What is social justice?


Saint Peter Claver was called to serve those in the most unbearable conditions and offer them hope. He went to the land of New Spain – Colombia helping slaves arriving on those hellish like ships. To say the slave ships were horrible conditions is an understatement. Human beings were packed into thinly tight quarters with no circulating air, little food, and limbs shackled together. In these deteriorating circumstances disease became rampant and many died. As they came off the ships Peter Claver went into action. He gave them food and provided makeshift shelters. He even built fires fused with spices to offer the dying a beautiful aroma so they could die in relatively peaceful conditions.

St. Peter Claver documented his work in his letter to his fellow Jesuit brothers back in Europe.

“We laid aside our cloaks, therefore, and brought from a warehouse whatever was handy to build a platform. In that way we covered a space to which we at last transferred the sick. Then we divided the sick into two groups. There were two blacks, nearer death than life, already cold, whose pulse could scarcely be detected. With the help of a tile we pulled some live coals together and placed them in the middle near the dying men. Into this fire we tossed aromatics. . . Then, using our own cloaks, for they had nothing of this sort. . . we provided for them a smoke treatment, by which they seemed to recover their warmth and the breath of life. The joy in their eyes as they looked at us was something to see.”


This moving account shows St. Peter Claver to be a true humanitarian by anyone’s standards. But his serving of these poor people did not stop here. He transitioned to the most important aspect of his service – teaching  them the faith. He goes on to write:

“After this we began an elementary instruction about baptism, that is, the wonderful effects of the sacrament on body and soul. When by their answers to our questions they showed they had sufficiently understood this, we went on to a more extensive instruction, namely, about the one God, who rewards and punishes each one according to his merit, and the rest. We asked them to make an act of contrition and to manifest their detestation of their sins. Finally, when they appeared sufficiently prepared, we declared to them the mysteries of the Trinity, the Incarnation and the Passion.”

Notice that St. Peter’s work of serving those in need began with providing for their physical needs. Once their basic needs were met, he then launched into teaching mode in order to help their spiritual needs. His simple two-step formula of how to help the poor was:

1. Feed them, clothe them, heal their wounds.

2. Teach them the faith.

Notice that the work in step 1 points the person to step 2. Also, the work in step 2 is more crucial to the person’s real cravings. Much like the work of a grade school teacher points the child to his natural progression into the more important step in high school, feeding the sick and homeless has to be followed by the central matter – teaching them the faith.

Here, St. Peter Claver’s work is articulating that Catholic social work is not merely confined to only providing for the physical needs, but also must move to teach them the truth of the Church.

Where did Peter Claver get the idea that teaching the bounded prisoners is ultimately the end game? None other than Jesus Christ. In the following Gospel passages, notice that Jesus is alluding to the approach Peter Claver used – that teaching God’s truth is ultimately more important than worrying about one’s physical needs.

“Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you; for on him has God the Father set his seal” (John 6: 27).

“I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on. Is life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they. . . . Therefore, do not be anxious saying, ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek these things and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well” (Matthew 6:25-26, 31-33)

Notice that Jesus is indicating that one doesn’t need to sweat over the physical necessities of food, shelter, and clothing as God will provide this for you. Rather, Jesus insinuates to shift your focus on God’s teaching and then your physical needs will flow from this.

Now, physical food is necessary to sustain earthly life, but because it is perishable it does not suffice to give us supernatural life to safeguard us against ultimate death (see John 6:49). Only Christ can give us food that satisfies our spiritual hunger and gives everlasting life. Jesus then goes on to articulate this spiritual “food” is himself in the Eucharist. And since Jesus defined himself as the truth (see John 14:16, 18:37) to provide people with the truth is the spiritual “food” Jesus is referring to. Therefore, Jesus’s teaching in John 6 reveals, yes, giving people food is important and needed, but the real need for them is to teach them where to find God – the Eucharist in the Catholic Church.

The analogy of the birds that Jesus utilizes communicates that God supplies our physical needs to signify his greater concern for our spiritual needs. And our spiritual needs are “clothed” by him through his teaching. In fact, the Bible illuminates that the garments we receive prefigure God’s desire to clothe us with glory and immortality in heaven (see Revelation 19: 7-8).

What Jesus is getting at is don’t reduce social work simply to providing physical stuff for the poor. Indeed, in John 6 he fed hundreds of people. But, he didn’t stop there. He then launched into the teaching about their real need – the Eucharist.

We can sum up the approach that providing food and shelter for the poor is step 1. However, step 1 is not the end game. The whole point of step 1 is pointing the person to step 2- give them God’s teaching. Step 1 allows them to sustain their physical life, but step 2 allows them to receive eternal life.

If you only provide for a person’s physical needs and refuse to teach them the faith, you are doing them a great disservice by ignoring their more pressing internal cravings. Delivering men physical and spiritual needs illuminate the uniting of two crucial dimensions of the human person – body and soul.


As the incarnate word of God, Jesus is upholding God’s creation of man into two united elements – body and soul. The body is the physical portion of human creation. Our physical body comes with a nervous system, digestive system, reproduction system, circulatory system, and so on. Moreover, the body needs food, water, shelter, etc. to survive. The second, and more critical, aspect of what makes a human person is the soul. The soul is the totality of a person’s thoughts, and, in turn, their actions. Therefore, the soul needs God’s teaching and God’s thoughts embedded in it for its eternal survival.

In original creation, the body and soul were united and working in harmony with each other. In fact, when God made man we see clues of this as Genesis 2:7 states: “The Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.”

The dust of the ground represents the material (body) dimension, and the breath of life represents the immaterial (soul) dimension. Notice that when God breathed into man, God was putting Himself into man, thus, giving man God’s very spirit. Also, notice man did not become “a living being” until he received God’s soul in him. All this shows that the soul is more important than the body. After all, the body lasts about 80 years, while the soul lasts forever.

If the soul lasts longer than the body, and the soul consists of the system of ideas in a person’s thought process, then implanting God’s ideas into people through teaching is much more significant than merely supplying others with food, shelter, and clothing. See, food and shelter needs are not sufficient on their own. Moreover, the physical needs of food and shelter point to step 2 much like laying the foundation of a building points to the interior of that building.

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To be sure, Jesus is not belittling the physical needs in that they are unimportant. Indeed, he teaches providing basic needs for the poor is essential when he said, “For I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in….” (Matthew 25:35-40).

Rather, the key move is that providing for the physical needs of the poor is the first step but not the end game. Much like a parent will tell their children grade school is not the end game of your intellectual advancement, there exists a movement beyond the basic needs. Certainly, the parent would not allude that grade school is unimportant and to ignore it. Rather, the parent would be showcasing that grade school is necessary to move you to the more important step – college. In this, the parent is showing that they both work together to help the person much like in a good meal the appetizer and entree work in harmony to give you a great banquet feast.

In Catholic social teaching, feeding the hungry is analogous to the appetizer while teaching the faith is akin to the entree. The whole point of the first step is to point you to the second step. This harmonious formula that builds of one another is expressed in the work of St. Peter Claver and the life of Jesus Christ.

When Jesus mentioned that those who come to him will never go hungry or thirsty (John 6:35), he is obviously not talking about physical hunger. Rather, he is talking about feeding their soul’s his wisdom. He is pulling a line out of the book of Sirach. Sirach indicates that God will feed you wisdom so your thirst and hunger for wisdom will constantly be quenched through God (see Sirach 24:20). In this sense, Jesus is using our material needs to point to the larger needs – feeding our soul.

Throughout Jesus’ ministry, he both healed people to provide for their physical needs while simultaneously taught them the truth in order to feed their souls. Here are a few examples that show Jesus using the formula of helping provide healing to both the body and soul.

“And he went out about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and preaching the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every infirmity among the people” (Matthew 4:23).

“Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness” (Matthew 9:35).

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Jesus was known as a healer of the body, but more importantly also called a “rabbi” in which his teaching skills delivered God’s thoughts into people. Mark further highlighted the formula of healer and teacher.

“And he could do not might work there [because their unbelief] except that he laid his hands upon a few sick people and healed them. And he marveled because of their unbelief. And he went about among the villages teaching (Mark 6: 5-6).

Also, recall after healing the blind man, Jesus didn’t simply say, now go and do good works helping people. Rather, he instructed the blind man in a teacher-like mode to go offer the adequate sacrifice for worship (see Matthew 8:3-4).


In these examples, notice how healing the sick and teaching go together as a package deal. When we sum up this formula we have the Catholic view of corporal and spiritual works of mercy. Observe how both work with each other as the corporal works are under the tent of providing physical needs for others while the spiritual works fall under the banner of patiently teaching others the faith. However, the modern view of Catholic social teaching has placed an over-emphasis on the corporal works while skipping past the spiritual acts. The danger with this is that we reduce the faith to the idea of “doing good things” while cutting out the important teachings that save the human soul. In this setting, the secular phrase emerges that says, “It doesn’t matter what religion you follow (if any). What matters is that you do good.” However, with this viewpoint, a savior like Jesus is not needed. Rather, Jesus becomes a distant figure who merely represents one of many noble examples to follow in order to do good. If we reduce the faith to simply doing good social work, then the Sacraments and the important doctrine of the Church become mere background noise. This is a dangerous setting in which people eventually acknowledge that the sacred teaching as irrelevant.

Another problem logically flows from this “just do good social work” idea of faith. Modern psychology now shows that people mainly perform these moral works in order to appear upright in the eyes of others. Psychologist Cordelia Fine showcases in her book, A Mind of its Own, that the primary reason people perform moral deeds is so others will view them as a grand hero. In other words, because we’ve reduced the faith to “being good,” people are not authentically doing good for others but mainly doing good deeds to enhance their personal image. This, of course, is a counter Biblical approach as Jesus cautions not to show off while doing the spiritual and corporal works (see Matthew 6:3,16).

To see this played out in the Gospel, observe in the following verse that Jesus is placing a greater emphasis on teaching the faith over incorrectly doing the faith.

“The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; so practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do for they preach, but don’t practice” (Matthew 23: 2-3).

Notice that Jesus is commanding people to do whatever the Pharisees teach them. Why? Because the Pharisees teaching is sound – it comes from Moses. He then qualifies this statement by saying but don’t do what they do because they are great actors whenever they do their “good” works – much like modern psychology now suggests. So, if the faith is simply doing good works Jesus would have never pointed us to the hypocritical nature of the Pharisees. The reason he pointed people to these men is because their teaching was correct. Therefore, in Jesus’s reasoning the teaching of correct doctrine is the key ingredient of the faith. In fact, recall that his final instructions to his apostles before his ascension was to go an teach all nations the faith (see Matthew 28:19-20).

To combat this overemphasis on the corporal works, let’s notice shortly after Jesus heals the physical sickness he then launches into the more important aspect – that of teaching them the truth. In fact, the more we study Jesus’s ways, the healing of people’s physical needs is done precisely so everyone will listen to his important teaching. In the story of the paralytic man in Mark 2, rather than heal the paralytic directly of his physical ailment, Jesus heals that man’s more pressing problem – his spiritual paralysis. The healing of that man’s physical ailment is done precisely so people will listen to Jesus’s authority and teaching to satisfy their spiritual thirst.

Furthermore, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus declares, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” Here, Jesus is emphasizing the importance of providing spiritual direction. Notice he did not merely say, “Blessed on the poor in wealth.” As he typically does, he is moving beyond the physical and material needs and points them to the endgame – their immaterial needs.

These immaterial needs are constantly yearning to be fed. Our soul craves the truth much like our body craves pizza. What person doesn’t want the truth? If you lack truth, you lack knowledge. And if you lack knowledge, you become easy pray for the demonic to trick you. As God declares, “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge” (Hosea 4:6).

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Catholic social teaching is built around the dignity of the human person and serving his or her needs. One of the primary needs of the human person is the truth. As Jesus stated, “The truth will set you free” (John 8:32), and St. Paul declared that love “rejoices in the truth” (1 Cor. 13:6). If you want to uphold the dignity of a person, give them the truth because they crave and desperately need truth. Conversely, if you want to strip away at the dignity of a person one way to do this is to give them false teaching and rob them of the truth. Those that brainwash others with false teaching are doing just that.

The opposite of truth is lies. And who is the father of lies? None other than the devil himself (see John 8:44, 1Cor 14:33).

Jesus tells us directly to avoid the one who can kill the soul through lies.

“Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matthew 10:28).

Here, Jesus is tipping his hand that the greater concern is the soul and the more significant focal point is the realm beyond our material world. This means the ideas that your soul is consuming becomes massively critical as it affects where your soul is going.

See, if instead of your soul feeding on truth (God) and you consumed lies, you would be in great danger of unknowingly embracing this so-called “father of lies.” This is not a pretty picture. This state, in fact, strips the person away from his dignity.

Therefore, those who teach must be careful to instruct truth and not any lies. Why? Because the balance of souls hinges on what teaching they feed people’s souls with. This is why the Bible directs that teaching must be done with a high degree of perfection, “Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren for you know that we who teach shall be judged with greater strictness.” (James 3:1).

Christian educators bear great responsibility for their teaching influence. The prospect of a stricter judgment should restrain them from uttering careless words (Matthew 12: 33-37) and teaching what they themselves do not understand (Sirach 5: 11-13).

As a Catechist, I know my teaching needs to be sharp. If I’m off my game, or if my teaching has errors in it, God will need to painfully correct me because I stand to corrupt souls if what I say is marked with errors. Indeed, several Biblical illustrations demonstrate how an unbridled tongue (i.e. one who speaks in error) can cause considerable damage in the world (see Proverbs 16:27, Sirach 28: 17-26)

In short, you better make sure what you’re teaching people is true.


In fact, pressing this further St. Thomas Aquinas argued that the one who gives another heresy (false teaching) has done worse than the one who corrupts the material being of a person. As Aquinas stated, “For it is a much graver matter to corrupt the faith which quickens the soul, than to forge money, which supports temporal life.” Aquinas goes on to say heretics are so bad, we should, if necessary, put them to death.

“Therefore, if forgers of money and other evil-doers are forthwith condemned to death by the secular authority, much more reason is there for heretics, as soon as they are convicted of heresy, to be not only excommunicated but even put to death.” (Summa Theologiae II-II, q. 11. a. 3)

Aquinas argument is broken down in a logical syllogism as follows:

  1. St. Thomas, in accord with the Old Testament and the New Testament noted that the death penalty is a present reality and a right of the secular state (see Genesis 9:6, John 19:11, Romans 13: 3-4, Acts 25:11).
  2. Murderers kill the body and they get the death penalty.
  3. Heretical teachers kill the soul.
  4. Killing the souls is much worse than the killing the body.
  5. Therefore, heretics should receive the death penalty.

Why such a harsh reality for heretics? Because teaching truth is implanting God’s spirit in the individual while teaching lies is implanting the devil’s spirit into someone. Here, the stakes are incredibly high so we can’t mess around. What the heretic is actually doing is synonymous with what cult leader Jim Jones did when he convinced people to drink cyanide poison resulting in the physical death of hundreds. Only instead of killing the body, the heretic is slowly killing the more crucial part – people’s immortal soul.

Aquinas also clarifies how to see the image of God in relation to man. He describes man as a rational creature. Being rational for St. Thomas meant being spiritual, having powers of intellect and will that transcend the purely physical. It meant being made in the image and likeness of God. Therefore, feeding the human intellect with truth will get a person closer to God. In the Catholic world we talk a lot about doing the faith and experiencing Jesus. The crucial aspect to see with teaching the truth is that once a person has knowledge of the faith, he’ll be better able to do the faith, and once a person knows Jesus, he’ll be better able to experience Jesus. Here, we see how the spiritual and corporal works are interconnected. That is, teaching the faith acts as a springboard to experiencing and doing the faith.

Let’s bring Catholic social teaching back to its origin that Jesus gave us and give do credit to the importance of teaching the faith. May we look at the work of St. Peter Claver in both feeding the poor and teaching them the faith. For all accounts, he was a true social justice warrior.

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