Social justice. Are we listening?

A word cloud from the social encyclical of Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate.

A word cloud from the social encyclical of Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate.

It seemed not long ago that Pope Francis set off a firestorm of controversy around the question of social justice. That seems to have died down now. Of course, he keeps speaking, but are we really listening?

If you weren’t paying attention, you may have missed a classic Pope Francis moment last week. Speaking on the anniversary of Pope Benedict XVI’s social encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, Francis called for “deep reforms” in our economic and public life.

One would have thought that after a speech in which he once again called for “redistribution of wealth” and “redistribution of sovereignty”, there would have been controversy to follow. Instead there was uncanny silence.

He also had harsh words for poverty and inequality, saying that inequality threatens to erode our democracies. He ended his speech with a heartfelt plea to “keep alive the concern for the poor and social justice”.

No doubt about it, Pope Francis keeps talking about social justice. But, are we receiving his teaching? Do we believe that social justice is a meaningful term, that it has something to offer in terms of shaping American society, the economy and public life?

Pope Francis clearly does. In the same speech, he defines social justice as the difference between a society based on exclusion and one founded on inclusion.

Groups supported by the Catholic Campaign for Human Development struggle on the border between inclusion and exclusion. They work to stretch the border of fairness and dignity to more and more communities. They certainly know what a society built on exclusion looks like. Unemployment. Anxiety. Job insecurity. Drugs. Stolen wages. Excluded immigrants. Environmental damage. Catch up with the bills. Not making rent. A criminal record that comes back to haunt. Expensive education. No time to think about family. No time to think about community.

These are the hard truths of social injustice. You only come to know them by living its harsh reality or by exercising solidarity with those who do.

But CCHD groups also appreciate the hard won truths of social justice. Community. Economic empowerment. Jobs. Participation in public life. Education. Health. Culture. Fairness. Justice. Raising a family with confidence. The power to change one’s life for the better.

For Pope Francis, social justice isn’t a detached, abstract discourse. As he says, it’s about “overcoming the structural causes of inequality and poverty.” It’s about putting the pieces of a broken society back together. It’s about building “an economy and a market that does not exclude people, and which are equitable.” The question of social justice is not a grandiloquent discourse on the theological conditions of the perfect society. It is about how to live and love in a broken world.

A word cloud from a speech of Pope Francis on the Church's social mission.

A word cloud from a speech of Pope Francis on the Church’s social mission.

Because we have put profit before people, competition before community, there are those who suffer exclusion from our markets and from our democracy.

The bishops of the United States define just what social justice looks like in their 1986 pastoral letter on the economy, Economic Justice for All. In their words:

“Basic justice demands the establishment of minimum levels of participation in the life of the human community for all persons.”

For the bishops, social justice requires society be molded so that all can participate in our economy and public life. Participation and inclusion are the yardsticks of social justice.

If that’s true, that might mean that we need to take Pope Francis’ call to redistribute wealth and sovereignty seriously. How do we make sure all can participate in an economy that guarantees dignified work and the ability to raise a family? How do we make sure that all voices are represented at the table of our democracy? Those aren’t abstract questions. As Pope Benedict XVI put it in Caritas in Veritate:

“Testimony to Christ’s charity, through works of justice, peace and development, is part and parcel of evangelization, because Jesus Christ, who loves us, is concerned with the whole person.”

Do we want a society based on inclusion or exclusion? Our commitment to love like Jesus demands we hear the question.

McCloud headshotRalph McCloud is the executive director of the USCCB’s Catholic Campaign for Human Development.

Go deeper:
Learn about poverty in the United States and what CCHD groups are doing to address it at PovertyUSA and PobrezaUSA.

Follow CCHD on Twitter.

Race, Economic Justice & Ferguson: An Interview with CCHD’s Ralph McCloud

The recent tragic events in Ferguson, MO have brought to the forefront issues of racism, public accountability and the role of faith leaders in communities. Organizations supported by the Catholic Campaign for Human Development are working to rebuild community ties in Ferguson, and join the Archbishop of St. Louis in his call to “dismantle systemic racism”.

Recently, the online journal Millennial interviewed Ralph McCloud, director of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, to discuss these issues. With the kind permission of Millennial, we’ve re-produced the interview in its entirety here.


Ralph McCloud serves as the executive director of the USCCB’s Catholic Campaign for Human Development.

Ralph McCloud serves as the director of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development.

It seems as though one of the things motivating people to protest is the sense that racial bias is leading to unequal and unjust policing. Do you see this as a major problem in the country? If so, what can be done to address it?

Racism continues to be a major problem in the country. Unjust stops, arrests, the use of militia-type tactics on citizens and discriminatory sentencing policies have led to a growing distrust among African Americans and other people of color toward police and the judicial “system.” There is a feeling that we will not be treated fairly and because of that, there is growing polarization, mutual disrespect and alienation on all sides… until it erupts unfortunately in a tragedy. You know there’s a problem when police view neighborhoods as war zones and kids feel like they’re under occupation.

Is there an issue of systemic or structural racism that is motivating those protesting?

Why is it the norm when dealing with people of color and alleged “criminals” to utilize violence? Why do we consider certain types of communities disposable? It’s a fact that racism shapes American attitudes and policies around criminal justice. It is systemic and structural, but on many levels and by many systems… We spend a great deal of time and energy applauding the gains we’ve made, but we ignore how far we still have to go. This isn’t just a law enforcement issue; it’s also about health care, education, economic opportunity, political participation. There are systems and structures in the United States keeping people from living up to their God-given dignity. Violence has never been solution to our problems.

What role does material inequality play in undermining efforts to reduce racial divisions and achieve a more unified, just society?  Do you see a connection between economic injustice and the protests in Ferguson?

Without question. In Ferguson, I see folk denied access and opportunity. Violence is the reaction of a society that refuses to address the growing divide between those who have and those who are disposable, what Pope Francis calls the throw-away culture.

People of color are more likely to be denied access to those things they need to reach their goals, what you might call the American dream. Historically, when people are denied opportunity, frustration and anger reach a boiling point.  People want to exist in a peaceful society, where they can raise families, contribute, educate their children, and be safe. When these goals are out of reach for lifetimes and generations, despair sets in.

What can be done to bring greater economic justice and reduce poverty in America?

This tragedy should make us rethink the evil that rampant inequality is inflicting on our communities, the use of violence to enforce it, and the “roping off” of opportunity to growing parts of our society. Whether its people of color, immigrants from the wrong country, or a growing group of people below the poverty line, we have to ask whether it’s appropriate to police the margins with violence and punishment. This type of punishment starts with impoverished communities and poor education, continues with lack of economic opportunity, and ends up in a prison and immigrant detention cell.

A preferential option must be shown to those communities where high poverty exists. Intensive efforts must be made to stimulate economic development, to educate tomorrow’s work force, to give families a sense of ownership and pride in their communities. Will we treat people, as Pope Francis has asked us to, as artisans of their own destiny or will they be objects of punishment and exclusion?

The protests in Ferguson have increased calls for criminal justice reform. One element is sentencing reform. Can sentencing reform be done in a way that brings greater safety and security to the people living in economically depressed areas while reducing unfairness in the system and helping those who have committed relatively minor crimes from falling into a life of crime? A number of existing proposals seem to disregard the impact on the law-abiding citizens in these areas who want greater safety and security for their families and who are disproportionately the direct or indirect victims of these crimes. The preferential option for the poor seems to create an imperative to drive down crime rates and drug abuse in poor areas, but also to eliminate unfair sentencing and counterproductive penalties that will result in more crime. Is this type of reform possible? A second element of criminal justice reform might be to help rehabilitate those who are imprisoned and help to reintegrate them into society. Would this be helpful? What reforms might be useful in this area?

It’s a fact born out in American history that more prisons don’t make our communities safer.

When you look at the current sentencing guidelines, for drug offenses in particular, huge disparities exist. The pall of criminalization keeps extending over more and more groups of people on the bottom while at the top we’ve witnessed rampant impunity. Who are we criminalizing and why? Who do we fear and why? We need to ask questions that get to the root of the problem.

The culture of our prisons isn’t one that leads to success on the outside. We need to assist persons who have made mistakes and who want to do better to get on a path to success, which includes employment, education, housing, voting privileges, etc. Restorative justice is becoming popular to help heal both the victims and the perpetrator of crimes. Another approach is to look (pre-sentencing) at what unique needs the perpetrator had going in—drug and alcohol use, anger issues, depression, family problems, low educational achievement, etc. and make sure those issues are dealt with before re-entry, making rehabilitation a condition of release. It is also critically important to acknowledge the faith component of rehabilitation. Inmates need access to those things that will strengthen and sustain their faith life.

All of this can only happen when local communities come together in trust—trust inter-racially, trust inter-economically, trust neighborhood to neighborhood. Sadly, Ferguson is any city USA and any city USA can be Ferguson.