Doing Social Justice Right
Reclaiming a loaded term in the light of faith


In his new book, Saints and Social Justice: A Guide to Changing the World, Brandon Vogt seeks to take the phrase “social justice,” which has been “co-opted to mask all sorts of nefarious projects,” and to connect it back to authentic Christian moral teachings and challenges. He points specifically to The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church as a “comprehensive summary” of something that is otherwise quite diffuse in a Catholic context, whose social teachings “branch out from Biblical principles, papal writings, concilar documents, Episcopal statements, mystical prayer, saintly wisdom, and much more.” That said, in Saints and Social Justice, Vogt, who is content director at Word on Fire (the people responsible for the Catholicism series that partially aired on PBS), doesn’t talk documents so much as lives — lives lived in Christian charity, and even very contemporary lives. Proceeds from the sales of the book, published by Our Sunday Visitor, go entirely to Catholic Charities in seeking to support the work of people hoping to change the world through Christian love.

In an interview, Vogt talks with Kathryn Jean Lopez, senior fellow at the National Review Institute, editor-at-large of National Review Online, and founding director of Catholic Voices USA, about some saints and social justice.

KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: You announce “it’s time reclaim Catholic social teaching.” Who “co-opted” it? Was it a matter of surrender, too?

BRANDON VOGT: Many groups have hijacked the phrase “social justice.” For example, proponents of liberation theology have used it as a cloak to smuggle Marxist ideas into the Christian faith. That led to warped theology and violent rebellion. Many now associate the phrase with Communist, socialist, or politically aggressive ideologies. But while it’s true that some people use the phrase this way, it’s not how the Church has used it for hundreds of years. For that reason we must clarify and redeem it.

LOPEZ: Why is the phrase “social justice” worth using and renewing outside of its political usage?

VOGT: Because that’s the language the Church uses. That phrase appears in magisterial documents no less than 120 times. We must reclaim it from its abusers.

LOPEZ: You also declare that your book is an attempt to imitate stained-glass windows, “using saints as conduits of light through which the radiance of Catholic social teaching can shine with new splendor.” Can we do that — construct stained-glass windows, say, on social media?

VOGT: We can do it anywhere. Any medium can become a conduit for grace — print, television, music, radio, architecture, and even social media. By sharing stories and quotes from the saints, for instance, we can shine beams of light, illuminating the world around us. That’s what stained glass does.

LOPEZ: You quote Pope Paul VI as noting that “modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.” I hear people talk about this a lot — it’s much easier said than done, isn’t it? If you wanted to open a door to such a life — of a witness to Jesus Christ — which among your saints would you introduce a skeptic of Catholicism to first?

VOGT: Either Mother Teresa of Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati. Why? Because of their radiant charity. They both served the poor in extraordinary ways, but with irrepressible joy.

LOPEZ: “The more we train the eyes of our hearts to spot Jesus in the Eucharist, the clearer we’ll recognize him in the poor.” However do you explain that in the world today?

VOGT: We don’t explain it; we exhibit it. Even the casual secularist would agree there was something different about Mother Teresa — she saw the world differently. How did she get that way? Well, look at how she began each day and follow the breadcrumbs — literally. They all lead back to the Eucharist. Mother’s life revolved around the Blessed Sacrament, which in turn spun her into the streets of Calcutta.

You see this rhythm with all the saints. They meet Christ at the altar and then among the poor, who in turn inspire more worship.