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The Gospel, Divine Mercy, and Social Justice

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By Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD (Jan 23, 2017)
The following was the talk I delivered on Nov. 12, 2016, at "The Mercy of God and the Family" academic symposium at The Catholic University of America, in Washington, DC:

Unfortunately, "Divine Mercy" on the one hand, and "Social Justice" on the other, are two phrases that rarely seem to be coupled together, and they are even rarely propagated by the same people. I have often been dismayed by the false dichotomy that one finds all too often, the division in the Church between those who are convinced that cultivating spirituality and piety (including the Divine Mercy devotion that comes to us from St. Faustina) is the most important manifestation of God's will for us today, and, on the other hand, those who claim that the struggle for justice and peace in the world is really the most important thing.

It seems to me that the two are inseparable. In St. Luke's gospel, chapter 11, verse 42, Jesus says: "Woe to you, Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and every herb, and neglect justice and the true love of God." So Jesus connects the "true" love of God with the seeking of "justice." Both are clearly important to Him, and each one (when it is true and healthy anyway), involves the other. Authentic love for God our Father should lead us to care for the well-being of all His children, and authentic love for our neighbors, our brothers and sisters, needs to be rooted in God's revealed truth, and guided by His Spirit, if it is not to go astray.

Let's start with "Social Justice." in the Bible, the concept of "justice" has to do with much more than just courtrooms and lawsuits; rather, "justice" is the right ordering of all things under God, according to God's will — and obviously, that means it is not solely comprised by the right practice of religious piety. Rather, in St. Matthew's report of this saying, our Lord includes the practice of "justice, mercy and faith" together, all three, as among "the weightier matters of the law." So religious practices that nurture faith are in the "heavyweight" category for sure, but so also is the practice of justice and mercy.

Over the last century, the Catholic Church has repeatedly called her members not to hide their heads in the sand when it comes to the social and economic injustices that are rife in the crumbling civilization in which we live. We must not retreat into a pious "bunker mentality" — turning ourselves into mere "bunker Catholics" who are so convinced that the world is irreversibly going to hell, that all we focus on every day is going to Mass, saying our rosaries, and looking after our own families.

After all, our families are part of a wider socio-economic order (and disorder) that impinges upon our lives every day, and that needs our contribution to the common good if it is not going to take all of us "down with the ship," so to speak: the sinking ship of western civilization all around us.

And that is what Catholic Social Teaching is really all about: it's about legitimate concern for the common good, that is, for some of those "weightier matters of the law" — at least those concerning social "justice" and "peace." It's about Christ's command to love our neighbors as ourselves — when we begin to realize that we actually have many neighbors, not just the people next door. It's about the Lordship of Jesus Christ, who is not only our personal Lord and Savior, but the Lord who wants to reign over every aspect of our lives — including the economic and even political dimensions of our lives.

Of course, the Church never claims to be able to lay out for us a detailed set of economic and social policies, much less a political platform: she teaches general social principles for us to apply to the often complex social realities of our time. Nevertheless, as we shall see, those social principles are so powerful, and so penetrating, that they offer a genuine, prophetic critique of the world today, and in some cases, at least, their contemporary application is not really very hard to discern. Moreover, although not a recipe for utopia, if they were followed and implemented, there is little doubt that the world would be a vastly better place than it is now.

The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church (2005) in sections 105-17 tells us that the first and most fundamental social principle is the God-given dignity and worth of every human person. In other words, there are no "throw-away" human beings. People are not reducible to "things," mere objects, "useful" or "useless" to society, to the economy, to the government, or even to ourselves. Rather, we are all "persons," not "things;" we are all children of God, in that each one of us is a unique creation of our heavenly Father. Fashioned by Him in His "image" as "persons," that is, as self-conscious and self-determining beings, we are capable of growing in His "likeness" in love and wisdom, throughout this earthly life, with the help of His grace, in preparation for the life to come.

This is why God created us. This is His deepest desire, springing from His Merciful Love for us, a love that always generously seeks to meet our true needs and help us overcome all the miseries that afflict us.

This is the foundation of our inherent dignity and worth: out of merciful love He made us; out of merciful love He took flesh and dwelt among us as Jesus Christ; out of merciful love He bought us with His own blood on the Cross, that He might merit for us His sanctifying grace, and pour it into our hearts more and more, until we are fully grown in His image and likeness, and fully prepared by grace for eternal life with Him in heaven.

In short, every one of us is made in His image, bought with the price of His own blood, and offered eternal life with Him in heaven — in other words: we are of value because from the first moment of our lives, we are created in His image to be the objects of His love; we are that precious to the Creator and Redeemer of all.

The dignity and worth of every human being is also a central teaching of the Gospel according to St. Luke. Although he certainly did not spell out the full social implications of this principle, Luke clearly believed it was at the heart of the gospel of the Kingdom of God that Jesus Christ both preached and lived. New Testament commentator Rick Torretto pointed out that if we look at the material in Luke, we can see that he deliberately included many stories about Jesus that stress this theme (and some that are unique to his gospel).

For example, we find:

1. The cure of the servant of a "centurion," who was a military officer from the dreaded Roman army occupying Palestine. So, both slaves and foreign army officers are objects of the love of our Lord.
2. A son is raised to life because he was the only son of a widow of Nain, who would be left destitute without him. So here the love of our Lord goes out to those who are grieving, and those who are falling through the cracks of the social system (since without a son, this woman would have had no one to provide for her in her old age). This story is found only in Luke's gospel.
3. A woman of questionable reputation anoints Jesus for burial (so those who repent of a life of sexual sin are received by our Lord with love and mercy).
4. Female disciples travel with Jesus and support him in his ministry; in this society women were considered second-class citizens who were not usually permitted to travel around with itinerant prophets or rabbis.
5. Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan, in which a good deed is done by the character in the story from which his Jewish audience would have least expected one: a Samaritan — the Jews considered Samaritans heretical, sectarian half-breeds. This parable is found only in Luke.
6. In the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, a homeless, poor and sick person — among "the lowest of the low" — is welcomed into Abraham's bosom in heaven. This parable too is found only in Luke.
7. Jesus touches and cures lepers, who really were "the lowest of the low" at that time: they were medical, social, and religious outcasts.
8. In the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, the tax collector was praised for his genuine repentance and humility — so even those hated, profiteering collaborators with the Roman occupation could repent and be saved. In the same way, Jesus seeks out and obtains the conversion of the tax collector Zacchaeus. These stories are also unique to Luke's gospel.
9. Even those guilty of the worst crime of all — the crime of deicide — are forgiven by Jesus from the Cross: "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."


As there are no "throw-away" people at all in the gospels, so there are no throw-away kinds or classes of people. Religious minorities (such as Samaritans), foreigners and immigrants (such as the Syro-Phoenician woman and her demon possessed daughter — let's recall also that the Holy Family were political refugees and immigrants in the land of Egypt) — even the rich are not to be demonized and treated as sub-human.

Luke's gospel certainly contains a number of teachings of Jesus that tell us of the dangers of wealth. Our Lord warns us that accumulating and hanging on to wealth can hold us in bondage: "No one can serve two masters .... You cannot serve God and wealth" (Lk 16:13 NRSV). Wealth just too easily becomes an idol that claims our highest loyalty, in place of God. So, "Be on your guard against all kinds of greed," Jesus says, "for one's life does not consist in the abundance of possessions" (Lk 12:15 NRSV). Besides, wealth has no eternal value: "You fool," Jesus says in His parable; "This very night your life is demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be? So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves, but are not rich toward God" (Luke 12: 16-21 NRSV). The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus in Luke chapter 16, of course, is a vivid indictment of the wealthy who are cruel and heartless to the poor living right in their own neighborhood, even lying right at their front gate. But our Lord is certainly not preaching class war here, nor even the condemnation of the rich as a whole as a social group. Right after teaching hyperbolically in Luke 18:25 that "it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God," Jesus adds this caveat: "What is impossible with men is possible for God." And we see that seeming impossibility become a reality in the conversion story of Zacchaeus in Luke 19, who was certainly a wealthy man, and in the devotion and discipleship of Joseph of Arimathea in Luke 23, who was wealthy and powerful enough to have a seat on the Temple council, and to own a burial cave just outside of the gates of Jerusalem. We see this also even in our Lord's scathing parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, because Lazarus' compensation for all that he suffered from his poverty was to be welcomed into the bosom of Abraham in heaven — and Abraham, with all his flocks and herds, was by ancient standards quite a wealthy man.

Of course, St. Luke was not writing a treatise on fundamental human dignity and human rights. But by including all of these stories in his gospel account, he surely means to tell us that there is an inherent, God-given dignity and worth to every person, and indeed every kind of person, even the most socially objectionable and religiously marginalized people of Jesus' day. That's why the merciful love of God was offered by Jesus to all, and the only thing that could stop them from accepting this gift of divine love was their own refusal to repent and believe.

According to the Vatican's Compendium of Catholic Social Doctrine (in 2005), a truly just society is one that respects, protects, and nurtures this God-given worth and dignity of every human being. Of course, individuals who grossly violate the human dignity of others (e.g., criminals) are to be restrained with the minimum force necessary for the protection of the innocent. Meanwhile, the gift of life is to be guarded and sustained as the foundational gift from God, the one on which our human worth and dignity is ultimately based, and therefore the protection of innocent life is the fundamental "human right;" it is the first responsibility of every society, every social institution, and every government, to uphold and defend that right.

This Church teaching should not sound strange to the ears of Americans. Our Declaration of Independence (1776) established that all human beings are "endowed by their Creator" with certain "unalienable rights" (in other words, rights that should never be violated because they come to us from God, not from society), and that chief among these are the rights to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" — in that order. First of all, without a secure right to "life," all other human rights are in jeopardy (after all, dead people cannot live in "liberty" or "pursue happiness"). Liberty, too, is a fundamental human right, for it enables each of us to use the free-will that God gave us, but not at the expense of the lives of others, or the legitimate exercise of liberty by others. "Happiness" — well, not many of the Founding Fathers were Catholics, so what they meant by "happiness" here was all a bit "fuzzy," but it certainly ought to mean not just physical pleasure or economic security and comfort, but human wellbeing in every respect. In that sense, everyone has the social right to use their life and liberty to pursue it, but not in such a way that deprives others of their life, or the legitimate exercise of their liberty.

This hierarchy of fundamental human rights is precisely what made the institution of slavery so deplorable. It was a blatant contradiction both of the Catholic Faith and of the founding principles of the United States. Slavery in the United States involved the attempt by some people to "pursue their happiness" by depriving others of their legitimate human "liberty." This clearly violated the dignity of human persons. As far back as 1537, therefore, slavery was condemned by Pope Paul III in his papal bull Sublimus Deus, declared a moral crime worthy of excommunication, and the Roman Pontiffs never ceased to repeat and extend that teaching in the centuries that followed.

In our own time, the Church has repeatedly spoken out against threats to the dignity of the human person, including the following:

1. Poverty and Deprivation. The "right to life" of destitute people is continually threatened by hunger and disease, and clearly such persons can hardly exercise much "liberty" in the pursuit of their deeper "happiness" and well-being if they cannot first find adequate food, clothing, shelter, medical care, and employment opportunities. For example, there are some countries that impoverish their own people simply because their economic and political system is chronically unproductive. This is the sad legacy of communist and socialist economies, where wealth creation is stifled by bureaucracy, and political oppression. There are other countries that have economic and political systems that produce plenty of wealth, but it is so unjustly distributed that the "pursuit of happiness" by many, and even the very lives of the poorest members of society, are severely compromised.

2. Tyranny and Totalitarianism. When sovereign states abuse their power and authority, they often treat human beings as mere "pawns" on the political and economic chessboard, rather than as "persons:" people end up being treated as mere statistics, mere "things" to be used or abused as their rulers see fit in order to preserve and extend their own power and privileges. Many nations throughout the world still suffer under tyrannical regimes, such as China, Russia, North Korea, Cuba, Iran, and Syria, just to name a few.

3. Terrorism. The terrorist also treats innocent human beings as mere "things," with no inherent dignity or human rights; innocent members of the general public are continually threatened, and often murdered, in order to promote the particular political or religious agenda of the terrorists. Sadly, terrorism has become the "weapon of choice" of radical Islam in our time.

As Catholics, we are certainly called by the Holy Spirit to use our voice and our votes to help keep these social ills from rising and spreading in our world. Threats such as these to the dignity of human life are obvious and widely condemned in the western world, even if much more progress needs to be made in combatting them.

However, a more subtle and in that sense more insidious threat to human dignity is now pervasive both in Europe and in North America: the stripping away of the fundamental right to life of those at the very beginning and very end of the human journey, namely unborn children and the terminally ill, through the legalization and social acceptance of abortion and euthanasia. This is what St. John Paul II warned us about in his great encyclical Evangelium Vitae (on the Gospel of Life). Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, out of His infinite love and compassion for every human being, is still calling out to us today, through His Body the Church, to become faithful and fervent defenders of the gift of life. And this "right to life," according to the Church, extends from conception to its natural end. As Jesus said, it extends especially "to the least of my brethren" (Mt 25:40), whether these helpless ones are unborn children in the womb of their mother, or the terminally ill nearing their journey's end.

A second, essential principle of Catholic Social Teaching is the principle of "Solidarity": this involves a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good, that is, to the good of all and of each and every individual, because we are all really responsible for all (see the Compendium, entry 193). To put it another way, the answer to Cain's question after he killed his brother Abel, "Am I my brother's keeper?" is simply "Yes, to some extent you are your brother's, and your neighbor's keeper, at least in the sense of upholding the life and liberty of others, and helping insure that they have access to the basic goods needed for human survival and the pursuit of happiness: such as adequate food, clothing, shelter, and medical care — and, of course, access to the truth of the gospel.

Solidarity finds one of its key expressions in the Catholic social principle called "the preferential option for the poor," in other words, a preferential concern and love for the poor (a principle elaborated in the Compendium entry 449): not because they are better than other people, but simply because they are most in need.

To begin with, a preferential concern for the plight of the poor is rooted in our Savior's own earthly ministry.

Anyone who has read the gospels in the New Testament will be well aware that Jesus of Nazareth had a special concern for the plight of the poor and the sick, and especially for the most innocent and helpless human beings. It is the foundation of one of His teaching: "Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me" (Mt 25:40). It is one reason why He healed the leper by the roadside, and the man born blind, and raised up from death the daughter of Jairus, and the son of the widow of Nain.

Above all, He pointed to His miracles of compassion for the suffering and the helpless as the sign that the Kingdom of God was dawning on the world through His ministry. Saint Luke's gospel in particular highlights this theme — right from the beginning of our Savior's public ministry (Luke 4: 16-21):

And He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up; and He went to the synagogue, as His custom was, on the Sabbath day. And He stood up to read; and there was given to Him the book of the prophet Isaiah. He opened the book and found the place where it was written: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord."

And He closed the book and gave it back to the attendant, and sat down, and the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on Him. And He began to say to them, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."


Here it is worth noting that when Jesus talks about the poor, the blind, the captives, and the oppressed, he is not just speaking metaphorically about the spiritually poor and blind, or those spiritually captive or oppressed by the devil. He is reading a passage from Isaiah 61 that everyone in that synagogue would have understood was a prophecy of the work of the Messiah, and the Messiah was expected to usher in God's kingdom, God's shalom, God's reign, in every respect (not just in its spiritual dimensions). The kingdom is dawning, on earth as it is in heaven, whenever God reigns over human minds in faith, over human wills in love, over human hearts with hope, over human bodies in health and wholeness, and over human communities with justice and peace. If Jesus had meant to overthrow those expectations completely, in favor of a solely spiritual or completely otherworldly concept of the Kingdom, He would surely have said so. And besides, we see these very this-worldly things beginning to happen in His own ministry on earth, as St. Luke makes clear in another gospel passage (Luke 7: 20-23):

And when the [messengers from John the Baptist] had come to [Jesus], they said "John the Baptist sent us to You saying, 'are you He who is to come, or shall we look for another?'" In that hour He cured many of diseases and plagues and evil spirits, and on many that were blind He bestowed sight. And He answered them, "Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is he who takes no offense at Me."


The "preferential option for the poor," therefore, involves a special concern for the plight of all those who are most vulnerable, or who suffer grievously, in any way —those who are emotionally, morally and spiritually poor, as well as those who are physically weak and impoverished, and socially disadvantaged — and the principle applies especially to the most innocent and helpless among us.

Still, insofar as it applies to the economically destitute, it presents us today with a social challenge. As Catholics and as citizens we need to ask how the policies being pursued by our political leaders, our corporate leaders, and our union leaders, are having an impact on the poorest, most vulnerable members of our society. They should be our first concern in the realm of economics and politics, our "preferential" concern.

At the same time, this principle of Solidarity must always be coupled with a third social principle: the principle of Subsidiarity (see Compendium entries 185-188). This principle basically states that the higher, more central authorities of society, and the central offices of government above all, must not usurp the role of what the Compendium calls "the original expressions of social life," especially the role of the family, and the role of voluntary associations and local social groupings of all kinds. This is what we can call "a preferential option for the local, the family, and the voluntary." (That's my summary phrase—not one used by the Compendium).

Pope Pius XI discussed this principle in his encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, issued in 1931 during the Great Depression, a time when there was a huge push for central governments around the world to take over the control and supervision of every aspect of life in order to "set things right" (and the most direct result of that social movement, of course, was the rise of Fascism in Europe). Here is what Pius XI wrote (quoted in Compendium entry 186): "Just as it is grossly wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry, and give it to the community, so it is also an injustice, and at the same time a great evil and disturbance of right order, to assign to a greater and higher organization what lesser and subordinate organizations can already do."

In other words: we are indeed our brother's keeper, but central, distant authorities, and especially central government authorities, are only our brother's keeper of last resort. The main work of practicing Solidarity is to be accomplished by individuals, families, churches, voluntary organizations and private charities, local businesses and local unions, and even local levels of government, not primarily by the central authorities of the State. Given that the State is the institution that by right, and according to good civic order, has a monopoly on the exercise of coercive power and compulsion (through the law, the courts, and the police forces) nothing is more dangerous to liberty, and to human rights in general, than the concentration of that coercive power in the hands of the central government — and as history has repeatedly shown, nothing is more often abused.

As Lord Acton famously said, "power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely"— although in reality, due to the universal corruption of humanity by original sin, it is not really social power that corrupts our government leaders; it's just that when that power lacks sufficient restraints (such as proper democratic and constitutional checks and balances) it unleashes the lust for power and dominance lurking in every human heart. Besides, families, local charities and local governments are closest to the people they serve, know the needs of the people involved most directly, and so they can generally respond most personally, flexibly, and effectively to those needs. Notice that in St. Luke's gospel, as in all four gospels, there is no evidence that Jesus envisioned the exercise of government power as the major factor in the dawning of the Kingdom of God "on earth as it is in heaven."

Of course, there are circumstances in which central government authorities may and should intervene in local affairs and in the affairs of subsidiary groups, in what the Compendium calls "exceptional situations," (entry 188) to rectify grave social injustices. One thinks, for example, of the struggle to end segregation in the American South. But in general, central authority is to serve and support the role of families, voluntary associations and local communities, not to supplant them, and certainly not to tyrannize over them.

The Church also teaches that it is wrong to practice Solidarity and the preferential option for the poor in ways that rob them of what the Compendium calls "the spirit of initiative," which it calls the fundamental basis of all economic and social development (see entry 195). In other words, except for cases of emergency aid, care for poor communities does not consist in making them perpetually dependent on hand-outs. To use the old metaphor: the best thing to do is not endlessly give them fish, but rather, teach them to fish for themselves, and provide them with rods and reels so they can catch their own fish. Thus, the best way to fight poverty is not so much to redistribute the wealth produced and owned by others (although almost any effective form of aid will involve a degree of transfer of resources); rather, the best way is to enable the poor to produce their own sufficient supply of goods for themselves.

I want to suggest that this too is implicit in St. Luke's gospel: in Christ's application of the Jubilee Year provisions to His own ministry, and to the Messianic Kingdom. In Luke, chapter 4 as we just read, Jesus quoted from that passage from Isaiah 61 that He has come to "proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord." In Isaiah this was clearly an allusion to the Jubilee Year established by Levitical law (see Lev 25), a jubilee which was supposed to happen once every 50 years in ancient Israelite society when those who were in slavery because of their debts would be released, and all lands would be returned to their ancestral, family owners (in case those lands had been lost through poverty and debt in the meantime).

The Jubilee Year provisions in the Old Testament have often been misunderstood as a policy of radical income redistribution. But that is surely an exaggeration. All wealth was certainly not redistributed (for example, the Jubilee laws did not apply to flocks and herds, or to fishing boats, or to shopkeepers in the cities; nor was it designed to provide equal portions of land to all families). So it did not even insure what we would call today "equality of opportunity"—but it did seek to insure "sufficient opportunity." What I mean is, these laws recognized that land in ancient Israel was the most fundamental resource for creating wealth, and the Jubilee laws were therefore designed to periodically insure that almost every family would receive back their traditional share of that resource, so that Jewish families would not be caught in a poverty trap, from generation to generation. As Deuteronomy says, Israel's anti-poverty laws were meant to try to insure that "there will be no poor among you" (Dt 15:4). Moreover, this "social insurance," so to speak, was to be established by means of civic law, not just through private charities and voluntary associations.

Of course, the interplay of these two Catholic social principles, Solidarity and Subsidiarity, and their application to the complex social realities of the day, is what leads to legitimate debate among Catholics as to which principle is most neglected at any given time, and therefore should take precedence in any given situation. For example, in present economic circumstances, should we continue to focus on various forms of government intervention to stimulate economic growth and to try to support and lift the poor directly (thru, for example, extending unemployment benefits and food stamps, more government subsidized education and health care?), as the Obama administration did, or should we now focus instead on directly encouraging investment in the private sector in order to try to "lift all boats at once," so to speak? What's best for the common good today: tax cuts to stimulate initiative, investment and job growth in the private sector? Or government job training and job creation initiatives, and anti-poverty programs? And if government intervention is deemed necessary, which level of government is best to do it, in keeping with the principle of Subsidiarity (federal, state, or local government)? In most cases, these are difficult discernments to make, which is why they are left by the Church as matters of "prudential judgement," rather than settled for us by definitive Church teaching. Thus, Catholics who embrace the same social principles can sometimes come to very different conclusions as to how best to apply those principles in a given time and place. This also means that all Catholics have to do their homework: they have to learn the real facts on the ground about the social situation, and not only the social principles they need to apply to those facts.

In their teaching document titled "Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship" (2007) the USCCB reminded American Catholics that in making prudential judgments, our duty to avoid support for "intrinsic evils" (that is, gross and even life-threatening violations of the dignity of the human person) is paramount.

Thus, the Catholic bishops made it very clear in "Faithful Citizenship" that not all issues facing Americans today are of equal value, In section 37 of their document they write: "In making decisions, it is essential for Catholics to be guided by a well-formed conscience that recognizes that all issues do not carry the same moral weight," and they specifically emphasize "the special claim on our consciences and actions" of "the moral obligation to oppose intrinsically evil acts." Section 42 is particularly striking:

As Catholics we are not single-issue voters. A candidate's position on a single issue is not sufficient grounds for a voter's support. Yet a candidate's position on a single issue that involves an intrinsic evil such as support for legal abortion or racism may legitimately lead a voter to disqualify a candidate from receiving support.


One of the things that made the recent presidential election in the United States so agonizing for many Catholic voters was that arguably both candidates were advocating "intrinsic evils": Secretary Clinton with her strong support for abortion rights, the legalized killing of unborn children (something she would have secured for a generation to come through Supreme Court appointments) and Mr. Trump with his original pledge to forcibly deport all 12 million poor, undocumented (mostly Hispanic) immigrants—men, women and children — as well as his original pledge to use nuclear weapons in the Middle East against ISIS, regardless of the "collateral damage." This made the prudential judgment of who to vote for in 2016 very difficult indeed, and it's no wonder that the Catholic vote split almost evenly between the two main candidates.

To me one of the really exciting things about Catholic Social Teaching is that it often calls us to think "out of the box" of what our political parties are proposing on the social and economic issues of our day.

Ever since the 19th century, the western world has been polarized between two equally unpalatable options.

First there is socialism, in its various forms. Socialism tells us that we should turn to the government to plan a productive economy and overcome poverty. So our elected officials establish a government bureaucracy that owns and operates, or at least closely regulates and supervises the nation's industries, invests in new technologies, attempts to provide health care for us, educate our children, protect the environment, and care for the poor and the elderly. No doubt government at various levels does have a significant role to play in at least some of these areas, such as funding and insuring a dignified "safety-net" so that the sick, the elderly, and the unemployed do not fall into grinding poverty and destitution (an intention similar to the Jubilee Laws). Moreover, the protection of workers from gross exploitation (through establishing minimum wages and maximum hours, and health and safety regulations), the prevention of concentrated economic power in the form of corporate monopolies (through anti-trust laws), and the protection of our natural environment from reckless corporate exploitation and pollution, are generally held to be legitimate and helpful areas of government intervention.

Nevertheless, the Church has repeatedly condemned both communism, and even democratic socialism, as a systematic violation of the principle of Subsidiarity: for example, it is a threat to the "spirit of initiative" so vital to the production of wealth by the economy as a whole, and to lifting people out of poverty in a lasting way; and it is a danger to human rights and liberty, through the concentration of so much social and economic power in the hands of the State. Arguably, the historical track-record of socialism bears out these concerns.

Second, and at the opposite extreme, there is free-market capitalism and libertarianism in its various forms, which basically tells us that "government is best which governs least," and that the unfettered production and exchange of goods and services, with everyone permitted to pursue their own self-interest, will generally lead to liberty and prosperity for all.

No doubt the market is indeed an extraordinarily efficient mechanism for the overall production of wealth and the advance of technology — that's more or less been proven over the past few centuries, and Pope St. John Paul II said as much in his social encyclical Centesimus Annus. But as the Holy Father also pointed out, it still leaves many vulnerable and underprivileged people behind in the distribution of wealth (such as those lacking good educational and job opportunities, as well as the elderly and the chronically ill). In other words, all those who are not able to be significant wealth producers are left in a poverty trap. (Again, think of the Jubilee Year laws which Christ re-proclaimed as part of the Kingdom He was ushering in as God's Messiah—laws designed precisely to prevent the creation of a poverty-trap in ancient Israel). As someone once wisely said: the trouble with laissez-faire "trickle-down economics" is that it works: what makes it "all the way down" to the poor is not more than a "trickle"!

That is why the Church has repeatedly condemned laissez-faire capitalism — and the track record of such forms of capitalism when they have been given full and free reign, such as in 19th century Britain and America (and some would argue, in many places of the world from the 1980s until the Great recession of 2008), tends to bear out these concerns.

The Catholic Church has encouraged us to settle for neither of these social ideologies. Unfortunately, rather than listen to the Church, over the past century or so, the western world has just bounced back and forth between these options: as soon as the ills of one system and ideology begin to take hold, there is a reaction at the ballot box and the pendulum swings to the other one, until the ills of that system too are clearly seen — at which point we ricochet back the other way.

It would be false, however, to say that the Church merely recommends a kind of "golden mean" between these two extremes, a kind of "middle way" (although a Centrist via media generally violates Catholic social principles far less than the full embrace of either of these two rival systems). Rather, what the Church often seems to do is call us to think "out of the box" of this stale social debate. She calls us to utilize to the full the three main social principles that we have already discussed: the Dignity of Every Human Life, Solidarity, and Subsidiarity.

According to St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI, we should explore new forms of social organization, wealth creation and distribution that do not rely so much on stifling and oppressive government bureaucracy on the one hand, or cut-throat competition and exploitation on the other. In his encyclical Laborem Excercens, for example, Pope St. John Paul II recommended trying new forms of social ownership of the means of production, such as employee share ownership (that is, employees owning shares in the companies for which they work), and worker representation on company governing boards, and new forms of better wealth distribution that do not involve direct government intervention, such as profit-sharing arrangements. In his social encyclical Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict also called on private corporations to take some responsibility for helping to address some of the glaring social and economic ills in areas which they operate, especially in third world countries and poor communities.

In other words, what the world really needs is more an "economy of communion" (to employ Chiara Lubich's phrase) — an economy of authentic cooperation among free and dignified persons — rather than an economy primarily of public control or private competition.

Suffice it to say that the gross neglect of any of the three main Catholic social principles (Solidarity, Subsidiarity or the Dignity of Persons) will lead to all sorts of social and economic miseries (and already has). Catholics have a responsibility to pray, petition, and vote to prevent these social ills from spreading. As Pope John Paul II once wrote in his encyclical on the apostolate of the laity, Christifideles Laici:

The lay faithful should take an active, conscientious, and responsible part in the mission of the Church, in this great moment of history. A new state of affairs, both in the Church and in economic, social, political and cultural life, calls with a particular urgency for the action of the lay faithful. If lack of commitment is always unacceptable, the present situation renders it even more so: it is not permissible for anyone to remain idle.


This brings me to the fourth and final absolutely essential Catholic social principle (and here again I am going to give it my own label, rather than using one from the Compendium): the principle of "the preferential option for peace" (I just thought it might make a nice match for the other "preferential options" we have discussed so far). In a nutshell, this principle states that in any and every conflict situation between human communities, the Church obliges us to seek first of all, and above all, for non-violent and non-coercive ways of resolving the conflict, where such ways can be found, for this is most in accord with the dignity of every human life. Resort to the use of force, therefore, must always be a last resort, when all other means of resolving a conflict would clearly be impractical and ineffective. If prayer, patience, dialogue, diplomacy, or even lesser forms of pressure such as formal rebuke, or diplomatic and economic sanctions, can be sufficient to stop an aggressor from committing a grievous injustice, then such measures are always to be preferred to recourse to arms and the horrors of war.

One way to think "out of the box" on issues of social conflict is to search for creative ways in which one can non-violently confront aggressors with what they are doing , and the unjust systems they are upholding. One thinks, for example, of the Non-Violent Direct Action (in the form of fasts, marches and boycotts) propagated by Mahatma Gahndi in the struggle for India's independence, and the marches and sit-ins led by Martin Luther King Jr. in the US Civil Rights movement. These non-violent gestures were meant to express a refusal to tolerate an unjust status quo any longer, and the violence the protestors suffered in response only served to highlight the hatred and injustice of those trying to preserve that status quo, or at least their fear of change — hopefully drawing even the perpetrators of injustice into a new moral and social awareness.

Jesus himself taught something similar in the gospels, at least with regard to personal relationships, when he tells us to "turn the other cheek" (Lk 1:29). We don't really understand this saying if we fail to take into account the cultural context here. Anglican New Testament scholar Marcus Borg neatly summarizes it for us:

[Jesus says]: "But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also"(NRSV). The specification of the right cheek, and the awareness that people in that world used their right hand to strike somebody provides the key for understanding the saying. How can a person be hit on the right cheek by a right handed person? Only by a back-handed slap (act it out and see for yourself). In that world, a slap with the back of the hand was the way a superior struck a subordinate. The saying thus presupposes a situation of domination: a peasant being back-handed by a steward or official, a prisoner being back-handed by a jailer, and so forth. When that happens, turn the other cheek. What would be the effect of that? The beating could continue only of the superior used a [forehand] blow—which is the way an equal struck another equal. Of course, he might do so. But he would momentarily be discombobulated, and the subordinate would be asserting his equality even if the beating did continue" (p. 249).


Needless to say, "turning the cheek" and other forms of non-violent protest are unlikely to be very effective in some social conflict situations — most especially in situations of conflict between nation-states, and there is no indication that Jesus insisted on the principle being applied at that level. There are some violent aggressors (e.g., dictators bent on military conquest, or terrorists) who are just "too far gone," — too enslaved to the powers of darkness — to respond positively to non-violent gestures. That is why the Church's position on the promotion of peace is not pacifism, and not "peace at any price." The Catechism clearly teaches that we have a right to defend ourselves (we do not always have to exercise that right, but we do have that right), and we even have a duty in charity to defend the innocent and relatively helpless — that is, those that cannot defend themselves — from unjust aggression. If an aggressor is truly relentless, and non-coercive and non-violent means cannot or would not avail to stop them, then states have a duty, the Catechism says, to intervene, even militarily, to stop if they can the spread of grievous injustice and attacks on the dignity of human life (see the Compendium, entry 500 on "Legitimate Defense," and also the Catechism, entries 2302-2317).

The principle of "the preferential option for peace," however, means that recourse to arms must always be a last resort, because even when it succeeds in stopping a grievous and unjust aggression, it still leaves in its wake sufferings and miseries of all kinds, sometimes even sufferings that can sow the seeds of future conflicts. So at best, taking up arms as an act of legitimate defense is what we might call "damage control" — it is not a lasting solution to the problems of the world community.

Such "damage control," however, sometimes does have to be undertaken, and at the cost of great self-sacrifice by those in our armed forces. I would argue that by and large, it was legitimately done, over the last 75 years or so, in a number of conflict situations:


• for example, in World War II, to stop the conquests of Hitler, and the horrific spread of Nazi tyranny and genocide;
• in the Korean War, to keep the people of South Korea from being gobbled up by the Communist masters of the North;
• in the first Iraq war in the 1980s, when Saddam Hussein invaded and brutalized Kuwait, and threatened the world's oil supply;
• in the Balkans in the 1990s, in the Allied effort to stop the brutal massacres (the "ethnic cleansing") being perpetrated by Serbian forces—a military intervention actually called for by Pope St. John Paul II;
• in the Afghan war, to dismantle the state-sponsored terrorism that led to the 9-11 attacks in the United States;
• and, I would suggest, in the Allied air campaign going on right now, to try to stop the spread of brutal tyranny and terrorism in the Middle East by ISIS.


Of course, there is room for disagreement among Catholics about the moral legitimacy of the recourse to arms in particular cases — even about the cases I just mentioned. The principle of "the preferential option for peace," which includes the principle of "legitimate defense," will be variously applied by people of good-will, depending upon what people perceive the facts "on the ground" to be.

Again, the important thing for Catholics to do is to pray and ask for guidance, to understand the principles taught by the Church regarding war and peace, to learn the facts on the ground about conflict situations, and then to use their voice and their votes to stand up for the preferential option for peace in the world, a world which is a veritable powder-keg of potentially violent conflicts. According to St. Luke's gospel, in the song the angels sang to the shepherds on Christmas eve, God is truly "glorified," and "peace on earth" only comes to men of "good-will" — not to those consumed with hatred, lusting for power, or thirsting for revenge.

And perhaps the story of the Nativity of our Lord, in the form that is unique to St. Luke's gospel, is the best place for us to finish this talk. For the way Luke unfolds the great mystery of the coming of Christ, it is clear that the true Lord and Savior of the world is not Caesar Augustus, who was also called "Son of God" and "Savior of the World" in his day, and who had the centralized government power to order all the people of the Empire to be enrolled for taxation. Rather, as the angels sang, we shall find the one who is truly "the Savior, Christ the Lord ... wrapped in swaddling clothes, and lying in a manger." And the armies that bring about the dawning of God's Kingdom in the world are the armies of angels serving and praising the birth of the Messiah, and the multitudes of disciples and missionaries He later sends out in the book of Acts to preach and live the gospel "in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth," -- not the violent, world conquering Roman legions. And the one whose coming the angels herald was sent first of all to the poor, to a young peasant woman and a carpenter, and to shepherds abiding in the fields in the rural backwater of Bethlehem, not to the wealthy and the powerful in the palaces and courts of the Roman Empire; for as Mary sang: "he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts; he has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away"— and he has done so not by leading a violent revolution, or by putting forward a social utopian ideal, but — among other things — by the preaching and practice of the Dignity of every Human Life, Solidarity and Subsidiarity, and by calling his followers to do the same.

Robert Stackpole, STD, is the director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy, based in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.

©Congregation of Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception, 2016, all rights reserved

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Marlene - Mar 5, 2017

I have been searching for such a discussion on catholic social doctrine; this is a piece worth reading and very useful and informative. All need to hear this clear and concise message. I usually hear only the piety or action part; thank you very much for and intelligent and credible reading.