Women carrying water on the road from Juba to Yei South Sudan, December 2010.
Compliments of IPS 610, I share one of my weekly assignments for our required publishing of a blog. This week’s topic is “Catholic Social Teachings.”
“Millions of families cannot live in dignity because they lack the conditions worthy of human life.”
What an evocative statement made by the US Council of Bishops in its 2012 reflection “A Place at the Table.”
Even though I have been learning about and working within Catholic Social Justice since I started undergrad, realizing that it is the Catholics saying all of these beautiful, just, inclusive statements is always still a lovely surprise *(I come from a particularly conservative, backward-thinking diocese.)
Through every reading this week, in the back of my mind I have the question:
How can I communicate this to others? How can the pendulum swing from believing Catholic teachings are more in line with the Republican party, nationalism and capitalism to systems meant for the common good? And which of these systems can do the most good for the most people? Is there one? I appreciate the reflection made in the video on the papal Encyclical written in 1891 by Pope Leo XIII, Rarum Novarum, “Marx asked the right questions, but he didn’t have the right answers.”
Rerum Novarum says that the role of the state is to promote social justice, economy must serve the people, people are more important than goods, and that labor is more important than capitol. Economy must serve the people. This means that making money is not a good in itself. This is a big deal. It is a societal belief that is not easy to crack. Jesus was a revolutionary.
Let’s all be reasonable here. (Toro Toro, Bolivia)
Though we may not have all of the answers, the first step toward social justice on a personal, spiritual level is to admit that there are dire inequalities that have been caused through the structural sins of many forms of discrimination. As the 2008 Catholic Charities report “Poverty and Racism” states, while addressing racism in America:
“Racism is not natural. White privilege does not just happen. It is important to stress the human agency behind white privilege for two reasons. First, human agency makes white privilege an ethical reality for which there is moral responsibility and accountability. Second, because human agents created and maintain racial injustice, human agency can also challenge, modify, and dismantle it. This is the basis for our call to action” (15.)”
Humans created inequality, and humans can dismantle it. I think this is the first and most important idea to remember when studying social justice. We can’t ignore the blatant inequalities facing us and must confront the cultural biases that may be keeping the truth from our eyes. First, we have to move away from the mindset that is, as quoted by MLK in the Catholic Charities report, “Uneasy with injustice, but unwilling yet to pay a significant price to eradicate it.” This means that being a part of the system to undo social injustices will cause you to think, challenge, feel uneasy, be upset, and find a way to act.
And that is good. It is good to be upset, to challenge and to wonder why the world is the way it is. God asks us to do this, calls us to examine our world and develop our conscious around reality.
The question always in my mind is why these issues are not always at the forefront of Catholic conversation. I think mainly it is because the Church largely aligned itself with the Republican party because of social issues involving a variety of things, including sexual ethics, which are always delicate. These issues are more easily dealt with in a black and white manner, because it is easier. I’m constantly thrilled at how Pope Francis is handling this, by bringing Catholic social teachings to the forefront of the Catholic conversation and straying away from issues of lesser importance.
I have to constantly speak about how great it feels to read these Catholic social teachings in various forms because it has taken a long time to begin to understand the enormous inequalities of the world and how, as noted in the video on Rarum Novarum, “Social justice is not in opposition to the gospel message, it is the gospel message.”
I remember the American priest I stayed with in Yei, South Sudan saying “the gospels are alive in this place.”
And a fantastic aspect of Catholic Social Justice is the understanding that the informed conscious is our greatest tool in understanding and acting in the world. When the question arises whether dogma or conscious is the higher form of good to follow, conscious wins. This is pretty power-of-the-people and one of the greatest ways that acting in the common good, and humanizing all, is celebrated within Catholicism.
As Mary Elsbernd and Raymond Bieringer in their book “When Love is not Enough,” note, Rarum Novarum maintained that not all contacts and laws were just. If the laws in which we live by—all laws, by country and world and religions, and Church teachings too—do not align with an informed conscious, than Catholic teachings tell us that we’re bound by conscious. This is an important concept when addressing Social Justice. Just because the law says that making money off other people is “just,” does not mean that it is.
The highest good is a well-informed conscious doing work for the common good of humanity. For me personally, learning about social justice in order to act to improve the state of the world has been the most important aspect in my development. There is so much to learn. I am constantly astounded. I am glad to have found Catholic Social Teachings to guide my way, as I have found it to be the most fulfilling, reasonable, loving approach to deciphering this complex time into which we’ve been born.
Love, good will, community, education, personal responsibility and the freedom to make your own choices. These are the teachings of Catholic Social Justice. All are included.
*For example, girls are not allowed to serve on the altar in the diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska. At a very young age I wrote a letter to the bishop questioning this. He wrote back to me and told me I should not try to be like the boys. I should try to be like the saints.