LOPEZ: What’s the new generation you’re writing to, and how is doctrine or its application different for them?
FR. WILLIAMS: Since the world is evolving so quickly, Catholic social thought has to keep up and even look beyond what is happening right now, to the future. Each new generation of citizens grows up with a different matrix of cultural markers, with different experiences and assumptions about the world. Catholic social thought has to speak to the generation of today, by showing what changes and what doesn’t about the human person and society. Perennial truths about human nature remain the same, but many practical applications change with changing circumstances. A world dominated by technology, data sharing, and instantaneous communication, and where biotechnology has accomplished things both magnificent and troubling, raises ethical questions that were either nonexistent or practically irrelevant in the past. The social questions facing young people today are very different from those of generations past.
LOPEZ: When will the pope weigh in on Paul Ryan’s budget?
FR. WILLIAMS: I think you know the answer to that question. Never. It’s not in the pope’s job description to interfere with the nuts and bolts of political society. The pope is teacher and shepherd, and his role in the social sphere is moral and spiritual, centering on the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ as it relates to the human person. And so he will insist on respect for human dignity and the inalienable rights of the person, but he will not suggest what percentage of a state’s budget should be applied to health care, education, national defense, or the promotion of the arts. This is for citizens, many of whom have been formed according to Christian principles, to debate, discuss, and hammer out.
LOPEZ: What is this social justice we hear so much about?
FR. WILLIAMS: “Social justice” is a term that encompasses everything relating to the common good — that is, all those conditions of social life that allow people to freely and responsibly live out their vocation as human beings and citizens. Social justice is distinguished from particular justice in that it relates to society at large, with all its laws and institutions, rather than just the individual dealings between persons. Traditionally, social justice has been associated especially with solidarity and a special concern for the poor, though it also embraces the protection of freedoms, which is an integral part of the common good.
LOPEZ: Is there something to the idea that it does not belong to the Democratic party?
FR. WILLIAMS: No one party incarnates the ideal of the just society. In part this is because there are legitimate differences of opinion in areas where one “right” answer doesn’t exist, and in part because every party is also susceptible to simply being wrong in its approach to certain questions. It seems to me that the Democratic party has traditionally presented itself as the party of the poor and disenfranchised. Whereas Democrats do typically attribute a more expansive role to the federal government than Republicans do, including in the area of welfare and social assistance, the simple fact is that this is not the only possible approach — and perhaps not even the best one — for helping the poor. In short, we are all morally obliged to do our best to help the poor, but no one party has gained the indisputable moral high ground in this area. In other key areas of social justice — most notably protection of the life of the unborn — the Democratic party has tragically abdicated any claim to be the party of the poor and vulnerable.