A rich history of social justice

A rich history of social justice
A Parent’s Perspective


My daughter is studying history for the Leaving Certificate and was quizzing me recently about the differences between communism and socialism. I was just about to settle down to watch a film so I took the easy option of playing a few YouTube videos and referring to George Orwell’s Animal Farm with the memorable lines: “All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.”

I was reading an article recently about support for socialism among young people in the US and the results of a Gallup survey which found that 57% of Democrats now hold a favourable view of socialism. It turned out that many millennials, while praising socialism, didn’t know what it actually encompassed.

A New York Times survey from 2010 found that only 16% of millennials could actually define socialism. Some of the analysis of the survey results focused on how some young people may have an image of socialism favouring the poor and the underdog, viewing capitalism as being beneficial to the rich and exploitative. When the word ‘socialism’ was replaced with ‘government-managed economy’, there was much less support among those being questioned.

Social media

If you are brave enough to dip into social media to follow discussions on political debates around issues like poverty, homelessness and the gap between rich and poor, there are extreme opinions on both sides. One viewpoint increasingly blames those who are rich for all the world’s woes and just stops short of advocating for the forceful acquisition of private property and assets. On the other side are those who view those who are struggling as victims of their own incompetence or laziness which can be remedied if they just pull themselves up by the bootstraps.

There’s often a bit of confusion about what angle Christians should be taking when it comes to the big social and economic issues of our time. I’ve noticed a bit of a swing to right wing politics among some friends and acquaintances.

I’ve always liked that expression “only angels have wings”, and think that the best guide for Catholic parents who are faced with tricky questions about justice and fairness in our society is the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church which brings together in a systematic way the key insights and developments in the tradition of Catholic social teaching.

Our aim should be to be passionately involved with everything that happens in society and that includes taking an avid interest in politics but always remembering that we are followers of the God of love, justice and truth, a fact that should inform all our actions.

In our own family circles we can see the results of viewing social concern for others as optional. Almost every family has been affected by the crisis in healthcare in Ireland. It’s a social injustice that children with scoliosis are suffering severe pain and mental distress while they languish on waiting lists for surgery.

There’s always great interest in the yearly Budget but without an underlying respect for the dignity of every human being, not much changes.

DOCAT is a popular adaptation of the Church’s social doctrine as it has been developed in various documents since Pope Leo XIII. I’ve been reading sections to my children about the challenge of working for greater justice in the world. It’s amazing the conversations that are sparked off by just posing some of the questions in the book like “what is the relation between work and family life?” or “what can the State and society do for families?”


In my own family, there was a lively discussion about the sub-minimum rates of pay with my 17-year-old daughter feeling aggrieved at the rate of €6.69 per hour for those under 18 years old, a mere 70% of the minimum wage. With much discussion in the media about pay parity between men and women, she felt that the pay gap between those over 18 and under 18 is largely ignored. It did strike me that the least you’d hand a young person for an hour’s work is €10 to €12 and even that seems inadequate for an hour’s hard work.

Another topic for family discussion is the housing crisis. While those who are homeless are the obvious victims of rising rents and housing supply problems, my own two married sons and their wives are renting properties with no immediate prospect of being able to afford to buy suitable homes.

Rerum Novarum, Pope Leo Xlll’s encyclical which deals with capital and labour, is very strong on the right to possess private property: “If working people can be encouraged to look forward to obtaining a share in the land, the consequence will be that the gulf between vast wealth and sheer poverty will be bridged over and the respective classes will be brought nearer to one another.”

This founding father of modern social doctrine also positioned himself on the side of the worker affirming the right to proper working conditions, a just wage, labour unions and the right to strike. His most challenging statement plainly stated that “once the demands of necessity and propriety have been met, the rest that one owns belongs to the poor”.

We all could ponder on these words and delve deeper into the Catholic Church’s rich social doctrine which offers an authentic vision for modern life unlike failed ideologies which never deliver on their utopian fantasies.