The Roman Catholic tradition, as well as the larger Christian tradition as a whole, has a history of charitable actions, meeting the expectations of Jesus found in Matthew 25:35-36: “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.” Christians of all denominations have been active in their communities with acts of charity such as these for as long as they’ve been around, caring for those that cannot care for themselves, loving those that were not loved by the greater society. For as long as there has been “church” there has been charity.
But as the Church discovered a little over a century ago, the Gospel message requires more than just charity: it requires social justice. Whereas charity seeks to alleviate the symptoms of societal problems, i.e. feeding those that are hungry, social justice seeks to understand and eliminate the causes of societal problems. It goes beyond the attempt to remedy substandard living on a case-by-case basis and moves towards making changes on a systemic level in order to eliminate substandard living altogether. Because it’s such an overwhelming and critical issue in our world, us postulants were graced by the presence of Joe Nangle, OFM, a friar with ministerial experience both here and abroad, in order to learn what it means to act with justice as a Christian.
By it’s very nature, social justice is “political.” It looks at a society and asks, “What structural institutions are in place that prevent all people from living a dignified life, and how can we as a church remove them?” Certainly there will always be people who are poor because of their own agency, but there are also many people who have absolutely no chance in life because of racism, unjust wages, severe inequalities in power, oppression, lack of education, and so on. It is this list of detriments to the human family that requires the church to move into public sphere and demand change. If we preach a Gospel of oneness in Christ, how can we not be called to action when we hear of our brothers and sisters being forced into sweatshops or being actively denied basic necessities of life for any reason? It is intrinsic to living a Gospel life: “Action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world fully appear to us as a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the Gospel” (Justice in the World, Catholic Synod of Bishops, #6 1971, found here).
So what does it mean to be “political” as a friar or official of the church? It means preaching the Gospel with the Bible in one hand and the daily newspaper in the other. It means taking the Gospel message away from the abstract and placing it into our current socio-political realm, discussing the real-world implications of living a Gospel life. It means not being afraid to upset the business owners in the congregation when preaching about the fair treatment of workers; the rich when preaching about God’s preferential treatment of the poor; the xenophobe when preaching about the solidarity of all people. Knowing that God loves us no matter what we do is very different than believing that God loves everything we do; the Gospel message can be difficult for all of us, but sometimes we can’t be afraid to shake up the status quo of our comfortable lives.
As a final note, I think that it’s important to add that being “political” does not mean being partisan. It is not only against the law for an official in the Church to support a candidate, party, or specific piece of legislation from the pulpit, it is probably theologically incorrect to assert that the Church unquestionably supports or rejects a specific candidate, party, or piece of legislation. In something like Catholic Social Teaching (CST), the Church has set forward a number of principles for society (based on the Prophetic books of the Old Testament and the teachings of Jesus and pastoral letters of the New Testament), but does not dictate a specific way in which that has to be implemented. Both Republicans and Democrats can share a bit of the truth on almost every issue, and yet neither stand up to Church teaching on any of their platforms. Thus, what the Church needs is politically minded priests that are willing to preach about these social issues, lay out the possible choices, and call the congregation to engaged discussion and thoughtful action for social change. Priests that claim to have the only answer, paint simple dichotomous choices, alienate conservatives or liberals, or sit back and accept the status quo, are at best engaging in a lukewarm Gospel message.
I find CST to be the richest aspect of the Church today. It is was forced me into a more active life in the Church, and what ultimately inspired me to be a friar. If the province allows me, I would like to pursue a degree such as Ethics, Peace, and Global Affairs (or anything socially minded), and to pursue a life of social action. If you are interested in more, or mildly to completely upset by anything I mentioned above, I encourage you to check out the principles of CST here, or read the original documents for yourself here.