Christianity and Social Justice

This chapter – Christianity and Social Justice – can be found in the book: How Christ Changed the World: The Social Teachings of the Catholic Church by Msgr. Luigi Civardi of Catholic Action, published in 1961 (edited here by A. J. MacDonald, Jr. (.pdf here.)

Christianity and Social Justice

Justice is the cardinal virtue that prompts us to give everyone his due. According to its different objects, it assumes different names. Thus we have commutative, legal, and social justice.

Commutative justice regulates the relations between one individual and another; for example, the relations between seller and buyer; the former must give sound and wholesome goods, the latter  the just price agreed upon.

Legal justice governs the relations between rules and subjects. The rulers have to enact just laws, and citizens have to observe them. It is legal justice also that inflicts penalties corresponding to the crimes, and in this case it is called punitive justice.

Social justice governs the relations between different social classes, between employers and employees, and distributes the benefits and burdens of society. Fees, salaries, and pensions are the object of social justice, which is also called distributive justice.

Justice is more compelling than charity in the sense that it has a greater binding force. The reason for this lies in the very nature of justice, which gives to others what belongs to them, what is due to them by strict right. Hence, in justice, one does give of one’s own. Consequently, the exercise of justice at bottom is nothing else than a reintegration of a restitution. Not so with charity, which gives to others what they are not strictly entitled to. In charity, one gives of one’s own.

The first duty of charity to one’s neighbor is this: to do him justice, to give him what is due him. The wage earner is not to receive as alms what is his due in justice, and let no one attempt with trifling charitable donations to exempt himself from the great duties imposed by justice. If the rich and prosperous are obliged, out of ordinary motives of pity, to act generously toward the poor, their obligation is all the greater to do them justice.

Our Lord taught and defended every kind of justice and social justice in particular. In the Sermon on the Mount he proclaimed: “Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after justice, for they shall have their fill.” (Matt. 5:6). Elsewhere he declares: “The laborer is worthy of his hire.” (Luke. 10:7).

Jesus makes himself a defender of justice, scourging the scribes and the Pharisees, who, while pedantically observing religious precepts, disregard the inviolable rules of justice: “Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites: because you devour the houses of widows, praying long prayers. For this you shall receive the greater judgement. Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites….because you tithe mint and anise and cummin and have left the weightier things of the law; judgment and mercy and faith.” (Matt. 23:14-23). Mark this phrase: “the weightier things of the law,” which shows the importance of justice.

The apostles, too, were staunch defenders of social justice. St. Paul in his letter to the Colossians writes: “Masters, do to your servants that which is just and equal; knowing that you too have a master in heaven.” (Col. 4:1). Against employers who exploit their workers, the apostle St. James says: “Go to now, you rich men, weep and howl in your miseries, which shall come upon you. Your riches are corrupted: and your garments are motheaten. Your gold and silver is cankered: and the rust of them shall be for a testimony against you, and shall eat your flesh like fire. You have stored up to yourselves wrath against the last days. Behold the hire of the laborers, who have reaped down your fields, which by fraud has been kept back by you: they cry out for justice, and their cries have entered into the ears of the Lord.” (James: 5:1-4).

The Church did not limit itself to repeating the teachings of Christ and of the apostles, she translated them into works for the benefit of the working class first if all, in order to safeguard the dignity of the worker. She strove for the abolition of slavery and late sought and pleaded for just compensation for work. Thus it was that in the religious and social atmosphere created by the Church there arose in the Middle Ages the glorious guilds of arts and crafts. There were associations of men exercising the same vocation, men who sought to safeguard not only their economic but also their political and social interests. The guild of arts and crafts were abolished by the liberals of the French Revolution in the year 1789 without substituting anything in their stead. They were abolished under the pretext of liberty, on the claim that the liberals wished to set up a system of free competition in the field of labor also. The consequences soon made themselves felt. As soon as the restraints against the heartless speculations of the employers were removed and the laborers left in hopeless isolation, then the exploitation of labor on a vast scale set in. This evil was made still more unbearable by the gigantic strides of industry that swelled profits of owners out of all proportion. This gave rise to the social question looking toward the settlement of relations between capital and labor, between employer and employees.

Pope Leo XIII, in Rerum Novarum, condemned the capitalist system, introduced by liberalism, because it overestimates the rights of capital and does not give just consideration to the rights of labor. He also reproves the socialistic system, which seeks the abolition of private property and class warfare, while Christianity is for thecollaboration of classes. He reminds the rich and the owners that when necessity and convenience have been supplied, it becomes a duty to give to the needy out of what remains over. He reminds governments of their duty to come to the aid of the workingman “with a whole set of laws and institutions” as opposed to the laissez faire system then in place.

The wages of a workingman are in themselves something sacred because they represent bread, the stuff of life, which is sacred. And yet liberalism left wages at the mercy of chance; it abandoned them to the gamble of freedom of contract between the owner and the workingman, and chance naturally was nearly always unfavorable to the weaker of the contracting parties: the workingman. Leo XIII condemns this arrangement because it is opposed to justice: “The amount of renumeration must never be less than is necessary for the support of a frugal and well-behaved workingman”. The working man is entitled to wages that will be adequate for the support of himself and his family. It is only fitting that the salaries of the workers be such as to suffice for themselves and their families.

Wages, however, is not the only method of compensation. There is another method still more progressive: the participation in the profits of business. This form of compensation represents an integration and a corrective of wages. It is necessary that in the future the abundant fruits of production will not accrue unduly to those who are rich, and will be distributed with ample sufficiency among the workers. Workers and other employees thus become sharers in ownership or management and participate in some measure in the profits received. Such profit sharing is where a large concern continues to yield good returns, the employees should be offered an opportunity of moderating the labor contract by means of a partnership contract.

In order to eliminate the exploitation of labor, Catholics always favored, moreover a wise cooperative system which offers the great advantage of uniting capital and labor in the same hands, of breaking up excessive holdings without taking away the technical advantages of distributing the responsibility, and by augmenting the small number of small owners. In fact, cooperatives of labor and production are partnerships in which their members are at once the owners and wage earners of the concern dividing the profits in equal shares. The Church always favored the cooperative system as suitable to the principles of social justice, of Christian brotherhood, and of human solidarity.

About ajmacdonaldjr

writer, author, blogger
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