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  • Social Justice and Competing Visions of the Common Good
  • Robert G. Kennedy (bio)

In 1959, two French Jesuits, Jean-Yves Calvez and Jacques Perrin published a masterful survey of the Church's teaching on economic issues, covering the papacies from Leo XIII through Pius XII. The original French title was Église et société économique ("The Church and Economic Society") but the American publisher somewhat misleadingly titled the translation The Church and Social Justice. The essays we reproduce here appeared as appendices in the original volume, but they were curiously omitted from the American translation published in 1961, even though they constituted the principal discussion of social justice in the text.

Calvez and Perrin were prompted to write their essays by the confusion caused some thirty years earlier by a papal document. In 1931, [End Page 106] in the midst of the Great Depression, Pope Pius XI published Quadragesimo Anno, a major encyclical letter on economic questions. In the letter the pope introduced some new language and some new ideas to the lively Catholic conversation about social issues, but perhaps none was more provocative than his use of the term "social justice."

Pius used the term eight times in the letter but, as often happens in such documents, he never explained just what he meant by it. Of course, the world noticed immediately. "Social justice" as a phrase had been in common use for some decades in secular and Protestant circles. And indeed, a number of Catholic authors had taken to using it as well. But this initial use by the pope gave it an official status that could not be ignored.

However, the pressing question was: exactly what did Pius understand by the term? In secular circles, "social justice" had become a term of art among progressive economists, philosophers, and politicians, who claimed that it was a new form of justice, suitable to a new age. But here, too, the definition was fluid. These thinkers were persuaded that developed societies had reached such a level of productivity and abundance that the challenge was no longer a matter of coping with scarcity but had now become a matter of managing distribution. "Social justice," then, became the laudable and presumably realistic goal of distributing the benefits of a modern society fairly to all of its members, a state of affairs in which everyone had access to the resources necessary to support a reasonably comfortable and fulfilling life. Furthermore, the establishment of social justice was taken to be the principal goal of modern government, which alone could wield the power and assemble the resources necessary for success. This new form of justice was not a quality of persons but an attribute of the structures and institutions of society.

But was something like this what the pope had in mind? If so, it would have represented a rather dramatic shift in the Church's official thinking, endorsing a greatly expanded role for the state in economic affairs. A curious thing to do when the Church was struggling against the rise of totalitarian states. Or was the pope defining [End Page 107] a new virtue for modern times, which attempted to take account of the social changes brought about by the Industrial Revolution? Some theologians, such as the American Fr. John A. Ryan, were quick to identify the pope's meaning with the progressive movement they favored. Others insisted that no shift in policy was intended. Pius himself, in a subsequent encyclical published in 1937, sought to provide some clarity by devoting several paragraphs to an application of social justice, linking it closely with the common good of the society, though this introduced confusions of its own. The controversy continued for decades, with a number of writers attempting to resolve the issue but differing from one another in their conclusions.


Needless to say, questions about the concrete requirements of justice have always been debated by philosophers and lawyers. However, an understanding of the nature of justice in principle had been well established since the time of Plato and Aristotle, and it has formed one of the foundations of the Catholic moral tradition. Justice can be both a virtue of persons and an...


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