The world, the church, even the country in which I grew up no longer exist. Facing the demands of our time requires a lot of savvy and courage. But some knowledge of what went before us helps us to name the present and see the demands of the future. For instance, the church in which I grew up was strong in identity but weak in openness to the world around it. We were sure of so much and we thought we had a claim on truth. The structures of country, neighborhood, public authorities were all strong and seldom questionned.
Our religious life and understanding were marked by four hundred years of defensiveness towards Protestantism. It was also marked by the church in our country created by waves of poor immigrants, many of whom were lacking in formal education and certainly had a very superficial knowledge of their Catholic faith. Because structures were strong, they were held together by the social life of the parish church which was so central to their lives. The post-World War II move to the suburbs meant the drying up of the strong inner-city churches and a new affluent lifestyle that placed Catholics on the same social level of most middle-class Americans.
After beginning grade school in the local public school, I transferred to the new parish Catholic school. The atmosphere, with all teachers being nuns, was Catholic. The formal study was mostly the Catechism. “Catholic Social Doctrine” was an unknown reality. One effect of this history is that, even today, it is said that the social doctrine of the church is one of its best kept secrets. Yes, we were introduced to the corporal works of mercy but these were usually interpreted on an individualistic basis, e.g. be kind to elderly women in need. The prayer and liturgy of the church all supported an individualistic approach to God. Communion was something between me and Jesus. The communal, social dimensions, were often missing.
Things began to change in the fifties and sixties. Martin Luther King based his whole social movement against racism and war on his Christian beliefs. Priests and nuns were seen on the protest lines in Selma and, soon after, in numerous anti-war demonstrations throughout the country. Catholics, as well as others, yelled at these church figures to get back into the sacristy and not be involved in politics. These voices are still heard today as Catholics demonstrate against racism, climate change, nuclear war, income inequality and other social issues.
The turn to a more communal and social dimension of the Catholic Church started in the nineteenth century. The liturgical movement, the recovery of the scriptures, as well as the early writers of the church, the spread of democracies and fall of the monarchies and other similar movements brought a new awareness for peoples of faith traditions. The Popes began a series of social encyclicals, beginning with Pope Leo XIII in 1890 with his Rerum Novarum. This tradition has deepened and increased with Popes Pius XI, John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis.
In this country Bishops such as Cardinal James Gibbons became spokesmen for working people. Social teachings of the church upheld the right to a living wage, proper humane working conditions, the end of child labor. Virgil Michel, a Benedictine at Saint John’s Abbey, was a herald for the liturgical movement which stressed the social nature of the liturgy, the active participation of the people, and a clear coherence of liturgy with social issues.
While much of this still comes a surprise to those who look upon religion as a private and individual matter, all of it is part of the entire history of the church. In fact it goes back to our Jewish cousins in the scriptures. The Jews looked after orphans, widows, resident aliens, the poor and hungry. Jesus was a prophet who took up his Jewish heritage and preached on the evils of greed and neglect of the poor. He preached much more about social obligations than individual ones, including those of sexuality. He castigated pious leaders who did all the proper religious things while not caring for the afflicted. The Acts of the Apostles in the New Testament portrays the institution of deacons as those who would look after the needs of the marginalized members of society.
The first centuries of the church saw the development of these social commitments. Saint John Chrysostom, Saint Augustine and others, preached strongly on these issues. The superfluities of the rich are the necessity of the poor said Augustine. It is not charity but justice that demands we share our riches with the poor. Thus there developed the doctrine of the common good which at times prevails over individual rights. Responsibilities go along with rights. It means, for instance, that there are limitations on private property. The gifts of the earth belong to all human beings and must be shared. In our capitalistic society these words are often called echoes of communism and socialism. And Pope John Paul II was adamant in recognizing the limitations of capitalism without condemning it. We are given time on this earth to be comfortable but to learn how to love and give ourselves to others.
At the heart of Catholic Social Doctrine is the dignity of every human person, as well as the respect due to animals, plants and all of creation. Every life is precious and a gift from God. Pope Francis has written an entire encyclical on “fraternity and social friendship”. It is called Fratelli Tutti named after a letter of Saint Francis. The English translation of this letter was published at the time of our American election in November 2020 so it never got much press. In chapter two the Pope gives a reflection on the parable of the Good Samaritan. With Jesus he upholds our belief that every other person is our neighbor. In Chapter Three he applies this to immigrants in what he calls “engendering an open world”. What struck me in this chapter is his consistent seeing every immigrant as a person and not a problem. This does not mean, as he says, that nations cannot regulate immigration for the good of all but it does mean immigrants must always be seen, first of all, as human beings, our brother and sisters. Respect and reverence are due to all, even the least of Christ’s little brothers and sisters. (see Matthew, 25)
A previous encyclical of Pope Francis, published in 2015, was Laudato Si, care of the earth, our common home. He was clear in pointing out that this was a social teaching as it involves matters of morality and the awareness of how neglect of the earth’s resources affects all people, and the poor in a special way. Unfortunately, our American Bishops have paid little attention to this teaching as well as to the more recent encyclical on human relationships.
We can be grateful that many people have taken up the call to live these teachings. Many lay groups have heeded the crucial call to work for the care of earth, water, animal and plant life. Especially notable are Archbishop Oscar Romero and other priests in addition to the works of many Religious Sisters. Some, as Dorothy Stang, Ita Ford, Maura Clarke have lost their lives in promoting the needs of the poor.
So, does Catholic Social Doctrine have something to say about our world, our country, our church? I would say there is a desperate need for it right now. It is so sad that the church has lost its credibility in many ways, especially due to the sexual abuse crisis and the misuse of power. We need the values, the understanding of not only Catholicism, but also the many traditional faith traditions in addressing the human family.
“They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more”. (Isaiah, 2:4)
“Our Father…. Thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.” (Matthew, 6:10)