Former Jesuit Superior General, Pedro Arrupe, was once asked why there is such an emphasis today on social justice when, in the past, many saintly persons and good spiritual writings appeared to almost entirely neglect this, at least in terms of an explicit development. He answered rather simply: “Today we know more!” 

He’s right. In the past, because we knew less, it was possible to be good and saintly and less involved in social justice, despite the fact that scripture and Christ’s explicit teaching make the call to justice just as non-negotiable as the call to prayer and private morality. Today we know more, not just because modern communications daily shows us the victims of injustice on our television screens and in our newspapers, but also, and especially, because we are less sociologically naive. Put positively, this lack of naivete means that we understand better how social systems affect us, both for good and for bad … and social justice is really about how systems affect us, especially adversely. 

It is very important that this be understood. Although they interpenetrate each other and depend upon each other, social justice and social morality are distinct from private charity and private morality.Private morality is something that, precisely, I do on my own. Other persons might guide me or inspire me, but, in the end, I am moral and charitable at this level on the basis of my own personal goodness and personal actions. Social justice, on the other hand, has to do with the social systems I am part of and participate in. I can be a good person in my private life, churchgoing, prayerful, kind, honest, gentle, and generous in my dealings with others, and still, at the same time, be part of a social, economic, political, and even ecclesial system that is unfair in that it works for the benefit of some at the cost of victimizing others. Issues such as war, poverty,violation of the ecology, feminism, native rights, abortion, and racism (to name just a few) are caused not just, nor indeed any longer primarily, by individual persons acting in bad conscience and doing bad things, but by huge impersonal systems which are inherently unfair and are, to an extent, beyond the control of the individuals who participate in them. 

Let me try to illustrate the difference between social justice and private charity with a story, famous in social justice circles: 

Once upon time there was a town which was built beyond the bend in a river. One day some of its children were playing by the river when they spotted 3 bodies floating in the water. They ran to get help and the townsfolk quickly pulled the bodies from the river. One body was dead so they buried it. One was alive, but quite ill, so they put it into the hospital. The third was a healthy child, so they placed it in a family who cared for it and took it to school. From that day on, each day a number of bodies came floating around the bend in the river and, each day, the good charitable townspeople pulled them out and tended to them – burying the dead, caring for the sick, finding homes for the children, and so on. This went on for years, and the townspeople came to expect that each day would bring its quota of bodies … but, during those years, nobody thought to walk up the river, beyond the bend, and check out why, daily, those bodies came floating down the river. 

The difference between private charity and social justice is, in one way, the difference between handling the bodies that have come down the river and doing preventive work up the river. It’s more complex than that, especially when one sees the web of intertwined social, political, historical, and economic factors responsible for those bodies, but the analogy at least helps show a key distinction. Private morality has more to do with personal charity and personal goodness and honesty. Social justice has to do more with changing systems which, although often managed by persons in good conscience, are of themselves evil in that they, knowingly or unknowingly, victimize certain people. Thus, for instance, a man may be very sincere and, in his private life, very charitable, gentle, prayerful, and moral. Yet, he might, blindly, unknowingly, participate in and help sustain (through his work, his political affiliations, his economic ideology and investments, and simply by a cosumeristic lifestyle) systems which are far from charitable, gentle, prayerful, and moral. While good for him they might be horrible for others.

When Pedro Arrupe said: “Today we know more!” he was referring precisely to the fact that current sociological and economic analysis has shown us, with a clarity that we cannot rationalize any distance from, how our political, economic, social, and ecclesial systems, irrespective of how individually sincere we might be in our support of them, are unfair and wounding to so many others. Given this, daily, our ignorance is less inculpable and the imperative to “walk justly” becomes less escapable.