Living Justice: Catholic Social Teaching in Action
In fact, many of the laudable social institutions and practices that we take for granted today have their roots in teachings and activities of the Christian community, including the Catholic Church. For example, the complex system of hospitals and modern health care from which we all benefit sprang from charitable works that were sponsored by churches, both Protestant and Catholic, in previous centuries. Modern labor unions and group insurance policies are an outgrowth of various activities of guilds and sodalities, agencies through which members of the medieval Church practiced mutual support, often under direct religious auspices. Churches organized the first schools in our nation and in other lands, and much of our educational system at all levels is still religiously affiliated. It was the Church that cared for poor families before there were public social service agencies. The contemporary social work and nursing professions grew out of the efforts of church personnel, largely nuns and laywomen, Catholic and Protestant alike, to assist families in need of resources, expertise and healing.
For good reason, then, the Church has been called the “godmother of the nonprofit sector.” The Church continues to have significant impact on the shape of all these activities and professions as well as various social movements for justice, civil rights, and a more humane world. In fact, there is a recurring historical pattern by which assorted efforts begin with religious motivations and zeal, and then come to be regularized and routinized in the form of secular institutions. This is a beneficial, constructive aspect of the Church’s service to the world and in no way diminishes the Church, as long as we remain conscious of the way these developments are a credit to the Church and its efforts at advancing social justice in our world. P. 14-15
To our existing belief in the benefits of charity, we have added a commitment to justice. Where charity tends to involve individuals or small groups of people acting to meet the immediate needs of others, work for justice involves a more communal and even global awareness of problems and their potential long-term solutions. Where the notion of charity calls to mind voluntary giving out of one’s surplus, the notion of justice suggests that there is an absolute obligation to share the benefits of God’s creation more broadly than we see in the present order. P. 19
Amidst some years of uneasy relations between Church and empire, a North African Christian named Tertullian asked a simple but provocative question: “What has Jerusalem to say to Athens?” His inquiry was not really a matter of geography, for he was speaking metaphorically. The Greek city of Athens represented all the treasures of secular culture, including the great traditions of learning and the arts that came from pagan figures such as Homer, Sophocles, Plato and Aristotle. Jerusalem, capital of the holy Land, sacred to the Jewish tradition and the city whose streets Jesus had trod, stood for the heritage of biblical faith and religious piety. At the start of the third century, Tertullian’s reflections were suggesting questions we still wrestle with today: How can and should we relate our citizenship and discipleship? How can we simultaneously remain participants in the life of the Church and participants in a secular culture that resists and even rejects the demands of faith? P. 29
According to this ethic of social engagement, the two most extreme answers to Tertullian’s question (“nothing” and “everything”) are both misguided and potentially dangerous. If we were to claim that “Jerusalem” has nothing to say to “Athens,” we would be giving up the struggle before it begins. It would be irresponsible to deprive society of the contribution of religiously motivated persons whose ideas and energies are the potential basis for much needed activism and social movements for great improvement. To take just a few examples from our won country, where would American society be if religious groups had not agitated for the end o\to slavery (in the Abolition movement), to extreme militarism (the peace movement), to racial injustice (the Civil Rights movement), and to extreme poverty (the fight against hunger, homelessness, and illiteracy)? P.33
The best representative of nineteenth-century Social Catholicism in England was Cardinal Henry Edward Manning (1808-1892)…. Besides fervently speaking out about social injustices, Maning performed many symbolic and substantial deeds to demonstrate his concern for the poor and his desire to awaken rich Catholics out of their slumber of apathy. In the 1860s he canceled plans to build a new Westminster cathedral so the money could be used to open over twenty new schools for children in poor families. P. 70-80
When we read Patristic literature, we might be dissatisfied with some of its positions on social issues. They may seem at first blush to be overly simplified and, therefore, largely irrelevant to the complexities of our modern era. For example, on the issue of private property, several of the Church Fathers wrote angry denunciations of greed and selfishness but did not pay sufficient attention to the detailed arguments supporting the continued recognition of private ownership of property. Basis the Great, for example, preached a famous sermon in which he boldly stated that all our surplus wealth belongs to the needy and should be distributed to the poor immediately. John Chrysostom went so far as to advocate a form of communism when he wrote: “For ‘mine’ and ‘thine’—those chilly words which introduce innumerable wars into the world—should be eliminated… The poor would not envy the rich, because there would be no rich. Neither would the poor be despised by the rich, for there would be no poor. All things would be held in common.” P 97-98
Nine Key Themes of Catholic Social Teaching
The dignity of every person and human rights. “Because we all somehow reflect the image of God in our rational minds and in our physical bodies, we are all entitled to be treated with respect and dignity. Because we are intelligent and free beings, God intends us to be immune from slavery, manipulation, or exploitation.” P 115-116
Solidarity, common good, and participation. “Solidarity is the single word that captures a complex of meanings. It calls attention to the simple and easily observable fact that people are interdependent; they rely upon each other for almost all their biological and social needs….We cannot realize our full potential or appreciate the full meaning of our dignity unless we share our lives with others and cooperate on projects that hold the promise of mutual benefit.” P. 119-120
Family Life. “The family occupies a special place in Catholic social teaching; it is the most intimate sphere in which people cooperate and the first place where children learn about themselves, their individual identities, and their vocations within the wider society….The well-being of the entire society absolutely depends upon healthy families, committed marriages, and responsible parenthood. Family life is where we learn and practice the virtues of love and compassion that allow us to imagine alternatives to the ruthless competition and selfish individualism that we witness all too often in the business world and in our market-based society.” P. 124-125
Subsidiarity and the proper role of government. “The term subsidiarity comes from the Latin word for “assistance,” and it refers to the way the various levels of society should relate to each and assist one another in bringing about the best outcomes for all people. One of the benefits of the principle of subsidiarity is that it respects the natural groupings tat people form with their neighbors. For example, if the people of a small village agree on a goal (say, building a road or cleaning up a polluted swamp) and have the means to accomplish I, they should avoid involving any larger bodies in the task.” P 128-129
Property ownership in modern society: rights and responsibilities. “…the Catholic tradition also makes us aware of the benefits of individual ownership, which not only encourage the most efficient and the most orderly of property arrangements but also gives us an incentive to be productive and to care for the goods God has created…. To ignore the needs of our less-fortunate neighbors, whether out of selfish motives or mere neglect, is to frustrate the very purpose of God in creating the material world we share.” P. 132-133
The dignity of work, rights of workers, and support for labor unions. “…labor is portrayed as neither a necessary evil nor merely a means to the end of supporting family life; rather, labor is presented as something that is intrinsically good for us. In our work, we can discover rich meaning and develop our potential. Evan in the humdrum routine of daily life in the workplace, work is more than a taxing or boring necessity. P. 141
Colonialism and economic development. “Elsewhere in Sollicitudo re socialis, the Pope [John Paul II] identifies a number of ‘structures of evil,’ including the crushing burden of international debt, the arms race, and a form of economic domination often termed ‘neo-colonialism.’ John Paul II denounces these harmful trends and patterns which are responsible for the worsening plight of the poorest as they suffer from the effects of unemployment, a housing crisis, illiteracy, and other obstacles in their full human development. P. 148
Peace and Disarmament. “The Christian presumption against violence gave way to the noble desire to protect the innocent from harm. Many believers reached the conclusion that the best we can do in these difficult situations is to limit the damage while we defend innocent civilians by means of the deadly force we otherwise would choose to avoid. Taking up arms in justified causes such as these came to be referred to as strange acts of love, undertaken with the same reluctance that parents feel when they are forced to discipline their unruly children.” P. 151-152
Option for the Poor and Vulnerable. “In once sense, the notion of the ‘preferential option for the poor’ is relatively new to Catholic social teaching, as this phrase appeared in no papal social encyclical until 1987, and in no church documents at all until 1979. But in another sense, the notion of the preferential option for those who are weak and vulnerable has been present within the Christian tradition from the very start. The ministry of Jesus, in both words and deeds, was deeply wrapped up with this commitment to the well-being of the least fortunate. Without using the actual phrase “preferential option,” the Church has practiced this option in many ways, formal and informal, as it has placed concern for the most vulnerable members of society among its top priorities…. In identifying itself with the concerns of the poor, the Church is here interpreting its entire mission as one of service to those in need. Bringing the gospel to people in the fullest sense means caring simultaneously for their many needs, spiritual and material. The Church is most clearly itself when it is acting on the imperative to meet the urgent needs of the most vulnerable—the ones Jesus Christ so loves.” P. 158-159
Mother Teresa, a hero to millions, was famous for calling her admirers to ‘find your own Calcutta.’ By this she meant that it is important, wherever you find yourself, to take advantage of whatever opportunities arise for social involvement and world for justice….
Take, for example, the story of St. Peter Claver (1581-1654) He started out as an ordinary Spanish Jesuit of his day but, almost by accident, found himself ministering to some of the most oppressed people on earth—thousands of Africans kidnapped and being sold into servitude in the slave markets of Cartagena, Colombia. Peter Claver dreamed about single-handedly ending the institution of slavery and dramatically confronting the entire seventeenth-century establishment of colonialism that supported the many cruelties he witnessed. But he was limited to what he could realistically do: make simple visits to the slave ships and prisons where he could console, counsel, and offer the sacraments to those deprived of their freedom and dignity. Over his forty years of ministry, St. Peter Claver baptized some 300,000 slave. By showing these men, women, and children the respect owed to children of God, he certainly did contribute to the change in attitude that eventually abolished the slave trade.