Spring 1985, Vol. 37, pp. 13-26.

Stanley F. Parmisano:
      Social Justice: The Broader Perspective

The church's concern today for justice is in continuity with its past response to human need but speaks in a different language because of new circumstances.

Father Parmisano, O.P., of the Western Dominican Province, is engaged in a full-time Preaching ministry, doing parish missions and giving retreats.

IN the past decade or so, the church's concern about social justice has broadened and deepened phenomenally. We think, of course, of the church in Latin America and its development of a theology and action of social and political liberation. Nearer home we have had the U.S. bishops' pastoral on peace and war and, most recently, their draft of a pastoral on the U.S. economy. Letters of political dissent from individual Christians and groups of Christians continue and are multiplied. The same can be said for protest marches and engagements and confrontations with both civil and ecclesiastical authority. And there are profound changes in attitude and thrust of vocation, away from involvement in traditional forms of apostolate to those more directly oriented to society as a whole and to government.

The clergy and religious congregations in particular have moved (or been moved) into the arena. There are letters from bishops and major superiors demanding an accounting of their local constituents as to what they are doing about social justice and exhorting them to still greater efforts. Commissions and committees have been formed; schools of social justice established; meetings and workshops discussing goals and tactics are regularly held; seminarians spend their summers and other free time in the field working with and for the materially poor; and specially appointed clergy and religious within individual communities act as thorns in the sides of their fellows, goading them on to social consciousness and action.

I must admit that I am disturbed by much of this, and many knowledgeable and committed Christians whom I know are likewise upset, not because of the thing itself, but because of the confusion generated by the preachment of it; not, that is, because of what is being done or even said, but because of what is left unsaid and what, consequently, may be left undone. Some of the unsettling questions raised in minds like my own are as follows:

Has not the church, in accord with the needs and situation of a given time and place, always been engaged in works of social justice? So what is new?

Have not I, in the particular work I am able and commissioned to do, been working all these years toward the common good and thus toward the establishment of social justice?

What precisely does social justice involve? Protest marches, withholding taxes, revolutionary action, living and working among the poor, especially within the Third and Fourth Worlds? What about preaching, teaching, counseling, nursing here at home among the affluent as well as the poor?

Are not the rich also poor -- and in ways more serious perhaps than the materially poor -- and do not they also need, and have aright to the love and concern of the church?

Yes, who are the poor anyway? Are they not the lonely, the lost, the hated, the ignorant, the sick and the dying, whatever their material condition?

Was Christ himself altogether poor and did he associate with, and preach only to, the materially depressed? Or did he live in relative comfort and speak his good news also to those with property and means, and did he not have friends (his closest friends?) among them?

Such questions must be addressed and answered if division over the concern for social justice within the church is to be avoided, and unity and effectiveness of action achieved. Granted there are immediate and desperate needs that must be addressed now, they must nevertheless be considered and acted upon intelligently, with the reservation that they may not be the only problems or even, at least ultimately, the most serious. In our striving to save the world from poverty, starvation, and annihilation, we ought to consider what we are saving it for, and do our level best to preserve this as well.


Christianity has always been social, societal; it demands that we look to the other and all others: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself," and the parable that follows the command makes it clear that the neighbor is one's "enemy' as well as the person next door (Luke 10: 25-37). We are to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, etc. (Matt. 25: 35-40). "Faith without works is dead" gas. 2: 17, 20, 26). The church is not an aggregate of isolated individuals but a mystical body, the kingdom of heaven, the city of God. In the past the church's work in faith was looked upon mainly as a work of charity; its resurrecting deeds among the poor and needy were known, not as the works of justice, but as the works of mercy, which is an intense form of charity, having to do, not so much with the just claims of the recipient, as with the loving goodness and generosity of the giver. God, for instance, is merciful to us, not by giving us what is our due in justice, but by restoring to us what we have lost through our injustice. In other words, charity or mercy obtains where justice lays no claim.(1)

Justice, however, was also written large in the concerns of the church of yesteryear. The fathers and doctors of the church and the moral manualists who followed them spelled out in almost tedious detail the kinds of justice, the need for it, and the requirements of it; and now and again in their pages one finds principles enunciated which bear strikingly upon our present situation. Aquinas, for instance, speaks of the rights of the starving to take from the surplus of others what will satisfy their needs, and Piers Ploughman, a didactic poem immensely popular in fourteenth and fifteenth-century England, repeats and underscores the principle.(2) In the sixteenth century the Dominicans in Hispaniola, led by such vocal friars as Antonio de Montesinos and Bartolomé de las Casas, labored indefatigably for the rights of the Indians against the cruelty and exploitation of the Spanish colonists; after they had succeeded, more or less, and the colonists were importing slaves from Africa to replace the Indians, the Jesuit, Peter Claver, labored to do the same for the blacks.(3) Toward the close of the last century Leo XIII promulgated his encyclical Rerum novarum, in which he asserted the rights of the worker to humane labor and a share in the profits of industry, and this before Marxism got under way. In the 30s, 40s, 50s of this century there have been the Felix Morlions with their schools of social and economic justice, the Peter Maurins and Dorothy Days with their lifelong dedication to the poor and their fierce advocacy of their rights, and the Dominic Pires with their tenacious and successful efforts for the rights of the displaced to land and home. In the main, however, the emphasis was upon charity; the word justice was far from being the byword it has become in our present world. The acts of justice were mainly what one hoped to get, or not get, in the civil courts of law.

Again, in the past the church promoted civil authority and obedience to it and scarcely countenanced rebellion. In earliest Christianity slaves were admonished to be obedient to their masters and "please them in every way" and all were "to be loyally subject to the government and its officials, to obey the laws" (Tit. 2:9; 3:1). Such texts as these helped persuade Luther to ally himself with the German princes against the peasants in the latter's revolt; and this same mentality persisted among Christians in Germany and elsewhere during World War II. Even those most conscious of the injustices suffered by the poor seldom, if ever, advocated violence as a means of remedying them. Langland, for instance, in his Piers Ploughman, though he stood by the poor and asserted their right to the surplus of others, denied their right to open rebellion.(4) Until most recent times the church as a whole barely sanctioned, in the crisis of war, so mild a protest as conscientious objection and, in general, tended to ally itself with the state against dissenting individuals. The principles of a just war were clearly articulated, but they were employed in cases of conflict between one state and another; they were hardly applied to revolutions of the have-nots against the haves. There were certainly notable exceptions to the rule, but the general tendency of the church was to say yes to the state and advocate obedience to its laws and decisions.

Now, however, the emphasis is upon justice, and social justice, rather than charity, upon the rights of the individual within, and often against, the state and church. The works of mercy are thought of more as the works of justice: we feed the hungry and give drink to the thirsty, not so much out of the generosity of our hearts, but because what we give is owed to them. And what is stressed now is civil disobedience. Government is suspect from the start and always to be challenged, even, perhaps, at the price of violence.


Many causes of this change in attitude and practice may be cited. Here are some of them.

The population explosion and an economics that has not provided for it. This has caused injustice to be multiplied. In the words of the ironic happy song of the Great Gatsby era, "the rich get richer and the poor get children."

The media explosion, which has magnified injustice. Now we see it, hear, and even feel it; we cannot hide from it, since it is brought into our very living rooms and comfortable dens. It was the media, as Marshal McLuhan rightly claimed, that brought an end to the Vietnam War and dethroned a president over Watergate.

The enormous disparity of what is spent on weapons of war as compared to what is spent (or not spent) on alleviating the plight of the poor. The disparity has been there for years, but now it is overwhelming and troubles the consciences even of the hawks.

Christians' reevaluation of this world. In response to Marxism's criticism of Christianity as promising "pie in the sky" for the materially poor, Christians want to meet materialism on its own grounds: the poor have a right to a share in the pie here and now.

Hitler's tyranny and the Vietnam War, Watergate, and our government's return to gunboat diplomacy in Central America and elsewhere. Because of these events, we are reluctant now to trust government on almost any issue. Thus our first response to authority, civil or ecclesiastical, has become no rather than yes, especially when the matter involves violence.

The steady expansion in this country, through the laws of Congress and decisions of the Supreme Court, of the Bill of Individual Rights. Now the rights of minorities and of individuals vie with those of government and of the majority. Treasuring these for ourselves, we are becoming less apt to ignore them among the peoples of other countries. Accordingly, we are loathe to consent to our government's alignment with other governments which disregard the human rights of minorities and individuals, whatever claims those governments may make to being otherwise free and democratic.

The world of the past fifty years or so is, then, quantitatively and qualitatively different. So there has been a change in attitude toward it in matters of charity and justice on the part of the Catholic and other Christian churches. The church, or at least a notable sector of it, has at last awakened to a new and radically different situation and is attempting to deal with it, using both old and new tools.

Christians today, therefore, while still aiming at charity, queen of the virtues, are finding that they must also strive for justice, social justice, her handmaiden; or, to put it another, perhaps better way, they are becoming aware of the justice, the communal justice, at the heart of charity. True charity looks to the other, all others, for their own sake, and to the resulting in-depth harmony and peace. It does not ignore justice but makes justice its first work and then moves on from there.(5)

But what is this social justice? How define it so that it makes concrete sense in the world I know? The best definition or, rather, description of it that I personally have heard was given by Bishop Charles Grant who headed the English Catholic church's commission on social justice in the mid-60s. At a small gathering of Dominicans in Cambridge, England, he was asked to give a very brief statement as to what social justice is. He smiled at the impossible but, quickly and confidently, launched out into the deep. If we are after social justice, he said, we must do three things: (1) We must continue to do individual works of justice and charity: we must feed the beggar at the door. This is where social justice begins. But since injustice today is so massive and prolific, the individual alone cannot do the job. Mass must be met by mass, governments must act, and so: (2) We must pressure (by letter, vote, marches, etc.) government officials to channel aid, funds, knowledge, etc. into the care of the needy in our own country and elsewhere. But since government tends to be introverted and self-interested and narrowly materialistic, itself often unjust at root, this second step is also not enough, and so: (3) We must labor to change unjust structures (and perspectives) of government and society at large; we must try to heal structural, built-in sin, thus diminishing the injustice that exists and preventing that which otherwise might be. Here is social justice brought to fruition. It does not ignore but presupposes, is built upon, grows out of, the other two steps.(6)


The first two of Bishop Grant's prescriptions are clear enough and relatively easy to implement. But the third involves enormous effort and grave decisions. Some Christians today think that the only way to change unjust structures is by violence. Thus we have a theology of revolution and men like Fernando and Ernesto Cardenal and Miguel d'Escoto who, when all else seemed to fail, put it into practice. Others would effect the change only by pacific means, as did Jesus, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Oscar Romero, Helder Camara. Whatever the justice on either side, both groups must be aware of their own as well as the other's limitations. Those who follow the course of nonviolence (or "truth action," a closer translation of Gandhi's more positive satyagraha) while absent from the unjust situation must recognize that, if they were in the situation, actually experiencing the injustice, they might well decide otherwise. Those in the midst of the injustice and resorting to violence should consider that the violence may well be warping and narrowing their judgment, and that their present action, while effective in the moment, may be the breeding ground of future and worse injustice.

Whatever our allegiance here, there are considerations and guidelines that we all may share as we work toward our common goal of social justice. First, if we are dedicated religious, or zealous priests, or laity living the apostolic life, we are ipso facto cultivating social justice at each of its levels -- step three above as well as one and two. We do this personally and individually by following the evangelical counsels in their positive orientations: the communal responsibility of obedience, the prophetic stewardship of poverty, the radical and universal love of chastity. Thus by my obedience I am responsible to the demands and needs of the community, not just local or provincial or national, but that of the world. The dynamism of the counsels, like that of charity in which they are rooted and from which they take their thrust, is toward the whole world, and so my obedience is to God and people everywhere. Here is a fundamental difference in attitude from that of the world in general, which rather serves private and local interests alone. Since I am part of the world, my obedience serves to expand, however minutely, the world's narrow and confined responsibilities.

By a poverty oriented toward stewardship I deepen within me the realization that what I have belongs not so much to me as to God and those in need, and I become a channel whereby the goods of those who have flow to those who have not. Thus I am able to serve both rich and poor in a common justice: my knowledge, for instance, of the needs of the poor and my dedication and expertise in serving them become an inducement for the rich to give to them through me. Through me -- here, of course, is the fateful qualification. What is given to me is not given because of my sweet, lovable self, however it may seem to myself and my benefactor. It is precisely because I am dedicated to the service of others that the affluent trust, admire, love, and give to me. I stir within them their generosity and justice, and thereby they themselves are brought closer to the poor. Therefore, in justice to both rich and poor, I must see to it that what is given to me, even under the guise of a personal gift, does not stop with me but is channeled into the needs of others. I must likewise take care that what is given to my local or provincial or diocesan community also passes on. We are to be channels and rivers of the world's goods, and not the ocean.

By a chastity that loves deeply and broadly, I am committed to the unloved or to what is unloved or uncared for in those otherwise loved. Parents engage in this kind of "love-making" when they foster in each other a love and concern that reach beyond private intimacies into the wider world and that nourish within their children a similar attitude. Celibates, whether lay or clerical, having no family of their own should have the time and incentive to serve the families of others in ways in which they can not serve themselves: by making the gospel real to them; by educating them for this life and toward the next; by tending to their health and general welfare; by bringing comfort and solace to them in their losses, loneliness, sickness, and death; and by working more directly with the secular power to secure justice for all. Here we may note the unfairness of an accusation frequently leveled against the Catholic church. It is accused of the social injustice of having contributed in great measure to the population explosion by having promoted the large family. What is ignored is the fact that the church also has fostered, with even greater intensity and diligence, the celibate life, a positive and creative form of birth control.


But such dedicated Christians act even more for social justice as a body -- a congregation, order, parish, diocese. As such they are visibly present as a force to be reckoned with. Here again, mass (congregation, parish) meets mass (society, government), and thus a noticeable impression is likely to be made. This is especially true when the body acts with care and understanding and with consultation with all the interested parties. The 1983 conference of U.S. bishops on peace and war is a fine example of the effectiveness of such dynamics. The government and society at large could 'scarcely avoid listening to, and respecting, its deliberations and conclusions because of: (1) all the dioceses (and hence areas and people) represented by the conference; (2) the care, consultation, mind, and heart evidenced throughout the entire conference and in the preparations for it; (3) the bishops' near-unanimity in their conclusions and the clarity and concreteness with which they expressed them; and (4) the visibility of their statement: the media might well ignore the opinions of a solitary individual; it could not ignore the deliberations of a body, an order, such as this.

What is visible in the bishops' statement is precisely the new and radical perspective needed to heal "structural sin." What, for instance, the bishops explicitly said is of great moment; but more important still is the attitude, the world view, underlying and inspiring it. Their statement reveals that other higher dimension from which this world is seen as a whole and as moving beyond itself, and humankind is seen as the creative steward of all that is made -- a world and humanity in which "there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, but all are one in Christ Jesus (Gal. 3:28). To what extent this message has infiltrated the consciousness and thence the action of those who have read or heard it is impossible to determine; but publicity has been given it beyond the precincts of church and temple, and those with "eyes to see with and ears to hear with" must be altered by it.

Also, religious orders precisely as a body may challenge something so secular and mundane as society's economic mentality. Here are large and international communities, many of which have functioned effectively for centuries, which have viable economic systems that are neither compulsory communism nor acquisitive capitalism but something transcending both. And they provide both comfort and freedom for those within them. It is sometimes argued against religious life that it is a life of abundance and ease, whereas those in the secular world are often economically depressed. But perhaps the more insightful reason for this is that the latter are caught up in, and entrapped by, systems which are unjust and consequently do not work for them; they are victims and slaves of narrow, selective economies. Jesus said: "Seek first the kingdom of God and all the rest will be added to you" (Matt. 6: 33). Religious and religious communities and all who have learned to function within the same "economic mentality" find that, as long as they do seek first the kingdom of God (here and now as well as hereafter), there will be food and clothing and shelter enough, plus some of the other good things of life. Here is large and visible witness to society of a viable alternative economy, which may serve at least as a corrective to its own.

A second general consideration in the matter of social justice is I(hat we must be socially aware and active, and must be concerned with government, both secular and ecclesiastical. We are heart both individual and social -- both at the same time and in everything; therefore there can be no dichotomizing of my private from my public life. Christianity blesses, reinforces, deepens the intimacy of this natural bond; for it is fundamentally incarnational and as such concerned with the visible, material aspects of society as well as those which are invisible and spiritual, those which are public as well as those which are private. The temptation of many of us is to say, "To hell with it! The world is too big for little me, too complex for my simple mind to handle; so I am going to leave it to the professionals while I escape to my own private domain on my desert island." But the temptation is to be resisted. I can and must cultivate my own garden, but I must at the same time move out into the larger world, to the radically other, and cultivate it. To what extent this is to be done depends, of course, on one's individual capacity and talents, inspiration (grace) and time, and the particular societal injustices that need remedying.


There are other more particular considerations in our pursuit of social justice. We are not to neglect the smaller, more proximate concerns and duties -- justice nearer home. Like charity, justice begins at home, though it is not to end there. Parents must care for each other and their children, pastors their parishioners, teachers their students, social workers their particular charges. As a matter of fact; this may, in the long run, be the most effective day of securing radical change on a larger scale. Social justice begins with feeding the beggar at the door, and if this is done well, with a big enough mind -- one that embraces the individual but continually moves beyond and with the individual into the whole world -- then the work will multiply and society will be altered for tote better. There are obvious and striking examples of this in our contemporary world: Damian of Molokai and Teresa of Calcutta (who are now Damian and Teresa of the world), Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Maximilian Kolbe, Dorothy Day. All began small, worked individually, and continued so even as their work grew and became influential throughout the world. One's particular work, however lowly and invisible, is a work of social justice, provided that the world perspective is there and the dynamic thrust toward the whole is operative. It is not so much the large work as the large mind that makes for justice, harmony, and peace.

We ought continually to strive for personal moral health: "Physician heal thyself." It is not that we cannot or should not try to heal society while we are still more or less sick ourselves. For often, precisely by helping others to health, we regain our own. But let us not forget that we communicate not just by our words and actions but by our own conscious and unconscious attitudes and by our personal life. Thus Gandhi insisted upon self-purification (shuddhi).

We must study the situation. Too many of us speak out when we do not know what we are talking about. As a result, our speech and action do more harm than good. We feel we have to do something, or have to be "with it," so we rush in where angels, with all their knowledge, would fear to tread. Again, we might not know with certainty and still be obliged to speak out and act. But if we have fairly serious doubt, then we ought to remain at the drawing board and do our speaking and acting with modesty.

We must pray contemplatively, that is, with the prayer of listening. This is not to be regarded as a pious afterthought, but of the gravest necessity. The issues confronting us are much too big and complex for our limited minds, even for our collective and computerized mind. Our minds, then, must be raised to the level of God's which sees broadly and deeply and in detail. Our energy and courage are also too shallow for the prodigious battle, and our love too frail. It is necessary, then, to let God's energy and love and courage work in and through our own. And we must also pray contemplatively in order that our attitude may remain positive. Too often when we labor for justice, we concentrate on the negative, that is, what is wrong with society, the evils that are suffered. Yet deep-down in things, even within sin, even structural sin, there is goodness; but we need the mind of God to see it and his heart to love it. Herein, incidentally though most importantly, lies most of the vocation of the cloistered contemplative toward social justice. There are still those with tunnel vision who would have contemplatives leave the cloister and actively engage `in the healing of the world. Yet absolutely essential to this healing the continuous listening and petitioning prayer of the contemplative. Our own action is not enough, and even our own prayer underlying our action is too little. Here we must call upon the "professionals" and root our action and prayer in the depth of theirs.

Finally, we are not to expect too much. We must try for everything, but be modest and patient in our expectations. Otherwise we despair, turn bitter and cynical, and give up altogether. Too often a virtuous sense of justice ends in hatred and destruction. ,We must leave something for God to be healed in his, not our time. True, we are his hands, but his reach is far beyond ours. Ultimate justice and judgment belong to him. We strive to make this life as universally fair and joyous as we can. The Kingdom is to be here, but only in its beginnings. There will always be injustice of one sort or another, always pain, loneliness, misunderstanding, selfishness, sickness, and death, in short, sin and all its offspring. It is a hard saying but tragically true: the poor we have always with us. So we must not deprive the poor (of whatever category) of their deepest rights: Christ and his consoling mercy, and the promise of heaven hereafter. We do not want to keep apologizing about "pie in the sky." Heaven hereafter is real, and a real hope and at least partial happiness for the poor even as we and they struggle for justice for them, often a justice that will not be realized in their individual lifetimes. It should be a goading incentive and a kindly invitation for the rest of us to work for justice, harmony, and peace here and now. Heaven hereafter is only for those who try to make a heaven of our present world.(7)

  1. Thus in Eucharistic Prayer I, the traditional Roman Canon, we pray: "Though we are sinners, we trust in your mercy and love. Do not consider what we truly deserve, but grant us your forgiveness." This, of course is not the whole picture, as I hope the argument in my text will demonstrate; but it is the only conception of charity and mercy most people have had of these rich and full and powerful virtues. Charity and mercy, like so much else in life, have become subjective and introverted: instead of looking to the other and his or her needs, they now fix our attention on ourselves and our virtuous dispositions. Desiccation has long since set in; a return to a sense of justice may bring these great virtues to life again. Cf. Christopher Kiesling, "Social Justice in Christian Life according to Thomas Aquinas," Spirituality Today 31 (1979): 231-45, where the intimate interrelationship between Christian love and justice in Thomas's vision is explicated. In Kiesling's reading of Thomas, it is justice that "gives structure to love."
  2. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, II-II, ques. 66, art. 7, where St. Thomas develops the traditional teaching that "in necessity all things are in common," and concludes that one who suffers an urgent and evident need "can licitly relieve his necessity by taking from the goods of another," and that he may do this "openly or in secret." This is not to be considered either stealing or robbery. Langland's Piers Ploughman speaks of "Need, who knows no law and is indebted to no one. For to keep alive, there are three things which Need takes without asking. The first is food; for if men refuse to give him any, and he has no money, nothing to pawn, and no one to guarantee him, then he seizes it for himself. And there he commits no sin, even if he uses deceit to get it. He can take clothing in the same way, providing he has no better payment to offer; Need is always ready to bail a man out of prison for that. And thirdly, if his tongue is parched, the law of his nature compels him to drink at every ditch rather than die of thirst" (Langland, Piers the Ploughman, trans. J.F. Goodridge [Penquin Books, 19661, Passus XX, p. 245).
  3. Las Cases should not be thought of as the lone "Apostle to the Indians." He was part of a larger movement for the rights of the Indians which antedated and followed him. Cf. Ronald Cueto Ruiz, "Thoughts on Bartolomé de Las Casas, O.P.," New Blackfriars 56 (September 1975): 408-13.
  4. Not so much, however, because they should be subject to the established authority, but because, should the commoners (the poor?) revolt, anarchy would result. Thus in the parable of the cat (the ruler) and the mice (the commoners), one of the mice, who is given the last word, says to his fellows: "Surely a little trouble now is better than long years of misery and confusion. True, we should be rid of a tyrant, but what would happen? We mice would be eating up men's malt, and you rats would tear their clothes to shreds. So thank God the cat can outrun you! If you had your own way, you could never govern yourselves." Langland, Piers Ploughman, p. 30.
  5. So St. Thomas: "God acts mercifully not by contradicting his justice but by doing what is over and above it .... Mercy does not displace justice; rather it is the fullness of justice." Summa theologiae 1, ques. 21, art. 3, reply to second objection.
  6. I was present when Bishop Grant delivered his "five minute" exposition. But this was some years ago and my memory as to the details of his talk is foggy. I think (I hope!), however, that my summation of it is faithful to his idea, if not entirely to his words.
  7. Cf. Paul Scanlon, "The Poor Have the Gospel Preached to Them" Spirituality Today 34 (1982): 122-28. While ministering among the very poor in Mexicali, Mexico, Father Scanlon found that what the people wanted more than bread, clothing, and other kinds of "charity" was to have the gospel preached to them, a gospel wherein they discovered that they were loved and had dignity, and thus they began to transform their own lives, individually and as a community.