In the final installment of a three-part interview with Patheos, Joseph E. Gorra interviews Acton Institute president and co-founder Rev. Robert Sirico about social justice and his interpretation of its right societal implementation. In the interview, Sirico outlines some of the principles highlighted in his new book, Defending the Free Market: The Moral Case for a Free Economy. To begin, Gorra asks Sirico about the proper interaction between politics, specifically economics, and religion. What follows is an intriguing discussion on faith-based activism and the origins of the term “social justice”:
Gorra: You are making some important distinctions here, which perhaps also have some cash-value when discussing ‘social justice.’ For it is often conceptualized with wealth distributionist and equalitarian notions. Why is that a mistake, and is there an older (pre-Rawlsian), more robust concept of social justice that can be recovered?
Sirico: The term “social justice” originates with 19th-century Italian Catholic thinkers who were trying to apply the Church’s teaching on the nature of justice and the common good to the post-Enlightenment, post-mercantilist world. In many ways, it is a synonym for “the common good,” which are the conditions that must exist in a given society if people are to be able to freely pursue human flourishing. In that sense, it is not value-neutral—as Rawls more-or-less tries to be—nor can it be reduced to efforts to equalize everything by eliminating differences or vast exercises in wealth-redistribution. Indeed, if you read some of the Italian writers on this subject—Blessed Antonio Rosmini being a good example—you discover that one of the things which they were trying to do was to remind individuals and communities that they also have responsibilities to their neighbor, and that they cannot and should not expect the state to do everything in this regard.
The “social” of social justice did not translate for them into a vast impersonal welfare state; rather, it was primarily about people fulfilling their responsibilities in justice to their neighbor in the circumstances they found themselves, with the state playing a subsidiary role.
Read “What if ‘Social Justice’ Demands Small Government?: Interview with Robert Sirico, Part 3” on the Patheos Evangelical Channel. Part one: “Is Capitalism Immoral” and part two: “Does Capitalism Promote Greed” are also available online.