Does Jesus Want us to be Social Justice Warriors?
Good Distinctions in Catholic Social Teaching
What are the Seven Themes of Catholic Social Teaching?
Human beings are social, by nature; we do not live in isolation. The teachings of the Church regarding good social ordering springs from the heart of Christ. We are called to holiness, but this call requires cooperation with those around us to be authentic followers of Jesus.
To understand how we are to order our society, we need to heed Catholic Social Teaching (CST). The U.S bishops offers us seven themes of CST: 1) the Life and Dignity of the Human Person, 2) the Call to Family, Community, and Participation, 3) Rights and Responsibilities, 4) the Option for the Poor and Vulnerable, 5) The Dignity of Work and the Rights of Workers, 6) Solidarity, and 7) Care for God’s Creation.
To His disciples, Jesus says, “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me (Mt 25:40).” And He also says, “… what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me (Mt 25:45).” This implies that there must be action taken by the members of the Body of Christ in each of the seven themes.
Does Jesus, therefore, ask us to be social justice warriors? Do we need to take on one of the themes as a project? Or do we need to try to tackle all seven?
Some, in the Church, fight for the dignity of life while others focus more on stewardship of the environment. Both are doing these actions out of love of Christ and His creation. However, what I hope we will see in their examination is two things: 1) all seven themes are important and 2) they must be prioritized.
1. The Life and Dignity of the Human Person
Human life is created in the image and likeness of God. Therefore, each person has dignity and a right to life from the moment of conception in the womb until they draw their final breath. Human life is sacred, which means that it has been set apart. The Church fills out this meaning by calling us to sainthood.
Human life is under direct attack from the evils of abortion and euthanasia, which are unacceptable under any circumstance. There is also a threat to the value of human life from embryonic stem cell research, cloning, and the imprudent use of the death penalty. There are unjust wars, acts of terrorism, and acts of violence in our world.
Catholic social teaching exhorts nations to find peaceful solutions to disputes whenever possible. However, a nation or an individual has the right and obligation to protect innocent human life when it is threatened. The preservation of innocent human life is a principle contained in this theme of the life and dignity of the human person.
2. The Call to Family, Community, and Participation
In 1960, the global divorce rate was 12%. Divorce is also a violence to a couple because marriage is a lifelong union. There is no such thing as a clean divorce; someone is always harmed. For this reason, the Church tenderly reaches out to those who have suffered divorce to offer the healing of Christ. A few years ago, the global divorce rate was 44%. In the United States, the rate is 46%, 42% in the United Kingdom, and 38% in Australia.
With such high divorce rates, it is not uncommon to see broken families. Catholic social teaching upholds that the person is sacred, but that the person is also social. Our economics, politics, laws, policies, and social institutions must therefore defend marriage and the family. Without the family being at the core, these social institutions will erode and eventually break apart.
With crumbling families, the need for community has never been more important. It is our obligation as Catholics to reach out to our fellow man, especially the poor and vulnerable. All are called, regardless of race, religion, or ethnicity to seek the common good.
Our participation in our community is not negotiable. We need our brothers and sisters and they need us. Our world has become increasingly isolated which is contrary to God’s design for us as individuals and as a society. As a result, rates of mental illness and suicide have skyrocketed. As Catholics, we are called to breathe life into our communities, in Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit.
3. Rights and Responsibilities
For communities to thrive and uphold the dignity of human life, rights must be protected and responsibilities met. Pope St. John XXIII enumerates these rights:
“We must speak of man's rights. Man has the right to live. He has the right to bodily integrity and to the means necessary for the proper development of life, particularly food, clothing, shelter, medical care, rest, and, finally, the necessary social services. In consequence, he has the right to be looked after in the event of ill health; disability stemming from his work; widowhood; old age; enforced unemployment; or whenever through no fault of his own he is deprived of the means of livelihood (Pacem in Terris, 11).”
Every natural right begins with the right to life, because without life there are no other rights. The natural rights listed by Pope St. John XXIII lead to the duty of the state and individuals to protect the rights of others. There is also a responsibility to use these rights well in the service of God and man. We are not free to do whatever we please; we are free to choose the good. This is how rights and responsibilities are two sides of the same coin.
4. The Option for the Poor and Vulnerable
In nations ravaged by communism, there is an ever-widening gap between the super-rich and the ultra-poor. In areas of unfettered capitalism and many types of socialism, there is likewise a disappearing middle class. In other words, societies that do not care for the poor and vulnerable tend to lead to the poor getting poorer and the rich getting richer.
The Catholic Church has always upheld the call of Christ Himself to the corporal works of mercy. The needs of the poor and vulnerable must come before our own. This is called the preferential option for the poor. Do I feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the ill, visit the imprisoned, and bury the dead? Notice I said “Do I?” It is not enough for our parish to do these things; in one way or another, we will be individually judged by God on whether we personally contributed to these efforts in service of Christ, according to the circumstances of our own lives.
5. The Dignity of Work and the Rights of Workers
Work has dignity because it is a participation in the creation of God. Further, economies exist to serve the people in a society. We do not work simply to make money. If work has dignity, then the rights of workers should be protected.
The U.S. bishops summarized the rights of workers very well:
“All people have the right to economic initiative, to productive work, to just wages and benefits, to decent working conditions, as well as to organize and join unions or other associations. (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, A Catholic Framework for Economic Life, no. 5).”
All of our earthly fathers share in the Fatherhood of God; they are a sort of “icon” of the Father. Our Father in Heaven has called us His own through the waters of Baptism. Therefore, in Christ, we are all brothers and sisters; we have become co-heirs to the kingdom. Beyond our own belonging to the Mystical Body of Christ, we also share in our one Creator. Therefore, we all belong to one human family, regardless of nation, race, ethnicity, economic or ideological differences.
Recent technological shifts and globalization have made this reality clearer (while unfortunately undermining solidarity in key ways - but that’s a whole other episode). The fact is that we are connected. Our solidarity with our one human family spurs us to pursue true justice and peace. In the midst of sufferings, especially violence and conflict, we are called by the Church to work for peace, in solidarity with one another.
7. Care for God’s Creation
Our Holy Father, Pope Francis, followed suit after Pope St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, and wrote beautifully on the care for our common home in his work: Laudato Si. In this document, he writes,
“Once we start to think about the kind of world we are leaving to future generations, we look at things differently; we realize that the world is a gift which we have freely received and must share with others. Since the world has been given to us, we can no longer view reality in a purely utilitarian way, in which efficiency and productivity are entirely geared to our individual benefit (Laudato Si, 159).”
Caring for God’s Creation is part and parcel of the Catholic life. In our throw away culture, we realize that the environment is impacted by wastefulness and the dignity of human life is impacted by a disregard for the poor. Everything in God’s creation is connected, and we must seek to serve God and our fellow man in all things.
Applying These Themes in Our Lives
So, how do we actually go about applying these principles to our lives? Over the course of history, there have been hundreds of different cultures, customs, circumstances, political systems, and so forth. It stands to reason that the practical instantiation of these principles will vary due to the tangible situation of a particular time, people, and place.
The seven themes of Catholic social teaching fall under the unflinching category of Faith and Morals. Faith and Morals have been infallibly declared by the teaching authority of the Church and they apply to all places, times, peoples, and circumstances. This means that Catholics of good will are not at liberty to disagree on these central teachings of the Church, in principle.
The key distinction is: principle vs. application.
Catholic political and social engagement, or tangible application of principles, can be called prudential judgment. Prudential judgment is making decisions, in line with the Faith and Morals of the Church, using the virtue of prudence.
“Prudence is the virtue that disposes practical reason to discern our true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it; ‘the prudent man looks where he is going.’ (CCC 1806)”
Prudential judgment takes practice, listening to God, and being formed in the principles of Catholic teaching - and the other teachings of Faith and Morals of the Church, of course. The solutions Catholics may take on social welfare systems, minimum wage, and other political issues will and can vary from person to person. Further, what works well in one area of the world may be wholly inappropriate in another locale. Rarely is anything black and white. However, there is usually a solution which borrows from one side and another. This is the perennial Catholic both/and position, and a reminder that we need both “conservative” and “liberal” forces in the application of principles.
Need to Prioritize
In the application of the seven themes of Catholic social teaching, it is important to prioritize. We cannot tackle all seven at once. It really is a team effort. But, we must let the Lord lead the way. We cannot think of any of the seven themes as pet projects. We are a Church of Christ not a church of causes!
The trick then becomes: who decides the prioritization? The key principle we need to utilize is subsidiarity.
The Principle of Subsidiarity
To make the best decision possible, the Church employs the organizing principle of subsidiarity. Basically, this principle states that the best decisions for a local community are made at the lowest possible level and the highest level necessary.
In the hierarchy of the Church, the Pope makes decisions based on the common good of the whole Church on earth, whereas a local bishop makes decisions only in his particular geographical area or diocese. Likewise, a pastor represents his bishop and makes decisions for his own parish and parish boundaries.
However, subsidiarity is best shown by the family: the foundational cell of society. Parents make decisions for their family, especially their children, without overreach from the local, state, or federal government. The family then makes decisions with other families at the local community and parish level. If the decision needs broader input, then it might fall to the state or eventually the federal government. Subsidiarity, once again, dictates that if the family has the power to make and implement the decision, then they alone should do so. Practically, an example of something that might take federal reach would be border security or a standing military. These are out of the reach of a smaller level of governance (individual, family, community, or state). If an entity has proper authority and they are the closest to the situation, they ought to make the decision.
Pope Pius XI illustrates this principle and safeguards the diversity of humanity and richness of her talents when he says,
“… it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community, so also it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do (QA 79).”
The Common Good
Subsidiarity is always ordered to the common good. This means that governments have the solemn responsibility to create the conditions of human flourishing. The proper authorities must be ready to provide the resources and direction necessary to direct the community to the common good. Each individual has something to offer and ought to be engaged in their own welfare as well. Pope Benedict XVI puts it this way:
“Subsidiarity respects personal dignity by recognizing in the person a subject who is always capable of giving something to others (CV 57).”
Subsidiarity transcends any political system or political affiliation. This guiding principle represents the great Catholic both/and. We have an obligation to the poor and vulnerable and to maintain the dignity and productivity of all people. In other words, subsidiarity must be linked to the principle of Catholic social teaching of solidarity! If we have subsidiarity without solidarity, society becomes disconnected and privatized to the extreme. If we have solidarity but no subsidiarity, society “gives way to paternalistic social assistance that is demeaning to those in need (CV 58).”
A Proper Prioritizing
A proper prioritization of Catholic social teaching will, therefore, apply the principle of subsidiarity. If human dignity is under attack by abortion or euthanasia, then that takes first priority.
Protecting human dignity is the preeminent issue to address because without life, no other right matters, and it is manifestly opposed to the common good of all. Then,
We must shore up the family as the cell of society.
Our families must work together to secure the rights of those around us and fulfill our responsibilities to one another,
In justice, the virtuous pursuit of rights and responsibilities must have a preferential option for the poor and vulnerable, who must never be forgotten and brought further into the community,
Of course, a community needs participation, but specifically in the form of dignified work and the rights of workers which must be protected,
Further, our society, now solidly functioning at the local level must never lose sight of our solidarity, our interconnectedness, and, to some extent, this will extend to our state and nation and the whole world, and
While accomplishing all of these things, we must do our part to care for God’s creation as good stewards.
As presented above, the themes of Catholic social teaching are not at odds with one another; they are not pet projects. God may call us to emphasize one or the other more prominently in our own work or ministry. Hopefully from the way I organized it, you can also see what I mean by the importance of prioritizing the themes as well. They build upon one another, like a building.
You may think that the themes should be taken all at once, like a “seamless garment,” but this approach does not take into account that a prioritized layering is necessary, nor does it do justice to the necessary principle of subsidiarity. Ultimately, the seamless garment hypothesis does not do justice to Catholic social teaching, in practice.
Generally, this idea of the seamless garment is where Catholics, well intentioned as they might be, go off the rails and become SJWs or “Social Justice Warriors.” The Lord calls us to practice justice in society, but it has to be done in a prudent way, respecting the principle of subsidiarity. So, no, we are not called to be social justice warriors.
We are called to focus on Jesus Christ and live our lives as His hands and fight, keeping the themes of Catholic Social Teaching in mind and in the proper prioritization.