Tuesday, June 23

What is "Catholic Teaching on Social Justice?"

Catholic teaching on social justice is about how we can help those in unjust social and economic, and political situations. As Christians, we know that our primary goal is to follow Christ’s example and live out his teachings. As such, we are called to be aware of the dignity, value and worth of each individual human and through Jesus’ teaching on love, and to help each other out as brothers and sisters. In order to carry out the mission of God as given to the Church, we must have action that is concerned with justice. The fight for human dignity is then a matter of fighting for freedom due to their liberty and dignity from poverty, abuse and from being used. The dignity of the human being is intended to demonstrate the unjust nature of many economic and social situations.

Since the Industrial Revolution, the Church has had much more of an awareness on the situation which the poor are in. Due to social, economic, political and military decisions made by other humans, these millions of individuals have suffered. Over the last 125 years, then, bishops, laypeople, theologians and philosophers have all tried to put forth more efforts to not only increase awareness of the plight of the poor but also increase the means to help out these individuals. The focus has changed from simple matters of charity to complex issues dealing with social injustices. These social actions lay the foundation for this relatively new mode of fulfilling Christ’s mission in the Catholic Church, which has come to be known as social justice. Teaching on helping the poor in wealth and the poor in spirit is seen both in the Hebrew Bible and in the Christian Scriptures, specifically in the four canonical gospels where we find the teachings of Jesus.

Since the later 1970s, the phrase “preferential option for the poor” has been used to make members of the society think: how do laws and decisions affect those who are sick, those who are young, and those who are in poor economic or social standing? To go about changing injustice, Pope John Paul II held that we needed to listen to the poor and share their experience with them, or rather to stand by and with them. Only by doing this can we truly know how decisions in politics and economics affect the poor. The Pope also connected “preferential option for the poor” and “action for social justice” with the “duty of solidarity.” This solidarity is essentially not simply the desire to change but the will to incite and enact change, and a call to commitment and servitude. In fact, according to Mark’s gospel, those who wish to become great must become a servant, and those who wish to be first must be last – they must become a servant to all.

When considering social justice, the Beatitudes often enter into discussion. It is noted that there are two varying accounts of the Beatitudes, one recorded in Matthew’s gospel and the other recorded in Dr. Luke’s gospel. Matthew’s version contains nine beatitudes whereas Dr. Luke’s has only four. The first three found in both Matthew and Luke seem in line with Jewish tradition, particularly that of Isaiah. Attention is called to those who are in low conditions, those who are captive and those who live in ruined cities according to the prophet Isaiah. The mission of Christ, then, is seen in Matthew and Luke as helping others: those who are in need morally, economically and socially. As followers of Jesus, Christians are called to live out this calling as well and care for others. For the earliest Christians, Matthew’s beatitudes were used as the basis of requirements for Christian living (note: this can be seen also through the Didache, which is primarily based on Matthew’s gospel). St. Augustine, St. Gregory and Martin Luther also used the beatitudes to show concern for the poor.

The lives of various saints also bear out this concern for the poor. Monastic life was directed specifically at those who are poor, and more famously the life and teachings of St. Francis of Assisi bear out this concern for the poor. The Franciscans held that as disciples of Christ, they were to share in experience and life with the poor, including those who were sick and those who were in poor social standing. Religious hospitals, orphanages, schools and various other services have been provided through the ages that are sometimes directed specifically at the poor. Now, the mission toward the poor is connected and concerned with the future of the church for a number of reasons, but it is worth pointing out that concern for individuals and the future of humanity as a whole drives the concern and mission of the Church. The Christian Church is not only to be concerned with the individual salvation of people, but with the salvation of the entire world. This would include how we care for our planet, our resources, how we treat outer space as we now have access to it, how we treat the poor and how we treat animals.

Before continuing, social justice ought to be defined as a term. It is a very recent term first utilized by Pope Pius XI in the early 1930s, although the concept itself was found in the later 1800s in the work of Pope Leo XIII, who was the one to lay the foundation for the theology of social justice. Social justice is about changing the economic, social and political situations that oppress and come down on the poor, and about recognizing the value and dignity of the human being. It is “social” because it is within society that we give each individual their due. As we are all one human race, we share the same planet and also exist as a society. There are various aspects and levels of society, such as the interpersonal relationships that exist between people as well as groups that ought to take other group’s welfare and well-being into consideration.

Justice is another term in need of definition. In the Hebrew Bible, we see God as just. He establishes just laws in the form of the Ten Commandments, and for someone to be just we engage in imitation by imitating God’s justice. In the New Testament, John the Baptist believed that Jesus was the fulfillment and enactor of justice itself, and that the message and mission of the Church is and should be concerned with justice. Therefore, in both the Old and New Testament we find a consistent message of justice and enacting justice. Martin Luther King Jr. later defined just and unjust laws as thus: a just law is one that builds up the human personality, whereas an unjust law is one that tears down the human personality. Out of this context, we began to consider social sin.

Although sin is seen as an act of disobedience or immoral behavior and actions, we also engage in social sin. For example, we may purchase products that have actually been made by children in sweatshops or products that have been made with material gained from a brutal war – and by purchasing these items we are also essentially supporting these efforts, and thereby engaging in social sin. Racism is another prominent example of social sin. Although slavery was abolished during the presidency of Abraham Lincoln and segregation was abolished due to the efforts of individuals such as Martin Luther King Jr, discrimination and racism as a whole still exists in today’s United States. The treatment of Native Americans in the past several hundred years is yet another example of horrid social sin. Catholic teaching on social justice, then, is not an attempt at focusing on the individual at the cost of the entire community, but using the individual to help the entire community – specifically those who are in poor economic and social standing based on the dignity of the human person. It comes down to a three-fold process: taking the situation into consideration and observing it, reflecting upon the Scriptures and then acting out of love and social justice on behalf of the poor or the individual being oppressed.

Around 1998, U.S. bishops released a document listing eight important principles regarding social justice. First, we come to the life and the dignity of the individual. Since we were all created in God’s image, we have inherent value and meaning, as well as freedom. When we fail to recognize the dignity of the human person and instead choose to oppress it or end it, we are then being unjust. Second, there is a call to familial relationships, to the community and to participation. Parents should care for their children and help them to become able to have loving relationships which then allows the community to benefit and the grown child to participate in society. Third, we find the notion of human rights as well as responsibility. The right to live recognizes the dignity of the human person, and we each have a responsibility to care for others including those on a global level (hence the reason for relief efforts).

Fourth is the common good of men. This common good is achieved by recognizing the dignity of all men and women and as a global society, working together for the common good of all. Fifth, we have the aforementioned “preferential option for the poor.” Essentially, because God is good, we ought to be committed to helping the poor. Sixth, we recognize the dignity of work as well as worker’s rights. In this view, our economy is supposed to serve us, we are not supposed to serve it. Work as well as workers have inherent dignity as work is carried out by humans who were created in the image of God and therefore participate in creative actions much as God did during creation week. Seventh, we come again to the “principle of solidarity.” This principle is intended to let us walk in “their” shoes in order to learn how to help others. Lastly, the principle of stewardship (shown in Genesis 1 via the Dominion Mandate). This is the care and responsibility for all of God’s creation, which includes nature, animals, resources, other humans and God’s creation as a whole. St. Francis of Assisi was an embodiment of the eighth principle, particularly in his recognition and care for God’s creatures and creation. Christianity is intended to be transformative, and when we engage in social justice we not only attempt to avoid evil but overcome it entirely. It is about building the kingdom of God on earth and through God’s love in our lives, loving our fellow brothers and sisters and bringing justice and love to all the nations.

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