The Church first used the term “social justice” in the 1850s after witnessing the material inequality plaguing humanity that came in the wake of the progress of the industrial revolution. Blessed Paul VI expanded on this concept of social justice in his 1971 apostolic exhortation, Evangelica Testificatio, writing about the role religious institutes (groups like the Dominicans and Franciscans) play in advocating for social justice: “It is certainly true that religious institutes have an important role to fulfill in the sphere of works of mercy, assistance and social justice; it is clear that in carrying out this service they must be always attentive to the demands of the Gospel.” For Blessed Paul VI, it was not just the role of a religious to carry out acts of civil service, but to carry out those acts with charity and a genuine love of Christ.
When building up the Kingdom of God through social justice, Christians look not just at the Church but at the whole world, taking into account the needs of all human beings. This may translate into helping with alleviating a practical need such as food or clothing while witnessing to the belief that all humans made in God’s divine image are deserving of complete charity. In carrying out acts of social justice while following the model of Catholic social teaching, Blessed Paul VI calls religious institutes to take on the work of the Church. This work can take the form of dispensing boxes of canned foods or distributing warm winter coats to those who need them. These small acts of addressing the material needs of others help contribute to the ultimate goal of making Christ’s love known to all men.
But what makes “the work of the Church” any different from similar secular social services? Social workers and secular shelters and charities are able to give material benefits to the poor, but Blessed Paul VI recognized that Catholics needed to aim toward something higher: the spiritual needs of the soul. To carry out works of social charity for the love of God means to share the Gospel with those one serves and to pass along the message of hope and salvation to all who receive these works of charity. To be “attentive to the demands of the Gospel” means to care for the salvation of the human person and to allow the work of social justice to be a means of putting Christ’s love into action. To do the work of the Church is not only to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, but to be able to speak eloquently about God’s love for His creation and to be aware of the many material and spiritual needs of His Church.
Image: Soup Kitchen