As part of my current ministry, I spend a bit too much time and energy on Instagram. In fact, some readers may have stumbled across this very blog thanks to a posting on that or some other social media forum. Don’t get me wrong: I have some fun as long as I’m on there—thank you National Park Service! Nonetheless, once social media no longer figures into my job, I will drop it like it’s hot. If you need proof, look for me on Facebook (#ImNotThere).
Scrolling through Instagram the other day though, I discovered a series of videos that the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops co-produced with Catholic Relief Services highlighting the traditionally acknowledged seven themes of Catholic Social Teaching: Life and Dignity of the Human Person; Call to Family, Community, and Participation; Rights and Responsibilities; Option for the Poor and Vulnerable; the Dignity of Work and the Rights of Workers; Solidarity; Care for God’s Creation. I was pleased to see the videos, which had been re-publicized after their initial release in 2015. I was dismayed however to read some of the reactionary comments left by individuals who apparently saw this initiative as a neglectful departure from the promotion of moral teaching and sacred doctrine. This lazy criticism seemed to insinuate that the Catholic concern with social justice originated with the perceived whims of a supposedly leftist Pope.
Can one truly separate moral teaching from social teaching however? The Catechism of the Catholic Church doesn’t even allow us to separate social teaching from sublime theology. In describing how the Eucharist commits Catholics to concern for the poor, the text stated: “To receive in truth the Body and Blood of Christ given up for us, we must recognize Christ in the poorest, his brethren” (no. 1397). Truly caring for the poor or the otherwise marginalized not only involves my personal choices of how to respond to the individuals I encounter each day, but also choices of what social structures and policies I support that either compound or lessen the situations of poverty and injustice around me.
Only a poor historian would attribute the emergence in the Church of social concern to some innovation of Pope Francis. The Catholic Church has been explicitly weighing in on social issues since 1891’s Papal Enyclical Rerum Novarum, which took up the issue of working conditions and organized labor in the industrialized world. In 1963, Pope St. John XXIII wrote about the need for world peace in the face of nuclear threat, and two years later, the Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World emphasized the need of the Church and all its members (meaning all believers) to be at the service of the common good and the human community. Political opportunists accuse Francis of playing politics when he presses for environmental protection, but it was his predecessor, the more conservative Pope Benedict XVI, who first garnered the nickname ‘the Green Pope’ for his efforts to combat climate change.
We should welcome controversy around Catholic Social Teaching as a validation of its continued relevance. However, we must also resist historically ignorant attempts to paint this as a peculiar obsession of one Pope. In fact, Catholic Social Teaching has been remarkably consistent over time, and it is the same concern for the life and the dignity of the human person that leads to care for the unborn, the developmentally disabled, and the homeless—including those displaced by the effects of climate change.
It is true that Catholic bishops should be primarily concerned with the care of souls. This does not mean ignoring social reality, however: While many of the poor and vulnerable are often already very intimate with the God on whom they constantly rely, improving living conditions creates an environment in which it is easier for people to be good. Furthermore, in exhorting citizens and political leadership to address the human needs of refugees (for example), Church leaders urge us to soften our hearts so they may be of flesh, not stone… for our own good. This is not unlike the Hebrew prophets who functioned in part to decry the unjust treatment of the poor in society, not simply for the sake of the mistreated but also so that the oppressors might save themselves through changing their ways.
Civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer once remarked that “Nobody is free until everybody is free.” Although she is not generally recognized as a theologian, her justice advocacy originated from her biblical study. Hers is the kind of practical theology that may be useful in looking at our world today and the Kingdom that lies before us.
This week’s “ear candy” urges us to do something in the face of injustice and suffering. The “brain food” shares Pope Francis’ thoughts on the danger of conflated political ideology with Church teaching. Seems like the connections to this week’s post should be fairly clear.
Ear Candy: “Do Something” by Matthew West
Brain Food: “Francis Warns of Ideology 'Infiltrating' Some Quarters of US Catholic Church” by Joshua J. McElwee
Come back next Saturday for a new post!