While in Catholic high school, I was required to take a class called “Social Justice,” which taught students about Catholicism’s role in advancing social reforms. At the time, I was a libertarian with a skepticism toward religion, and I thought the class was just an attempt to indoctrinate young people in progressive ideology.
Now, I realize that the problem was not so much what the class taught, but rather what it didn’t teach. We spent time examining Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum and its criticisms of capitalism, the evils of racism, and environmental stewardship. However, not one word was uttered about the horrors of abortion, the role of the family, or the relationship between Christianity and government. The version of social justice presented was incomplete, including only the ideas that most young people today would find palatable and sweeping Catholicism’s “hard sayings’” under the rug.
My experience reflects a larger problem. The phrase “social justice” has been hijacked by progressives to reflect initiatives such as transgenderism and abortion. As such, it is not surprising that many conservative Catholics wince at the use of the term. Yet this is a most unfortunate circumstance, as true social justice has a rich history whose origins lie in orthodox Catholicism.
Dr. Christopher Wolfe seeks to change this in The Concept of Social Justice, a collection of essays delving into issues relating to genuine Catholic social justice and its application. Edited by Wolfe, the book compiles writings from multiple noted authors—including Michael Novak, John Finnis, and Jean Bethke Elshtain, among others—who explain the history, teachings, and applicability of Catholic social justice. While brief, the book is highly informative, presenting a chronologically sound series of essays that provide a truly holistic vision of social justice. The essays flow well, providing an in-depth analysis that is highly informative yet easily accessible. The authors employ clear language while avoiding excessive academic jargon.
However, the book is necessarily limited in its scope. This presents some difficulties. Pressing questions go unanswered in the last chapter of the book, for example: “The USCCB Approach to Social Justice and the Common Good,” by J. Brian Benestad. The essay rightly points out that when Catholic Social Teaching is adhered to properly, it does not fit neatly into either of the two main American political parties. So what do Catholics do? Should they work to reform the GOP despite its flaws? Or what about a third party? Some have suggested joining the American Solidarity Party, which is modeled on European organizations that advocate Christian Democracy. Yet due to its third-party status, Catholics who join would have to be content with being in a political party that, while adhering to most Catholic doctrines, will likely never win.
This book doesn’t attempt to give an answer to that thorny question. Still, although the ideas presented in The Concept of Social Justice are just a start, they provide a crucial foundation for the salvific and eternal work that Catholics must complete in the political arena. Those who hope to advance true justice, not partisan interests or sectarian conflicts, should take the time to read this engaging, challenging little book.