June 12, 2012

Lay Catholics and social justice

By Rebecca Ryskind Teti *

“Self-Delusion & True Contrition.” That title caught my eye in our parish used book rack, so I invested fifty cents towards the enlightenment of my conscience.

The booklet is an excerpt from Fr. Alfred Wilson’s Pardon & Peace, written in the 1940s. 

A line of scrutiny related to the lay vocation impressed me. 

Under “Justice,” for example, came questions you’d expect about not pinching the boss’s paper clips and not looking down your nose at workmen, but I read also:

• “Have I chosen to forget that public money comes out of my neighbors’ pockets and no government can produce money by magic?”

• “While in theory decrying the materialism and mendacity of the press, have I, nevertheless, been content in practice to get most of my ideas from it?”

My favorite: “When we go to the cinema and see a picture about empty-headed people in luxurious surroundings, do we say, ‘What drivel!’ or do we sit in a misty dream, wishing we could give up our daily work and marry into surroundings like that?”

The diction of the 1940’s may strike you as it did me: heavy-handed, amusingly so.

Nevertheless, the questions are aimed at getting the penitent to examine his own mental hygiene.

Are the things I do and say well-informed and do they serve the good?

Do I truly think like a Christian so as to be another Christ in the world?

The Church’s social teaching has many facets, including among other concepts the right to private property, the right to the fruits of one’s labor, love for the poor and the just wage.

These are meant to shape our thinking about public policy, but more especially individual behavior.

Often I have the impression when the term “social justice” is tossed around people are referring to a specific set of political policies rather than the moral obligation each of us has to examine things by the light of these core principles and act accordingly.

The Church defends the right of workers to strike, for example, but I as an individual worker have the obligation to examine whether this particular strike is justified.

For a full explanation of the social doctrine, consult the Catechism or the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church, but it all springs from three principles.
1. Human dignity. The core of Catholic social teaching is recognition that each human person is willed by God and called to communion with him. Man is not merely a material being, and the Church rejects any policy or act that treats the person as an object or denies the spiritual dimension of his nature.

2. Solidarity is deep interior commitment to the common good. The Church teaches that it’s sinful to pit one class of persons against another, for example. The truth is we all need each other and we each have gifts we are called to share and virtues we are meant to model. The Catechism also notes that while Christians are always called to relieve human misery (as in the case of disaster relief), we should realize that misery is not merely economic in nature. Acts of charity should be evaluated not merely in material terms, but in terms of what is good for the entire person.

3. Subsidiarity. The person’s call to collaborate in the work of creation through his own work and initiative means, as the Catechism puts it, “that one should not withdraw from individuals and commit to the community what they can accomplish by their own enterprise and industry.” Government’s role is not properly one of “doing for” the local community, but protecting the rights that make freedom, peace, and the practice of virtue possible; where necessary, the government should provide coordination, but without taking over.

Pope Benedict XVI in three encyclicals has called committed Christian laypersons to bring these ideas into public debate. The Church doesn’t want to dictate what governments do, but she knows that holy lay people, bringing their principles to bear in their fields of expertise, can help communities find policies that truly serve the goods of peace and justice.
Which brings me to another line of inquiry from Fr. Wilson:

• “Have I weakly agreed to falsehood ... because I was afraid to be thought narrow, bigoted, not a sport?”

• “Have I failed to take leadership or strong action for fear of being thought proud or ambitious?”

• “Have I refused responsibility for fear that prominence might reveal my limitations?”

Social justice is not solely or even primarily the work of bishops. It is the task of the laity, transforming and purifying culture from within the world of work.

[Note: a version of this column previously appeared in Faith & Family magazine.]

Rebecca Ryskind Teti is Operations Coordinator for the Ciocca Center for Principled Entrepreneurship at the Busch School of Business & Economics at CUA, though the opinions are her own. This column is modified from an earlier version that first appeared in Faith & Family  magazine.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.


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