Chapin St. and the Meaning of Social Justice

Author: Bro. Bruce Lescher, C.S.C., ’68

The slant of the late afternoon sunlight gives a cold, pale redness to the street and buildings. The lengthening shadows accentuate surface textures: the bumps and cracks in the pavement, the rust on the wire fence that surrounds our yard, the rights and valleys of supposedly straight brick walls, the dirt which has built up on my office window.

This is South Bend’s Chapin Street. In the imagination of many white people, it is the symbol of all that is wrong in the black community, a having for prostitutes, pimps, bars, drugs, and violence. But in the eight months I have worked here, I have come to regard Chapin Street as a very special place; I have come to love the people who live here and to honor their patience, endurance, humor, and profound humanness as they battle the smoldering bitterness of poverty and the bureaucratic institutions that do little to help them.

I work at the Justice and Peace Center, 136 South Chapin, an office staffed by the sisters, priests, and brothers of Holy Cross. What are we doing here? As much as anything, we are trying to live out a concept that has received increasingly greater attention since Vatican II—social justice.

“What exactly is social justice?” The question is posed to us all the time. Some people (judging by the way they ask) seem to think that “social justice” means supporting the bombings, assassinations, and terrorism of revolutionary groups; others seem to think that “social justice” means abandoning the Church’s traditional ministries such as parishes and schools and serving the poor in urban or rural areas; still others may believe that “social justice” is just another fad, a theological hula-hoop.

Fortunately, none of these definitions is correct, and each skips over a very important consideration. “Social justice” cannot be defined until one first understands the concept of “social sin.” Beginning with the Puritans, religion in America has been individualistic. Most Catholics would probably define the “sin” as an act of commission or omission by which a person transgresses God’s law. More recently, some theologians define sin not in term of specific acts but in terms of the basic stance one takes towards life—a stance which becomes embodied in one’s acts. Both ways of viewing sin focus on the individual. “Social sin,” as the name implies, recognizes that evil exists in society. Institutions, relationships or social structures are evil when they deny the rights of other persons and take away the dignity of the daughters and sons of the heavenly Father. When a person (directly or indirectly) supports such institutions, relationships, or social structures, that person is participating in social sin.

Social sin is an ancient concept. The Old Testament abounds with examples of the guilt of the fathers being handed on to the sons, of a whole people’s being punished for the sins of some individuals. In the Israelite consciousness, a person was not simply an individual; he or she was also a member of a tribe, and one shared in the guilt or innocence of one’s tribe.

Yet social since is also a new concept. The modern world is marked by the increasing interdependence of all nations on the earth’s shrinking resources. As Father Hesburgh points out, the world has become “spaceship earth.” As the world becomes more technological and urbanized, the fate of all peoples becomes intertwined. Large, impersonal institutions gain more and more power over people’s lives. The potential for social sin becomes even greater.

So, what is social justice? I would define it as living in a way that affirms the power of Jesus Christ to be greater than the power of individual or social sin.

The Church has always cared for those who have been hurt and broken: the orphan, the beggar, the sick, the ignorant. But recent statements have asserted the Christian’s duty to change structures and institutions which are hurting or breaking people. If it is a Christian duty to care for people who are starving, is it not also a duty to change the attitudes and systems which are causing them to starve? Perhaps Gandhi said it most succinctly: “Give a man a fish and he eats for a day; teach him to fish and he eats for a lifetime.” Social action implies teaching people to fish, empowering their lives, helping them to help themselves. Social service is and always will be essential to the Church’s ministry, but social action is an equally valid form of ministry.

Perhaps Vatican II’s most significant impact on social justice has been indirect. The council began a dialogue with the modern world—unbelievers as well as believers. And one can hardly listen to the modern world without hearing about enormous inequities in the distribution of wealth, about masses of people suffering from dehumanizing living conditions, even starving to death. One cannot listen without becoming aware of social sin and the need for justice.

What is the present status of social justice within the American Church? The question is difficult to answer. On the one hand, the American Church has had a long tradition of prophetic witness to justice. The witness is perhaps best symbolized by Dorothy Day and others associated with the Catholic Worker movement and by the numerous Catholics involved in the nonviolence movement. Persons of this persuasion refuse to accept a system they see as corrupt; and, in response, they often create alternative life styles. In the introduction to a recent issue of Gamaliel, the magazine of a Catholic, pacifist group, one can read:

To be Religious in America is to be


To be a Pacifist within Religion is to be


To be an Activist within Pacifism is to be


To be Deeply Rooted with Activism is

to be marginal.

Persons of the prophetic tradition derive their power precisely from their marginality. Compromise, for them, is a moral cop-out. By their very lives they stand in judgment of sinful social structures.

On the other hand, the American Church also has a long tradition of community organization and marshalling votes in order to bring about social justice. In the 19th century, parishes and dioceses played key roles in the building of the urban political machines whereby Catholic immigrants could empower their lives. Church leaders have lent support to the formation of labor unions. Today one can find this organizing tradition very much alive in such groups as NETWORK, a national, legislative monitoring and lobbying organization staffed by sisters, in the Catholic Committee on Urban Ministry (CCUM), an organization of persons involved in a wide variety of social ministries, in the Campaign for Human Development, the U.S. Bishops’ funding program for poor people’s groups, and in the numerous peace and justice offices being founded by religious orders, dioceses, and other groups all across the country. Rather than become marginal, such persons enter the mainstream of politics and economics in order to effect change. They usually attempt to form coalitions with other groups; hence, compromise for them is not a moral cop-out but a necessary strategy in the political process.

A third facet of social justice within the American Church is Catholic education. Many Catholic educators are beginning to incorporate social justice into the educational process. The American bishops, in their pastoral, To Teach as Jesus Did, stated that service to others is an essential component of the Christian community called a school. And many Catholic schools now are developing both curricula and service programs which involve students in issues of justice. The results of this educational approach may not be immediately perceptible, but in the years to come its impact could hardly be underestimated.

What of the future of social justice and social ministry? As the world becomes increasingly interdependent, we can assume that issues of social justice will become more important to Christians. Perhaps the central problem at present is one of marginality. Most Catholics tend to see social justice as a fringe issue and social action as an apostolate for a few persons on the prophetic borders of the Church community. The whole notion of defining “social justice” as an issue separate from “religion” or “Church” is itself a problem. The bishops have said that action for justice is “a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the Gospel,” which implies that justice should permeate all facets of the Church’s life. In commenting on the bishops’ statement, Father Brian Hehir, director of the Office of Justice and Peace of the United States Catholic Conference, has written:

. . . the significance of this statement in linking the social ministry of the Church to the very internal nature of the Church can hardly be overestimated. It is necessary to take the statement in terms of its full theological value. “Constitutive” in the Church is a precise theological term. Constitutive means essential, not peripheral but pivotal, not for a few but for all . . .

But the Church’s social teaching has not yet permeated the people of God. Many Christians are doubtlessly unaware that the social teaching even exists. So the struggle of the next few years will be to bring the theory into reality, to enflesh the words in God’s holy people.

It has been a busy day on Chapin Street. Mrs. Ewing wants us to help her get her daughter into St. Joseph’s High School; the Harpers need some food; Blondie Shavers needs a deposit so she can move into an apartment; Robert Woodward is trying to see a doctor; the Pinkney family still has no place to stay. The coming days will bring meetings relating to issues such as utility rates, juvenile justice, courtroom procedures, health care, the bail system, conditions in Latin America. Some of the members of our religious communities think we are wasting our time. Some people see us as innocuous, pie-eyed do-gooders. And where will it all lead? What does it all mean?

The sun has gone down now. I guess I’ll go home.