The Church and the meaning of Social Justice

Social Justice and Evangelization

(Part 1) Interview With Cardinal Peter Turkson By Jason Adkins
ST. PAUL, Minnesota, NOV. 2, 2010

ZENIT: In the United States, there is much confusion over the term “social justice,” with some acting as though it were a virtue, or a general humanitarianism, and others who believe the term should be abandoned altogether because it has been distorted and hijacked by left-wing political activists. Can you clear up some of the confusion and define just what exactly social justice means?

Cardinal Turkson: At the end of the day, social justice is a function of the Church’s own faith and doctrine.

A group of scholars from America recently came to Rome to visit with us and talk about the recent encyclical.

It became clear very early in the discussion that certain terms such as solidarity are not appreciated by Americans, and difficult to translate.

But there is a certain learning experience that is helpful.

Just as we do in any study of literature, it is always good to consider the author and his point of departure.

We need to understand the author’s point of view and what the author brings to the table. Certain terms and concepts may not be appreciated unless we view them from that vantage point.

When it comes to social justice, it was an expression we used in the African synod a lot.

We must first look at the term justice, and then add the adjective of social and see where it takes us. I think it is useful to get a sense of the expression itself.

Justice can be thought of as the need to respect the demands of any relationship in which we stand.

When I respect those relationships, I can be sure to be just. That is true about the relationship between me and God, and it is true about husband and wife, student and teacher, owner and worker.

The demands of any relationship when they are expected between the parties constitute justice. If that is the case, if we refer to this in any way as social, it just means we see a set of relationships and expectations between the members of society.

Thus, it is not conservative or liberal. Let us consider the demands of certain relationships we are involved; that is in the cause of justice.

We have to be careful not to make it too theoretical. There is a relationship between lawmaker and citizen, between carpenter and worker, between bosses and business workers that must be carried out and respected.

Social justice is not so much about distribution or making the higher people in society help the lower.

The point of departure is to recognize the sense of justice in relationships and be guided by it. When we are guided by it, it helps us remove some of the difficulties in understanding the term.

We must look at social justice in terms of relationships.

ZENIT: In the United States, there is much polarization in the way politically active Catholics interpret and apply the Church’s social teaching. For instance, some believe that practically all social problems should be solved by private individuals, organizations, and non-governmental actors, while others believe the state should have a hand in practically every problem facing society. Ensuring that all citizens have access to basic health care is just one example. What do you think accounts for this polarization?

Cardinal Turkson: There could be a small disconnect between the Pope’s own teaching and the reality of the particular situation in the United States.

I’m not sure whether the health care debate is an attempt to implement the pope’s thinking in this regard.

The situation can probably be related to the two political camps within this country. It may, as it will, have its own hermeneutics.

If we are thinking of the communitarian character of the teaching of the Holy Father, it is based on the Christian anthropology of the person. The person is created to be a part of a family. The family is the point of departure of the Holy Father’s understanding of the person.

People belong to a family. Fraternity is a concept that is not understood well here.

Being members of a family, we are all brothers and sisters in a way. It is this communitarian point of departure. We may pursue individual initiatives, but the original point of departure means we must be conscious of not leaving a brother or sister back.

The Holy Father’s logic of gift applies here.

We don’t leave a brother or sister behind because of a recognition of what the person is: a being created in the image and likeness of God. Our solidarity with them is an expression of God the Father’s own love of each of us.

The person must imitate the love of God for others. We must become love or gift to other people.

The sense is that the human person must belong to a family. Solidarity is the basic point of departure — the brotherhood of men under the fatherhood of God.

I’m not sure whether the political discussion in American society has the same point of departure.

Thus, making that understanding of the human person and the need for solidarity the point of departure becomes the mission. We must use the Church’s social doctrine as a means of evangelization. We must share this with non-Christians.

Any legislation that gets adopted must be an expression of solidarity, an expression of the nature of God’s love and gratuitousness with which God loves and deals with us.

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