“Social justice” Catholics versus “Pro-life” Catholics–Can’t we have it both ways?

Which kind of Catholic are you?

According to the Public Religion Research Institute's 2012 American Values Survey, you likely fall into one of two categories of Catholics, depending on the issues that concern you most. According to the survey:

“Social justice Catholics” (60%): believe that in its statements about public policy, the Catholic Church should focus more on social justice and the obligation to help the poor, even if it means focusing less on issues like abortion and the right to life.

“Right to life Catholics” (31%): believe that the Catholic Church should focus more on abortion and the right to life in its statements about public policy, even if means focusing less on issues like social justice and the obligation to help the poor."

Of course, this distinction is nothing new, and this survey isn't the first time Catholics have been divided into these types of categories. But such distinctions aren't helpful in the church and they only further polarize the Catholic faithful instead of uniting them around a common cause.

Even though some Catholics might want to identify themselves as part of one of these groups, these two categories of Catholicism are far from being mutually exclusive. Social justice plays an important role in life issues, and concerns about poverty, employment, health care, housing, and other issues of justice have a big influence on abortion. Many people believe that addressing these types of issues will ultimately reduce the demand for abortion, thus cutting down the number of women who choose to terminate their pregnancies regardless of whether or not abortion is legal.

On the right to life side are people who want to change what they consider to be an unjust structure (in this case legal access to abortion) to help a vulnerable segment of the population (the unborn) so that population can live a better life (or in this case, simply be born). That's social justice in a nutshell.

Certainly Catholics can disagree about which policy concerns can and should be top priorities, and some believe that one area may deserve more urgent attention than another. Other Catholics believe that it is important to focus on all struggling populations at the same time so that no one's needs are overlooked. But all are fighting for the same concerns and trying to achieve the same outcomes, even if they might have different ideas on how to get there.

So let's try not to identify ourselves as "social justice Catholics," "right to life Catholics," or any other subcategory. Just calling ourselves Catholic is good enough.

About the author

Scott Alessi

Scott Alessi is a former managing editor of U.S. Catholic.