Introduction to Distributive Justice

Distributive justice is an integral part of Catholic Social Teaching, and its importance for a just social order has been emphasized from ancient times through institutions like the Old Testament Jubilee, on through the Scholasticism of the Middle Ages. That’s why the term remains in the Catechism to this day.

In spite of its significance, it is often neglected in contemporary conversations about social issues because it runs contrary to the individualism of modern societies, which tends to acknowledge only commutative justice, since that is the part of justice which operates at the purely individual level. Distributive justice, on the other hand, operates over and above commutative justice.

While commutative justice deals with exchanges between individuals, distributive justice is concerned with the relationship that exists between an individual member of a community and the community as a whole. It does not tell members of the community what they owe one another–it tells the community as a whole what it owes each individual member.

One of the difficulties we will face in dealing with this subject is modern political prejudice, since distributive justice is closely connected with ‘social justice.’

Now social justice is also an integral part of Catholic Social Teaching, and is entirely valid and necessary insofar as it is properly understood. In fact, Catholics are commanded by canon law to actively pursue it. But unfortunately it has come to be abused in two extreme and opposite ways:

  • First, there are the ‘progressive Catholics’ who have mutilated social justice by injecting into it a number of eclectic, anti-Catholic, and frankly ridiculous ideas that have nothing to do with it. In their hands it retains some of its truth, but with such an admixture of error that we can hardly recognize it.
  • Second, there are the ‘conservative Catholics’ who, knowing nothing about social justice except what they hear on television, and apparently not concerned enough about their own Church’s doctrine to go learn the truth about social justice for themselves, wind up rejecting it out of hand as if it were a kind of blasphemy. And, in a way, it is a kind of blasphemy, if one’s god is the ‘free market.’

In order to avoid this kind of tribal rhetoric, we will speak primarily of distributive justice, since it is more unfamiliar to both groups and therefore more free of ideological baggage. Perhaps this will allow us to make some progress, even if, in the end, it is not possible to separate the two concepts completely. Social justice could be said to be the ‘end’ and distributive justice the ‘means.’ We will emphasize the means, and deal with it directly, but if we didn’t end by arriving at a proper understanding of social justice (in the Catholic sense), then the whole project would be a waste of time.

The items placed here will be variously sourced. The first and foremost of them are from the works of Fr. John A. Ryan, an American priest-economist whose writings are of inestimable value. More items will be added as time allows, and of these some will be sourced from other books, and some will be original to Catholic Front.

Fr. John A. Ryan – Distributive Justice: The Right and Wrong of Our Present Distribution of Wealth

  1. The Principal Canons of Distributive Justice
  2. The Legal Limitation of Fortunes
  3. The Duty of Distributing Superfluous Wealth
  4. Some Unacceptable Theories of Wage Justice
  5. The Minimum of Justice: A Living Wage