The Social Teaching of

The Catholic Church

Applied to American Economic Life







The Social Virtues

From Chapter Four (pp. 103-132)

When the Church confronts the social problem, she acts through moral teaching, not through political or economic means. Her purpose is to teach individuals sound principles, which they will put into effect in the practical order. Men of good will, imbued with these teachings, are to reform the institutions of society in accordance with God's will.

The first level of Church teaching concerns the dignity of man, his place in society, and the purpose of economic life. We realize that, under God, man is the center of the world. Material things are created to serve him. Man in turn is a social creature. He realizes his full powers and aspirations only in conjunction with his fellow man. When these principles are applied to economic life, it is evident that economic society should be organized to minister to the dignity of man. Its institutions, that is, enduring social habits, should be organized in view of the general welfare. [104]

On the second level of Church teaching in the socioeconomic field, we find the social virtues. These are habits of action which respect the dignity of the human person, the nature of society, and the purposes of economic society. The most important of these virtues are justice and charity, although there are others which complete and perfect social life. When these virtues are observed, men act in accordance with God's law and the soundest rules for human nature.


Kinds of justice. Justice ministers directly to human dignity, since it is concerned with the rights and duties of persons. It could be called a constant habit or intention of giving each person his due. It involves a relationship of equality between two persons, in virtue of which one is bound to give the other his due. Accordingly, in treating of justice, we might distinguish three elements: equality, otherness, and something due.

The fact of equality is based on the dignity of the human person, since persons alone have rights. We are bound to respect the human nature of others and the rights which accrue to that nature. Again, there is the aspect of otherness. In contrast to such virtues as temperance or fortitude, which perfect the individual alone, justice involves a relationship with other persons. Finally, and this is the distinctive element in justice, there is the idea of something due. Justice is the respecting of rights, not merely proprieties or things that are fitting. Thus, it may be fitting or desirable that a wealthy man endow a particular hospital or university. But he is bound in justice to pay his chauffeur a living wage.

We ordinarily speak of three kinds of justice. The first is general or legal justice, which calls for giving society its due. Under this virtue we are bound to consider the common good as well as our particular aims in all our actions. Some writers do not consider legal justice as a strict virtue, in the sense that it commands us to do certain acts which are proper to it alone. Rather, according to their point of view, it gives an overtone and direction [104] to other virtues, directing their exercise in the light of the general ,,welfare. Thus, almsgiving is commanded under the virtue of charity, but in helping the unfortunate legal justice binds us to consider the common good. Legal justice would incline us to one form of charity in preference to another. Other authors, however, do speak of specific actions commanded by legal justice in its own right. This is particularly true of the aspect of legal justice which is called social justice. Whichever view is held, legal justice involves the duties of the individual in regard to the community. He is obliged to seek the common good.

In contrast to general justice are the more particular forms of this virtue, called distributive and commutative justice. Distributive justice deals with the obligations of the community and its leaders toward the individual members. It calls for an equitable and proportional distribution of benefits and burdens to the members of society. Thus, legislators must be fair in giving out benefits (such as social insurance) or burdens (such as taxes). A father must be equitable in treating his children. Equity in such cases does not necessarily mean equality, since the needs of one may be greater than those of another. The socialist maxim: "From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs," is a fair approximation of distributive justice. If we could use mechanical terms to apply to virtues, we might say that the direction of flow is reversed when one compares legal and distributive justice. The one involves the individual's duty to society; the other, the rights of the person in connection with a given society.

Finally, there is strict justice, called commutative justice, which involves clearly defined rights and duties between two or more persons. It might be called exchange justice, since it usually embodies the idea of a quid pro quo. In this case, equality between the persons is definite in regard to the debt in question. Furthermore, the word "persons" could mean a moral person as well as an individual. If Mr. Jones buys a car from a large corporation,he owes a strict debt for the price of the car. Even the societies considered under the headings of legal and distributive justice can [106]  be parties to an obligation in commutative justice. A government could sell property or a son could enter into a binding contract with his father. Here the societal relationship does not enter into the obligation. Hence we might define commutative justice as a relation of equality between two fully distinct persons in virtue of which each is bound to render the other his due.

Each of these forms of the virtue has important implications in regard to the social problem. There are cases in which strict justice is involved. In some instances one person is clearly defrauding another. In other situations, society enters in, as either the subject of a right or of a duty. Unfortunately, the full problem of justice has been too often overlooked. In the past, there has been a tendency to concentrate only upon strict or commutative justice, and even this has been defined much too narrowly. More recently, there has been some recognition of the need for distributive justice as applied to the social problem. It remained for Pope Pius XI to define clearly and apply fully the virtue of social justice, although he did not originate the term. Accordingly, it is necessary to note in some detail the social aspects of each type of justice.

Commutative Justice. When strict justice is considered, we have a definite obligation, clearly defined, between two or more persons, including moral persons. A good noncontroversial example would be a debt. When Mr. Jones borrows two hundred dollars from a finance company to buy a washing machine, he is obliged in justice to repay this sum of money. If he willfully fails to do so, he sins. He can be forgiven only if he promises to make restitution, provided he is morally able to do this. The same situation would apply when he is charged a fair price for services, such as doctors' or dentists' bills. An element of equality and debt is involved; he has received something and promised to repay its equal value.

Two of the most publicized social teachings in the Middle Ages rested upon strict justice, namely, the doctrines of usury and the just price. In the example of borrowing from the finance company, we noted Mr. Jones's obligation to repay the principal [107] in full. Medieval theologians would not acknowledge the full interest payment as being due in justice. They held that equality was served when the principal was restored, and that any charge for the use of   money as such was an unfair exaction. In the actual interest payment to the finance company, part would be allowed by these theologians, such as collection charges and insurance for risk. But they held money as such to be nonproductive (in contrast to land, property, or a business) and hence any charge for its use (in absence of loss to the lender as a result of the loan) to be unjust. Modern theologians hold a different view, considering money the virtual equivalent of productive capital and hence entitled to a return. Even when the loan is not for productive purposes, there is the possibility that the lender could have used it for such ends, so that he is incurring a loss by making the loan.

In the matter of the just price, the seller and buyer should consider the fair value of the object. Any raising or lowering of price, simply to take advantage of another's need, would be contrary to justice. In medieval writings, value was determined either by authority or the common estimate of a reasonable charge. This would include fair wages for the workers, an equitable price to suppliers, and a suitable profit for the seller. The norm for estimating equity for these factors would make allowance for the dignity of the human person, the technical state of economic life, and the demands of the common good. Market value, as determined under conditions of competition, monopoly, or inbetween situations would not necessarily be the same as a fair value.

The value of the just-price teaching under modern conditions is somewhat limited. There areclear cases where it applies. Such would be instances of fraud, deception, or obvious exploitation of the need of another. The fraudulent issuance of securities or the selling of a virtually useless product (through deception) would be definitely unjust. The abusing of a monopoly position by charging what the market will bear in the effort to secure exorbitant profits would likewise violate strict justice. On the other [108] hand, the major social problems of today spring prinnarily from faulty institutions of society. Economic society may bye so organized that an individual is forced into practices which are materially unjust. Thus, under competition, a manufacturer may be compelled to beat down his suppliers by paying unfair prices. The alternative would be to go out of business. To say that he should go out of business in such cases would be to deprive the economic community of leaders who have sensitive consciences (the others would pay no attention to moralists). A more realistic solution would be to invoke social justice, that is, the obligation to change the institutions of society so that they would foster justice.

A more modern example of theological application of commutative justice to economic life is the obligation to pay a living wage. Pope Plus XI has stated that the duty to pay die worker a wage which will afford decent support to himself and his family is a matter of strict justice. It is true that some theologians still argue that the duty is a matter of social rather than commutative justice. Accepting the majority view, however, that strict justice is involved, we are confronted again with a mixed problem. There are cases where employers can pay a living wage without excessive hardship. But in very many instances, the situation involves the recurring question of economic institutions. Only by a better organization of economic society will it be possible for many employers to pay a decent wage. We must use to the full our technical resources and managerial skill to turn out the products needed for a comfortable standard of living for all workers.

In summary, it would be inaccurate to say that strict justice has no place in solving the social problem. On the contrary, there are many and important instances where it applies. Nevertheless, there are even more vital issues where the broader approach of social justice is needed. Individual good will and rectitude are not enough to solve the pressing problems of insecurity and disorganization in economic life. Society itself is sick, and remedies should be sought which will get to the root of social ills.

Distributive Justice. In the traditional usage, the term distributive [109] justice was applied to rulers of states. It obliged them to secure for each citizen his due and proportionate share of both the advantages and the burdens which are involved in the conduct of civil society. The older theologians talked of the fair distribution of public offices, on the one hand, and of taxes on the other. A more modern example would be social legislation or public subsidies. Benefits thus distributed are not given on a basis of arithmetical equality, but rather in consideration of need and other special circumstances. Thus, a federal subsidy for education which would be based only on the tax contributions of the states would be self-defeating. The states which were able to pay the most taxes would be least in need of subsidies. In this regard, Pope Leo XIII stated that governments should look out especially for the needs of the poor, since the rich can often take care of themselves.

More recently, the idea of distributive justice has been applied to other societies than the state. Thus, the masterly volume by the late Monsignor John A. Ryan, Distributive justice, dealt with the fair distribution of the products of industry to the factors involved in production. The reasoning of the eminent author dealt mainly with the equitable sharing of the benefits of modern industry. This was particularly noticeable in his rating of relative claims to the national product, where he valued considerations of need and human dignity above the claims of imputed productivity. Another illustration could be found in the canons of taxation, where the fact of ability to pay was considered decisive. A system of progressively higher rates of income taxes for those with larger incomes would normallv be in accord with distributive justice.

In both the narrow and the broad usages, distributive justice is pertinent to the solution of the social problem. Benefits distributed by the state can be very important in modern economic life. Examples of this would be subsidies for low-cost housing; subsidies for farmers or high-cost producers of needed goods; justified tariffs; distribution of social insurance benefits in view of needs as well as contributions; contributions for public hospitals [110] in rural areas; and grants to special groups, such as reasonable pensions for soldiers. The same observation applies to the sharing of burdens. On the basis of distributive justice, it is fair that the wealthy should pay proportionately higher taxes than the poor. Taxes on luxuries would be more equitable than taxes on necessities. In these cases, it is to be noted that: distributive justice seeks, not directly the common good of society, but rather the proportionate sharing among the members of society of the benefits and burdens included in the common good. In fact it is conceivable that a practice favored by distributive justice might not be prudent in the light of the common good. Thus, in a period of inflation caused by an excessive money supply, the common good might demand a tax policy with a broad base, rather than one concentrated on those most able to pay. In such a case, social justice, which seeks the common good, would take precedence.

In the broad use of distributive justice, it is likewise applicable to modern problems. Distribution of the product of industry should consider needs as well as contribution. Thus, an the basis of strict justice, the claims of a bondholder and a wage earner might be equally sound. But distributive justice would favor the worker, as having the greater need. An even betur example derives from the progressive increases in living standazds afforded. the American worker during the last fifty years. Thi; happened in spite of the fact that, on the whole, he works foi less hours and expends less energy per hour of work than was the case at the turn of the century. The reason for the difference is primarily the increased mechanization of industry, or the incr~ase in the amount of capital invested per worker. Yet, in man j instances, the worker has benefited proportionately more than tte investor. During the past fifty years, the real wages of the avenge worker have increased threefold, although he works less hours. At the same time, the real return per dollar invested has remained stationary or declined. Such a situation might well be sanctioned by distributive justice, however, in view of the needs of the worker and his human dignity. The increase was brijiging him [111] up to living standards which were his due as a human person, whereas the average investor already possessed comfortable living conditions.

At the same time, great caution should be used in applying the canons of distributive justice to private industry. In the strict sense of the term, distributive justice pertains to government and indicates the duties of the sovereign. It concerns the equitable distribution of things which belong to the community. In the case of tax money, for example, the funds to be dispensed are owned by the citizens. Obviously these same principles could not be applied to a private fortune, owned by an individual. Nor is it clear that they can be used in the case of business profits, considered abstractly. Thus, if an owner paid a fair wage to workers and charged consumers a just price (both matters of commutative justice), it would not seem that distributive justice could be applied to his use of the resultant profits. The present Holy Father has warned against indiscriminate application of distributive justice to private spheres. It may well be that many Catholic moralists have erred in this respect. If this is true, it does not necessarily follow that their conclusions are invalid. Undoubtedly in many cases, a re-examination of problems in terms of social justice and the common good will lead to the same conclusions, this time based on a sounder foundation.

Granting the real value of distributive justice, it is still an ineffectual weapon for a complete conquest of the social problem. It deals with distribution of the products of the existing civil and industrial system. But it may well be true that the existing system is structurally inadequate. A fair distribution of an insufficient national product could only mean an alleviation of extreme poverty, not an advance to good standards for all. Measures which aim merely at equalizing incomes, lowering the number of hours worked per week (when they are not currently excessive), and the like would fall under this indictment of insufficiency. Indeed, if a broad historical generalization might be permitted, this was one of the major gaps in the Roosevelt New Deal. There was an emphasis upon distributive justice, which was good so far as it [112] went. But the vision of social justice, which would lead to a thorough reorganization of economic society for the common good, was not always clearly seen.

Even Catholic writers, fortified by the wisdom of Quadragesimo Anno, have been slow to capture the powerful dynamism of social justice. Older works treat of the social problem mainly in terms of strict justice. More recent treatises have given play to the implications of distributive justice. But the one is too narrow and the other too vague to serve as the exclusive bases of a social ethic. Furthermore, neither reaches to the root of the problem, the disorganization of society. The basis for a total solution can be found only in the works of that strong and fearless apostle of social justice, Pope Plus XI. Without social justice, we are seeking to remedy symptoms, while leaving untouched the basic causes of social ills. This point simply cannot be overstressed.

Social justice: Definition. Legal justice has been defined as the virtue binding every member of the state to contribute his due share to safeguarding and promoting the common good. It applies to rulers as well as subjects, obligating each to do his part for the general welfare. This concept was broadened and clarified when Pope Pius XI gave his description of social justice.

Social justice deals with reciprocal rights and duties of social groups and their members in relation to the common good. It might be described as the obligation upon individuals to participate, according to their ability and position, in group action, designed to make the institutions of society conform to the com mon good in the socioeconomic sphere. The italicized phrases indicate the important aspects of social justice: organization, institutions, and the common good.

The theoretical aspects of social justice, particularly in relation to legal and distributive justice, are subject to considerable controversy. Some writers consider it a fully distinct virtue, with its own material and formal aspects, inasmuch as it organizes individuals for the common good. Other authors hold that it is merely a special form of legal justice, with no distinct material object, but merely the formal aspect of directing actions toward [113] the common good. The great German Jesuit, Heinrich Pesch, speaks of contributive and distributive social justice, thus making distributive justice but one phase of social justice. No effort is made here to resolve these theoretical questions, especially since there is fairly wide agreement as to the practical implications of social justice. The following analysis emphasizes aspects of social justice stressed in Quadragesimo Anno. [See note 1 at end of document]

Social Justice: Organization. The first significant contribution in the notion of social justice is the idea of organized effort. Commutative justice deals largely with individuals. Distributive justice applies to existing organizations, especially the state; it does not necessarily deal with new ones. But social justice can call for the forming of new groups, as well as the proper directing of existing ones. It is necessary to face frankly the relative impotence of the isolated individual in modern life. Giving due credit to the power of example and leadership, it nevertheless happens that this is an organized age, particularly in the economic sphere. Markets are often national and international. Giant corporations dominate over vital phases of industrial life. Huge labor unions set the pace for labor policies. When the individual is confronted with such power situations, he is virtually helpless. To make himself felt, he must generally act as a member of a group.

There is nothing inherently wrong in this penchant for organization. On the contrary, it fits in with man's social nature. Cooperative effort is the logical way to get great tasks done. Hence any social reform program which aims to restore man's freedom by breaking up all power organizations and atomizing society into a mass of isolated individuals is foredoomed to failure. It is essentially anarchic. Existing groupings may be unsound. There [114]  is definite need for more buffer groups and a greater decentralization of power in the interests of individual freedom. All' this would restore the proper balance, so as to make society serve man rather than rule him. But the answer is sounder organization, not no organization.

The need for organized effort has been implied in several of the analyses given earlier. Thus, we noted the individual employer, given unrestricted competition, is often helpless in the matter of setting just prices. He follows the market practice or goes out of business. The same is true when the question of a living wage arises. It is true that some employers have been able to fight existing trends. By a combination of exceptional managerial skill and higher productivity arising from the good will of their workers, they have been able to pay more than the going rate of wages. But, in general, the individual acting alone cannot do the task.

Even if, to visualize the improbable, all employers and all workers practiced commutative and distributive justice to the full, the social problem would not be solved. Society would still lack organization designed to use natural resources and technical skill so as to insure the utmost production. Some major defects in economic life, such as insecurity and depressions, would not be met. Hence the theory, often expressed, that if all employers had sound human-relations programs, there would be no need for labor unions, is radically incomplete. It is individualism on a higher plane. It does not tackle the broader problems of modern business. Because of this, some moralists even argue that in present-day American society, all workers have an obligation to belong to a labor union or a comparable organization. Such an argument is not without merit.

This aspect of social justice is directly contrary to the individualism honored in theory if not always in practice by American business. The theory of atomistic individualism is that competitive strivings of isolated units will lead each to do his best. This in turn will lead, in the aggregate, to maximum output at highest quality and lowest price. In practice, it has often [115] dragged the mass down to the level of the most unscrupulous competitor. The actual groupings of both businessmen and workers show that pure individualism contradicts man's social nature. Business and labor have both been forced to organize.

Yet, these existing forms of organized economic life in America are inadequate. After the era of nineteenth-century individualism, first we had business concentration, then a building up of the powers of the state, and lastly powerful groupings of labor, farmers, and like classes. At times their tendency has been to seek control of the state and through its power to effect needed changes. While legislation is a vital part of social reform, present trends have submerged the individual in powerful groups which he cannot effectively control. As was noted above, organized action is necessary and, at times, this action must be on an extensive scale. But the use of wide powers can be effectively controlled only if there exists a multitude of lesser groups, also having real power, which serve as a buffer between the individual and giant power groups. Hence social legislation and joint action by national organizations are but partial answers to the problem. In fine, most socioeconomic problems can be met only by organized action. This is demanded by the nature of the problems and man's social nature. But societies exist to serve and protect individual human dignity. Hence they must be of such a nature that they do not get out of hand and become laws unto themselves.

Social Justice: Institutions of Society. Organization is but a first step. If the present tone of society were basically good, it might be enough to have suitable groups to utilize its resources. But, unfortunately, we cannot be complacent about our social medium. Too often it works adversely to the aims of social justice. The moral atmosphere of the day still tends toward selfish individualism.

Basic to this analysis is a view on the influence of environment. Experience has shown that the collective pressures generated by the thousands of forces which constitute a social situation have an enormous effect upon individuals. Customs, styles, habits, and [116] even prevailing points of view often have the force of law. An obvious example is style in clothes. The ideal dress or hat is one that is pleasantly different within a framework of generally accepted lines. Provided there is basic conformity, there is a place for minor expressions of individuality. But the limits of individual freedom are relatively narrow. Convention and custom are all powerful for most persons. In every society there are a few strong individualists who can defy custom, but such persons are in a minority. The great majority of mankind conforms to the customs of its group.

Beyond the level of custom, there are even more rigid patterns which we call institutions. An institution might be described as a relatively stable social pattern which governs actions in a given medium. In this sense, we could call civil society, the Church, the family, the neighborhood, or one of the learned professions institutions. They are groups with fairly fixed laws influencing and even governing the actions of individual members of the group. The life of the individual is affected by scores of institutions impinging upon every phase of his life. Even informal groups, such as a "gang" of boys or a social set, can have rigid codes to which members must conform. The nonconformist is usually ostracized, a penalty which is quite severe for most people.

In the economic sphere, there are similar pressures. Some are informal and almost intangible, constituting the general atmosphere of life. Businessmen in any community have a common loyalty which expresses itself in certain conventions. Professional men have their "codes of ethics," which as often express proprieties and customs as strict ethical obligations. Workers in a factory develop a body of custom which they enforce in an informal but highly effective manner. All these influences add up to a tone of society which may be good or bad, but which is usually controlling upon the individual.

The more formal institutions of economic life are practices and customs so widely accepted that they are often considered as economic law. For example,the philosophy of individualism [117] which prevailed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was profoundly influential. It expressed itself in unregulated competition in business and a laissez-faire attitude of government in the face of social abuses. It led to a pattern of business organization - some would call it disorganization- which deeply affected the whole economic community. When individualism was replaced by a trend toward concentration in the twentieth century, new patterns were set up. But their influence was equally great. They forced conformity upon unwilling businessmen and led to titanic struggles with labor which was challenging the dictatorial power of industry and finance.

Those who are interested in the reform of society must assess accurately the influence of customs and institutions. In the first place, the great majority of persons in any group are usually unwilling to challenge the social pattern of their community. They do not have the moral strength to be nonconformists. Hence any effort to bring about social reform merely by preaching individual obligations is bound to fail. Religious-minded individuals will observe the more obvious demands of commutative justice and charity. But, when confronted by such complex obligations as the living wage or the just price, they will plead inability to act differently from their competitors. Racial discrimination is another striking example of a strong, but vicious, institution.

In the second place, there are problems which could not be solved even by widespread individual good will. These are cases where the institutions of society are essentially inadequate. Thus, if every businessman in the United States agreed to practice commutative and distributive justice, it would be quite unlikely that this step would prevent depressions. The grave social evil of unemployment springs primarily from faulty institutions: the acceptance of customs and practices which make periodic disorganization inevitable. Complete social reform will be had only when economic institutions lead to general prosperity and the common good.

It does not follow from this that individual effort is wasted [118] or that leadership is not of vital importance. If :he individual has the moral courage to swim against the current and set an example of justice, these efforts will often bear fruit. Thus, an employer who would break a united front against unions and sign a union contract would be acting courageously. He might face social ostracism. But eventually his example might prove an excellent influence in his community. On the other hand, an employer who would try to pay a living wage in a badly disorganized industry might go bankrupt. He would be unable to withstand competition based on lower prices made possible by exploitive wages elsewhere. Such a vain effort might be called a social waste, since the business community would lose a highly conscientious employer. His efforts would have been better directed had he tried to organize the industry so that all could pay a living wage.

There is a definite place for leadership in bringing about social reform. At times this leadership can furnish notable examples of just conduct. It can be a protest against customs and conventions which are wrong or inadequate. But at other times the function of leadership demands more than individual good example. It may call for patient persuasion and education of others in the same social medium, so that basic institutions may be changed. Thus, a strongly entrenched labor leader might be able to set up a pattern of sound collective bargaining within his industry in defiance of a general union trend which he considers unsound. Individual leadership might be effective in this case. But a less secure leader would only lose his job by fighting the trend. He would be more successful were he to try to persuade union members and fellow officials that their current proposals would, in the long run, do them more harm than good. In this way, he would change his social medium so that it fostered the common good rather than immediate selfish interests of individuals.

These points are important in view of certain attitudes not uncommon in Catholic circles. Thus, the view is sometimes expressed that, if we preached religion, we would not need to [119] worry about social problems. Such a position badly underestimates the influence of institutions upon individual conduct. It places an impossible burden on the man of good will. Others stress individual leadership and example, as is the case with the Christopher movement. Emphasis upon leadership is good, but there are limitations to the power of example alone. Organized effort is often indispensable. Finally, there are Catholics who preach a spiritual isolationism. Their answer to the evils of society is a revolt through nonparticipation. The Catholic is to live up to the counsels of perfection and concentrate upon personal spiritual progress. But this individualism would be an abandonment of social justice, since it leaves society untouched. It is essentially selfish and nonapostolic. Our mission is to change the world, not abandon it to its fate.

Accordingly, social justice directs that the institutions and the moral atmosphere of a community be such that they promote the common good. Laws, customs, and attitudes should influence individual conduct in view of the welfare of all. Such institutions as government, business organizations, trade unions, farmer associations, lobbies, schools, and media for molding public opinion should seek general interests as well as particular ends. It is the duty of individuals to influence their groups in this direction. At times it may be their obligation to form organizations or to try to create customs for the same purpose. If these things are done, the social environment of the community will be healthy.

Social Justice: The Common Good. Sound organizations and institutions should promote the common good. This common good may be described as the conditions of social life which favor the proper ends of the individual members of a society. In the economic sphere, it would include established arrangements of a public nature which lead to prosperous production and equitable distribution of material goods. The relationship of common good  to particular goods, like that of society to the individual, is some what like that of the whole to the part. There are certain private ends which can best be obtained only in a well-functioning community. [120] Here, however, careful distinctions must be made to avoid the opposite errors of statism and individualism.

Statism exaggerates the rights of society. It correctly holds that there can be social ends apart from and superior to the private aims of members of society. There is a valid distinction between acts of a community and the sum of the individual actions of members of a community. But statism misconceives the function of society. It considers the community as an end in itself, to be fostered by all means, even at the expense of the basic rights of the individual. By contrast, sound ethics hold that society exists for the purpose of aiding its individual members. While it has superior rights, it must use its powers for the good of its components. Moreover, the common good has precedence over private goods only in the same moral sphere. Thus, where material things are concerned, the state would have a right to regulate property for the public welfare. But it could not rightly impair spiritual goods for material ends. If, for instance, a government were to forbid the training of students to the priesthood, on the grounds that material progress would be enhanced if such candidates became factory workers, it would be acting wrongly. The essential spiritual good furnished by the ministrations of the clergy is of a higher order than material aims. Even in the material sphere, it would be wrong for the state to take over functions already performed efficiently by individuals or lesser societies. Here the state would be considering itself an all-sufficient end, instead of a means for promoting the good of all.

By contrast, individualism errs in treating the common good as the mere sum of individual goods. It holds that if each person seeks his own interest in competition with his fellows, the net result would be a higher total of satisfaction than would be otherwise possible. This viewpoint is profoundly antisocial and hence contrary to human nature. It overlooks the fact that social organizations can contribute to the welfare of individuals. This is particularly true in the economic sphere, where organized action is often necessary to secure the general good. Thus, in a hilly country there may be a number of farms. The farmer whose [121] land is highest up might suffer only slightly from water erosion and hence not be disposed to take steps to prevent it. But, as various streams converge, they form a torrent which could ruin a low-lying farm. The common good would demand that all farmers take antierosion measures, in order to safeb and the low-level lands. If we were to consider obligations from an individual viewpoint only, this duty would be in charity, and heavy expense to the high-level farmers might excuse them from personal obligation. Here social justice applies and binds them to take group action, possibly to obtain government subsidy for the nonproductive expenses of the farmers on higher ground.

The examples given in terms of state intervention do not mean that the state is the only guardian of the common good. Some Catholic writers in the social field leave a false impression on this matter. There are many common goods, just as there are many societies. The family, the factory, the trade union, the city, the state, and the national government each have their own ends and corresponding areas of common good. The national government is only the highest among these societies. It should seek the general welfare of all, whereas particular societies seek the welfare of their own members, in subordination to the general  good of all. In terms of individual obligations, the individual is bound to procure the common good in all societies of which he is a member.

The various relations in this hierarchy of goods correspond to the hierarchy of ends and purposes in the universe. God is the supreme end of all. In regard to Him, everything else can be called a means to an end. Under Him are the spiritual and ma terial orders, with the spiritual in a position of predominance. Man's nature partakes of both orders, and he is also a member of society as well as an individual. Hence, man must balance the claims of spiritual and material goods, and individual and social ends in both spheres. Society exists to serve the individual, but it has its own rights which must be acknowledged if it is to fulfill its function. Hence, the common good, rightly conceived, comprises those conditions of society which are necessary means [122] for attaining individual goods. Since the individual cannot function normally without society, he must see that necessary and useful societies attain their proper ends. In acting socially, the individual does not lose his personality, but rather develops it in a way which would be impossible through solitary action. There is no denial of human personality in the statement that the common good has precedence over particular goods.

Briefly, the common good is served if each particular society is so organized that it serves both the welfare of its members and the entire community. The supreme co-ordinating society is the state, which directs lesser groups so that the common interest is secured. The extent of such intervention is controlled by the public interest; it would be wrong for the state to intervene when a smaller social organization is serving both the particular and the general common goods.

These abstract statements will take on more point and effectiveness when they are applied to particular problems in later chapters. But, even at this stage, it is clear that American life does not meet the ideal outlined here. Many of our economic societies are mere pressure groups, aiming to gain the most for their own members, whether or not the common good is obtained. There are even cases -racketeers in a few labor unions are an example - when they do not even seek the interests of their members. Because of this basic disorganization of economic life, there is terrific pressure for the state to force justice and morality upon the social order. While the state is doing its duty in meetit:g this need, the situation is not ideal. Excessive state intervention curbs initiative and destroys freedom. Social justice would envision a hierarchy of societies, each sentitive to the needs of the common good, with the state directing, stimulating, guiding, and co-ordinating such activities to the extent that the public interest demands.

What Social Justice Demands. Many conclusions follow from the study of social justice. The most important of them have been summarized by the Rev. William Ferree in his excellent doctoral dissertation, The Act of Social Justice, and his briefer pamphlet [123] study, "Introduction to Social Justice." Since his order of treatment differs from that used here, the present study will only high-light a few of his points not sufficiently emphasized hitherto.

Social justice demands that each individual or group be prepared to act appropriately so as to realize the common good. This involves first a willingness to subordinate private goods, or the common interests of lesser groups, to the general welfare. Secondly, it calls for both organization and co-operation to achieve this end. The realization of the common good will not come about by chance, much less by struggle and conflict between social groups. To secure this organization and unity, there must be freedom of association in a society. Men must be able to form into groups natural for the attaining of legitimate ends. Closely connected with this is the so-called principle of subsidiarity, holding that a higher and more powerful group should never arrogate to itself functions and powers which are being used properly by a smaller group. All this harmonizes with the nature of society, which is to serve man, not to crush him. Since smaller groups are generally closer to the individual, and
more easily controlled by him, they should have a favored position. But this is not to derogate from the other principle that the common good, at the highest level, has priority over lesser goods. As was noted above, the common good, rightly understood, brings about the greatest realization of particular goods.

It is evident from the nature of society that the work of social justice must be continuous. A given obligation in strict justice may be discharged and the transaction is concluded. But the problem of organizing the institutions of society for the common good is never done. Problems change. Leaders and rulers of groups are being constantly replaced. Hence there is no place for complacency, indifference, or neutrality. We are born into a complex world and must take our appropriate place in its societies, especially when they are necessary groups closely connected with the general good of all. The urgency of this duty is the greater because the problems of modern life are so momentous. [124] No man may shirk his share of the common burden. The implications of social justice have often been expressed in terms of certain principles which should govern group action. Thus, Father Trehey, in his dissertation, Foundations of a Modern Guild System, writes of the principles of liberty, organic structure, subsidiarity, self-government, graded structure, publiclegal status, general welfare, and state intervention in regard to "modern guilds." These principles are basically applications of social justice to the institutions of society. While they are often expressed as separate canons of social conduct, in reality they can be justified primarily in terms of the demands of social justice. They belong in two general categories insofar as they concern the structure of society and its functioning, particularly in relation to government. Structurally, an organic society best meets the demands of the common good. This involves a multitude of hierarchically graded and interrelated social institutions, each with relative autonomy but subject to the overriding demands of the common good. Thus, from the economic aspect, an organic society would involve organized groups of business, industry, finance, labor, the professions, and the farming community, substantially solving their own problems but co-operating with others for the common welfare, under the supreme authority of the state. As these social groups function, they should be accorded full freedom to work out their own ends, provided that this does not conflict with the common good (principle of subsidiarity; principle of autonomy). On the other hand, the state has the right and duty to intervene where the public welfare demands (principle of intervention). These points will be treated more at length in subsequent chapters, particularly Chapters VII and XIII.


The distinction between social justice and social charity is not easy to express, since both incline the individual to seek the common good. Justice emphasizes what is due to another. This aspect of "otherness" and "debt" is a necessary emphasis, particularly [125] in a society which tends toward the extremes of individualism. But at the same time, it is vital to stress the "oneness" of mankind. In seeking the common good, under social justice, we are also working for those bound to us in the charity of Christ. Social charity, as a generous concern for the good of the community, is a unifying principle over and above the organizing force of social justice. For this reason, the task of rebuilding the social order cannot be accomplished by justice alone.

Justice cannot bring about the complete union and harmony which will make society a smoothly functioning body. It cannot procure the generosity, patience, and tolerance needed in the slow years of transition between a disorganized society and one that is united in the interest of the common welfare. In fact, due to the frailty of human nature, it often happens that the vigorous quest for justice may actually drive men asunder. In theory, we can condemn injustice and yet not pass judgment on the motives of those who perpetrate injustice. In practice, we do not always separate the man from his deeds. Hence, were we content to limit ourselves to denouncing social injustice, we might actually divide society into warring classes. Thus, if organized labor were to attack some business practices, the effect might be to produce a united front of one group against the other. Even those who do not condone injustice might feel a sense of solidarity with their group which is being attacked. We might have a form of the class struggle occasioned by the pursuit of justice.

From this, of course, one should not conclude that the fight for justice should be slackened. Rather, it must be completed by the kindly bonds of charity. This is the more true since much social injustice is not necessarily a product of individual malice. Where the institutions of society are unsound, it is possible for well-meaning individuals to be caught in the snares of a bad system. Conventions, customs, and institutions lead them to practices which they may deplore, but feel helpless to remedy by themselves. Unless we take the pessimistic attitude that most men are evil, we should be willing to appeal to the better in stincts even of those who are enmeshed in objective evil. Without [126] such attitudes, it is difficult to see how we can achieve the cooperation and organization postulated by social justice.

Charity, in this sense, might be called benevolence toward one's fellow man in society. It is quite distinct from the form of the virtue most frequently associated with the word, namely, aid to the poor and distressed. Almsgiving and related practices are but one form of the Christian virtue of charity. Moreover, in the present context, charity toward the distressed must be subject to careful scrutiny. Good as it is in itself, it can never substitute for justice. We may not give to the worker as alms what is his due in justice. It is unfortunate that the English language doe not give us a word which expresses accurately the full Christian virtue of charity. Catholics generally use the word "charity," but to the general public this often means assistance to the un fortunate. Protestant divines prefer the term "love," but this ha. an emotional content in ordinary usage which is not necessarily inherent in the virtue of charity. Other terms, such as brotherhood, benevolence, and solidarity, likewise have their limita. tions. It may be possible that the phrase "social charity," used by Pope Pius XI, will gain acceptance as a technical description of the virtue in its present context.

Social charity fits in well with the demands deriving from the dignity of the human person. Many of these obligations, it is true, hold in terms of justice. But the recognition of a man's individual worth also calls for a certain good will toward him as a person. He does not then feel that he is submerged in a large group, whether this be civil society, a labor union, or a factory working force. Rather he senses the bonds of human relationship between himself and others, whether they be his fellow workers or his employer. Indeed, the prolific literature currently produced on human relations as a key to industrial labor relations is mainly an effort to implement the Christian virtue of charity. Personnel experts speak of the need for communication, participation, and teamwork in the factory. They stress individualized treatment of a worker's problems in the plant and elsewhere. Such techniques are said to be the key to the building of a happy [127] and efficient working force. Yet we do not exaggerate in saying that these human-relations programs could well be implementations of the commandment second only to the law of love for God.

Just as human-relations programs are the employer's expression of charity, so also we might call union-management harmony efforts the union's way of living up to this virtue. When a union seeks to meet with the employer on terms of co-operation rather than enmity, it is acting in a Christian fashion. The idea of essential class struggle is Marxist, not Christian. There is no inherent conflict between a worker's loyalty to his union and his loyalty to his company. Even granting the historical fact that many unions were formed to remedy injustice and hence often grew up in an atmosphere of bitterness, it is not necessary to perpetuate such attitudes. With intelligence and good will on both sides, relations of genuine friendliness are possible. Indeed, they are more common in American industry than is generally realized. Furthermore, personal contacts between union officials and industrial leaders, particularly in solving common problems, can bring about a mutual respect which is the prelude for deep co-operation. Such a phenomenon was observed in various joint government committees during World War II, such as the War Labor Board or the War Production Board.

In the socioeconomic field, co-operation is often facilitated by referring to issues as problems, which they often are, rather than immediately denouncing them as injustices. A problem offers a challenge to the participants to reach a solution. Discussions may be had as to feasible methods of meeting the issue. After much  give-and-take, it is often possible to. reach a sound conclusion. By contrast, denunciations and the proposal of ready-made solutions often stir up resentments. A man who is condemned for practicing injustice often feels bound to defend his position and yields only reluctantly and with poor grace. But if the same man is asked to co-operate in meeting a problem, even though it is mainly of his own making, he often shows more good will Furthermore, he can thus save face without difficulty.

[128] There are two aspects to social problems which are often overlooked. The first is that in most controversies both parties have legitimate interests which they are trying to safeguard. It is rare that social conflict arises from injustices so clear that right is completely on one side or the other. Most problems involve intricate relationships and delicate balancing of rights. Justice itself compels us to make this distinction, but social charity makes it easier to practice this type of justice. Moreover, a second and interrelated point must be considered in matters of social reform: the fact that change is normally a slow process of adaptation of the old to the new. A situation which may seem ideal from the viewpoint of abstract theory may be quite impractical in terms of prudent policy. In our complex society, a change in one sphere may involve thousands of changes in related spheres. Hence conservatism is a natural human trait and should not necessarily be denounced as reactionary. Here again social charity, by inducing understanding of motives, permits pressure for needed change without causing revolutionary disruption.

These reflections may be helpful to Catholics who are concerned with problems of social justice. Too often we are prone to denounce the evil and propose a solution, forgetting completely the human problem involved in reaching this solution. Resounding denunciations may give some persons psychological satisfaction, but they are not always constructive. It is frequently better to approach the individuals concerned and work out with them a program which meets the needs under discussion. If this fails, and patient persuasion seems vain, then it may be appropriate to unlimber the weapons of condemnation. But our first task is to bring social groups together, and this point must always be considered in facing a particular issue.

The virtue of charity is the unique contribution of the Christian. Justice is so clearly a natural virtue that all right-thinking men acknowledge its worth. Many who have no religion have become stanch defenders of justice in the social field. But the benevolence which unites does not come so easily to the nonreligious man. Generous good will which goes beyond rights [129] and seeks to bring people together is best promoted by religion. It is true that a case could be made for social unity merely in the interests of more efficient production. But somehow human beings do not react well to this type of "enlightened selfishness." This fact explains the checkered history of many "welfare schemes" in industry. Some firms have been successful with profit-sharing and like devices, while others have found them to be failures. In all likelihood, one of the most important factors in their success or failure has been the degree of real benevolence which permeated them. Men respond to genuine good will. But they suspect benefits if they do not trust the motives of those who confer them. Human hearts are won by virtues in others, not by clever schemes and ingenious programs. The charity of Christ triumphs where cold "realism" fails.


There are many other virtues which could affect economic life. Insofar as they affect primarily the spiritual welfare of the individual, they will be noted later in Chapter XIV. At that point, the stress is upon spiritual reform as a means of bringing about social reform. But where a virtue is more significant for its effect upon the social order, rather than in terms of individual perfection, it would be more appropriate to consider it in this general chapter. St. Thomas mentions four such virtues: beneficence, almsgiving, liberality, and munificence; and three of these are noted by Pope Pius XI.

Beneficence is the doing of good to others. It is an act of friendship and kindness. Technically, it is but a phase or manifestation of the greater virtue of charity. However, it is especially valuable in the socioeconomic field, since it spurs men to seek the welfare of others. It makes them more willing to bring about the reign of justice, while at the same time it tempers the harshness of justice with kindness and good will. Beneficence can be contagious. Good will is often returned in kind whereas justice alone often leaves men unfriendly and cold.

Almsgiving involves giving to the needy for motives of compassion [130] and love of God. Again, it is technically a phase of charity, with the special aspect of mercy. We are commanded to help the needy with our superfluous goods. [See note 2 at end of document] The definition of "superfluous" is relative, not absolute. Obligations of family and position in life would make the area of superfluous income different in various situations. A wealthy and aged bachelor would have fewer relative necessities than a younger family man receiving the same income. From the broad social aspect, however, two observations must be made about almsgiving. First, it should never be a substitute for justice. An employer who pays miserable wages would not even matters by donating generously to a community hospital. His first duty is to his own workers. In the second place, intelligent giving of wealth can contribute in a modest but definite manner to the easing of social tensions. The fact that the wealthy use their superfluous income for sound community projects removes some of the ill feeling which might arise from too great disparity in the distribution of incomes. The poorer groups would feel that the wealthy have a certain sense of trusteeship in regard to their money. Less envy or resentment would be felt under such circumstances. Moreover, intelligent philanthropy can bring public benefits not otherwise possible. Many projects, worthy in themselves, might not be suitable for government support. Nor could they exist on the basis of general public contributions. Private donations in substantial amounts have done much good in this borderline field.

Liberality is a virtue connected with the right use of external goods, particularly in the economic field. It manifests itself mainly through giving, on the basis of the Scriptural maxim that it is more blessed to give than to receive. This virtue calls for a middle position between prodigality and avarice. These extremes manifest unsound attitudes toward wealth, with the prodigal [131] overlooking its useful function, while the avaricious man exaggerates its worth. Money should be considered a means to secure higher ends, not a goal in itself. It should be used for the good of the owner and his family, with superfluous funds freely expended in a way that will help one's neighbor. Liberality thus might at times lead to almsgiving, and at other times to risking funds in investments which would be a service to the community. This second field has the greatest social implications today. In our present economic system, there must be a continual flow of new investments to maintain job opportunities for an expanding population. New enterprises also absorb workers displaced by more efficient machines or methods of production. At the same time, existing American tax laws make such investments more hazardous financially than was formerly the case. Wealthy persons are tempted to put their funds into government bonds, taking a small but certain return. By contrast, the virtue of liberality would incline the wealthy to assume the risk involved in financing new job-producing enterprises. At the same time, it would not preclude their pressing for more skillful tax laws, which could encourage investment without giving up the principle of distributive justice which considers ability to pay an important factor in setting tax rates.

A special form of liberality is munificence, or the parting With great sums of money. This indicates a great freedom of spirit in regard to possession of external goods and a notable devotion to the common welfare. A common form of this virtue is the establishing of foundations with large fortunes as their bases. Many worth-while community enterprises have been fostered in this manner. Substantial donations to hospitals, schools, and universities, works of charity, and religious enterprises would belong in this category. An interesting example with socioeconomic implications is the setting aside of a fund to promote new enterprises involving unusual financial risk but holding great promise for the community. A wealthy American family is currently supporting such a project. Another illustration would be the giant limited-dividend and relatively low-cost housing programs [132] sponsored by a large insurance company. Such use of wealth could promote social goals and mitigate the evils which might otherwise be expected from large concentrations of funds and of economic power.

From the examples given, it is clear that these so-called subsidiary virtues can bring about good results in the socioeconomic field. In this context, they are far less important than the great virtues of justice and charity. But they involve attitudes toward wealth which could lessen social tensions and develop enterprises not otherwise attainable. So long as we have large fortunes, especially if they are accumulated without injustice, it is good that they should be used for the common welfare. Today the trend is away from large personal fortunes. Many factors, but primarily tax laws, make it difficult for an individual to accumulate great wealth. The result is that nonprofit organizations, which must be subsidized to survive, are turning more and more to seek government help. The state is thereby increasing its already large area of power and influence. Perhaps this trend is inevitable, in view of the great changes wrought by wars and depressions. But to the extent that private subsidies, by individuals, corporations, labor unions, and the like, are possible, they tend to enlarge the area of freedom and diminish centralized control.


1.One of the most recent studies of the problem is La Giustizia Sociale by A. Brucculeri (Rome: La Civilta Cattolica, 1948). Father Brucculeri holds that social justice is not really distinct from legal justice. A different position is advocated by W. Ferree in The Act of Social Justice (Washington: Catholic University of America, 1942) and J. Messner in his article "Soziale Gerechtigkeit" in Staatslexikon (Freiburg in B.: Herder, 1937). Pesch's position is given in his Lehrbuch der Nationaldkonom:e (Freiburg in B.: Herder, 7905), 1, p. 765, and ll, pp. 272-275. The present treatment follows Ferree and Messner.

2. St. Thomas asks the question whether we are obliged to contribute from things which are necessary for our own existence. He denies that such an obligation exists, but states that such an action would be praiseworthy if it were done for some public person, eminent in either civil or ecclesiastical society. In such a case, a man might expose himself or his family even to the danger of death, "since the common good is to be preferred to one's particular good" (II, II, 32, 6). This is another illustration of St. Thomas' stress on the primacy of the common good.


J. Messner, Social Ethics, pp. 122-235, 793-794.
St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Thcologica, II, III, p. 32, 33, 58, 61, 117, 134.
W. Ferree, The Act of Social justice.
________, "Introduction to Social Justice."
J. A. Ryan, Distributive Justice.
E. Cahill, Framework of a Christian State, Chaps. 24-27.
G. C. Rutten, La doctrine sociale de l'Eglise, Chap. 4. V.
Michel, Christian Social Reconstruction, Chap. 1 and Appendix.
J. B. Desrosiers, Soyons justes, Vol. 1.
W. J. McDonald, The Social Value of Property According to St. Thomas Aquinas, Chap. 2.
H. F. Trehey, Foundations o f a Modern Guild System, Chap. 3.