When I first started writing this post, I had planned on giving a reasonably thorough summary of the various titles on this list. After sifting through just the official Church statements on social justice, I realized that they are so deep and so broad at the same time, that I can’t do justice to them in a few sentences on a blog post. In, fact I’m sure it’s the reason why, apart from the official documents, I have over a dozen books on social justice sitting on my desk including the USCCB’s Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church which is as large as the Catechism.
So as I categorize and briefly summarize these documents and books, remember that Catholic social teaching is not a bumper sticker theology. You can’t say “government assistance is bad” or say “wealth is evil” and consider that you have made any honest attempt at plumbing the depths of what the Church has to say about helping the poor, the obligations of wealth and the place of government in society. Catholic social teaching is a complex topic so here are a few suggestions for how to approach it before you read this list.
- Start with the Bible. There is a lot said about the poor and vulnerable and how to treat them in both the Old and New Testaments.
- Don’t read my brief summaries of official Church documents and assume that you can check off the “I know Catholic teaching on social justice” box on your Church knowledge checklist.
- As hard as it will probably be, especially since political parties have spent decades (centuries?) caricaturing what social justice is, try to read Church teaching without a mental “Democrat” or “Republican” highlighter. This is CATHOLIC teaching, not American teaching, or Democrat teaching or Republican teaching.
The Bible (all references from the Revised Standard Version)
Typically, it is the New Testament where people turn first for what was said about the poor but the Old Testament is full of writings about caring for the poor. This list of quotes isn’t even close to exhaustive concerning how to treat the poor or how God identifies with the poor and blesses those who help them.
“When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field to its very border, neither shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the Lord your God.” LEV 19:9-10
Believe it or not, gleaning was still practiced in England until near the end of the 18th century and was actually considered a right until a legal case in 1788 changed it from a right to a privilege.
You may be familiar with the story of Ruth and Boaz. Ruth had traveled with her mother-in-law to Bethlehem and went to glean a field so they wouldn’t starve. Boaz, who owned the field, told her to stay and only glean his field. Eventually they were married and their son became the grandfather of King David.
Today, gleaning is still practiced in an altered form by various charities that collect the day-old and damaged produce from grocery stores and restaurants (Panera actually advertises this in commercials) and give them to the needy.
“When you have finished paying all the tithe of your produce in the third year, which is the year of tithing, giving it to the Levite, the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, that they may eat within your towns and be filled…” Deut 26:12
“Give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” Ps 82:3-4
“If you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday.” Is 58: 10
In the New Testament, the importance to help the poor is emphasized repeatedly. Unfortunately, some people take these commands to mean that the greatest concern is to care for bodily needs to the exclusion of the soul. Fortunately, the Church shows that the primary goal is Heaven and provides both corporal and spiritual works of mercy as a guide to helping our fellow man.
“Give to him who begs from you, and do not refuse him who would borrow from you.” Mt 5:42
(In reference to preparing for the end times) “He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise.” Lk 3:11
“He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your resources and increase the harvest of your righteousness. You will be enriched in every way for great generosity, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God…” 2 Cor 9:10-11
“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” Jas 1:27
Also see Mt 25:31-46 which is the source of the corporal works of mercy and a direct condemnation on those who neglect them.
From the Catechism
No, not that one yet. I’m talking about the Catechism of Trent:
“But why say give us, in the plural number, and not give me? Because it is the duty of Christian charity that each individual be not solicitous for himself alone, but that he be also active in the cause of his neighbour; and that, while he attends to his own interests, he forget not the interests of others.
Moreover, the gifts which are bestowed by God on anyone are given, not that he alone should possess them, or that he should live luxuriously in their enjoyment, but that he should impart his superfluities to others. For, as St. Basil and St. Ambrose say, It is the bread of the hungry that you withhold; it is the clothes of the naked that you lock up; that money you bury under ground is the redemption, the freedom of the wretched.” (Fourth section, the Our Father, ‘Give us this day…’)
The Catechism of the Catholic Church has two sections related to social justice. The first is in the section on Life in Christ 1928-1948. The second is the same section as the Catechism of Trent concerning the Our Father.
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church,
Society ensures social justice when it provides the conditions that allow associations or individuals to obtain what is their due, according to their nature and their vocation. Social justice is linked to the common good and the exercise of authority.
The Catechism also talks about how the natural inequalities we find in the world are part of God’s plan to encourage us to share our blessings with those less fortunate. (1937) Then it quotes Guadium et spes to distinguish sinful inequality from natural inequality:
Their equal dignity as persons demands that we strive for fairer and more humane conditions. Excessive economic and social disparity between individuals and peoples of the human race is a source of scandal and militates against social justice, equality, human dignity, as well as social and international piece (GS 29 ~ 3)
The Catechism concludes with a section on human solidarity and how such solidarity must not only include material assistance but also with the spreading of the spiritual goods of the Faith. (1942)
Starting with Rerum Novarum by Pope Leo XIII in 1891, the popes released a series of encyclicals addressing the issue of social justice.
Rerum Novarum covers a wide range of issues including private property, marriage, work and wealth and sets the vision for all of the social justice encyclicals that follow. To get a really good grasp of the foundation of Catholic social teaching you will need to read the entire document but here are a few highlights:
- Private property is a natural right partly because it allows for inheritance
- Marriage is the foundation of society
- The state should take care of those in extreme need when no other options are available but can’t take over control of the family
- Socialism is bad because what it advocates destroys the family and the right to property
- Work is part of life
- Everyone is not equal in capacity and trying to force equality will have bad results
- Workers and owners should function harmoniously
- Duties of workers
- fully and faithfully perform their work that has been lawfully agreed upon
- Not to harm property
- Not to harm the owner
- Not to do violence or riot
- To avoid those with evil intentions about the business
- Duties of owners
- To see their employees as free people, not as bondsmen
- Allow time for the worker to fulfill religious obligations
- Keep him away from corrupt influences and neglect of his home
- Help him avoid squandering his earnings
- Don’t work workers beyond their strength, sex or age
- Never take advantage of the poor for personal gain
- Defrauding someone of wages cries to heaven
- Not cut workers’ pay by force, fraud or other unethical means
- The wealthy have a moral duty to support the poor – Not a requirement of justice but of Christian Charity
- Poverty is not a disgrace
Quadrigessimo Anno was issued by Pope Pius XI in 1931 to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Rerum Novarum.
This document reemphasizes the problems with socialism in light of the horrors in Russia but also issues a warning about capitalism and the unbridled accumulation of wealth.
50. Furthermore, a person’s superfluous income, that is, income which he does not need to sustain life fittingly and with dignity, is not left wholly to his own free determination. Rather the Sacred Scriptures and the Fathers of the Church constantly declare in the most explicit language that the rich are bound by a very grave precept to practice almsgiving, beneficence, and munificence.
51. Expending larger incomes so that opportunity for gainful work may be abundant, provided, however, that this work is applied to producing really useful goods, ought to be considered, as We deduce from the principles of the Angelic Doctor, an outstanding exemplification of the virtue of munificence and one particularly suited to the needs of the times.
54. Property, that is, “capital,” has undoubtedly long been able to appropriate too much to itself. Whatever was produced, whatever returns accrued, capital claimed for itself, hardly leaving to the worker enough to restore and renew his strength. For the doctrine was preached that all accumulation of capital falls by an absolutely insuperable economic law to the rich, and that by the same law the workers are given over and bound to perpetual want, to the scantiest of livelihoods. It is true, indeed, that things have not always and everywhere corresponded with this sort of teaching of the so-called Manchesterian Liberals; yet it cannot be denied that economic social institutions have moved steadily in that direction. That these false ideas, these erroneous suppositions, have been vigorously assailed, and not by those alone who through them were being deprived of their innate right to obtain better conditions, will surprise no one.
55. And therefore, to the harassed workers there have come “intellectuals,” as they are called, setting up in opposition to a fictitious law the equally fictitious moral principle that all products and profits, save only enough to repair and renew capital, belong by very right to the workers. This error, much more specious than that of certain of the Socialists who hold that whatever serves to produce goods ought to be transferred to the State, or, as they say “socialized,” is consequently all the more dangerous and the more apt to deceive the unwary. It is an alluring poison which many have eagerly drunk whom open Socialism had not been able to deceive.
Mater et Magistra
Mater et Magistra was issued by Saint John XXIII in 1961 on the 70th anniversary of Rerum Novarum. In it he reviewed the previously issued encyclicals as well as a radio address by Pope Pius XII on the 50th anniversary of Rerum Novarum. He then does a survey of the current conditions following the second world war.
It is interesting to see in this document warnings that have come to fruition since:
- The decay of farming as a viable occupation
- The temptation by wealthy nations to use their wealth to force other countries to adopt their ways
- Population control forced on poorer nations
- Denial of a true moral order
Populorum Progression was written by Pope Paul VI in 1967. While reviewing the issues that have already been addressed in previous documents, Paul VI also warned about a capitalism that has no moral foundation and which sees the acquisition of wealth as an unlimited right.
26. However, certain concepts have somehow arisen out of these new conditions and insinuated themselves into the fabric of human society. These concepts present profit as the chief spur to economic progress, free competition as the guiding norm of economics, and private ownership of the means of production as an absolute right, having no limits nor concomitant social obligations
This unbridled liberalism paves the way for a particular type of tyranny, rightly condemned by Our predecessor Pius XI, for it results in the “international imperialism of money.”(26)
Such improper manipulations of economic forces can never be condemned enough; let it be said once again that economics is supposed to be in the service of man. (27)
But if it is true that a type of capitalism, as it is commonly called, has given rise to hardships, unjust practices, and fratricidal conflicts that persist to this day, it would be a mistake to attribute these evils to the rise of industrialization itself, for they really derive from the pernicious economic concepts that grew up along with it. We must in all fairness acknowledge the vital role played by labor systemization and industrial organization in the task of development.
He also says that the government has a role in assuring that social justice is worked towards:
33. Individual initiative alone and the interplay of competition will not ensure satisfactory development. We cannot proceed to increase the wealth and power of the rich while we entrench the needy in their poverty and add to the woes of the oppressed. Organized programs are necessary for “directing, stimulating, coordinating, supplying and integrating” (35) the work of individuals and intermediary organizations.
It is for the public authorities to establish and lay down the desired goals, the plans to be followed, and the methods to be used in fulfilling them; and it is also their task to stimulate the efforts of those involved in this common activity. But they must also see to it that private initiative and intermediary organizations are involved in this work. In this way they will avoid total collectivization and the dangers of a planned economy which might threaten human liberty and obstruct the exercise of man’s basic human rights.
One of the interesting points of the document is that it discusses what the actual goal of social justice, not just the characteristics of social justice in action:
42. The ultimate goal is a full-bodied humanism. (44) And does this not mean the fulfillment of the whole man and of every man? A narrow humanism, closed in on itself and not open to the values of the spirit and to God who is their source, could achieve apparent success, for man can set about organizing terrestrial realities without God. But “closed off from God, they will end up being directed against man. A humanism closed off from other realities becomes inhuman.” (45)
True humanism points the way toward God and acknowledges the task to which we are called, the task which offers us the real meaning of human life. Man is not the ultimate measure of man. Man becomes truly man only by passing beyond himself. In the words of Pascal: “Man infinitely surpasses man.” (46)
The biggest highlight of Populorum Progressio is not these details but the emphasis throughout most of the document on the international character and obligations of nations in promoting social justice between themselves.
43. Development of the individual necessarily entails a joint effort for the development of the human race as a whole. At Bombay We said: “Man must meet man, nation must meet nation, as brothers and sisters, as children of God. In this mutual understanding and friendship, in this sacred communion, we must also begin to work together to build the common future of the human race.” (47) We also urge men to explore concrete and practicable ways of organizing and coordinating their efforts, so that available resources might be shared with others; in this way genuine bonds between nations might be forged.
Three Major Duties
44. This duty concerns first and foremost the wealthier nations. Their obligations stem from the human and supernatural brotherhood of man, and present a three-fold obligation: 1) mutual solidarity—the aid that the richer nations must give to developing nations; 2) social justice—the rectification of trade relations between strong and weak nations; 3) universal charity—the effort to build a more humane world community, where all can give and receive, and where the progress of some is not bought at the expense of others. The matter is urgent, for on it depends the future of world civilization.
Centesimus Annus was issued by Pope Saint John Paul II on May 1, 1991 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Rerum Novarum.
The pope stresses that “there can be no genuine solution of the “social question” apart from the Gospel” (5) – a point usually ignored by those trying to come up with solutions for social injustice. This is because you can’t truly deal with injustice without having a grasp of the true nature and purpose of man.
17. Reading the Encyclical within the context of Pope Leo’s whole magisterium,47 we see how it points essentially to the socio-economic consequences of an error which has even greater implications. As has been mentioned, this error consists in an understanding of human freedom which detaches it from obedience to the truth, and consequently from the duty to respect the rights of others. The essence of freedom then becomes self-love carried to the point of contempt for God and neighbour, a self-love which leads to an unbridled affirmation of self-interest and which refuses to be limited by any demand of justice.48
The pope also reiterates that a just wage is one that supports a workman, his wife and children. (8)
A large portion of the document is given to looking at the changes in the landscape of work, business and the fall of the Communist bloc. He talks about the failures of Marxism and the hope that the resulting governments will tend towards justice.
He also notes the change in wealth from a land = wealth view one hundred years previously and also the rise of the cooperative value of work as production becomes more complicated and intertwined but has resulted in great inequality in third world countries.
33. However, the risks and problems connected with this kind of process should be pointed out. The fact is that many people, perhaps the majority today, do not have the means which would enable them to take their place in an effective and humanly dignified way within a productive system in which work is truly central. They have no possibility of acquiring the basic knowledge which would enable them to express their creativity and develop their potential. They have no way of entering the network of knowledge and intercommunication which would enable them to see their qualities appreciated and utilized. Thus, if not actually exploited, they are to a great extent marginalized; economic development takes place over their heads, so to speak, when it does not actually reduce the already narrow scope of their old subsistence economies. They are unable to compete against the goods which are produced in ways which are new and which properly respond to needs, needs which they had previously been accustomed to meeting through traditional forms of organization. Allured by the dazzle of an opulence which is beyond their reach, and at the same time driven by necessity, these people crowd the cities of the Third World where they are often without cultural roots, and where they are exposed to situations of violent uncertainty, without the possibility of becoming integrated. Their dignity is not acknowledged in any real way, and sometimes there are even attempts to eliminate them from history through coercive forms of demographic control which are contrary to human dignity. (Thank you Mr. Gates)
The pope also warns against the false belief that there are only two options for governments:
We have seen that it is unacceptable to say that the defeat of so-called “Real Socialism” leaves capitalism as the only model of economic organization. It is necessary to break down the barriers and monopolies which leave so many countries on the margins of development, and to provide all individuals and nations with the basic conditions which will enable them to share in development. This goal calls for programmed and responsible efforts on the part of the entire international community. Stronger nations must offer weaker ones opportunities for taking their place in international life, and the latter must learn how to use these opportunities by making the necessary efforts and sacrifices and by ensuring political and economic stability, the certainty of better prospects for the future, the improvement of workers’ skills, and the training of competent business leaders who are conscious of their responsibilities.74
Some other points to consider:
- Consumerism is not good
- Things such as pornography and widespread drug use are signs of a broken social system that allows producers to prey on the weak
- Consumerism can lead to a disregard of the environment and sets man as a tyrant over the earth instead of a cooperator with God in the creative process
- Family based on marriage is the foundation of society
- The view of children as a “thing” to possess is part of the mind shift from “being” to “having” and looking for personal pleasure instead of the true nature and good of man
- Governments need to ensure that the basic freedoms and rights of man are ensured because market forces won’t do it on their own
- Marxism has been proven to be false but capitalism can, and sometimes does, lead to exploitation when it treats people purely as consuming entities instead of as human
- The state needs to maintain a stable and free environment for prosperity to occur but also needs to maintain laws to prevent the exploitation of the worker
- The state can also fill in when a great need to the common good is required and private entities are not available to take on the task but should make these efforts as short as possible while private groups build up to take over these tasks
- Subsidiarity in government assistance should be the goal as the more removed from someone the help is, the less personal and truly helpful it is
- The Church doesn’t propose a specific government type as the best but only puts forth the goals and considerations that must be part of a truly just government, whatever form it takes
I really can’t describe this document better than Ignatius Press did:
Charity in Truth is [Pope] Benedict [XVI]’s encyclical on “social justice”. Rather than starting with “justice” and “rights” or with the various social issues, the Pope first lays a solid foundation for understanding by exploring the crucial ideas of “charity” and “truth”. (By “charity”, he means a form of self-giving, other-regarding love, not simply giving to those in need.) “Charity is at the heart of the Church’s social doctrine”, he writes. “Without truth, without trust and love for what is true, there is no social conscience and responsibility, and social action ends up serving private interests and the logic of power.”
The centerpiece of sound and wise thinking about society, Benedict insists, is “integral human development”. By this he means development that promotes “the good of every man and of the whole man”, including the spiritual dimension. Such development requires openness to, and respect for, human life – from conception through natural death.
As important as just and free social and political institutions are, writes Benedict, “the logic of the market and the logic of the State” – free economic exchange with political oversight and restraint – are not enough to secure human flourishing. There must be a ‘gratuitousness’ among citizens and nations that goes beyond economic and political systems.” “Charity” – love – in other words, is necessary for “justice” to be true “justice”.
Benedict also argues that technology must not be seen as automatically providing solutions to human problems, without the need for morality. Nor must man seek to avoid his responsibility by rejecting technological development as inevitably evil. He must be humble yet confident that he can, through mutually purified faith and reason, make true progress.
Drawing on moral wisdom open, in principle, to everyone, and upon the gospel message of Jesus as proclaimed by the Church, Benedict addresses nonbelievers and believers alike, challenging everyone to embrace “charity in truth”. in order to confront the social challenges of our day.
After considering the official statements on social justice from the Catholic Church, it is time to take a look at some books that deal with social justice in three different ways: theory, how-to and stories. This survey doesn’t cover every title available on the topic, but if you can read them all, you will have more than enough food for thought to form a solid vision of how you can personally put social justice efforts into practice.
Books about the theory of social justice issues
The first book on this list qualifies as an official text on the topic but isn’t an encyclical. Instead, it is a catechism-sized volume called the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. This book was published in 2005 by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.
If you want all of the official teaching on social justice in one place and like the catechism style, this book is for you. I’m not going to describe the book, just list the table of contents to show how thorough it is.
Table of Contents:
- Introduction – An Integral and Solidary Humanism
- Part One
- Chapter One – God’s Plan of Love for Humanity
- God’s liberating action in the history of Israel
- Jesus Christ, the fulfillment of the Father’s plan of love
- The human person in God’s plan of love
- God’s plan and the mission of the Church
- Chapter Two – The Church’s Mission and Social Doctrine
- Evangelization and social doctrine
- The nature of the Church’s social doctrine
- The Church’s social doctrine in our time: historical notes
- Chapter Three – The Human Person and Human Rights
- Social doctrine and the personalist principle
- The human person as the “Imago Dei”
- The many aspects of the human person
- Human rights
- Chapter Four – Principles of the Church’s Social Doctrine
- Meaning and unity
- The principle of the common good
- The universal destination of goods
- The principal of subsidiarity
- the principle of solidarity
- The fundamental value of social life
- The way of love
- Chapter One – God’s Plan of Love for Humanity
- Part Two
- Chapter Five – The family, the vital cell of society
- The family, the first natural society
- Marriage, the foundation of the family
- The social subjectivity of the family
- The family as active participant in social life
- Society at the service of the family
- Chapter Six – Human Work
- Biblical aspects
- The prophetic value of “Rerum Novarum”
- The dignity of work
- The right to work
- The rights of workers
- Solidarity among workers
- The “new things” of the world of work
- Chapter Seven – Economic Life
- Biblical aspects
- Morality and the economy
- Private initiative and business initiative
- Economic institutions at the service of man
- The “new things” in the economic sector
- Chapter Eight – The Political Community
- Biblical aspects
- Foundation and purpose of the political community
- Political authority
- The democratic system
- The political community at the service of civil society
- The state and religious communities
- Chapter Nine – The International Community
- Biblical aspects
- The fundamental rules of the international community
- The organization of the international community
- International cooperation for development
- Chapter Ten – Safeguarding the environment
- Biblical aspects
- Man and the universe of created things
- The crisis in the relationship between man and the environment
- A common responsibility
- Chapter Eleven – The Promotion of Peace
- Biblical aspects
- Peace: the fruit of justice and love
- The failure of peace: war
- The contribution of the Church to peace
- Chapter Five – The family, the vital cell of society
- Part Three
- Chapter Twelve – Social Doctrine and Ecclesial Action
- Pastoral action in the social field
- Social doctrine and the commitment of the lay faithful
- Chapter Twelve – Social Doctrine and Ecclesial Action
- Conclusion – For a Civilization of Love
If you don’t want to cover the entire expanse of social teaching, there are several books that discuss the topic in smaller parts. This first book isn’t one of them.
The Framework of a Christian State, by E. Cahill, S.J., attempts to take all Catholic social teaching up to 1932 and provide a blueprint for a truly Catholic society. The book is a broad look at not just practical applications of social teaching but also a survey of the history of society, the Catholic era of the Middle Ages and the social problems caused by the Protestant revolution. Moving to modern times, he looks at the problems of socialism, Marxism and capitalism. If you want a book that provides a blueprint for social justice on a national scale, this is it.
Cardnial Pell wrote Issues of Faith and Morals for high school students as a textbook on learning why the Church teaches what it teaches. Two sections of the book cover the importance of family and why we are obligated to help the poor. Each chapter is only about ten pages long so this is a great book for a class or even to give to teens who have questions about Catholic teaching.
Thomas Dubay’s Happy Are You Poor is a reflection on Gospel poverty and how we can all live a more simple, frugal life. Dubay starts with a list of premises to consider based on the Gospel that underpin his discussion of what Gospel poverty is – and isn’t. His discussion about destitution and indifference to beauty are two of the best parts of the “isn’t” part. Gospel poverty isn’t ugly.
Gospel poverty is a witness to others and a sign that we are credible:
If we wonder why, despite the millions of us who follow Christ, the world has not long ago been converted, we need not look far for one solution. We are not perceived as as men on fire. We look too much like everyone else.
Living a life of Gospel poverty also shows our Christian witness that we are “strangers in this land” and that we have our trust in another home, not this one.
After providing this deep background on what Gospel poverty is and why it is important, Dubay provides several levels of “poverty” to consider and spends a chapter discussing what we truly “need” and what is superfluous. He even provides sixteen questions to reflect on: 2. Do I collect unneeded things? 4. Am I an inveterate nibbler? Do I eat because I am bored? …
The next section of the book provides suggestions for living Gospel poverty in different states in life – married, religious, cleric.
Dubay ends with a reflection on the title of the book “Happy Are You Poor” and how true Christian joy is a result of embracing this radical call to poverty.
It was inevitable that among Chesterton’s vast writing, he would see fit to spend time writing about social justice. His book, What’s Wrong With the World, is Chesterton’s primary work on the topic. This is typical Chesterton – insightful, sarcastic, paradoxical and right. Reading Chesterton is a bit like getting mugged on a roller coaster. You have the exhilaration of the twists and turns of Chesterton’s use of the English language, you are whip-lashed by statements that by no right should be making sense together, before finishing, out of breath, wondering how he managed to take your notions, shake them sideways and stick them back in your head without you noticing.
The biggest take away from What’s Wrong With the World is that the “new” problems that crop up now when social justice is discussed and implemented are the same problems that Chesterton railed against a hundred years ago. Enjoy the ride.
Can I really create a list like this without including something by Pope Francis? One of the first titles released after he was elected was On Heaven and Earth. This book is a conversation between the then Cardinal Bergoglio and his friend Abraham Skorka, an Argentinian rabbi. As such, it isn’t as much a theological statement as a personal conversation about a wide range of topics, including social justice.
One of the most interesting sections is discussing the poor and not only WHAT to do but HOW to do it:
… sometimes I ask the person that is confessing if he gives alms to the beggars. When they say yes, I continue by asking: “And do you look them in the eyes? Do you touch their hand?” And then they start to ramble, because many may throw a coin but turn their faces away. These are attitudes, gestures. Either you live in solidarity with your people or you live with your ill-gotten money. (p. 162)
In Christianity, the attitude we must have toward the poor is, in its essence, that of true commitment. And He added something else: this commitment must be person to person, in the flesh. It is not enough to mediate this commitment through institutions, which obviously help because they have a multiplying effect, but that is not enough. They do not excuse us from our obligation of establishing personal contact with the needy. (p. 168)
The great danger – or the great temptation – when aiding the poor, is falling into an attitude of protective paternalism that, at the end of the day, does not allow them to grow. A Christian’s obligation is to integrate the most deprived into his community in whatever way possible, but definitely to integrate them. (p. 169-170)
Francis Cardinal George, who a few years ago stated that he believes his successor’s successor will probably die a martyr for being Catholic, and more recently wrote that the rise of government force backing homosexual marriage is creating a state religion, wrote God in Action about the place of religion in America and specifically the Catholic Church’s role in it back in 2011.
This book is different from the others on this list because the primary focus is on the relation of religion to the state instead of on social justice issues. However, three sections deal with social justice issues. The first deals with an issue not covered as much in the other books; immigration. While the Cardinal talks about the importance of security, he primarily looks at this issue through the eyes of the Church. These people are all God’s children and need to be helped by the Church and individuals as if they were our neighbors.
The last title in this section straddles the line between philosophizing about the works of mercy and practical application. Mark Shea wrote The Works of Mercy as a reflection on the corporal and spiritual works of mercy but also includes organizations that are already involved in this work and an easy way for you to get involved.
One of the things I like most about this book is that the reflections give you spiritual food for thought as well as “real world” examples and weave bits of modern culture in with scripture and apologetics.
At this point it is often customary for the imagination to wander to scenes we are sure we recall from the bible somewhere, like that time Jesus gave a drink of water to the desperately parched Charlton Heston in 1 Wyler 10:42.1 but it turns out that scene is from Ben Hur, not scripture. in scenes like that, we can certainly see how giving somebody a cup of cold water might be commendable as an act of mercy.
But how often do we have occasion to meet desperately thirsty chain gangs full of innocents, much less have an artesian well nearby when we do? indeed, if it comes to that, how often, even in Jesus’ day, was the average person confronted with forced marches of parched criminals to whom he could dramatically give drink?
The book ends with contact information for dozens of organizations that help with both the corporal AND spiritual works of mercy. Give drink to the Thirsty? There are four organizations that dig wells and help provide clean water to the poor. Ransom the Captive? Three organizations to contact. Comfort the afflicted? How about the Missionaries of Charity?
Practical Application of Social Justice
These next books all deal with the actual application of all of the documents and books I’ve already mentioned. It’s really neat being able to sit down with all three of these titles and see how different authors approach the same topic.
Father Andrew Apostoli weaves together reflections on the Works of Mercy with practical suggestions for putting them into action in What to Do When Jesus is Hungry.
Instead of jumping right into the Works of Mercy, Father Apostoli begins with a reflection on the Theological and Moral Virtues. He briefly discusses what they are and why practicing virtue must lead us to engage in works of mercy. Father Apostoli gives four reasons why the works of mercy are actually an essential part of the Christian life:
- Love demands them
- The Eucharist calls us to charity
- Mercy received must be mercy given
- Jesus still hungers and thirsts
- Bonus – practicing the works of mercy helps to build a “Civilization of Love and Truth” that Pope Saint John Paul II spoke about
For each of the Corporal Works of Mercy, Father Apostoli shows how Jesus experienced the suffering that the mercies relieve and then how we can help with both the physical AND spiritual aspects of that suffering.
A look at the spiritual side of the Corporal Works of Mercy is a unique part of this book and makes it worth reading just for that. For example, Father Apostoli suggests giving to food pantries, helping at soup kitchens, shopping for the elderly and fasting as ways of of physically assisting with hunger. But then he goes on to talk about the spiritual hunger of needing the Word of God and the Eucharist.
When he talks about visiting the sick, he realizes that many of us feel very uncomfortable around pain and suffering and offers advice for how to mentally prepare ourselves for visits. He also discusses the value of redemptive suffering and not only praying for the sick but also seeing how we can help their families.
Taking a different approach, Brandon Vogt looks at the broader scope of social justice from the perspective of the saints. This book and the next are what I would call “social media books”. They are full of great content but have a different layout style. Both are full of “notices” – quotes and other supplementary information interspersed with the text. One also ends each chapter with a worksheet for putting the chapter suggestions into practice.
Brandon Vogt goes through the major components of social justice theology in Saints and Social Justice – A Guide to Changing the World but instead of focusing on what HE thinks about these issues, he uses lives of the saints to tell the story with their lives. I really like this approach because you not only get real world examples of mercy in practice, you learn about the saints at the same time.
Brandon breaks up his book into these main topics:
- Life and Dignity of the Human Person (Bl. Mother Teresa, St. Peter Claver)
- Call to Family, Community, and Participation (St. Francis of Rome, Bl. Anne Javouhey)
- Rights and Responsibilities (St. Roque, St. Thomas More)
- Option for the Poor and Vulnerable (Bl. Pier Frassati, St. Vincent de Paul)
- Dignity of Work and the Rights of Workers (St. Benedict, Servant of God Dorothy Day)
- Solidarity (St. John Paul II, St. Damien of Molokai)
- Care for Creation (St. Giles, St. Isidore the Farmer)
Brandon is also donating all proceeds from his book to Catholic Charities.
The third book in this practical guide list is the perfect one for someone who loves being able to fill out forms and check boxes. Father Michael Gaitley of the Marians presents the most concrete how-to guide of them all with You Did It to Me. We’ll just ignore the offense of using Papyrus font for the cover and say that we shall bear this wrong patiently.
Father Gaitley, being a Marian and devoted to the Divine Mercy devotion, opens his book with a discussion of what mercy is and then explains that there are two different approaches to the Works of Mercy. First is the traditional list of seven corporal and seven spiritual. The second is a scripturally based list that encompasses all fourteen. I think that Father Gaitley chose this approach so he could get you to memorize the sentence “High school ninjas stab porcupines”, but whatever the reason, that’s the approach he took.
Each chapter contains a meditation on a work of mercy and then ends with “Action Items”. Okay, check box lovers, sharpen your pencils! Feed the Hungry:
- I will check to see whether or not there is a soup kitchen or food pantry in my area , and I will look into donating food or becoming a volunteer.
Sure that’s nice, but then he forces you to actually commit:
- How will you check? ____________
- When will you check? ___________
- When might you volunteer? ______
Each section contains at least a half dozen suggestions with questions that force you to take the next step instead of leaving it to some nebulous date in the future.
The book ends with a collection of Marian and Divine Mercy related prayers. Father Gaitley gets bonus points for linking the book to the website Mercy Pages which is unfortunately not finished but promises to be a directory of organizations that are dedicated to carrying out the Works of Mercy.
Social Justice in Stories
Sometimes a story paints a better picture than all of the meditations and to-do lists you can read.
Louis de Wohl was a distinguished novelist who wrote many historical novels about the saints. The Joyful Beggar tells the story of St. Francis of Assisi. If you haven’t taken the time to read Louis de Wohl’s novels, make this one your first and walk with St. Francis as he lives out a life of mercy and justice.
My final recommendation is The Kerygma by the founder of the Neocatechumenal Way. This book, by the founder, Kiko Arguello, tells the story of his experience giving up his career as a prize-winning painter in Spain to live in a shanty town on the edge of Madrid and how he came to share the Gospel with the poorest of the poor and eventually start the Neocatechumenal Way.
In spite of the length of this post, I know that I have not exhausted the wonderful material on this topic but I believe that I have provided enough resources for you to make a good start at learning what the Catholic Church teaches about Social Justice and how to put it into practice.
What other resources do you recommend that I missed?
He lives with his lovely wife and eleven kids in northern Colorado.
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