“If you want peace, work for justice.” (Pope Paul VI)

I once read a comment by someone who said she disagreed with Pope Paul; but then, in her following discussion, it became obvious that she did not understand what the Pope meant by “justice.”  This is not surprising.  Justice is a complex topic, and the truth is that theologians and ethicists have produced lengthy discussions about the many different KINDS of justice that there are.  Many of you are familiar with the field of “Criminal Justice,” which has to do with law enforcement and the corrections system.  In fact, many folks think of justice strictly as “legal justice,” in the sense of what the law requires of us and of the “justice system” that enforces the law.  The critic of Pope Paul above had this narrow view, thinking that justice meant strictly the enforcement of the law and hence disagreeing with a misguided assumption that that was enough to bring about true peace.


 Justice in a very broad sense has to do with rights and with the duties that correspond to those rights.  SOCIAL justice goes further than this, in meaning the right ordering of society, so that ALL persons are able to have basic human rights, to fulfill the corresponding responsibilities, and to participate fully in the life of society.  So, what we mean by “justice” and “social justice” in this course is different than “criminal justice” or “legal justice.”  It is NOT about people being rewarded for good behavior or punished for bad.


We begin by examining justice in the Bible.  There, justice basically means “doing right by people.”  In fact, justice is closely linked with righteousness, and sometimes the two words are used interchangeably.  Justice is a major theme in the Old Testament, and especially in the books of the Prophets.


Contrary to a popular misconception, the role of the prophets in the Bible is NOT to predict the future.  Rather, the prophet is one who speaks for God.  The authentic biblical prophets are usually hand-picked by God to bring God’s message to the people.  And mostly their role is to show the meaning of CURRENT events – what is happening or about to happen NOW – and to explain what God “is doing” in and through these events.


Unfortunately for them, the authentic biblical prophets were not very popular, because God charged them with the responsibility of warning the people of the dire consequences of their sins of infidelity and injustice.  (The Bible often mentions “false prophets,” who, on the other hand, were approved by the authorities because they assured the people that everything was going to be just fine, even when nothing could have been further from the truth.)  One of the things that gets the true prophets (speaking for God, remember!) riled up the most is INJUSTICE – not doing right by people.  This is especially the case where the weakest, most vulnerable members of society are being exploited by the powerful.


The term “social justice” is not found in the Bible.  It started to be used in Catholic Social Teaching (CST) in the 20th century.  It refers to the right ordering of society – specifically, of social institutions – such that all members of society are able to participate in them and to achieve a basic level of human fulfillment.  From a Christian perspective, social justice relates to the obligation of all parties to apply the gospel to the structures, systems, and institutions of society which are the framework within which all humans live and all human relationships take place.


Catholic teaching recognizes that moral issues are played out not only on the level of individuals, but also on the level of social structures.  In other words, good and evil are carried out not only by individual persons, but also by societies:  social injustices can be perpetrated by social institutions, as well as by single members of society.  Social evil (or good) is not just the work of one person, but is made possible by networks of persons caught up and involved in legal, political, and economic systems.  Glaring examples of social evil are slavery and the Holocaust.  These evils persisted because an entire social system was based on them – protected by laws, governments, customs, and ways of life – and all of the “in” members of society cooperated in this system. 


Social INJUSTICE, then, refers to when social institutions – such as government, education, health care, the banking system, housing policies – are set up in such a way that they benefit some while excluding and discriminating against others.  Examples would be laws that set unfair obstacles in the way of allowing people to vote; or banking policies that discriminate against certain groups of people who apply for loans; or housing associations that prevent certain groups of people from moving into certain neighborhoods; and there are many others.  Social JUSTICE, on the other hand, is about ordering social institutions – laws, economic policies, educational and health care systems, etc. – in such a way that ALL are able to benefit from them and have access to goods and services, and ALL are able to have a voice in the decisions that affect their lives, rather than some being discriminated against or having the cards stacked against them. Put simply, social justice is characterized by INCLUSIVENESS.


“The quality of life in society, the justice of its mode of organization, the orientation of its structures and systems (e.g., political, legal, economic, social, educational, religious) will either enhance or retard the full human development of the person” (Richard McBrien, Catholicism, 944).


A focus on social justice has become a significant element in Catholic teaching since Vatican II (especially its document, Gaudium et Spes).  Popes Paul VI, John Paul II, and Francis I have stressed it insistently, as have many groups of Catholic bishops.  “Action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world appear to us as a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the gospel, or, in other words, of the Church’s mission for the redemption of the human race and its liberation from every oppressive situation” De Justitia in Mundo (Third Synod of Bishops, 1971).

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