Tuesday, March 17

The Church: Its Mission and Social Doctrine

The documents Gaudium et Spes, Evangelii Nuntiandi and the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church are examples of the mission charged to believers by the visible Church and the social doctrine it espouses. Part of the Church’s mission is to read the signs of the times and to meet the needs of people in that age, so these three documents systematically explore issues of worker’s rights, human dignity based in the imago dei, the production of goods, the topic of evangelization as well as the responsibilities called for in evangelizing, and finally, the social doctrine of the Church and the responsibility it bears. The Church has one underlying mission of evangelization, but this evangelization can also lead to a transformation of every aspect of human life - social, political, economic, and so forth. The question begs to be asked, then - what is the Church’s Mission and Social Doctrine? 

Gaudium et Spes: The Church in the Modern World
Gaudium et Spes is the Latin phrase which begins the document, or in English, “Joys and Hopes.” This is about the joys and hopes, griefs and anxieties of men and women who have decided to follow Christ, and through the realization that they are linked with mankind and the history of mankind, they are compelled to reach out. This is the first sense of the Church’s mission to others - the goal is to help others and create brotherhood and sisterhood among all people. As such, this solidarity is shared between all humanity, everywhere, so the Church is called to tend to this solidarity. The Church believes that it is led by God’s Spirit, and it is here noted that the mission of the Church should show its religious and supremely human character, since the lives of human beings is to serve one another. Humanity, the document says, is created in God’s image, and was created male and female. This means that man is a social being. He must interact with other people to develop his or her potential and truly live.The focal point of the document is thus the human person in every way - body, mind, will, soul, heart, and conscience. 

Another role in the wider mission of the Church is to address Atheism, which is among the most serious problems of our age. In the Abrahamic traditions, we root our idea of human dignity in not only being created in God’s image but being able to connect with God through communion with him. This is not part of the atheistic worldview, which has led and is leading to many problems. For example, many do not believe that truth exists, and this kind of moral relativism can cause a lack of apathy toward other human beings and a resentment toward those who believe in a god, which can have very real consequences. But the Church - in its mission - calls its members to minister to non-believers, as God’s presence is revealed through the brotherly and sisterly charity of the faithful who work together to better mankind. This is not to say that there are not good atheists who have made and continue to make many contributions to an increasingly globalized world, but for those whose worldview is not fully-formed and thought through, problems can arise.

Now, on another note, as humans are the source, center and purpose of all economic and social life, the life of a man and woman has become ruled, in many ways, by the economics of their job and where they live. There are a large amount of people who are still underprivileged and in poverty while others live in great wealth. Further, the production of agricultural and industrial goods is being looked at today for the betterment of mankind. Citizens need to remember that it is their right and duty to contribute to true progress of their community. Employments opportunities should be made in all areas for people. The livelihood and human dignity of people in difficult conditions needs to be guaranteed. These and other considerations play into the social doctrine of the Catholic Church, which in turn is part of the wider mission of the Church. The Church has the freedom to preach the faith, teach social doctrine, exercise her role freely among men, and pass moral judgment.

One of the final pieces of the mission of the Church is to foster political freedom and responsibility of citizens. The protection of rights is necessary so that citizens can be active in the life and government of the state. To establish political life of a human basis, we need to provide an inward sense of justice and kindliness. There should be political structures governing the human race without discrimination. Dictatorships and totalitarian states, however, violate human rights. Therefore, along with this and other aforementioned considerations, the core issue is the human being, so that in Gaudium et Spes, the social doctrine and mission of the church is centered around the dignity of the human person. 

Evangelii Nuntiandi: Evangeliztion in the Modern World
This second document, Evangelii Nuntiandi, as the title suggests, focuses specifically on the mission of the Church: evangelization in the modern age. Evangelization is the primary service of the Church, and the document helpfully lays out different ways of understanding this mission. It first asks, how did Jesus carry out evangelization? “Going from town to town, preaching to the poorest - and frequently the most receptive - the joyful news of the fulfillment of the promises and of the Covenant offered by God is the mission for which Jesus declares that He is sent by the Father. And all the aspects of His mystery - the Incarnation itself, His miracles, His teaching, the gathering together of the disciples, the sending out of the Twelve, the cross and the resurrection, the permanence of His presence in the midst of His own - were components of His evangelizing activity."

From a Biblical perspective, during his earthly ministry, Jesus evidently had a special concern for the poor - hence why Pope Francis is calling us to be a Church of the Poor.  In fact, Pope Francis has said, “May we never get used to the poverty and decay around us. A Christian must act.” This is one of the major emphases of the Church’s mission as well as social doctrine. The document makes clear that the mission of the Church is made more urgent by the present-day society, and that evangelization is in fact the “deepest identity” of the Church. Indeed, “She exists in order to evangelize, that is to say, in order to preach and teach, to be the channel of the gift of grace, to reconcile sinners with God, and to perpetuate Christ's sacrifice in the Mass, which is the memorial of His death and glorious resurrection.”

The Church has a duty to live out the command of Christ to preach the gospel to all creation (Matthew 28), and this proclamation of the gospel - this kerygma, when it is adhered to, comprehended, digested and integrated into one’s life, can be transformative as a whole. But this is not the only aspect of evangelization. In fact, the transformative call of the gospel also concerns the love that God has for us and our love of God as well as the brotherly and sisterly love we are called to show for others. This love can express itself through compassion, forgiveness and reconciliation, and through the growth of the community.

Another aspect of this evangelizing mission of the Church is the duty to “proclaim the liberation of millions of human beings... of assisting the birth of this liberation, of giving witness to it, of ensuring that it is complete. This is not foreign to evangelization.” Although the Archbishop of El Salvador, Oscar Romero, did not come to prominence until after the promulgation of this document, he is an excellent example of a saintly figure who lived out this aspect of the Church’s mission. When he had first become Archbishop, he was more head-based than heart-based in his approach. However, over time, Romero watched the oppression, the needless violence and suffering in his country, and he assisted the birth of liberation. He wanted his homilies to be the voice of the people. It is individuals like Romero who live out the Church’s mission and social doctrine, and it is individuals like Romero who provide hope for the hopeless and a voice for the voiceless. 

It seems, then, that Evangelii Nuntiandi would argue that the mission of the Church as it concerns evangelization is not only concerned with the conversion of individuals to Jesus Christ, but that it also contains economic, political, social and cultural dimensions as well. The Christian ethic encompasses all of human existence, and thus, the entirety of the human person. 

Church Mission and Social Doctrine
But what of the social doctrine of the Church? The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, chapter two, “Church Mission and Social Doctrine,” describes the various ways in which social doctrine is a part of the mission of the Church. The primary purpose for the social doctrine is to make the “message of the freedom and redemption wrought by Christ, the Gospel of the Kingdom, present in human history.” Social doctrine is at the very heart of the Church’s mission. Consider Luke 4, where Jesus goes to the synagogue in Nazareth and reads from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. Within the passage read aloud, Jesus proclaims his message to be people-centered, or rather - proclaiming freedom for the captives, helping the poor and the needy. In a roundabout way, Jesus announces his mission - and thus the mission of the Church - to be concerned with the marginalized and transform those societal structures which are oppressive.

From a historical perspective, the term “social doctrine” dates back to Pope Pius XI and is used to designate the doctrines concerning the issues that are currently relevant to society. This process of reading the signs of the times dates back to Rerum Novarum, the papal encyclical of the late 19th century which started the modern Catholic Social Tradition. Issues concerning justice, the development of humanity, the relationships between people and groups of people, issues of peace and justice and others, are all an important part of evangelization and social doctrine, and again, it is evident that social action as a result of social doctrine is a result. The social doctrine of the Church is also thereby theological in nature, or rather, “theological-moral,” since it is intended at being a doctrinal guide for the behavior of the individual.

The social doctrine of the Church is concerned with the human person in society, with the quality of human life and the respect for human dignity, with peace in relationships between people, and with a denunciation of the “unrecognized and violated rights, especially those of the poor, the least and the weak.” In short, the social doctrine of the Church fulfills a very large piece of the Church’s mission of evangelization.

At this point, the question can now be revisited, what is the Church’s Mission and Social Doctrine? The documents Gaudium et Spes, Evangelii Nuntiandi and the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church have explored the mission charged to believers by the Church and the social doctrine it proclaims. By reading the signs of the times and meeting the needs of people in each age, these three documents explain that the mission and social doctrine of the Church should lead to a transformation of every aspect of human life - social, political, economic, cultural, religious, and so forth. This is all rooted in the primary principle of Catholic Social Teaching, which is the dignity of the human person. In a sense, the mission of evangelization and all of its various pieces, the mission of building community, the mission of fostering peace in every area of life and the mission of transforming society all stem from the dignity of the human person. Thus, one can conclude that the primary task of the Church in regard to its mission imparted by Christ is that of evangelization, and that the Church’s social doctrine is one of the most important pieces of this mission to the world.

[1] Gaudium et Spes 14.
[2] Evangelii Nuntiandi 6.
[3] Francis, Pope (Pontifex). “May we never get used to the poverty and decay around us. A Christian must act.” 3 Apr 2014, 1:03 a.m. Tweet.
[4] Evangelii Nuntiandi, 14.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid., 28
[7] Ibid., 30.
[8] Groody, Daniel G. The Option for the Poor in Christian Theology. 1st ed. Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007. 100. Print.
[9] Evangelii Nuntiandi, 33.
[10]The Compendium of Social Doctrine of the Church. 63.
[11] Ibid., 67.
[12] Ibid., 87.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Ibid., 73.
[15] Ibid., 81.

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