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Confusions about Social Justice

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.”

Nirmal_Hriday--Mark Makowiecki

This article, Confusions about Social Justice is a post from The Bellarmine Forum.
Do not repost the entire article without written permission. Reasonable excerpts may be reposted so long as it is linked to this page.


  1. Christopher Manion on November 23, 2013 at 2:48 pm

    A very fine piece. Thomas Sowell has observed that, in its hackneyed left-wing form, “Social Justice” is nothing but envy in action. But Brian Benestad, in his Church, State, and Society (CUA Press, 2011) takes great pains to elucidate the proper and improper versions of this virtue.

    He concludes that valuable treatment with this: “A recovery of the fuller Thomistic/papal understanding of social justice would immeasurably benefit Catholic social doctrine in the United States. It would enable the bishops and priests to show the connection between the practice of virtue and the quest for justice.” (p. 166)

  2. Nanette Parratto-Wagner on Facebook on November 23, 2013 at 7:14 am

    Seems the USCCB is among the confused. Or, has been. Will the Bishops awake under the leadership of Archbishop Kurtz?

  3. Brian Hobbs on Facebook on November 22, 2013 at 3:49 pm

    Worthless liberals use the term social justice as a way to legitimize their false compassion and other vain do gooder activities. Every wacko liberal enterprise no matter how noble it sounds is rooted in discord and evil.

  4. Janet Baker on November 22, 2013 at 12:48 pm

    This discussion is moot in a secular state. Pius XI in Quas primas said that the first justice in a state was the worship owed to God, and without it, no other justice is possible. Just saying. Let us restore the Catholic state or die trying.

    • John M. DeJak on November 22, 2013 at 1:00 pm


      When Christ walked the earth and established the Church, there was no such thing as a Catholic State. I wholeheartedly agree with Pius XI, but as grace builds on nature, getting the nature part down is key. Before we can speak of a Catholic State, we need to show people how to reason, make distinctions, and understand first principles. The Apostles at least had a Greco-Roman culture where the intellect was taken seriously; in our new dark ages we are at an even larger disadvantage than they were.

      Prayers, patience, and the realization that God is still in charge are our tools! Thanks for your contributions to the discussion.


      • Janet Baker on November 22, 2013 at 4:27 pm

        Could you perhaps review Pius XI’s Quas Primas for all that it says about the state, before you say you agree with him? Because he says we sheep need the Catholic confessional state. We need an agreement between the morality expressed in civic laws and those preached by the Church, otherwise the confusion between the two costs souls. We need the regulation that protects wages and controls greed (not idiotic protestant fictitious ‘free markets’). We need the protection of private property and of life. We don’t have to imitate the state that was in existence when Christ ‘walked the earth’ any more than we must have their music, their liturgy, their monetary system, or their cuisine. We must have (again) the City of God. There is no way to solve our economic, social, of spirtual needs without the Catholic state. If you agree with Pius XI, then agree with him for realies that the first justice is to give worship to God the Father, and all other justice can flow from that, and without that justice, none other, not toward man, not toward workers, not toward owners, not toward minorities–none possible. Don’t you long for justice? But you perhaps think, no need to want it, we will never have a Catholic state again! But man, the secular state has been so exposed, people are ready to listen again! Just as Darwinism has been beaten (as science has beaten it) so has all of secularism been beaten–one good push will knock it over. Can you examine FIDESZ in Hungary?–they did it! We can do it.

      • yolanda bello on November 22, 2013 at 10:07 pm

        I don’t know if we can engage now a days in such lofty thoughts about social justice. We are in a world where that no longer applies. Such discussion feels like sitting about the deck of the Titanic as it sinks, while discussing social justice and who said what about it. Evil rules and the aim of such evil is to squelch social justice according the a definition of order and salvific consequence for all groups, regardless of how humanity is classified, ie. rich/poor, black/white/middle eastern, conservatives/liberals, etc. As for the law in US, anything that approaches the logic of standards of God’s laws is now illegal or about to become illegal. God is order and He IS the order in His creation; evil is chaos and the author of the chaos to oppose God’s order. Ironical it is to think that IF the salvation of the rich hangs on giving to the poor, today, the law that is about to become the law of the land,.will NOT either save the rich’s souls nor the poor’s. It will not save the rich’s wealth nor the poor’s. But that is chaos, what God is NOT.

        • Janet Baker on November 23, 2013 at 8:16 am

          Perhaps you have said it better but you are making the point I was trying to make–justice, here, NOW, are you mad? That’s about it! But I was trying to point to the way out of here, now. There is a way out, and it to go back and take the hard road of the Reformation, which we seem to have abandoned without any permission from God for doing so. God must be put back, formally, into the center of our civic lives. They have done so in Hungary, in their new constitution (which has the EU using language of invasion, I am not kidding you). They got such a huge majority that it cannot be overturned, greater than 2/3 which if you follow politics is simply unheard of. Our people want God back, too, but some of us, especially in our leadership, are so corrupted by this notion of ecumenism and relativism that we cannot conceive of it and they will not permit it to be put forward. They cannot conceive of ‘forcing’ our diverse neighbors to recognize the Christian God in our civic life, when many of them would rather do so than have no God at all in the center, as a muslim barroness informed the Vatican last year. I have a post giving the details on my blog, if you want to look, on the home page, in a title, Muslim Barroness. etc. I have active Polish neighbors here in Chicago who swear to me that sane people in Poland are looking long at Hungary in searching for a way out of their own liberal mess, and that we should please pray a daily rosary to that end. ‘Poland Follow Hungary,’ that’s how they put it.

          Thanks for your frank response to this continuing delusion that any justice at all is possible in this secular state. That was the great fiction of the Council.

          • theoutlawedgod on November 23, 2013 at 11:15 pm

            There is hope in thinking of solutions. But I look harder at what the politicians are doing. The corruption is like the jail system in Turkey. DON”T GET CAUGHT THERE WHAT EVER YOU DO type of thing. I don’t see a solution in this government. My hope took a major beating when, at it’s peak, during the elections when Gingrich, Sanctorum and Romney were out there, and I thought, 2 Catholics of phenomenal quality and qualifications!!! what if they would agree with each other to unite and one be president and one be vice precedent!! They would have left Romney so far behind swallowing dust….. but instead they chose to remain kingpin, and splitting the vote Romney won. That was the turning point of my hope. I saw things dramatically differently then, We are all too selfish to pull a thread along with millions. We stand alone. And we all lost for it. I don’t see any solution to what we have, there is a lock down on patriotism …. for the good of the people, that is all in solitary confinement somewhere, and we have asked for the release of Barabbas one more time. I do believe solidly that God is with us, we are not flushed individually, we still have God who saves us and hammers to not fear those who can hurt the body, but those who hurt the body AND the soul. Trying to think thru a solution is intensely flustering. This government found the way to make us all another Venezuela, Haiti, Somalia. No one is standing in the way to stop it, all a just talking about it.

  5. Leon Dixon on Facebook on November 22, 2013 at 12:44 pm

    It now means, we want what you have.

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