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Posts tagged catholic social thought

from "Three Precisions: Social Justice," by Michael Novak, First Things, 1 December 2009

The scholar Friedrich Hayek finds that the first writer to use the term [“social justice”] was an Italian priest, Taparelli D’Azeglio, in his book Natural Rights from a Historical Standpoint (1883). It is in this book that Leo XIII (1878–1903) first encountered the term. The context was one of the most enormous social transformations in human history: the end of the agrarian age that had begun before the time of Christ, and the fairly abrupt entry into an age of invention, investment, urban growth, manufacturing, and services. No longer did families have an inherited roof over their heads and daily food from their own land. Now they were uprooted and dwelling in cities, dependent for shelter and food on the availability of jobs and their own initiative. Traditional social networks were cut to shreds, and the associations of a lifetime were torn asunder. . . .

I know from the experience of my own family over four generations how stressful the great transformation of society has been. Most of the gospel texts are cast in agricultural metaphors—seeds, harvests, grains, sheep, land, fruit trees—and so resonate with the economic order of most of human history until the nineteenth or twentieth century. My family served as serfs on the large estate of the Hungarian Count Czaky, whose own ancestor was a hero in the turning back of the Turks near Budapest in 1456. My relatives were subjects of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and, as near as I can determine, were not able to own their own land until the 1920s. Men, women, and children on the estate were counted annually, along with cattle, sheep, goats, and other livestock, for purposes of taxation.

My ancestors were taught to accept their lot. Their moral duties were fairly simple: Pray, pay, and obey. What they did and gained was pretty much determined from above. Beginning in about 1880, however, because farms no longer could sustain the growth in population, almost two million people from eastern Slovakia—one by one, along chains of connection with families and fellow villagers—began to migrate to America and elsewhere. Usually the sons left first and sent back later for wives. This was one of the greatest—and most unusual—mass migrations in history, with people migrating, not as whole tribes, but as individuals.

In America my grandparents were no longer subjects, but citizens. If their social arrangements were not right, they now had a duty (and a human necessity) to organize to change them. They were free, but they also were saddled with personal responsibility for their own future. They needed to learn new virtues, to form new institutions, and to take their own responsibility for the institutions they inherited from America’s founding geniuses.

In this context the term social justice can be defined with rather considerable precision. Social justice names a new virtue in the panoply of historical virtues: a set of new habits and abilities that need to be learned, perfected, and passed on—new virtues with very powerful social consequences.