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Social Justice and Pro-Life: Are They Compatible?

I was recently asked by a Chicago Tribune reporter to explain the diversity in American Catholicism. How could Justice Scalia, a conservative, be Catholic, and Sonia Sotomayor, the newest nominee to the Supreme Court also be Catholic? Is the Church large enough to encompass both? I didn't know, but speculated that Sotomayor would be drawn to the "social justice" aspect of the tradition.I explained that there are different strands in American Catholicism today. Some American Catholics today emphasize life issues, others emphasize social justice issues. Some people work in pregnancy counseling centers, others work in soup kitchens. "Different gifts but the same spirit," to borrow from St. Paul.Are these strands incompatible? NO. There is no inherent incompatibility between concern for life issues and commitment to other questions of social justice. Pope John Paul II wrote both Evangelium Vitae and Solicitudo Rei Socialis. The U.S. Catholic Bishops advocate for social justice for both the immigrant and the unborn. And in Evangelium Vitae itself, Pope John Paul emphasized the need to put in place social structures and programs that support pregnant women and families as well as the elderly. Dorothy Day dedicated herself to improving the lot of the impoverished--and opposed abortion.I don't know what Judge Sotomayor's views on abortion are. (Some pro-life activists are cautiously optimistic. ) But I do know that it would be a terrible thing for the Church to pit its social justice commitments and its pro-life commitments against one another.

About the Author

Cathleen Kaveny is the Darald and Juliet Libby Professor in the Theology Department and Law School at Boston College.



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Goes to show the state of the Chicago Tribune that its reporter didn't seem to connect with Cardinal Bernardin and the consistent ethic of life.

I wholeheartedly agree.I think there is a perception of incompatibility because the two strands are often perceived to be on opposite sides of the political divide (although that is overly simplistic), and many/most of us begin to grow into a political identity before we've been fully immersed in the Catholic social and life teachings. (And once we do start to understand Catholic teaching and its policy implications, it may take us a very long time - maybe even the rest of our lives - to sort out the implications for our political behavior and allegiances).

I'm not trying to be confrontational (not my style in any event), but aren't the life issues a subset of CST? The USCCB lists "Life & Dignity of the Human Person" as one of the seven "Themes of Catholic Social Teaching." can understand how some might feel one or more themes are emphasized to the detriment of others, but since they are all part of the same whole, can they be incompatible?

Margaret's and my comments crossed - I was "wholeheartedly agree"ing with Kathleen's point that the two strands are compatible.FWIW - I'm not familiar with this reporter or her blog, but according to the "About ..." section on her web site, she has been with the Tribune since '03, so probably she missed the Bernardin era. It also states that she has covered the Dalai Lama and a tossed salad of other religion stories, and that squares with my experience with Chicago religion journalists (including from the Tribune), which is that they are generalists rather than specialists on the "Catholic beat".

Sorry, Cathleen with a C. Kaveny with a K.

Perhaps my confusion is the result of equating Catholic social teaching with Catholic social justice. I tend to use them interchangeably--and maybe incorrectly--because I see each of the seven CST themes listed by the USCCB as a social justice issue, too. Is "social justice" a term of art used to differentiate the "Life and Dignity of the Human Person" theme from the other six? My thanks in advance to anyone who can set me straight on the terminology.

Mr. Collier - I just think they all go together and support each other.Prof. Kaveny - it is difficult to answer reporter's questions especially by phone. You did an excellent job and it is one of the rare times I have seen someone explain, describe, and point out the long church history of social teaching and social justice issues.Thanks.

Hi, William, it's an interesting question about the terminology.I expect that the two terms "social teaching" and "social justice" get used interchangeably in informal conversation, but they do seem to suggest slightly different (although closely related) concepts.What they have in common is an attempt to bring about a just society. "Social teaching" would seem to be teaching about the social principles and practices that achieve that goal. "Social justice", as I understand the term, is specifically to correct existing injustices in society.So, for example, "Distributive justice" is a Catholic social teaching. That teaching describes the goal or ideal in which gifts from God such as food and wealth are justly distributed. We can use that social teaching to assess the current state of our society. If and when we find examples of unjust distribution (e.g. hunger is a real problem in the US), Social Justice would aim to address the problem.

The problem goes deeper than pro life and social justice. Generally there is more talk than action in a pretty mediocre Christianity. Christianity has gotten very comfortable and insular and exclusionary. Those two big wars and the holocaust came right out of Christendom.

It is not a new divide,, years ago when I worked in a large corp. a co-worker, Tom, was known by his selling parish chances and he was chairperson of the a parish bingo. I was known for work in social justice.. This confused many non-Catholic coworkers who could not apprieciate the different political and Catholic stances between me and Tom. I explained by denigrating Tom's charism by labling him as a Check book Catholic ... (;

It seems to me that "the social teachings" go way beyond "social justice". Justice does what is required. It is the domain of ntural law. But the social teachngs of the Church (and all Christinity for that matter) also require that we go beyond what we owe to others, that we be charitable. Thus justice requires us tot pay our bills, to put in an honest day's work, to repect the humanity of others. The wider social teaching -- charity -- requires that we give to the poor, and rich too if they are in need of kindness, that we forgive injustice, that we try to make this a better world than mere laws require us to."Law is a necessity, only a necessity", said Raissa Maritain. Charity is beyond law, beyond justice. It is the doman of the contingent, the gratuitous, the more-than-required, the domain of charity, of kindness and forgiveness, of love This is the broader social teaching of the Church.

All excellent points which makes me revise my immediate response above. Wonder if this distinction did not also play a part in the different reactions to the ND speakers. Would also include Prof. Kaveny's thoughts around prophetic witmess - it seems linked to what Ann has contributed above.

Social Justice requires that one be Pro-Life from the beginning.Why would anyone put Catholicism in a box? Catholicism is about The Truth, and The Truth is "out". "It is Finished."-Christ

Here in the Archdiocese of Detroit we have tried to bridge this gap (between social justice/"peace and justice" and pro-life) by having an Office for Catholic Social Teaching and an Office for Catholic Social Action. We work closely together, offering this as an example to our parishes as an umbrella for the "dignity and life of every human person without exception, from conception to natural birth" and to "promote the common good," as the two core principles of Catholic social teaching are enunciated in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church.

It seems to me that the two strands of Catholicism can be roughly correlated with those who emphasize justice (the extreme pro-life folks) while those who emphasize charity are more likely to emphasize the other part of of the Church's social teachings, charitable acts.This presents a problem in practice because the pro- charity people.ask government to go beyond justice, to acts of charity. Many conservatives argue that the only function of government is to act justly. They therefore go on at great lengths about "give-away" government programs, and I must admit sometimes I think they have a point sometimes..

Sorry, but as historian I must take issue with Bill Mazzella's statement that the "two big wars and the holocaust came right out of Christendom." They did? In what sense did Hitler's pact with Stalin and the joint German and Russian invasions of Poland in 1939 come out of Christendom? In what sense did the Japanese invasion of China come out of Christendom? Was Pearl Harbor somehow an example of Japanese anti-Christianity?Or what about the first world war? Was the Anglo-German naval race somehow tied to Christendom? Or the British, French, and German squabbles over their colonial empires? The movements in the Balkans to free themselves first of the Ottoman empire, and later of the Austro-Hungarian empire? It's important to try NOT to confuse appeals made to religion (or anything else -- communism, racism, the American/British/French/German/Japanese/Chinese &c &c &c way of life with the causes of wars, either in the past or the future. And the appeals themselves must be taken with many grains of salt. Or consider the Thirty Years War war (1618-48) which is seen by many (too many) as essentially a religious war, and yet saw Cardinal Richilieu, who was running French foreign policy at the time, linking up with Gustavus Adolphus, the somewhat bloodthirsty Lutheran king of Sweden. Why? So that Catholic France could find help in fighting off the incursions of Catholic Spain and the Catholic Holy Roman Empire, for the simple reason that Catholic France did not want to be swallowed up by the two great Catholic powers that occupied its eastern and western borders. It's called Realpolitik, and religion has little to do with it save lend its support to nationalist rallying cries. As for the Holocaust -- granted that religion should never have let it happen, and granted the legacy of Christian anti-Semitism that helped enable it. But as Hannah Arendt and many others have pointed out, the Holocaust was in many ways based on science, or what passed for science, particularly in a post-Darwinian age, and the belief that Science (with a capital S) had proved beyond a doubt that some races were inferior to others, and the sooner they fade away, the better off we'll all be. For similar "scientific" -- or social "scientific" reasons, Stalin justified his murders of kulaks and others, and the Chinese not only sought to polish off millions of "class enemies" but also brought upon themselves the famine that killed 30 million or more people. Christendom, or indeed religion itself, had little to do with these crimes.

Christopher, I appreciate your citing history, lessons of which, we cite and benefit little. You have referred to particular incidents which I will look at further. Nonetheless, I am stunned by your apparent manipulations of things. The ".. British, French, and German squabbles over their colonial empires?" Were they not Christian? Germany was thoroughly Christian. So was Russia albeit suppressed. They were not that good before Lenin. The holocaust was based on science? With all due respect to Hannah, I beg to differ. Christendom made pre-baptized infants "children of the devil" until Vatican II. Augustine, decidedly was a misguided, arrogant person. He butchered Paul, not followed him. What an irony. The most admired person in Western religion demonized infants.Realpolitik?? What are we doing following a madman who let himself be crucified. Where was his practicality. If you need the concession let me say you have me on China, Japan and Stalin. Is that your point? And America, the land of evangelization fought a most uncivilized civil war. I know you clothe your rationalization with "granted that religion should not have." Or "save lend its support to nationalist rallying cries." The words "granted" and "but" are followed by things notably inexcusable. And is not "nationalism" a great evil indeed? Finally, did not emperors and kings make the ultimate call on orthodoxy." They don't call it the King James Bible for nothing.Christopher, I do appreciate the link to history. How else do we understand ourselves? More importantly it is that lack that results in our not understanding ourselves.

I particularly appreciate Cathy's final comment in the set-up (" would be a terrible thing for the Church to pit its social justice commitments and its pro-life commitments against one another") and Margaret's mention of Cardinal Bernardin and the consistent ethic of life.It seems so long ago that the seamless garment had resonance. It certainly didn't play long, did it? It is not frequently mentioned even in the interminable abortion threads at dotCommonweal.The consistent ethic was lambasted out of the gate by the most strident anti-abortion forces aligned with conservative Catholicism even as it was damned with faint praise by the most strident anti-anti-abortion forces aligned with progressive Catholicism. Each side seized on the consistent ethic as an opportunity to paint the other as hypocritical..."'They' posture as 'oh so concerned' about (the born/the unborn) but they coudn't care less about (the unborn/the born)."Joe Bernardin was exemplary in so many ways, not least the tone with he applied in addressing the life issues. He 'got' people for whom abortion was the touchstone issue and understood their dominant focus on legal proscription on abortion...even as they often villified him. He 'got' people who found opposition to abortion difficult to reconcile with their progressive alliances and sympathies...even as they were decidedly unenthusiastic about his inclusion of the unborn in the litany of the vulnerable and marginalized.His consistent ethic of life legacy, in my estimation, goes to a certain sensibility. He rejected the binary left/right, progressive/conservative framing of life issues and taught that they were all of a piece. Yet he refused to demonize those who were locked into rigid and unproductive frames.

Pope John Paul, the US Bishops, and Dorothy Day had the right idea: Catholicism means holding the whole social teaching together.In my understanding of Catholic theology, this skill of holding things together is pretty much the peculiarly Catholic skill,. The Trinity is three AND one, Jesus Christ is God AND man.Regarding the social issues, it seems to me that holding one or a few strands is not enough. Catholic neocons as well as Catholic prochoicers both make the mistake of thinking that they can choose to be unjust in some areas as long as they are activists in other areas. There can be a difference in emphasis among us but not, it seems to me, such a divide.

Of course they are not incompatible. The problem is that those who see this dichotomy from the social justice side often conclude that those who disagree with their policy prescriptions must ergo not believe or practice the social justice teachings of the Catholic Church.It is not surprising that the pro-life movement in the US is generally politically conservative. For all the claims about individual rights, the abortion rights movement is largely a creature of and propped up by, the state, and consevatives generally reject state solutions. They see a continuity between the social welfare state and abortion that political liberals don't. Look at the way we talk about the issue. It is never in moral or spiritual terms, but material terms. We don't talk about promoting a healthier and more chaste view sexuality and promote the family, we talk about "preventing" pregnancies. The social welfare state views babies as burdens first and people second.The more we promote dependence on the state for basic necessities I argue we don't promote social justice. At best, we promote social stagnation, and tend to prevent people from realizing their full potential as persons, which is after all the only reason social justice is important.

Mike McG - excellent points and agree. The old theological expression for these types of differences would be that the church's social justice/action theology is "both/and." Unfortunately, in the 1980's the church gradually or significantly moved away from both and to focus on a single issue. We sacrificed the gospel message and distilled down to single issues.There have been some excellent stories out of San Francisco about this transition - when dioceses began to close peace/justice departments and diverted all funding to anti-abortion efforts. Can't find the link or story but the chancellor of San Francisco had an excellent article about this change and transition.Someone above mentioned the current practice in Detroit - it would be helpful if the USCCB would adopt that as best practice not only for itself but also as an example for all dioceses.BTW - Bill, you might want to read a biography on Lenis - student at a Russian Orthodox seminary; troubled childhood, troubled seminary career. Some historians posit that his eventual sadistic behavior and actions stemmed from his reaction to the seminary, Russian Orthodoxy (he was not from a main line Russian ethnic group and suffered for that). Interesting ways that religion can be brutal to a person growing into maturity.

Thanks, Bill D., Jim P., Ann O., and Michael H. for setting me straight on terminology. I think I've got it sorted out (?). :) (Actually, your comments were very helpful. Thanks again.)Supplementing Mike McG's excellent comments on seamless garment and the CEL, I thought I'd mention that Orbis Books has pulled together all of Cardinal Bernardin's speeches on the CEL into a one-volume paperback titled "The Seamless Garment: Writings on the Consistent Ethic of Life." Published in 2008 (ISBN 157075764X), the book was edited by Thomas Nairn. The book has many things going for it, but I'll mention just one. Reading the speeches, which are provided in chronological order, allows one to follow the evolution of Cardinal Bernadin's thought as he worked to create a unified conceptual theory for addressing life issues. As to the CEL in practice, however, he recognized that there is not a one-size-fits-all solution to each of the life issues. IMO his passing was a great loss to the Church, but his passion about the CEL lives on in this compilation of his speeches.

I agree with Sean that people can rely too much on the state to solve social problems, which can make individuals feel they've been absolved from taking more personal responsibility for others, a la, "I don't need to help the poor; I already pay taxes." (In "A Christmas Carol," Scrooge declines to contribute to the poor because he already pays taxes to support the workhouses.)By the same token, relying on the state to pass laws that enforce a pro-life agenda might have much the same effect: "I worked hard to outlaw all abortions, and now my work is done." That'll reduce abortions, but to what extent will it help people see babies more as blessings than burdens, especially if the parents are out of work, single, don't have a lot of natural parenting instincts or have a severely handicapped child.

"Of course they are not incompatible. The problem is that those who see this dichotomy from the social justice side often conclude that those who disagree with their policy prescriptions must ergo not believe or practice the social justice teachings of the Catholic Church."Yes. Wait until the health care debate really gets cranked up in the coming weeks, and watch it happen here.

"It is not surprising that the pro-life movement in the US is generally politically conservative. For all the claims about individual rights, the abortion rights movement is largely a creature of and propped up by, the state, and consevatives generally reject state solutions. "I'm sure there has been some convergence as you describe. At the same time, it's important to recognize that the Democratic Party was substantially a pro-life party as recently as the early '70's, and that in large part because Catholics were part of the Democratic coalition. The party's strategic decision to realign itself as a pro-choice party, and its concomitant betrayal of Catholics, has been documented in Commonweal. but the article is not available for free to the viewing public. But I assume we all subscribe!)

P.S., Christ believed in feeding the hungry while teaching them how to Fish.

The failure of Catholic social justice, perhaps most manifest in its pro-life wing, is the failure to clearly articulate how "social" or "communitarian" justice makes space for individual claims of conscience and freedom. In fact, I would argue that the word "justice" is basically being misused when it is applied to the concepts that are usually embodied by the term "social justice." A society that provides ample resources to ensure that mentally ill people have a safe place to live regardless of their functional status is a generous, egalitarian, and compassionate one. A society that forces them to inhabit such safe places (agreed to be charming, not abusive, etc.) would still be, in my view, deeply unjust given their claims to prefer living in their own disordered state.Nancy, I missed the part of the Bible where Jesus gave fishing lessons. I also seem to have missed the development in Protestant theology that rejected the doctrine of the Trinity. The two of you really take the cake for creative theological thinking.

"It is never in moral or spiritual terms, but material terms."Sean Hannaway: But isn't the underlying problem that the those who see this dichotomy feel it is inappropriate for the state to impose one kind of morality or spiruality on the citizens to the exclusion of other moralities? EG, the example David Nickol often points to regarding the Rabbinic Judiasm view of the rights of pre-born children.

It is clear the two are not only compatible but actually joined intellectually.The practical history of pro-lifers and social justice persons has not alays been smooth.I refernece the attempt of the Roundtable of Social Justice people at National Pastoral Life Center to bring these groups together in many areas.Here in NM, there was much friction I'm told becauaes the pro-life group thought that issue should be primary.The consistent ethic, as noted, saw the interrelationship but Bernandin was shot down by Law on common ground.So of course these two should be working together!But historixcal forces and personalities have made that path much rogher than it should be and we would all do well to think about making that unity happen on our part.

Barbara, "The mystery of the Holy Trinity is the central mystery of the Christian Faith and of Christian Life."-CCC,no.261 This is why we should not deny the Truth about the Holy Spirit, the Unitive, Creative Love of God, The Lord, The Giver of Life, who proceeds from The Father and The Son from the beginning.

And when you find something that I've written that denies the Trinity, be sure to let me know.

Off topic in a somewhat aging thread, I'm afraid, but back to Bill Mazella and "Christendom's" implication in the great crimes of the 20th century. Sorry if I misread you, but I thought -- probably wrongly -- that you were reflecting the popular modern superstition that religion in general (and Christianity in particular) is responsible for many, if not all, of the world's evils. My point in trying to show the falsity of this view was that while religion has often been used as a rallying cry in war, rapine, plunder, and so forth, it is by no means the only (or even most important) factor. So, as I suggested, Richilieu's alliance with the Lutherans against his fellow Catholics in the 17th century is evidence of a Realpolitik that owes nothing to his religious beliefs. Perhaps you meant that in the west, despite 2000 years or so of Christianity, it was still possible for the atrocities of the world wars, the Holocaust and others to take place, and that points to the failures of the churches, Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, etc. If so, I would agree with you; but there's a great difference between saying that such things take place despite Christianity, and those saying (as contemporary superstition would have it) that they take place because of Christianity. As Christians, we certainly must acknowledge the historical horrors that have taken place in the name of religion. But if we were devout secularists, then we should also acknowledge the horrors that have taken place in the name of secularism -- Hitler, Lenin, Stalin, and Mao for starters. I don't see much evidence of that latter recognition, however.

Barbara, re: fishing lessons, didn't Jesus tell Peter where to place his net where he could catch more fish? This isn't the same as TEACHING Peter HOW to fish, just sort of acting as a kind of fish-finder for him. Luke 5: 1-8Meantime, if anybody can suggest a better lure for the local wide-mouth bass, please write me. I've been using a purple gummy work for years to good effect, but haven't had a bite all season.

I'm glad someone mentioned medical care, because there should be some mutual interest in the area.There is much grumbling here among my fellow seniors, as doctors move or retire, that new ones are reluctant to take on medicare/medicais patients.My guru on the Medical Center board tells me the demographics suggest that the availability of doctors and nurses will only get worse, and the problem of getting a physician will become far more difficult.So we need to think about this issue for children,m families, seniors, etc.Or will the continued ideological divides make things worse?

"My guru on the Medical Center board tells me the demographics suggest that the availability of doctors and nurses will only get worse, and the problem of getting a physician will become far more difficult."Hi, Bob, I've heard about a shortage of nurses for some time, but I didn't realize that there is also a doctor shortage.If the federal government diplaces private health plans, and caps the income of physicians as a way to contain medical costs, then Econ 101 suggests that candidates will be less attracted to medicine, and the shortage of doctors may become more acute.If there is a differential between what doctors from overseas can make here as opposed to their home countries, then perhaps we could jigger immigration quotas to allow foreign doctors to come here to take up the slack.

There is an acute shortage of primary care physicians and there has been for quite some time.

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