Many decades ago, when I first got involved in work for justice and peace at The Quixote Center, I learned the difference between justice and charity. It seems many Americans, including some American Catholics, might need a refresher course in these concepts.
When I see the Paul Ryan budget cut programs that benefit the needy -- food stamps, Medicaid, Medicare, welfare and aid to education -- while leaving tax cuts for the rich untouched, I wonder if he's even aware of the concept of justice. When I hear people saying that those who need health care or health insurance should just "make it on their own," or when I hear people saying they will not support "freeloaders" (read: the poor) with tax dollars, I am appalled.
Now, it's not that the Scriptures, or even Catholic social teaching, prescribe specific policies or budgets; those are the results of specific prudential judgments and even legislative compromises. What is appalling are the attitudes that people often express when they support or reject some of these policies, attitudes that suggest a refusal to share, an unwillingness to say that we have responsibility for one another -- attitudes, in other words, that reveal an ignorance of what it means to build a "just" society.
So: a quick refresher. First, both justice and charity are virtues. Both are necessary in the Christian life.
Charity refers to personal benevolence. It can mean driving a disabled neighbor to the supermarket. It can be a $5 bill handed to someone panhandling on the street. These acts help individuals or small groups. They are truly virtuous, but they don't change structures or policies.
Christians are called to practice both charity AND justice. John Rawls, author of the acclaimed work A Theory of Justice, says, "Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought."
Justice involves trying to change injustices in social institutions, structures and policies larger than ourselves. It assumes that all in society are (or should be) equal human beings, and that the resulting changes will enhance the common good. According to the 1971 Synod of Bishops, it is a "constitutive dimension of the preaching of the gospel."
Let's say the problem is feeding the hungry. A charitable person might work in a soup kitchen. A worker for justice might address hunger by working for a new food stamp policy. And of course, there is nothing wrong with doing both.
Visit EarthBeat, NCR's new reporting project that explores the ways Catholics and other faith groups are taking action on the climate crisis.
Let's say the problem is lack of adequate health care. A charitable person might drive someone to an emergency room or care for them at home. A person seeking to implement justice could work for legislation that creates a comprehensive health care system available to everyone.
Justice assumes that the "common good" is a value. It assumes we are indeed our brothers' and sisters' keeper. It assumes we are all in this together. It assumes that we all make sacrifices for the good of the whole. That is the attitude I find missing in so many of our public discussions these days. We are called to sacrifice for the good of whole.
We need to reclaim the value, and virtue, of justice.