The Headline was “Real Social Justice.”
My first thought on seeing it was that this was another rant about how fundamentalist Christians — and right wingers who hang out with them – are the bane of society.
I expected the message to be that only religious liberals and their friends, political leftists, would have any real understanding of what social justice was all about.
But, to my surprise, the story, which appeared on the First Things website, was a thoughtful piece about what the Jesuits really meant when they talked about social justice. Further, it suggested that contemporary expositors of ‘liberation theology’ were doing the Jesuits an injustice when they implied that the austere and influential Catholic order plumped for justice through statist intervention.
I will quote a bit from the site, first noting that it is associated with First Things Journal, grown and encouraged through the years by the late Richard John Neuhaus, Lutheran-cum-Catholic theologian extraordinaire.
This link is to the On the Square page, which offers daily columns from First Things’ top writers. This particular piece was written by Ryan Messmore, the William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and a Free Society at Heritage Foundation. The society recently produced a small group study guide entitled ‘Seek Social Justice.’
Here is how Messmore began:
“This week (November 22-26) marks the birthday of a man most folks have never heard of, although he coined one of today’s most ubiquitous phrases: Social Justice. Born in 1793, Luigi Taparelli D’Azeglio was an Italian Jesuit scholar who co-founded the theological journal Civiltà Cattolica and served as rector of the seminary Collegio Romano.”
Messmore then exposited D’Azeglio’s understanding of social justice, making the point that the Italian scholar’s thinking bore little resemblance to the contemporary ‘state rules’ interpretation often afforded the concept.
“(D’Azeglio’s) vision of social justice, then, emphasized freedom and respect for human beings and the small institutions through which they pursue basic needs. He held that true justice can’t be achieved without doing justice to our social nature and natural forms of association. Social justice entailed a social order in which government doesn’t overrun or crowd out institutions of civil society such as family, church and local organizations. Rather, they are respected, protected- and allowed to flourish.
“Today, well-meaning policy makers and activists often do just the opposite as they try to overcome social challenges. Rather than viewing society as a network of smaller associations and communities, they mistakenly equate society with the state, centering its identity upon civic government.
“As a result, these policy makers and activists conceive justice in terms of how much government directly addresses the needs of individuals. They too often bypass the web of intermediary institutions or deem those institutions irrelevant — or detrimental — in addressing and solving large social problems.”
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In case OttawaWatch readers have not quite figured it out, the First Things quotes are leading to a reiteration of my occasional encouragement of the current British experiment with ‘big society rather than big state.’ That experiment has grown out of the Conservatives’ emerging interest in reducing the coercive impact of state control of religion. It has been enhanced by the recently formed Conservative/Liberal Democratic coalition.
Drawing once again from Christian Today, a British online Christian newspaper, we see, according to a November 30 posting, that the newly-appointed Church of England Bishop of Chelmsford, Stephen Cottrell, seems to have caught the spirit.
Preaching at his installation, Cottrell noted: “If we live prayerful, faithful lives, if we shine with the light of the risen Christ, then our world will be changed. For God’s ‘big society’ is made up of a thousand little deeds of sacrifice and kindness.”
Cottrell is a keen advocate of ‘Ready, steady, slow’ an Anglican Advent impetus to encourage people to take five minutes a day to follow daily ‘tread gently’ challenges. These challenges include things such as making your own compost, holding a paperless party, driving slower and indulging in a longer coffee break.
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So what can Canadians draw from all this? For the moment, it is simply that the people of God can coalesce with many others in society to do some things that governments would more likely mess up.
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Lloyd Mackey is a member of the Canadian Parliamentary Press Gallery in Ottawa and author of Stephen Harper: The Case for Collaborative Governance (ECW Press, 2006), More Faithful Than We Think: Stories and Insights on Canadian Leaders Doing Politics Christianly (BayRidge Books, 2005) and Like Father, Like Son: Ernest Manning and Preston Manning (ECW Press, 1997). Lloyd can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.