The upcoming presidential election has sparked great debate. Many feel there is no good candidate and are left wading through issues with no easy answers. Of top concern among Catholics include beliefs in the sanctity of human life at all stages, protecting law enforcement and military, strengthening national security, and caring for those in need. While issues such as abortion are clear cut good vs. evil, issues such as how best to serve the needy are more abstract.
A recent post in a Catholic Facebook group spoke of the need for government assistance to the poor. It’s an idea many endorse without looking too deeply into the many government programs that sound good on the surface but do not live up to stated goals. This post went beyond merely saying government assistance was necessary to saying that private institutions, including the Catholic Church, are incapable of providing adequate help to those in need.
The post and ensuing commentary from Catholics who agreed that the Church is incapable of satisfying basic needs made me sad. I wondered what Jesus would say about the ability of the Church to implement social justice and I began to research what social justice means in Catholic teachings.
7 Issues of Catholic Social Justice
- Human Dignity – The premise of all Catholic social justice requires acknowledging every person, in every stage of development, as made in the image and likeness of God. Catholic social justice requires us to think, speak, and act with the knowledge that all are children of God and temples of the Holy Spirit. This most important principle teaches dignity as an inalienable right. Government programs cannot honor Catholic beliefs because they cannot include God.
In government programs, a person is given value because the state says he or she has value. When the state withdraws value from a group or changes its definition of valuable as happens with political changes, we see a loss of dignity and an increase in death and despair. This is happening today as many struggle to defend invaluable pre-born and euthanasia threatens those not productive (or valuable) in society. With both Church and state programs, help is given to the needy worthy, but only in Church programs is worth defined by the unalterable value given to each person by his or her Creator. By relying on state programs, many miss the value they are born to.
- Participation in Family & Community – Understanding of self-value comes first from the family unit, ideally husband, wife, and children. The family unit is vital because it teaches about individual value, connectedness, and common good. Without all three, we run the risk of inflated individualism as Pope Francis warned of in Amoris Laetitia. The government today promotes a strange brew of hyper-individualism and uniformly imposed embrace of diversity.
There is no model of the ideal family. All things are open to interpretation. No fault divorce promotes irresponsibility. LGBTQ agendas promote homosexual “marriage” while one man-one woman forever agendas are ridiculed as bigoted, close-minded, and in need of re-education. No government agency today promotes chastity seriously or tells young adults that they are statistically better off in a monogamous, traditional Marriages.
The Church, when it puts on the Armor of God, stands for universal love by speaking of the beauty of sexual relations within Marriage and the financial and emotional benefits of being part of a traditional family. The Church can speak Truth because it relies on God and knows it will prevail. the government must modify truth over time in small swallowable bits because politicians rely on donors with big wallets and bigger agendas. Politicians know when the money runs out they cannot prevail.
- Property Rights & Responsibilities – Helping neighbors is key to Catholic social justice, but our Church is too widespread for members to live communally as early Christians did. Therefore the importance of individually owned property must be recognized. Saint Thomas Aquinas taught that pursuit of individual betterment, absent idolatry, promotes freedom and advancement and that personal property should be protected except in extreme cases where basic needs and human dignity are at risk. An example is when one steals to feed his starving family from another who has an abundance. The government can deny personal rights at whim. Eminent Domain is one example of fluctuating government values and a redefinition of what is needed to promote the common good. When property is taken away, human dignity is lost opening doors to hopeless defeatism.
- Common Good – Most agree the common good includes ensuring all people have clean water, healthy food, access to medical care, adequate shelter, and quality education. The problem with common good as defined by the government is that the definition changes to mean common desires or interests. Today, the common good promotes acceptance of all and extreme relativism; however, the Church defines common good without it being the main goal.
In the Church, the goal of common good becomes attaining the greatest good – getting to Heaven through the 10 Commandments or, as Jesus so nicely summed up, through the two greatest Commandments: Loving God above all and loving your neighbor as yourself. In over 2000 years, this greatest good has not changed. It does not flip flop based on social norms, definitions of who is a “valuable” human being, the agenda of the monied class, or the whim of the local politician. Only the Church can provide the greatest good to all.
- Human Solidarity – We are all members of the body of Christ and must work together to promote the greatest good. Each person, no matter station or appearance, has strengths that others can benefit from. On the other hand, each also has needs he cannot meet alone. The Church recognizes that for the greatest good to be achieved, governments must work together. Governments should be as small as possible but as large as needed to be to be effective in diverse cultures. Governments are best suited to provide national defense, international cooperation, and criminal justice. The Church can aid in these areas by scrutinizing policies and verdicts, seeking measures to grow the greatest good globally, and holding politicians accountable for words and actions.
- Dignified Employment – People learn their value first in their family unit, but belief in one’s value grows through dignified employment. Work is a gift as seen when Adam is given the task of naming animals in the Garden of Eden and when a toddler learns to set the table for his family’s dinner. What pride there is in a job well done! Both the government and the Church recognize the dignity in human employment. Both can participate in the creation of jobs and in education necessary for dignified employment. Issues come into question when workers are not treated respectfully and when the “work” they do is degrading. There is dignity in being the man who picks up his neighbor’s trash.
There is a loss of dignity being legally “employed” as a prostitute. The Church, because it applies principles to promote the greatest good and recognizes all people as part of one body, should be vocal about such issues and provide training, opportunity, and hope to those employed in less desirable occupations and to those earning wages that cannot support families. The Church should promote an understanding that success is not defined by greedily comparing our wealth and also that earning a living wage may mean cutting back on nonessentials.
- Peace and Care for The Needy – Saint Augustine and others endorsed the theory of the just war. War is never easy. There are always losses that wound the innocent and violate God’s plan, but when evil endangers human dignity it must be countered. Actions must be taken to prevent war and to promote peace when possible. It is only when a land is at peace that the poor can truly be served most efficiently. In instances where peace is not possible and human life is at risk, war may be the only humane answer. War is declared by the government, but the consequences of war are often addressed by the Church as priests and the faithful roam battlefields giving last rites, visit the wounded in VA hospitals, and handing out donations to impoverished families.
The question should not be whether the Church can handle social justice programs but which of those the Church can do the most good. We must ask ourselves where we are willing to dive in and get our hands dirty. We must acknowledge limited resources but not sink to believing the government has greater abilities than the Church when we live as we are called.
Scripture calls on us to love God first and foremost and to love all others, even our enemies. It calls us to feed the hungry, house the homeless, and clothe the naked among other things. Scripture tells us to give away all we have and follow the Lord while acknowledging how difficult this is. Jesus understood the need for systems, order, and collections. He collected loaves and fishes from a few and had them handed out to feed the many. Systems that feed and house and provide for the poor, the infirm, the elderly, and those who cannot take care of their own needs must serve the people and exist for the people. It can never be the other way around, yet when government assistance programs and welfare and social work show the high employment growth, one is faced with questions of whether those systems feed the people or the people feed the system.
When it is the same people returning year after year for help, one questions what dignity waiting in welfare lines gives a struggling individual. One must question whether finding dignified work is a real goal when all when government programs occur during prime interviewing hours and during the typical work day. We must ask what common good comes as tensions among and within nations rise and war and rebellion loom. We must ask how the most innocent among us can be killed with the excuse of it being for a greater good. We must as ourselves what happens when our dignity and our lives are threatened as they will surely be if current trends continue. We must ask which candidate best promotes, not a fluctuating common good or a false individualistic idea of greater good, but of an unchanging, eternal, universal greatest good.