Prof. Johan Verstraeten
Justice in Catholic Social Thought
Catholic social thought not only pleads for charity and solidarity, but also for justice. In order to understand this adequately, three components need to be distinguished: general justice, distributive justice and commutative justice.
First there is the duty of citizens to contribute to the wellbeing of all. Already in medieval Europe, Thomas Aquinas expressed this, in terms of general or legal justice, reaffirming the fundamental insight of Aristotle that justice is the most perfect virtue, because it orients human action towards others and to the common good. Recently, the US bishops have actualised this in terms of ‘contributive justice’, the duty of citizens “to be active and productive participants in the life of society”. It is the duty of citizens “to help create goods, services and nonmaterial and spiritual values” necessary for the wellbeing of the whole of society. This means that not only work in the economic sphere is important, but also other activities enriching society with arts, poetry, conviviality, voluntary work, contemplation, care etc. (Economic Justice for All, nr. 71).
This “duty component” of social justice, is completed with a second component, referring to the norm that every citizen as person must be enabled to contribute and to participate in the creation of welfare and wellbeing. This enabling function is the duty of the state, the civil society, transnational organisations such as the E.U. and global institutions, in one word: every institution that has a real impact on people’s capabilities to participate.
The enabling function is guaranteed by distributive justice. It not only requires that basic needs are fulfilled such as “nourishment or a ‘dignified sustenance’ for all people, but also their ‘general temporal welfare and prosperity’. This means education, access to health care, and above all employment, for it is through free, creative , participatory and mutually supportive labour that human beings express and enhance the dignity of their lives.” (Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, 192).
From the perspective of distributive justice, one can ask (1) whether the E.U. is sufficiently paying attention to the social wellbeing of its citizens and whether the union is not too unilaterally focussing on regulation in favour of markets and competition; (2) whether enough is done to ensure that poor and excluded citizens are enable to become active participants in the society; (3) whether sufficient efforts are made to stop the growing inequality (“the source of social ills”, Pope Francis).
Last but not least, there is the third form of justice: ‘commutative justice’. Commutative justice ‘calls for fundamental fairness in all agreements and exchanges between individuals or private social groups’. Commutative justice is the type of justice that is typical of market relations and contracts. As such it is the basis for “fair trade” and the obligation to pay producers and farmers fair prices for their goods, and workers just wages for their work.
Prof. Dr. Johan Verstraeten
Director Center for Catholic Social Thought
"...the riches that economic-social developments constantly increase ought to be so distributed among individual persons and classes so that the common advantage of all... will be safeguarded; in other words that the common good of all society will be kept inviolate". Pope Pius XI. (Quadragesimo anno, 57-58)
"As long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation and by attacking the structural causes of inequality, no solution will be found for the world’s problems or, for that matter, to any problems. Inequality is the root of social ills“ Pope Francis (Evangelii Gaudium, 202)