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James Martin, S.J.March 08, 2010

Glenn Beck said last week on his eponymous radio and television shows that Christians should leave churches that preach “social justice.” Mr. Beck equated the desire for a just society with—wait for it—Nazism and Communism. 

I'm begging you, your right to religion and freedom to exercise religion and read all of the passages of the Bible as you want to read them and as your church wants to preach them . . . are going to come under the ropes in the next year. If it lasts that long it will be the next year. I beg you, look for the words 'social justice' or 'economic justice' on your church Web site. If you find it, run as fast as you can. Social justice and economic justice, they are code words. Now, am I advising people to leave their church? Yes.

Of course this means that you would have to leave the Catholic Church, which has long championed that particular aspect of the Gospel.  The term “social justice” originated way back in the 1800s (and probably predates even that) and has been continually underlined by the Magisterium (the teaching authority of the church) and popes since Leo XIII, who began the modern tradition of Catholic social teaching with his encyclical on capital and labor, Rerum Novarumin 1891.  Subsequent popes have built on Leo’s work, continuing the church’s meditation on a variety of social justice issues, in such landmark documents as Pope Pius XI’s encyclical on "the reconstruction of the social order," Quadregismo Anno(1931), Paul VI’s encyclical "on the development of peoples," Populorum Progressio (1967), and John Paul II’s encyclical "on the social concerns of the church" Sollicitudo Rei Socialis(1987).  Social justice also undergirds much of Catholic social teaching on peace.  “If you want peace,” said Pope Paul VI, “work for justice.” 

Perhaps you think that this is just the work of a few popes.  Not so.  In 1971, the World Synod of Bishops in its document "Justice in the World," wrote that it was a constitutive dimension of the Gospel:  "Action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world fully appear to us as a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the Gospel, or, in other words, of the Church's mission for the redemption of the human race and its liberation from every oppressive situation." The Compendium of the Social Teaching of the Church, published by the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, says this:

The Church's social Magisterium constantly calls for the most classical forms of justice to be respected: commutative, distributive and legal justice. Ever greater importance has been given to social justice, which represents a real development in general justice, the justice that regulates social relationships according to the criterion of observance of the law. Social justice, a requirement related to the social question which today is worldwide in scope, concerns the social, political and economic aspects and, above all, the structural dimension of problems and their respective solutions....

Justice is particularly important in the present-day context, where the individual value of the person, his dignity and his rights — despite proclaimed intentions — are seriously threatened by the widespread tendency to make exclusive use of criteria of utility and ownership.

Oh, and social justice is not just some silly foreign idea.  American Catholics know that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops have an Office of Justice, Peace and Human Development.  On that website the U.S. bishops say: “At the core of the virtue of solidarity is the pursuit of justice and peace.  Our love for all our sisters and brothers demands that we promote peace in a world surrounded by violence and conflict.” I.e., social justice.

Okay, you get it, right?  Social justice is an essential part of Catholic teaching.  It's part of being a Catholic.  So Glenn Beck is, in essence, saying “Leave the Catholic church.”  Or, if you like, the Catholic church is a Nazi church.  (Which would have surprised Alfred Delp, Rupert Mayer and Maximilian Kolbe.)  Or a Communist one. (Which would have suprised Jerzy Popieluszko and Karol Wojtyla).

But Glenn Beck is saying something else, which might get lost in the translation: Leave Christianity.  Again and again in the Gospels, Jesus points to our responsibility to care for the poor, to work on their behalf, to stand with them.  In fact, when asked how his followers would be judged, Jesus doesn’t say that it will be based on where you worship, or how you pray, or how often you go to church, or even what political party you believe in.  He says something quite different: It depends on how you treat the poor.

In the Gospel of Matthew (Chapter 25) he tells his surprised disciples, that when you are meeting the poor, you are meeting him.  They protest: “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?' And the king will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

But our responsibility to care for “the least of these” does not end with simple charity.  Giving someone some money, or clothes, or shelter, is an important part of the Christian message.  But so is advocating for them.  It is not enough simply to help the poor, one must address the structures that keep them poor.  Standing up for the rights of the poor is not being a Nazi, it’s being a Christian.  And a Communist?  It’s hard not to think of the retort of the great apostle of social justice, Dom Helder Camara, archbishop of Recife, “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint.  When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist."  

The attack on social justice is the tack of those who wish to ignore the concerns of the poor and ignore the social structures that foster poverty.  It's not hard to see why people are tempted to do so.  How much easier life would be if we didn’t have to worry about the poor! How bothersome--or to use John Paul's felicitous word on this topic--"irksome," they are!  How much more comfortable it woud be if we could focus only on our personal piety!  How much easier life would be if we didn’t have to worry about unjust social structures!   

But ignoring the poor, and ignoring what keeps them poor, is, quite simply, unchristian.  Indeed, the poor are the church in many ways.  When St. Lawrence, in the fourth century, was ordered by the prefect of Rome to turn over the wealth of the church, Lawrence presented to him the poor.

Glenn Beck's desire to detach social justice from the Gospel is a subtle move to detach care for the poor from the Gospel.  But a church without the poor, and a church without a desire for a just social world for all, is not the church.  At least not the church of Jesus Christ. 

Who was, by the way, poor. 

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Benedict Cross
13 years 9 months ago
Fr. martin is way off the mark here. First i am a Catholic, in fact my entire family is and my brother is a seminarian with the Commboni Missionaries, so i am speaking from truth not bias. the paraphrased excerpt of Glenn Becks statement has been edited to feel more combative towards our faith and even christianity. If you do the research you will easily see and hear exactly what Mr. Beck said, and it is not what Fr. Martin makes it out to be. Fr. Martin keeps making his case for "charity" and "love" and even goes so far as to point out that our Lord and Saviour was himself "poor". Glenn Beck is'nt talking about being charitable or living in a just world, he is talking about "social and economic justice" as it relates to nazism, marxism and gradualism, wich lead to socialism, something that our CHURCH has fought against, Fr. Martin!!! this is something our current president is trying to push and by writing this unresearched biased non-sense Fr. Martin is backing a man who said about abortion,"I dont want my daughters being punished with a baby". Glenn Beck never called our church a Nazi church or a Communist one, just because he is from a faith we believe to be a cult doesnt mean he cant speak or shed light on truth, shame on you Fr. Martin. do your homework next time and stop taking pot shots at others in the name of my faith! you do not represent my beliefs or even the true teaching of our church here. Anyone here who is brave enough should do the research and find the truth for themselves. I am proud to be a Catholic, but this ignorance is embarassing.
Joe LeChuga
13 years 9 months ago
John and Fr. Cross (above) I believe got it right. It is obvious that Fr. Martin has not truly listened to Mr. Beck on this topic, (or any other). Beck is very explicit on what he means by Social Justice and it is not the same definition as identified by The Holy Church. 
As John explained above, Beck's problem is with FORCED taxation for government run programs in the name of Social Justice. History has shown us that these types of programs have been tried before and they always devolve into very bad situations for some segment of that society. Something The Church rightly stands against.
This last week was Catholic Charities Sunday. The second collection was for them. The director of our local Catholic Charities group spoke at all the masses. She mentioned the social justice and other programs they coordinate. This IS NOT the type of Social Justice Beck is talking about!
As Christians we are obligated to help our neighbors, as Christ commanded us to do. However, as said above, this is our PERSONAL obligation. As Christians, or as a group of Christians (Catholic Charities) this command falls on us. It is NOT a function of the government (no matter how alturistic it sounds).
13 years 12 months ago
I think Fr. Jim and Beck may be on opposite sides of the same coin - one far to the left and the other far to the right.  One focused only on hard-headed truth and the other only on soft-hearted love. 
Here is what Pope Benedict says on the matter of social justice from ''Jesus of Nazarath':
Jesus is not indifferent toward men's hunger, their bodily needs, but he places these things in the proper context and the proper order.''
''The German Jesuit Alfred Delp, who was executed by the Nazis, once wrote: Bread is important, freedom is more important, but most important of all is unbroken fidelity and faithful adoration.''
When this ordering of goods is no longer respected, but turned on its head, the result is not justice or concern for human suffering.  The result is rather ruin and destruction even of material goods themselves.''
So, combine the Right a la Beck (truth) and the Left a la Martin (love) and you get Benedict and the true Catholic faith (the proper order of Truth and Love as shown by Christ)...
Stanley Kopacz
13 years 12 months ago
If Glenn Beck said "two plus two equals four". I'd have to reconsider the multiplication table.  I don't think he would say it, though, because it is correct.
Is Father Martin watching Glenn Beck as a Lenten penance?  I'd rather flagellate myself with a poison jellyfish.  But, seriously, I admire Father Martin's strength in suffering that man long enough to comment on one of his neverending stupidities.
I'm afraid that if I were to click on that embedded video of Glenn, I'd end up doing to my flatscreen what Elvis used to do to television sets. 
Beth Cioffoletti
13 years 12 months ago
"The modern conservative is engaged in one of man's oldest exercises in moral philosophy: that is the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness." ~ John Kenneth Galbraith
Jim McCrea
13 years 12 months ago
It's interesting that Beck, an avowed Mormon, is against social justice.  He obviously has failed to learn from his church's policy of storing food and other items to help others (albeit Mormons usually) in a time of need.
13 years 12 months ago
I watched this little video and couldn't get much out of it except that nazis and communist emphasized the concept of social justice.  It is only 40 seconds on my computer.  Is there a longer video some place?
13 years 12 months ago
Social justice is at the heart of Jesus' teaching, and anyone wondering if that is still the position of the Catholic church today should read Benedict XVI's encyclical ''CARITAS IN VERITATE.''  
Those who think Benedict XVI fits into some imaginary politically ''centrist'' position on the environment, the plight of workers, the immigrants and the poor are most encouraged to click the link and read.   If Benedict then is dismissed as some fringe liberal, then there are the pages of the New Testament to study for the many passages which have to do with our obligation to help the poor, the oppressed, the stranger in need.  
Mary Smith
13 years 12 months ago
Joe, I have no doubt that you could find numerous articles addressing Nancy Pelosi and other leaders who support abortion.  Articles that would expressly condemn their views as sinful and counter to Jesus teachings.
The difference is those leaders did not go on the air directly addressing viewers and telling them to leave the church.  Glenn Beck did.  And he deserves to be called out for it.
Marc Monmouth
13 years 12 months ago
I was wondering. If we're really concerned about people who do not suscribe to Church teachings, wouldn't we address the whole gamut?  Why not an article: "Nancy Pelosi to Christ: Drop Dead!"  Speaker Pelosi has stated that her support for abortion is not inconsistent with the teachings of Christ and His Church!  Just wondering!
C Atki
13 years 12 months ago
Hold on...there is a difference between voluntarily aiding the poor as the Lord commanded, and being compelled to do so by governmental force. Mr. Beck is warning against religions that favor such governmental force. This much is clear when you consider his own beliefs which also espouse giving to the poor and the needy.
Let's keep things in context here. I know he may have rubbed catholics the wrong way with this one...and he could have been more sensitive to people's beliefs...but nowhere did he say to Jesus "Drop Dead."
PJ Johnston
13 years 12 months ago
I wonder if someone could do a "follow the money" analysis of Beck and demonstrate connections with the Institute on Religion and Democracy.  This sounds like a familiar move from the IRD playbook - trying to destabilize Christian groups (especially the mainline Protestants) by characterizing social justice teachings as "political activism," using the press to magnify disagreements within denominations, and finally throwing money at lobbies that grow up within affected denominations (such as dissident US Anglicans) in order to generate maximum damage.
13 years 12 months ago
2425 The Church has rejected the totalitarian and atheistic ideologies associated in modem times with "communism" or "socialism." She has likewise refused to accept, in the practice of "capitalism," individualism and the absolute primacy of the law of the marketplace over human labor.207 Regulating the economy solely by centralized planning perverts the basis of social bonds; regulating it solely by the law of the marketplace fails social justice, for "there are many human needs which cannot be satisfied by the market."208 Reasonable regulation of the marketplace and economic initiatives, in keeping with a just hierarchy of values and a view to the common good, is to be commended.

Perhaps this is what Beck was attempting to define.
Marc Monmouth
13 years 12 months ago
Mary Clarence, I'm sure there are articles regarding Nancy Pelosi's adamant rejection of life and her opposition to Church teachings, but it would be nice to read them in America and not have to seek them out in other sources. For the record, Speaker Pelosi did voice her views on Sunday morning talk shows.  Let us pray that all Church teachings will find favor and people will see the wisdom ot those teachings.
Nathan Nelson
13 years 12 months ago
Joe (post 13), as a Mormon, I would like to apologize for Beck's comments.  He is (as you pointed out) ill-informed in regard to how we are taught to treat our neighbors.  I am often frustrated by the immediate link to the church that he illicits.  I'm sure this is not how all Mormons believe.
Greg Stone
13 years 12 months ago
Fr. Martin took Beck out of context. And failed to respond to Beck's assertion regarding the nature of the Social Justice movement within the Church.
Beck did not tell Jesus to drop dead. He put a spotlight on those who confuse Jesus with Marx, Mao, Alinsky, Obama, and others who propose policies that do not help the poor - as Jesus wished to do - but rather hurt the poor by taking away freedoms, including the freedom to exercise faith-based conscience.
Fr. Martin would have been better served by explaining the Church's misguided excursions into Marxist side roads and funding of groups such as Acorn, which do not reflect Church teachings.
Fr. Martin would have been better served by explaining how the Church differs from those who use the power of government to amass power for special interests such as unions.
He would have been better served by explaining the difference between the gospels and the teachings of Marx, Alinsky, Mao, and the policies of Andy Stern, Rahm Emanuel, George Soros, Cass Sunstein and others who co-opt social justice for special interest power.
In the gospels the only account we find of a religious body seeking the coercive power of government to achieve their aims concerns the Pharisess soliciting the help of Pilate.
Fr. Martin would have been more effective using discernment rather than ridicule.
13 years 12 months ago
There is a very informed discussion on this topic at First Things if anyone is interested
One issue is just what is meant by the term ''social justice?''
Eric Stoltz
13 years 12 months ago
Chris, You seem to be giving Beck the benefit of the doubt. Yet he could not have been more clear: he specifically told his listerners to leave any church that preaches social justice. How much more direct can he be? He did not qualify it in the way you describe.
Did he say ''Drop dead'' to Jesus? If he calls concern for the poor a communist plot, then how does he not fall into the category Jesus described in the 25th chapter of Matthew: ''whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.'' So yes, if Mr. Beck gives a figurative ''drop dead'' to the poor, he is saying that to Jesus.
Mr. Beck's offense is compounded because he not only rejects our responsibility to the poor, but urges others to do so as well. That is what we call the sin of scandal.
Beth Cioffoletti
13 years 12 months ago
There is a difference between social justice and giving to the poor.
Social Justice establishes a society in which the opportunities and fruits (profits) of that society are available to everyone.  Workers are paid livable wages.  Healthcare is affordable to all. 
Peter Maurin says that the world would be better off if people tried to be better, instead of better off, that everyone would be rich, if no one tried to be richer, and no one would be poor, if everyone tried to be the poorest.  That's radical, I know, but it is the heart of social justice and the Gospel of Jesus.
James Lindsay
13 years 12 months ago

If lowering taxes led to adequate volutary charity, then charities would be bursting at the seems for all the contributions they would be getting. Instead, with tax rates at their lowest levels since before World War II, most charities are underfunded.

Private charity cannot be relied upon to fund the poor, because currently it lacks an effective and efficient allocation mechanism. The government has not been perfect in this either, but there is certainly less domestic poverty now than in any previous generation in America. Elderly poverty has almost ended - except for those who must become wards of the state to pay for long term health care. There also remains the problem of working poverty - which does not involve confiscation and with the Church is rightly concerned. This involves the justice of how people are paid, especially in labor markets that are not free (due to barriers of entry - including those posed by linguistic, racial and sexual discrimination). The Church is very much concerned with these.

The fact that the von Mises Institute believes that no such barriers exist, or that they are not important, makes adhering to their philosophy dangerous for Catholics.
Livia Fiordelisi
13 years 12 months ago
What idiocy. It's a mystery to me why so many people listen to this disturbed man.
Joseph Puente
13 years 12 months ago
Beck is a Mormon (a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints [lds]). Look what I found on the official web site of the Church LDS.org when I searched for "social justice":
"Some skeptics see the Bible as the enemy of history and science without realizing that, in part, it made science and history possible. Surrounding Israel were religions of accommodation that merely sought to help people survive in, not change, their worlds. In contrast, 'Judaism … affirmed that [history] was a meaningful process leading to the gradual regeneration of humanity.' By introducing the concept of linear historical progress—the idea that because history is leading to a millennial state, our actions matter in helping create a better world—the Old Testament inspired great changes in human history. Whereas other religions of the period never 'produced a major social revolution fired by a high concept of social justice, … "the prophets of Judah were a reforming political force which has never been surpassed.”'""In November 2006, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir was presented with an award named in her honor, recognizing 'the achievments of those who beautify the world, especially in the fields of religion, social justice, and the arts.'""...we preach the gospel of social justice..." (Ensign September '95)
I guess Beck should leave the Mormon church if he practices what he preaches.
Kirsten Wright
13 years 11 months ago
Glenn Beck was not referring to the catholic church or any other mainstream denomination. He was speaking of Liberation Theology and the like and the use of the church by extremists for political gain. Their use of the term 'social justice' is not the same as the term the church uses. It is a term coined by Marx. My stepson has recently become involved with this and I think we should stop being outraged about that comment and pursue knowledge of the movement and leaders such as Leonardo Boff. We don't know about this primarily because they are pursuing our young people not us. Please consider doing some research on this growing movement.
John Sharkey
13 years 11 months ago
To Kirsten,
Try not telling us what Beck is trying to say.  I know what he is saying, as well as he knows.
Glenn is a fallen away Catholic, and he knows where the Church stands with Social Justice.  He is quite happy telling people to run from the Catholic Church, just as he has.
13 years 11 months ago
Thank you Fr. Martin...interesting that Pope Benedict commented in Caritas in Veritate, that "Justice is inseparable from charity, and intrinsic to it."   Our diocese wants us to be "Social Concerns" committee...Some of us are holding out for "Social Justice"  Guess Mr. Beck wouldn't want to worship with us.?
John Smith
13 years 11 months ago
Fr. Martin is not even handed in his critique of Mr. Beck.
He takes the gentleman out of context to some degree.

Charity has to be voluntary. Taxation is forced and thus the social good we propose to do with it is not voluntary. Jesus teaches us to give and serve others less fortunate than ourselves and not draw attention to this giving. Giving privately through religious organizations can even usurp the necessity of personally encountering our brother and sister in need. Having paid our taxes and or having donated to the church basket is not nearly the teaching of encountering the sick and downtrodden in a voluntary and humble manner. Who is to say that Mr. Beck does not himself do this in his own private time and monies? James Martin is rushing to judgment
not only on this but making Mr. Beck anti-Catholic is quite a stretch and not doing justice to what Mr. Beck says.

Mr. Beck's comments from a preference in limited govt and his criticisms are the invasion of churches with political agendas rather than sticking to their spiritual mission which yes does of course include the body.

What I believe men like Mr Beck are attacking in their line of thought is often two fold-1. They disagree that the redistribution of wealth is the function of govt and that govt has a limited function with limited taxation. 2. The Church's primary function is to save souls not to perform social justice as its primary mandate.

Social justice is the obligation of each of us in our private lives-subsidiarity.

Fr Martin cites many sources but leaves out subsidiarity and other parts of encyclicals which much Catholic thought cautions us to be careful of forsaking the Church's main mission. Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI have also written on this topic. The topic is more nunanced than perhaps Mr. Beck's offering but Fr. Martin gives quite a narrow range as well.

Groups like the Acton Institute teach a much different approach than Fr. Martin is suggesting.

Beck may play the clown at times and this hurts him more than helps but Fr. Martin does help his cause either taking superficial shots as well. Mr Beck is an easy target.

Martin should take on sharper minds within our own Church
on the Catholic teaching. He presents at least as onesided a case as Beck is accused of by Martin himself.

Beck is suspicious of political agendas disguised as ipso facto God's teachings. And that is a wise caution these days.
Gary Markle
12 years 11 months ago
How sad for you Glenn Beck, a soul who has never shared love or known compassion. A soul filled with bitterness and hatred.

One day you will die, and only then will the full gravity of your sins be revealed. You will wail with shame, but there will be no one to hear your cry. There, alone in the darkness, a soul adrift. Filled with all the bitterness and hatred you held in your heart while you lived. Trapped, in the division you practiced in life. Entombed in the ultimate loneliness, a loneliness grown out the isolation of never knowing or sharing love. And there you will linger, for eternity, a prisoner of your sins, lamenting what could have been.

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