Thursday, September 18, 2008

On ‘social justice’

The Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference 2008 Social Justice Statement A Rich Young Nation: The challenge of poverty and affluence in Australia is out now. I have read it and I’m afraid I was not impressed. It seems to me that the big problem with this, like much in post-Conciliar thought on ‘social justice’, is that the term ‘social justice’ appears to confuse the cardinal virtue of justice with the theological virtue of charity, or even to conflate the two. Now I know that there is a close, harmonious relationship between all the virtues and that, if I recall correctly, St. Thomas described charity as the mother, mover, form and root of all the virtues. But nonetheless, justice is, though not separate from charity, still distinct from it. To put it simply, justice is about giving to someone what he is owed, whereas charity is giving to someone of what is one’s own. This appears to have eluded my Lords the Bishops despite the fact that they quote H.H. The Pope saying, in the Chairman’s message, that “The Church cannot neglect the service of charity any more than she can neglect the Sacraments and the Word.” The Bishops quote St. Basil the Great saying that “the acts of charity you do not perform are so many injustices that you commit” yet I wonder whether ‘injustices’ was the best translation; perhaps ‘wrongs’ would have been more apt.

Another problem in the document is the concepts of affluence and poverty that it uses. The document quotes Prof. Clive Hamilton on the problem of ‘affluenza’ saying that

When people see wants as needs, it is not surprisingthat two thirds (in a Newspoll survey) say they cannot afford everything they need. And their feelings of deprivation are real, since thwarted desire is transformed into a sense of deprivation.

Similarly, the characteristics that the Bishops assign to the condition of poverty are heavily based on ‘feelings’ and evade the distinction between absolute and relative poverty. Yet if poverty is sentimental and relative then those suffering from ‘affluenza’ can be considered legitimately ‘poor’!

I would be interested to hear readers’ opinions on the matter.

Reginaldvs Cantvar

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