the Association of Catholic Trade Unionists, that tried to give people engaged in union activity an understanding of social doctrine. Fr. John Cronin wrote not only his Catholic Social Principles, but also another book, Catholic Social Action, which he termed "a guide and manual for social action." Hilaire Belloc's The Restoration of Property suggested actual legislative proposals to bring about a society with a more just distribution of property. Despite the collapse of Catholic life and loyalty since the 1960s, some of this type of work can still be done. There is room for such worthy projects as union organizing of low paid service workers or formation of credit unions in rural or poor urban areas. There is even room for a vocation as a legislator, although such an occupation is extremely dangerous to the soul, considering the very many dangers of an intellectual and moral sell-out that Catholics in politics face today. But until more Catholics have absorbed the entire vision of the Church's teaching on social justice, I am not sanguine about these efforts bringing about a reform of the economy as a whole. And since the Church is presently so distracted with questions that concern the very foundations of the Faith, most Catholics do not have the time to absorb this vision of a just society. But since social doctrine is an integral part of the Gospel, any attempt to restore the Catholic mind, to restore discipline in the Church, must include a due emphasis on social justice. If this is done, if we begin to think as Catholics in every department of our lives, then there may be scope for more than ad hoc projects. Until that time, we must study social doctrine, absorb it, teach it to others. In this way we will be doing much to restore the Catholic mind, as well as the remote preparation necessary for establishing a just economy. It is nearly all we can do now, but it is a large and worthy project.
Original version of article published in New Oxford Review, October 1997.