Here’s some background on how the American Catholic bishops came to sound collectively like standard-issue leftists, except on the issue of abortion: Social Teachings at Risk in the American Catholic Church. The piece is a collection of notes and snippets from a book by Michael Warner, Changing Witness, Catholic Bishops and Public Policy, 1917-1994 (Eerdmans, 1995) that deals with the devolution of Catholic social teaching in America. It seems that the decisive turning point was the 60s. Before then the bishops, to the extent they acted collectively (from 1789 to 1919 they met officially only thirteen times), based their public interventions on papal social pronouncements and thus a tradition of reflection on man and society not reducible to current ideology. After the upheavals of the 60s and the growth of a national bureaucracy in Washington the bishops went off on a tangent in the direction of the secular left, abandoning natural law, the principle of subsidiarity, the concept of natural social order, and the association of social progress with virtue. (People especially don’t like that last one today, but it’s plainly essential to a social understanding that respects human worth.)
The current understanding of social justice ought to be a problem for Catholics. If you try to set up a system that reliably delivers ultimate results to individuals that seem just, which is what people think social justice is about, you have to set up a uniform centrally controlled way for the results for each individual to get measured out. That means elimination of local autonomy and initiative, and the effects of history, cultural differences and the way people live their lives and the choices they make individually and socially. It also in effect means elimination of individual dessert. It’s too difficult to judge individual moral issues centrally and bureaucratically, so you can’t have a workable administrative system if they’re part of the calculation.
To me that means that “social justice” as now understood is a denial of human dignity and a guarantee of tyranny and degradation. It means that men, families and communities don’t make their lives, they get made for them by a central authority. It seems to me that Catholics have to rethink these issues independently of the understandings now generally established. Social justice—presumably, another name for the good society— has to be viewed as a much more complex process and collection of practices that can’t be centrally guaranteed, requires multiple kinds of participation, and is always going to be radically imperfect. On the other hand, imperfection means there’s always something for each of us to do. The current understanding has a life-destroying secular utopian quality that aims at a society in which nothing any of us does matters. That can’t be good.