Somewhere along the way, we fell into a false dichotomy between ”the peace and social justice crowd” and “the pro-life crowd” in the Catholic Church and among other Christians (as if the Gospel informing Christianity is not both/and instead of either/or) . That divide has only intensified since at least the years when many Catholics took up with fervor the preaching of then-Chicago Archbishop Cardinal Joseph Bernardin in what was best known as ‘the seamless garment’ approach to social justice.
But Bernardin had to later clarify his teaching when he saw how it had been distorted or mis-applied for purposes he said he never intended. Some people in the Church never got the memo, and the division continues, in perception and reality.
Because “the social justice crowd” has been identified with the “liberal” agenda held by the power elite right now, and “the pro-life crowd” is associated with the Catholic bishops pushing back against the onslaught of liberal social policies and laws the power elite are using to change the fabric of life in this country…….the unfortunate consequences have been the politicization of the Church, and the misunderstanding of Catholic social teaching.
It came to a head (or seemed to) a week or so ago when Fox News Channel commentator Glenn Beck lobbed a volley by challenging anyone who belongs to a church that promotes social justice to leave it. I’m usually all over the news of the day, but must admit I first heard this from a caller live on the air on a radio show, and had to react quickly. My first reaction was….‘he said that?!’ Yes, and the caller was so distraught he wished we could just drop the term ’social justice’ from common usage.
Is that the answer? Or do we try to reclaim its original definition and clarify the Catholic social teaching behind it?
Let’s define terms, so we know what we’re talking about. Apply Socratic questioning.
The art of Socratic questioning is intimately connected with critical thinking because the art of questioning is important to excellence of thought.
We need critical thinking right now. And can only hope for excellence of thought.
In articles I researched on Glenn Beck’s dispute with “social justice”, buzzwords abounded, like ‘demogoguery‘, ‘leftist hack’, ‘right-wing ideologue’, ‘gasbag’, and so on. That language doesn’t advance any conversation.
What is Catholic social teaching, and what does it have to do with social justice?
One of my longtime reference books is ’An Introduction to Catholic Social Teaching” by Rodger Charles S.J., (Ignatius Press). Good time to refer to it.
Since man must be free to choose his own eternal destiny, he must have political and economic freedom, and for this reason the Church is not politically partisan; her social teaching is not a party programme, though different parties will find similarities between her moral guidance and their policies.
Point two, on the good of the community:
No man is an island. While ability to run one’s own affairs and be independent is essential for the common good, this does not mean that persons, families and intermediate socieites are not entitled to help from their fellow citizens when they need it. On the contrary, it is solidarity which demands it, and this is summed up in the concept of ’subsidiarity’ [from the Latin subsidium which means ‘help]. It states that persons, families and smaller organisations who need help in overcoming the problems which prevent them from fulfilling their potential, must be given it; the help given, and the manner in which it is given, should have the aim of making those who receive the help independent again as soon as possible.
Subsidiarity sums up the Christian obligation to help others in their need, when unemployment, poverty or serious sickness of any form prevent them from supporting themselves. However [emphasis mine], since the aim of this help is to try to make people independent again, it should only be temporary.
In other words, this is not advocating a nanny-state, and in fact is advocating against it. Which the Church has done in many documents. Like this one:
Neither the state nor any society must substitute itself for the initiative ad resonsibility of individuals or intermediate communities at the level at which they can function, nor must they take away the room necessary for their freedom. Hence the Church’s social doctrine is opposed to all forms of collectivism. [Libertatis Conscientia 73]
That’s a key statement.
But this latest agitation provides an opportunity to take a closer look at the larger questions and that’s a good thing. The Acton Institute is one of my favorite sources for critical thinking on social issues. Check out the resources on their blog, and note the events at bottom. I encourage people to make any of them possible, they’re always rich and provocative. I’ll be attending the one in Chicago.