The phrase “social justice” is relatively new, appearing first with frequency in the writing of Pius XI, most notably in Quadragesimo Anno (1931). Despite its more frequent use among contemporary Catholics, social justice is now widely confused with its kindred virtues, “commutative justice” and “distributive justice” The failure to distinguish these virtues leads to basic errors about the order of person within society.
When we first think of justice, we tend to think of justice between individuals. This is “commutative” justice and it is shown most clearly in free exchanges. Where individuals exchange goods of equal value, they are according to commutative justice. Fraud and theft are sins against this virtue.
The justice that directs individuals to each other is one kind, but the justice that directs parts to the whole is another. “Social justice” names the virtue that directs individuals toward the common good, as parts to the whole. When one obeys just laws or serves his country in time of crisis, he is not merely ordering himself to another individual but to the community as a whole. However much we may focus on our individual happiness, our perfection lies in seeking the common good beyond our own private good. According to Leo XIII, “no one lives only for his own personal advantage in a community; he lives for the common good as well” [Graves de Communi, no.19]. To love the common good as the tyrant does, that is, merely as a means to one’s own good, is a sin against social justice.
Besides these two kinds of justice, there is a third: distributive justice. While social justice orders men as parts to the whole, distributive justice orders the society to the citizens as whole to part. When a government honors its veterans, or appoints ministers for its duties, it “distributes” to individuals based on the common good. Distributive justice can be exemplified by its corresponding vice, that is, the “accepting of persons.” When a government official is chosen not for his qualification in the service of the common good, but for his wealth or family connections, that is a sin against distributive justice.
Many have fallen into confusing social justice by taking elements from the other kinds of justice and labeling the final product “social justice.” From commutative justice, they take the notion of “equality.” From distributive justice, they take the notion that the community must distribute to individuals based on their merit. From social justice, they take the notion that the parts are ordered to the whole. Mixing these partial understandings of each virtue together into a kind of ideological soup, the final result is the mistaken belief that “social justice” demands that the society act for individuals in such a way that they are “more equal,” as if all inequality were unfair. Social justice would then mean enforced equality.
But all this only distorts the beauty of social justice. Acting for the common good does not demand equality. Indeed, the Popes declare that inequality in possessions and abilities serves the common good, so that those who have more might be joined in justice and charity with those who have less. A society of totally equal and independent individuals is no society at all, only a group of “parts” trying to be “wholes.” The virtue of social justice is the ability to act for the common good, even at sacrifice to one’s own good. It is not the rearrangement of the social order according to a conflation of “justice” and “equality.”