March 09, 2023

Students feed the hungry on a cold day at the Father McKenna Center in St. Aloysius Church in Washington, D.C. in 2019.

In late February, Pope Francis tweeted, “#Socialjustice demands that we fight against the causes of poverty.” The tweet sparked conversation online about social justice and its relationship to Christianity. Students, faculty, staff and clergy at The Catholic University of America consider caring for the common good integral to the character of the campus community. They shared why in a series of interviews.

The origins of social justice

The term “social justice” was first used in the 19th century by Catholic philosophers and theologians, although concern for the poor and the needy is as ancient as the Church itself. The concept of social justice officially and formally entered Catholic social teaching with Pope Pius XI’s 1931 encyclical Quadragesimo anno, according to Church, State, and Society: An Introduction to Catholic Social Doctrine by J. Brian Benestad (CUA Press)

David Cloutier, ordinary professor and area director of moral theology and ethics, is an expert on papal social encyclicals. He explained that the teaching addresses the impact a person’s actions have on others and the necessary social conditions for human flourishing. 

“Social justice is first and foremost about doing what you are supposed to do to support others and the common good, but it is also about governments fostering conditions under which every person can fulfill their duties and exercise their rights,” said Cloutier. 

Cloutier explained that for him, “social justice is a matter of acting every day to do what's right, and raising your voice in your own institution if something can be made right.” In his daily life, he explained that he is “especially focused on acting justly in relation to our shared environment and in relation to our social tendency to consumerism.”

“Social justice should shape our care for our common home, and it should make us concerned with other people, rather than just consuming more and more stuff,” said Cloutier.


Modern misunderstandings of social justices 

Lucia Silecchia, associate dean of faculty research and professor of law at the Columbus School of Law, said Church teaching affirms the “social aspect of justice recognizes that human life is lived in communities and in societies.” 

She said modern misunderstandings of “social justice” come from an “unsound view of what is due to all” or if the focus is “only on material goods to the exclusion of spiritual, familial and social goods.”

“The Church's response is to call us to focus on Christ, to the obligation to pair justice with charity, and to that radical personal conversion that can change the world,” said Silecchia. 

The campus witness to service

Father Teodosio (Teo) Brea, associate chaplain at the University, said service and sensibility for the poor are an expression of faith and an authentic fruit of Christian discipleship. 

“The call is to everyone. If you have encountered Jesus, there is no excuse not to proclaim it,” said Father Teo. 

Many students support the mission of Campus Ministry by serving as resident ministers and House ministers, programs where upper-class students reach out to peers and first-year students.

Father Teo said Pope Francis would be proud of Campus Ministry’s efforts in social justice.

“He would be really happy. All the service that is motivated through this office wants to express our faith, that’s the deepest motivation for service in the Catholic Church,” said Father Teo. “One of the authentic traits of a disciple is they have Jesus’ sensibility for the poor.”


Students lead social justice discussions

 Last fall, senior sociology and French student Grace Riordan and other students partnered with Campus Ministry’s Cardinal Service Corps (CSC) to form the Social Justice Education Committee, a group that encourages social justice dialogue among students.

With a passion for social justice, Riordan has been involved in service work at the University since her first year, and has been a leader in CSC for almost three years.

The committee hosted a discussion in November on Henriette Delille, an African American candidate for sainthood who founded a religious order in 1842 dedicated to serving the impoverished, especially children and the elderly. The program is planning an upcoming discussion on Catholic social teaching principles and war aid in Ukraine.

“I think as Christians we have a duty of mutuality with people that we come into contact with,” said Riordan. “Even if they don't look like us or they don’t have the same life histories as us, we are all people; we deserve to be able to share ourselves with others.”