Retrieving the importance of social justice themes in the pastoral letters of the United States Catholic Bishops, 1919--1961

David Paul Schultz, Marquette University


The years subsequent to the Second Vatican Council have witnessed a number of developments in Theology, such as an emphasis on the importance of social justice as a critical component of religious faith expression. Social justice themes have steadily moved from a peripheral to a significantly more central position in Roman Catholic Theology. This has often been perceived as a post-conciliar development. On the contrary, justice themes have been present and prominent in ecclesial literature prior to Vatican II. What was lacking was specific justice terminology specifically based on the Old Testament notion of tsedaqah. A careful analysis of the episcopal writings of the Catholic Bishops of the United States prior to the Second Vatican Council reveals the presence of many of the prophetic justice themes that have been the focus of more recent scholarship. A survey of the bishops' statements, mainly from 1919 (the year they formed into a nationally representative body) to 1961 (prior to the opening of Vatican II), shows more or less implicit reference to, and use of, major biblical justice themes such as the unity and solidarity of the human community, justice as the will, and very essence of, God, faithfulness to covenantal relationships, and that believing in justice also means doing justice by empowering the powerless and centralizing the marginalized. This study of the bishops' writings reveals a lacuna in the contemporary issues addressed; namely, preferential treatment (or affirmative action) programs for black African Americans, traditionally the most disempowered and marginalized so-called minority group in the United States. Attempted rollbacks, or outright elimination, of many recent Affirmative Action Programs in the face of continuing joblessness, illiteracy, inadequate housing and health care, and even environmental racism, frame a specific issue in need of formal address. It is argued, by way of conclusion, that an official episcopal document dealing with this issue would not constitute a redundancy in terms of racial justice issues previously addressed. There is a track record of episcopal concern, and the foundation exists for an expansion of the concern to encompass the problem at hand.

Recommended Citation

Schultz, David Paul, "Retrieving the importance of social justice themes in the pastoral letters of the United States Catholic Bishops, 1919--1961" (1998). Dissertations (1962 - 2010) Access via Proquest Digital Dissertations. AAI9842438.