3.3.5 Further issues

Back to 3.3.4

Unit 3 Contents

……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

Government’s role to the end of distributive justice is, then, threefold:

(i)   Recognition and protection, but not absorption, of civil society bodies

(ii)   Upholding of human rights

(iii)  Civic direction

I said at the start of the last page that the previous three had given only an outline of the role of political authority.  Much more needs to be said to give a fuller picture, as well as to qualify what we have so far learned.

For people who are actually involved in politics, especially those who hold political office, there are (at least) two other major issues that they need to understand well if they are to use power wisely.  We shall study both of these later in the module, but I would like to introduce them now very briefly, so that you can begin to see the way they develop, or qualify, that answer to the question of the role of government.

(a)      Tolerating injustice as the lesser evil

Even a government that was dedicated to fulfilling the role I have outlined might find doing so extremely difficult in practice.  A main reason for this is that unjust social practices can be so deeply embedded in a culture that immediate changes in law would be incapable of rooting them out.  Possible examples of such practices are bribery, vigilante violence, narrowly capitalist business (in which workers are treated as mere instruments to the end of maximizing return to capital), and coercion to marry.

A naïve attempt to outlaw bribery, for example, could end up making things worse if widespread unwillingness to accept the new law prompted people to use worse means than backhanders, such as violence, to get what they want.

There is very longstanding recognition of the main point here in Catholic thought.  St Thomas Aquinas wrote:

[Human law] does not all at once burden the crowd of imperfect men with the responsibilities assumed by men of the highest character, nor require them to keep away from all evils, lest, not sturdy enough to bear the strain, they break out into greater wrongs.   Thus it is said in Proverbs, He that violently blows his nose brings out blood …  [T]hat is, the commands will be despised, and from this contempt men will break out into worse evils.  (ST IaIIae, Q. 96, Art. 2)

This point only places a qualification on the vision of government’s role that has been outlined. It says that unjust practices can be so embedded in a society’s life that they might have to be tolerated for a time.  But the role that government must aim to fulfil remains as summarised at the top of this page.

(b)      Establishing ‘structural justice’

This second point is closely related to the first.  If such unjust practices as I have mentioned are deeply entrenched in a society, they can be described as forming structures within which people find they have to act, but which trap them.  Here is an illustration.

In December 2010, a Tunisian man, Mohamed Bouazizi, was unable to pay the bribes demanded by local officials before they would let him sell fruit and vegetables from his street cart.  This followed years of similar harassment.  He was stuck.  Pushed beyond what he could endure, he set fire to himself in the middle of the road outside the governor’s offices, shouting, “How do you expect me to make a living?”1. He died two weeks later.

His protest sparked the Arab Spring of 2011 that led to changes of government in four Arab countries within a year and to major protests in several others.

Bribery and corruption were endemic in Tunisian society – as they are in many others – and had terrible consequences in trapping people in poverty.  This exemplifies structural injustice.

I referred to this when we first studied what the term ‘justice’ means in Unit 1 (1.3.1).  Good laws, properly enforced, establish structures of justice.  Bad laws mean that injustice is structured into a society – and good laws that are left unenforced do the same.  (No doubt there were laws against corruption in Tunisia in 2010.)

Especially since an encyclical by Pope John Paul II in 1987, Solicitudo Rei Socialis, CST has incorporated an understanding of structural justice and injustice.  Indeed John Paul spoke more widely of ‘structures of sin’.

The immense challenge facing people in political office is to know how to face the realities of structural injustice and, over time, to use the power of law that is properly enforced to establish structural justice.

We shall return to the first of these issues in Unit 8 and the second in Unit 6.

……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

End of 3.3.5

Go to 3.3.6 John Courtney Murray: government’s role as ‘public order’

Module B outline

Copyright © Newman University. If you wish to quote from this page, see Citation Information. N.B. If you are a student and make use of material on this page in an assignment, you are obliged to reference the source in line with the citation information.


  1. Quoted in Rania Abouzeid, ‘Postcard: Sidi Bouzid’, Time, 7 February 2011, p. 8. 

Go to Top