I know what they are thinking. Most of the seminarians and lay students that follow my course “Catholic Social Teaching” in our seminary/school of theology begin with the assumption that this is the “social justice” course. Some like this reduction of “Catholic Social Teaching” to “social justice.” Others dread it. Few question it. I savor the guilty pleasure of playing off of this supposition, building it up in crescendo-like fashion, until at last it is obliterated by the logic of the Church’s social documents themselves. I do enjoy this, but I also do this for pedagogical reasons: I want the assumption that Catholic social teaching reduces to social justice so utterly razed in the minds of my students that when it falls it can never rise from the ashes of its ruin. No resurrection here, please.
Social justice is a part of Catholic social teaching, and an important part. However, it is only a part and it cannot be equated with the entirety of Catholic social teaching without doing serious harm to both. Social justice is that form of justice that regulates one’s relationships according to the standards of law. Typically, it is taken to be about society’s larger institutions like business corporations, political structures, and forms of the market. Catholic social teaching, on the other hand, includes social justice and much, much more. Catholic social teaching covers each of our relationships and socializations in general and, most importantly, does so in a manner where the demand of justice (what is due to another) is not the sole focus. This also means the Church’s social teaching can reach to those forms of relationships that in whole or part elude the categories of justice and law, such as the relationship of friendship. The social teaching of the Church is capable of this wide perspective because, first and foremost, it begins not from law, but from God’s Trinitarian love as manifest in Jesus Christ.
And so, this clarification is an important one. Catholic social teaching is not first about the state of one’s nation, and then somehow extended to other realms of life in a secondary, derivative manner. Catholic social teaching is as much about the living room as it about the halls of Congress.