Part 9: Get With the Program

The following is the ninth installment of a 15-part series on Divine Mercy and Divine Justice. Read the series to date.

By now I have made a lot of people uncomfortable with this series. For I have been insisting (in parts 1-8) that Catholics today - including leading theologians! - need to stop watering down and ignoring the doctrine of the "commutative" justice of God - the attribute by which, in the end, He renders to each of us precisely what is our due for all the good and evil we have done. I have argued that if we don't understand His justice, we cannot properly understand His mercy.

If the so-called "liberal" Catholics are unhappy with me so far, "conservative" Catholics may get upset with me over the next few installments of this series. That's because I am going to insist that all of us "wake up" and realize that God is a God of social justice, too, and not just commutative or "penal" justice. And once again, if we do not understand the Church's teachings on social justice, we cannot understand how God's mercy applies to the wider world in which we live.

As for upsetting the "liberals" and "conservatives," I have to say: I don't really care. We are not supposed to be liberal or conservative Catholics anyway. We are just supposed to be faithful Catholics!

And to be faithful Catholics, above all we need to listen to the voice of our Lord speaking clearly to us through the Magisterium: the teaching authority of the Body of Christ on earth, the Catholic Church. During the past century and a half, the Magisterium has proclaimed loud and clear that we Catholics are not to hide our heads in the sand, bemoaning the declining state of Western Civilization. We are not called to simply "hunker in the bunker," praying our Rosaries and waiting for the end time. We are not to retreat into such a "bunker mentality," with concern only for personal piety and our own families. Rather, we are duty-bound to remember that our loved ones and we are part of a wider socio-economic order. We can, and must, contribute to the common good, including social justice. Indeed, concern for the common good is to a great extent what Catholic social teaching is all about - and something our merciful God surely cares about as well. The Bible, in fact, is full of Old Testament prophets thundering against injustice of all kinds, including the exploitation of the poor and helpless, widows and orphans.

Indeed, social justice is all about merciful love for our neighbors - when we suddenly realize that we actually have many neighbors (and not just the people who live next door to us). It's also about the lordship of Jesus Christ, who must not only be our "personal" Lord and Savior, but also acknowledged as rightful Lord over every aspect of human life, including the economic and political dimensions.

Is he really the Lord of your life and mine in these areas, too? Some of us need to "wake up" and "get with the program" here!

Of course, the Catholic Church is not a political party. The Church does not, and cannot, lay out for us a detailed economic program and political platform for us to follow. Her charism is just to teach us general social principles to follow. Nevertheless, these principles are so powerful and pervasive in scope that sometimes their practical application is not hard to discern. And if they were really faithfully followed, the world would be a very different place!

The dignity of every human life - this is the first and fundamental social principle our Lord teaches us through His Church. There are no "throw-away" human beings, period. People are not reducible to "things," merely useful or useless to our families, to the economy, to the government - or even to ourselves. Rather, each one of us is, in the most basic sense, a child of God (see Acts 17:28). Each one of us is a unique creation of our heavenly Father. We are fashioned by Him in His "image" as self-conscious and self-determining beings (Gen 1:26-28). We are capable of growing more and more in His "likeness" - in love and wisdom, with the help of His grace. We are capable of growing in the likeness of the God of infinite love and wisdom, all in preparation for the life to come (2 Cor 3:18).

This is our Lord's plan for us. This is His deepest desire. For this He took Flesh and dwelt among us as Jesus Christ. For this He bought us with the price of 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 prepared for eternal life with Him in Heaven. As Jesus once said to St. Faustina, "My delight is to act in a human soul, and to fill it with My mercy ... My kingdom on earth is my life in the human soul" (Diary, 1784). Each one of us is that precious to Him - and each one of us is offered that eternal destiny.

The 17th century Christian poet George Herbert summed it up well in one of his poems entitled, simply, "Mattens" (Morning Prayer):

My God, what is a heart?
Silver, or gold, or precious stone,
Or star, or rainbow, or a part
Of all these things, or all of them in one?

My God, what is a heart,
That thou shoulds't it so eye and woo,
Pouring upon it all thy art,
As if thou hadst nothing else to do? ...

Teach me thy love to know,
That this new light, which now I see,
May both the work and workman show;
Then by a sunbeam I will climb to thee.

According to the Vatican's "Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church" issued in 2005, a truly just society is one that respects, protects, and nurtures this God-given worth and dignity of every human life. Of course, individuals who misuse their own freewill and violate the legitimate freedom and dignity of others (e.g., criminals) are to be restrained with minimum force necessary for the protection of the innocent. Meanwhile, innocent human life is the fundamental "human right," and it is to be guarded and sustained. Furthermore, it is the first responsibility of every society and every social institution to protect and defend that right.

This Church teaching should not sound strange to the ears of North Americans. The United States Declaration of Independence of 1776 established that all human beings "are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights" (in other words, God-given rights that should never be violated). Chief among these are "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Notice that the right to life comes first, for without a secure right to life, all other human rights are in jeopardy (after all, dead people cannot live in "liberty" and pursue "happiness"!). Liberty, too, is a fundamental human right, but it must not be exercised at the expense of the lives and liberty of others. As for the pursuit of happiness, it surely must include not only physical and economic well-being, but spiritual and moral well-being too. "Integral human development" is, as the Church puts it, human flourishing in every respect. Clearly, the pursuit of such happiness is a fundamental human right, but not at the expense of the "life" of others or the legitimate exercise of liberty by others. So: first "life," then "liberty," then "the pursuit of happiness."

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 U.S. involved the attempt by some people to pursue their "happiness" by depriving other people (namely, black slaves) of their legitimate human "liberty." This clearly violated the dignity of human persons. As far back as the 1500s, the Church condemned slavery in the New World. In 1537, Pope Paul III issued a papal bull, Sublimus Deus (From God on High), in which he declared the forcible enslavement of others to be a moral crime worthy of excommunication. The Roman Pontiffs never ceased to repeat and extend that teaching in the centuries that followed. That is why slavery was gradually abolished from the Catholic, Spanish Empire in the New World, a process completed by the end of the 17th century, about 150 years before Wilberforce and Lincoln toppled it in Britain and the U.S.

In the world today, we don't see slavery on that scale, but the 21st century is rife with many other threats to the dignity of the human person.

A.) Poverty and Deprivation
The right to life of destitute people is continually threatened by hunger and disease, and such persons can hardly exercise much "liberty" in the pursuit of their well-being if they cannot find adequate food, clothing, shelter, medical care, and employment opportunities. For example, there are countries whose populations remain impoverished due to economic and political systems. This is the blight of communist governments around the world, such as North Korea and Cuba. Other countries, such as those in the European Union, engage in unfair trade practices (e.g., massive farm subsidies) that lead to the impoverishment of their poorer agricultural neighbors to the south. And however you may stand on "Obamacare," remember that it was an attempt to address a crying need in American society: the simple fact that tens of millions of people could not afford health insurance.

B.) Tyranny and Totalitarianism
When sovereign states abuse their power and authority, they often treat human beings as mere pawns on a social, economic, and political chessboard. Their people end up being treated as mere statistics, mere "things" to be used and abused as their rulers see fit in order to preserve and extend the power and privileges of those in government, or to impose a political or religious ideology on the public. Many nations of the world still suffer under such tyrannical regimes - Syria, Iran, China, Russia, North Korea, and Cuba, to name a few. Meanwhile, throughout the Islamic world, violations of the rights of freedom of worship and religious liberty have been widespread and growing for several decades now.

C.) Terrorism
The terrorists also treat innocent human beings as mere "things," with no human rights; innocent members of the general public are continually threatened, and often murdered, in order to promote the particular political and religious agenda of the terrorists. Their philosophy essentially is: In order to make an omelette, you have to crack a few eggs, and too bad for you if you happen to be one of the eggs they crack along the way! Terrorism has become the weapon of choice of radical Islam in our time.

Our Responsibility As Catholics
As Catholics we are certainly called to use our voice and our votes to help keep these social ills from growing and spreading in our world. However, it would be easy to focus solely on these widely condemned abuses of human dignity and ignore others that are often much "closer to home."

Indeed, the most insidious threats to human dignity in most Western developed nations today are violations of social justice that masquerade in the media precisely as acts of mercy and compassion. I am referring, of course, to the stripping away of the most fundamental right of all: the right to life, from conception through natural death. Through the legalization of abortion and euthanasia, the killing of unborn children and the terminally ill has become socially acceptable.

Out of His infinite love and compassion for every human being, our Lord is calling out to us today through His Body, the Church, to become faithful and fervent defenders of the gift of life. For this gift extends, according to the Church, from conception to its natural end. As Jesus Himself told us, it includes "even to the least of these My brethren" (Mt 25:40), whether these "least" and helpless ones are unborn children in their mothers' wombs or the terminally ill nearing their journey's end. It was these two harbingers of an advancing "culture of death" - abortion and euthanasia - that led St. John Paul II to write one of his greatest encyclicals, Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life).

The next in the series: "Why 'Mercy Killing' is not Merciful"

Read the series to date.

Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy, an apostolate of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception.

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