Pope Paul VI taught that if we want peace, we should work for justice. But what is really meant by justice?
When we talk about Catholic social teaching, we tend to emphasize the life and dignity of every human person, the rights of workers and the dignity of their work, and placing the needs of the poor and vulnerable first. The USCCB website’s seven themes for Catholic social teaching also provide the themes that get less spotlight. Humanity is not only sacred and personal – we are social. We have a duty to participate in society for the greater good of all.
We have fundamental rights and responsibilities required for human decency – these are not only personal rights, but rights that should be upheld by society on the whole. Alongside these, we have a commitment to solidarity, in pursuit of justice and peace. And finally, we are called to be stewards of the earth, showing respect for God, our Creator and the relationship he has with all of his creation.
Three years ago, I was in St. Louis when the city – and the nation – were shaken following the shootings of Michael Brown in Ferguson and VonDerrit Myers Jr. in St. Louis.
My university became the grounds of an occupy protest. It was peaceful, and negotiations took place between the protestors and the university administration to bring to light the importance of dialogue in overcoming injustice. Now, St. Louis is primed to become another hotbed: the Stockley trial verdict of not guilty promises to reawaken – or in some cases, continue to widen – the wounds caused by systemic injustice.
As a teacher and proponent of the humanities, I believe that my students are better situated to become informed and critical citizens. We can use these current events to spark ideas for change.
Through the humanities, we learn about the value of diversity. We learn about different cultures and histories as a way of understanding the current world we live in and how we’ve gotten to where we are.
The humanities also give us a means to think creatively – about what it means to be human and ask questions about our world.
Catholic social teaching fits in with these same concerns.
When our faith calls for justice, we react by following the example of Jesus. Pope Innocent III’s “De miseria humane conditionis” (“On the misery of the human condition”) speaks to this tradition when he writes that “some seek justice with justice, others injustice with injustice; and some seek justice by unjust means, while others seek injustice by just means” (II. 3).
We are called to seek justice with justice. Sincerity and legalistic justice are not enough. Legal outcomes are prone to the same elements of subjectivity that we espouse in our daily lives. We are fallible; God is not.
The social justice that our church sponsors is aligned with classical justice: commutative (between two individuals), distributive (between the community) and legal justice. It encompasses all of these forms, but is often strained by our materialist concerns.
As fallible individuals, we create a sense of justice that is susceptible to self-interest and blindness.
When we hear the chant “no justice, no peace” we are called to consider our own sense of justice. We are called to empathize with those who have perceived injustice and seek change. We are called to dialogue about the deep-seated divisions within our communities across the nation. But we must also remember that in order for true justice to reign, it must coincide with love and mercy, solidarity and forgiveness.
Dr. Heather Bozant Witcher can be reached at email@example.com.