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Social justice is not a spectator sport

  • 19 February 2020


It is both tempting and risky to name significant events as watersheds in their effect on public attitudes. Tempting, because they have such immediate impact; risky because in many cases nothing seems to change.

With that qualification, later Australian historians may see the bushfires as a turning point in people’s attitudes to the environment and to what they demand of politicians. At a more abstract level, too, they may mark a shift in the way we think about social justice. As we commemorate the International Day of Social Justice on the 20th of February, leading to the Catholic Social Justice Council conference, this bears reflection.

Thought about social justice has developed over many centuries, as can be seen even in a broad and vastly over-simplified summary. In the pre-modern world justice was set in the context of relationships between individual persons. It explored what was due to and from people in their relationships, taking account of the differences in status of the parties from commoners to kings, women to men, adults to children, and slaves to free. Today the ways in which their conclusions reflected the unspoken values of their societies are evident.

Thought about social justice as we know it developed in the nineteenth century when theorists like Karl Marx responded to the appalling conditions of the poor by demonstrating the power of institutions and public attitudes that perpetuated poverty and locked in wealth. Reflection about justice then needed to take into account not only the persons involved but the ‘it’: the social structures that shaped their relationships and often denied the dignity of the poor.

As Catholic reflection on such topics as war, labour relationships, regulation of large corporations and the treatment of refugees developed, it insisted on the inalienable dignity of each person made and the importance of personal responsibility, but set this dignity in the context of the institutional relationships that affirmed or denied it. This led to the recognition of social as well as personal rights. Their extent and importance are disputed among Catholics as well as in the larger society. Some still see justice primarily in terms of personal relationships; others give greater importance to the institutional relationships that implicitly affirm or deny personal dignity.

More recently the ecological crisis has pointed to a further set of relationships that shape us as persons, societies and world citizens. These are our relationships with the natural world of which we are