Q. I’m puzzled by a news item that the recent Vatican instruction about theological problems within the "Leadership Conference" of nuns describes one such problem as their minimizing abortion while exaggerating the evils of social injustice. Can this be true? Isn’t social injustice (e.g., failure to take a stand in behalf of the poor) as wrong as abortion?
A. The question here, I think, represents a misreading of a sentence in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s "Doctrinal Assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious" (Section II, Para. 6). There we read the following:
"The documentation [e.g., data culled from a study begun in June 2010] reveals that, while there has been a great deal of work on the part of LCWR promoting issues of social justice in harmony with the Church’s social doctrine, it is silent on the right to life from conception to natural death, a question that is part of the lively public debate about abortion and euthanasia in the United States."
Obviously there is something seriously wrong with a perceived failure on the part of some Sisters to acknowledge the evil of abortion. What the Vatican was citing about this failure is that abortion is the Number One violation of social justice in our times.
The phrase, "social justice," one should note, is not always understood as the virtue which describes society’s provision of "the conditions that allow associations of individuals to obtain what is their due, according to their nature and their vocations." (See Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1928). But this is not necessarily how the secular world views the concept.
Interestingly, whereas the concept itself of social justice reflects the national moral law and Revelation (the Old Testament Book of Amos, for one example), the phrase is of relatively recent coinage. St. Thomas Aquinas included the concept under the category of general or legal justice.
A quick reference to the New Catholic Encyclopedia suggests that the phrase "social justice" was ushered into Catholic theology by Jesuit Luigi Taparelli d’Azeglio in 1840. Later, French and German theological commentators employed it. But it eventually found its way into Magisterial doctrine when Pope Pius XI used it several times in his great encyclical, Quadragesimo Anno (1931). However, a precise definition from Rome did not occur until 1937 in Pius XI’s encyclical Divini Redemptoris. Pope Pius XII used the phrase, albeit not often, and usually in the sense of aligning conditions for the common good.
Today the term retains its original nebulous meaning, so much so that it often needs precise definition whenever it occurs. There are some today (I have heard this personally on TV) who use the phrase as an alternate form of socialism – an obvious misuse, of course.