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Pope's equivocal view of social justice

  • 04 May 2012

Christian reflection on almost anything important soon has to deal with the tension between charity and justice. It affects the way we see God's relationship to human weakness and the way we respond to the world in which we live. Both justice and charity need to be given full weight.

Catholic rhetoric about justice and charity, as of much else, is influenced by the thought of the reigning Pope. In his reflections on society and other aspects of human life, Pope Benedict privileges charity. If any planning or struggle for a just society is to be effective it will depend on people's good will and generosity in the implementation. People need to trust and care for one another.

The insight is particularly pertinent to education, health and welfare programs. When people's needs are met by large public programs, it is common for administrators to separate the service provided from the persons to whom it is given. People are then treated simply as objects of service and not as subjects.

To work effectively with people welfare agencies need to develop a culture that puts priority on the person with the need and not simply on the need itself. Their agents need to interact with their clients as person to person, not simply as seller to customer, official to member of public, or professional to client.

This requires a personal commitment by those who work in welfare. But it also requires a culture. The Pope spells this out in Christian terms, basing it on God's love for each human being shown in the life, death and rising of Jesus Christ.

Charity, of course, is neither restricted to nor necessarily to be found in Christian agencies. The common currency of the phrase 'as cold as charity' is testimony to past failure. In many public organisations, too, the place of charity is spelled out and embodied splendidly in secular terms. People experience their dealings with other public agencies as being as cold as the lack of charity.

The Pope also says 'yes' to social justice. But his 'yes' is normally a 'yes, but ...'. The commitment to justice must be accompanied by love, by prayer, by loyalty to the church