Catholic Social Teaching Corner: The Threefold Work of Justice

June 10, 2015

The Catholic Social Teaching Corner is an occasional reflection by the Promoter of Social Justice of the Province of St. Joseph on the Church’s social doctrine as applied to current issues and events.  Fr. Francis Belanger, O.P. was recently re-appointed to the position.

The occasion of being re-appointed as the Promoter of Social Justice in the Province leads me to reflect anew on what the job means.  As I was reminded by Father Michael Deeb, the Dominican Order’s Promoter General of Peace and Justice, this ministry is something that is integral to the life of the Church and the Order; it is not something to the side or only for a few. So how does a Dominican, and indeed any Christian, promote peace and justice in the world?  One can delineate three elements in this essential work of the Church.

The first is the most basic and can be summed up in an old-fashioned Christian term: almsgiving. Promoting peace and justice means being generous to the needy, to those in dire circumstances, to worthy causes, etc.  This aspect is the most obvious to the Catholic in the pew.  One makes donations of money or, often even better, time.  The great icon of almsgiving of our age is Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who went into the slums offering aid to the poor and dying.  And Martin de Porres is a superb example in our own Order.  Without personal charity, much rhetoric about improving the world can end up being a “resounding gong” (1 Corinthians 13:1).

The second element of promoting justice is to expound a sound political and social philosophy, namely that provided by the Gospel and Catholic Social Teaching.  The difficulty of rising to this level is well illustrated by a saying of the late Dom Helder Camera, Archbishop of Recife, Brazil: “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint.  When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.”  Sometimes the world wants us to do good deeds but not to speak.  But Catholics are called to stretch beyond the imperfect ideologies of left and right and proclaim a social ethic that embraces the whole truth: economic freedom but also justice for the poor; the right to life of the unborn but also of families devastated by war; the civic need for personal morality but also a will to aid in integral development of peoples; human rights but also care of all of God’s creation.  Pope Francis, who recently reminded the world that “war is the mother of all poverty” (General Audience, June 3, 2015), uniquely embodies the Catholic Social Teaching tradition of his predecessors, which Dominicans in particular can help to preach.

The third level is social action. Christians should make this world ever more resemble the world to come.  As Pope Benedict XVI wrote in Caritas in Veritate, “integral human development is primarily a vocation, and therefore… the responsibility in solidarity on the part of everyone” (#11).  It is a grave error to say that Christians should only be concerned for personal salvation and let worldly authorities take care of social problems.  Worldly authorities need redemption too.  One can think of the success of the civil rights movement in the United States, led by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and so animated by Christian values.  In Poland there was the Solidarity movement, a Catholic labor union, which played a large role in toppling Communist totalitarianism.  Whether it’s by marching in the streets, running for office, or simply voting according to an informed conscience, Catholics should help make the world a better place.

The Kingdom of God is a kingdom of peace and justice.  Christians individually and the Church as a whole are called to be instruments of the presence of Christ.  We reflect His sacrificial love for each human person by our almsgiving; we put on “the mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:16) by our adherence to Catholic Social Teaching rather than earthly ideologies; and we bring about a civilization of love by social action that promotes human dignity and the common good.  Let us live out what we pray, “Thy Kingdom come!”

Image: Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller, The Soup Kitchen, 1859, Österreichische Galerie Belvedere, Vienna.

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