Michael J. Gerson’s encomium to Jim Wallis’ book on the common good includes this curious paragraph:
Nearly every Christian tradition of social ethics encompasses two sorts of justice. The first is procedural justice: giving people what they deserve under contracts and the law. The second is distributive justice: meeting some needs just because human beings are human beings. This is not the same thing as egalitarianism; confiscation is not compassion. But distributive justice requires a decent provision for the vulnerable and destitute. And this is not just a matter of personal charity. Social justice is more than crumbs from the table; it depends on the existence of social and economic conditions that allow people to live, work and thrive.
Gerson should be applauded for grappling with such substantive doctrines as the common good and social justice. It is certainly brave to do so within the confines of a short opinion piece.
But his treatment of these in the context of this short op-ed illustrate the difficulty of doing so in a responsible fashion. For one thing, the common good is perhaps one of the most difficult concepts to get a handle on in the history of Christian moral reflection. In the end, Gerson summarizes it as “the set of social circumstances that allows everyone to flourish.” We might quibble with this description as not quite getting at the common good as a telos rather than a process, but given that he quotes John Paul II in the previous line, this isn’t that large of a quibble.
We might also note that even though it is commonly associated with modern Roman Catholic social thought, as Gerson notes, the idea of the common good is much more of a catholic legacy of Christianity shared by a variety of Christian traditions. See, for instance, Gerson’s claim that Wallis’ invocation of the common good is “further evidence of the intellectual advance of Catholic social teaching across Christian confessions.” I think this is probably true in the case of Wallis and many evangelicals, and in this Roman Catholic social thought has done a great service in preserving this inheritance and serving as a reminder and inspiration for those who have forgotten the place of the common good in their own tradition’s moral reflection.
But as if parsing the common good were not enough, Gerson goes on to add the above description of justice, and particularly social justice. I note the above paragraph in particular because I find it very intriguing. Typically commutative and distributive justice are distinguished and paired together. But here Gerson distinguishes between procedural and distributive justice. We might think that Gerson is simply using procedural justice as an analog to commutative justice, except that he defines it in a way that is often more narrowly concerned with legal contexts, “under contracts and the law.” But still maybe procedural and commutative justice are meant to be synonymous in this context.
This leads to another potential confusion, however, the identification of these two types of justice with social justice, which, I might add, could probably be well summarized as “the set of social circumstances that allows everyone to flourish.”
I wonder if Gerson here is simply depending on Wallis’ description of these and if the source of the confusion is Wallis’ book, that is, if this is Gerson’s attempt at synthesizing Wallis’ insights on the common good, or if this is in fact Gerson’s own construction of the relationship between justice and the common good. In any case, this all is certainly good food for thought, but should be taken as a motive for further reflection and clarification rather than simply resting with such brief thetical statements about the interrelationships between procedural, distributive, and social justice and the common good.
One such place to start is the short Christian Social Thought monograph Doing Justice to Justice: Competing Frameworks of Interpretation in Christian Social Ethics by Stephen J. Grabill, Kevin E. Schmiesing, and Gloria L. Zúñiga. In brief compass, for instance, they summarize the Thomistic articulation of the relationship between commutative, distributive, and legal justice:
A simple way of thinking about the relations between the two species of justice is to consider the relationships they govern. Commutative justice governs the relations between persons. Distributive justice governs the relation between the community as a whole, as overseen by the State in its jurisdiction, and each individual person in the community. If we also consider legal justice, then we complete the realm of all possible relations with the relation between the individual person and the community as a whole.
Previously they had described legal justice as “as the special realm of justice that addresses the duty of each person to direct justice generally to the common good of the community.” In this way the three types of justice (commutative, distributive, and legal) are understood to encompass the relationships between indivdiuals, between the community and individuals, and between individuals and the community.
When all of these are in proper order and alignment we might be said to have something like social justice.