“Religion is the set beliefs, feelings, dogmas and practices that define the relations between human being and sacred or divinity” (Green, 1962, pg. 1). Religion is a way for people to have a strong confidence in something greater than themselves. Religion also brings unity to communities by creating stability and order. On the other hand, some critics may argue that religion creates more conflict than resolution, due to corruption and contradiction. Religion can be defined in three characteristics: Believes and religious practices, the religious feeling (such as faith), and unity in a community of those who share the same faith (such as the Church)” (Green, 1962, pg. 1). Thus, this essay will discuss the changing nature and views of Catholicism on social justice issues such as reproduction, crime and punishment, and same-sex marriage. This essay will argue that Catholicism has now taken a more flexible approach to social justice issues in comparison to how Catholicism was practiced earlier.
Many social theorists of the past have seen the diminishment of religion as imminent and desirable (Mainwaring, 1986). For instance, in 1830, Ludwig Feuerbach dismissed religion as a projection, and deemed that it would not last long. At the same time, Marx agreed with this assessment and believed that religion was an ideological mystification that created a divide between the bourgeoisie and the rest of the classes (Mainwaring, 1986).
In a study conducted by Cook (1993) and associates, a state exit poll was conducted in 1990 to determine whether Roman Catholicism affects abortion attitudes. The individual-level effects in which the Church socializes individual members was compared alongside contextual effects, in which the Church affects abortion attitudes by altering the terms of the debate outside the Church’s membership (Cook et al., 1993, p. 223). Both effects were found to be statistically significant (the effects were reliable), although the contextual effects of Catholicism were negative (Cook et al., 1993, p. 223). This part of the study suggested that the Catholic Church is affective in teaching anti-abortion attitudes to its members, but that a strong Catholic presence in a state influences citizens in a counter mobilization way, on the part of non-Catholics (Cook et al., 1993, p. 223).
Oliver (2008) makes an excellent point in understanding the relationship between the Catholic Church and social justice. For instance, Oliver (2008) states that in order to have a deeper understanding of the Catholic perspective of crime and criminal justice, one must have an understanding of the central concept that lies at the heart of the criminal justice system (p. 3). For instance, there is a human desire for justice. In Catholicism, there are those who are religious that seek justice in the world so that God’s will is done on earth. There are also a set group of people who profess no religion that seek justice through the court system based on the rule of law.
Oliver (2008, p. 223) also points out that in the mid-1800’s, the Catholic Church had prodded the medical community to prevent midwives and rogue doctors from performing abortions. Further, the Catholic Church drew upon the fact that abortion was immoral, and thus both the Catholic Church and many physicians argued that the health of the woman was put at risk (Oliver, 2008, p. 223). However, as awareness regarding abortions grew and as time went on, there were changing attitudes towards abortion. For instance, doctors claimed that they should be the only ones to carry out abortions (although they were the same doctors that felt it was morally wrong), and the American Medical Association began to hold the reigns of the issues of abortion more so than the Catholic Church. Thus, since the topic of abortion is a social justice issue in which Catholic views on the issues have been changing as opposed to stagnant, this supports the thesis that Catholic standpoints are becoming less stringent than they were previously.
The other issue related to the social justice topic of abortion is the topic of justice in and of itself. Justice in the Catholic faith brings in another perspective. From the Catholic standpoint, justice is based on the word of God, the teaching of Jesus Christ, and the Traditions of the Roman Catholic Church (Oliver, 2008, p. 4). Moreover, in American penal organizations, Post-revolutionary Catholicism favoured a democratic model of authority, local autonomy, and the separation of the Church and the state (Stotnicki, 2013, p. 83). In other words, a congregational pattern of church polity was regarded as the most acceptable model of the prison system (Stotnick, 2013, p. 83). Thus, this points to a symbiotic relationship between Catholicism and the criminal justice system in which Catholicism worked hand-in-hand with social justice, and in some cases, removing signs of religion from within the system to maintain the justice system’s autonomy. However, in 1973 an event in New York changed the landscape in which Catholic teachings would be allowed in the penal system. For instance, in 1973, the United States Catholic Conference (USCC) published a Reform paper on Correctional Institutions in the 70s and claimed that certain practices they were proponents of, decreased recidivism rates, while results showed the opposite-that recidivism rates increased with such practices (Stotnicki, 2013, p. 84).
The other issues with the paper were that the paper called for rehabilitation without defining what it meant by the term and what goals would be accomplished (Ibid., p. 84). Lastly, the paper called for alternatives to prison, without giving examples of such alternatives (Ibid., p. 84). Furthermore, Stotnicki (2013) argues that the concept of deterrence does not fit in with the Catholic religion. Thus, this could point to delineation where the Catholic tradition had less of an impact on the penal system than it did in previous decades. A principle component of Catholicism and the criminal justice system is that incapacitation should be used to reshape the beneficent values of a market economy on a case-by-case basis (Stotnicki, 2013).
What is interesting about trends in social justice and Catholicism is that in a Gallup poll conducted in 2004, 71% of Protestants and 66% of Catholics support the use of capital punishment (Stotnicki, 2012). Although this poll was taken over 10 years ago, what is interesting is that capital punishment is not in line with the New Testament – although arguably, it is an Old Testament principle; this is fodder against the argument that Catholicism has not taken a flexible approach in comparison to earlier years if the Gallup poll is anything to go by. On the other hand, opinions (particularly with people that identify as Catholic) might be changing in as fast as 10 years.
The last issue that warrants mention on the topic of Catholicism and social justice is the topic of same-sex marriages. The topic of same-sex marriage is a social justice issue because it is an issue which affects a large segment of the population and it is a contentious issue which has sparked debate over the last few decades in Western society. For instance, Dempsey (2008) demonstrates that the Catholic Church holds the view that circumstances may increase the culpability of a person to engage in homosexual acts (p. 77). Furthermore, Dempsey (2008) points out that Catholics believe that respect for the basic human dignity of the homosexual entails respect for his ability to cooperate freely with God’s grace in turning from evil ways and embracing a chaste life in Christian love (Ibid., p. 77). The Catholic Church affirms the natural law and Christian vision of marriage as the loving and life-giving union of a man and a woman (Dempsey, 2008, p.77). Furthermore, the Catholic Congregation beliefs that “a person engaging in homosexual behaviour therefore acts immorally.” (Ibid., p. 77). The Catholic teaching then tries to take a scientific spin on the union of marriage by arguing that homosexual activity is not a complimentary union, able to transmit life, and so it halts the call to life and thus of self-giving, in which the Gospel claims is the essence of Christian living. Thus, the Catholic Church tries to use morality and science to argue against the notion of same-sex marriages.
On one hand, the Catholic Church respects homosexuals as people, yet on the other hand, part of the statement calls such acts “evil” and invites the “evil-doer” to embrace a chaste life in Christian love. Thus, in this regard, the Catholic Church still has a long ways to go before it deals wholly with the issues of same-sex marriage and homosexuality.
Having said that, in an interview with Pope Francis in the summer of 2013, the Pope stated that while homosexual acts were sinful, homosexual orientation was not. This shift in attitude although still stringent but making some leeway towards homosexuality, demonstrates that there has been a change to views on homosexuality as the world becomes more global and accepting of same-sex marriages.
The other reason why the topic of same-sex marriage is a social justice issue is because it has been an issue that has seen the inside of courtrooms throughout historical debate. For instance, Olson and associates (2006) argue that public opinion has had a major impact on same-sex marriage discourse. Furthermore, Canadian cases like M. v. H.  has provided awareness to the cause of same sex-marriages. In the case of M.v.H, the Supreme Court of Canada ordered Ontario to amend its definition of family to include cohabitation of partners (whether male or female). Thus, in this case, lesbian and gay couples were given the same rights and responsibilities that married, opposite-sex couples traditionally have.
Further to Olson and associates’ (2006, p. 342) study, while Americans have become less willing to restrict the civil rights of gays and lesbians, religion has been seen as a sometimes ambiguous influence on the opinions on homosexuality. Once again, these findings indicate that there have been small steps in Catholic opinions on homosexuality and same sex marriage.
Skotnicki (2013) argues that the Catholic Church plays a limited role in determining American correctional policy due to a failure at variance with significant developments in its own history (p.1). Skotnicki’s (2013) statement points to either a reform in Catholic policies in order to co-exist in the changing times, or more flexibility in its outlook on criminal justice practices. In critiquing the effect that Catholicism has had in the criminal justice system, Stotnicki (2013) further argues that while the prison system needs a clear system of why it has the right to punish- not in terms of vengeance of self-interest, but in terms of human life and human community, the Catholic Church has failed to provide significant help in addressing the crisis of punishment and reoffending. What is clear is that the Catholic Church’s landscape is changing. For instance, Curran (2010) states that the understanding of the Church (ecclesiology) is changing, the sociological relationship of the Catholic Church to U.S. Society is changing, and the circumstances affecting social justice, along with Catholicism, are changing in the United States. With these changes, the social mission of the Church is also changing, thus allowing for more flexible practices in social justice and social tolerance.
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“Pope Francis: Who am I to judge gay people?” BBC News. 29 July 2013. Retrieved 26 March 2015 from http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-23489702
Skotnicki, A. (2012). The Last Judgment: Christian Ethics in a Legal Culture. (Vermont: Ashgate Publishing Company).
Skotnicki, A. (2013). The U.S. Catholic Church and Criminal Justice. New Theology Review.