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Matching action to social justice rhetoric

  • 21 February 2018


The World Day of Social Justice greets a year when social justice is returning to favour. Bank executives begin to own their social responsibilities. Liberal economics begin to be seen, not as the condition for a productive economy but as a barrier to it.

The common good is no longer seen as an oddity but as a powerful idea. Government spending is seen as helpful; austerity directed against the poor and the passion for balancing budgets are no longer boasted of.

That is the rhetoric. For governments, though, it is business as usual. Tax cuts for the wealthy, cuts in budgets that further humiliate resourceless Americans or Australians, with the ritual verbal muggings of minorities, coal worship and river destruction, continue unabated. Even if the cawing of economic liberalism is no longer heard in our land, the birds of carrion still feast.

This mismatch between rhetoric and practice discloses the lack of a coherent vision of society that shapes society. In developing such a vision the principles of Catholic Social Teaching can be a helpful resource. Their central insight is that each human person is precious and demands respect. People must not be treated simply as means to an end, as workers are if they are seen simply as a cost in production, or as people who seek protection are if seen simply as alien.

In this teaching, too, relationships are all important in human life. We depend on our environment and on one another in all that is significant in our lives: from being born and educated to making money and enjoying technology. Because we depend on one another we are also responsible to one another, particularly to the most vulnerable. That responsibility touches us in our domestic life and also in the organisation of the economy. So the making of wealth and the running of business have a social license — they are part of society with a responsibility to society.

Reflection on social justice generally focuses on the relationships between people in the institutions they form — businesses, media, churches, the military, governments etc. It looks at the human relationships that are embodied in the management of the economy, government and so on, and points to aspects that impede human flourishing.

More recently the importance of the environment for flourishing has been recognised. When this is disrespected we all suffer. Vulnerable people are often disadvantaged by pollution, by extremes of heat and cold,