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To begin it must be noted that the church’s social teaching is a central and essential element of our faith. This is rooted in the preaching of the Hebrew prophets and in the teaching of Jesus himself (Luke 4:18; Matthew 25:45).
So much so is this true that the church’s proclamation of the gospel is incomplete without it. If our Catholic education and formation does not hand on the church’s social teaching it is not fully Catholic.
In the Apostolic Letter on the Jubilee, Pope John Paul II affirms: “A commitment to justice and peace in a world like ours, marked by so many conflicts and intolerable social and economic inequalities, is a necessary condition for the preparation and celebration of the Jubilee.”
Catholic social teaching must not be treated as something optional. Without it, schools, catechetical programs and other formation programs would be offering an incomplete presentation of our Catholic tradition. What something as basic as this does is reflect on all of us as Catholic educators, on all levels, the responsibility of incorporating more fully and explicitly Catholic social teaching in all of our efforts.
I believe it is true to say, and this in true charity, that the social teaching of the church is not known by many of us; that it is not shared or taught in a consistent and comprehensive way in many of our schools, religious education programs, colleges and universities. Perhaps many of us are not aware of nor familiar with the basic content of the church’s social teaching, nor do we see it as an essential part of our Catholic faith. As a result of this our very capacity to be a church that is true to the demands of the gospel is weakened.
Central to our identity as Catholics is that we are called to be a leaven for transforming the world; we are to be agents for bringing about a kingdom of love and justice. When we pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”, we are praying for God’s kingdom of justice and peace, and committing ourselves to break down the barriers which obstruct God'’ kingdom of justice and peace and to work to bring about a world more respectful of human life and dignity. “Catholic social teaching proclaims that we are our ‘sisters’ and brothers’ keepers’ wherever they may live.”
Clearly the church must practice what it preaches and teaches about social justice and human rights. A church that ventures to speak to people about justice must first be just in the eyes of people. Within the church rights must be preserved. No one should be deprived of their ordinary rights because they are associated with the church in one way or another.
The theological basis for this teaching is the principle of sacramentality. The church is a sign as well as an instrument of the presence of God in Christ. As such, it must embody in its own internal life and practice the values it proclaims to the other institutions of society.
Looking to Jesus and his teaching in this regard we are led to the Lord’s description of the last judgement.
    1. Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ and the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ (Matthew 25:37-40 NRSV)
In this parable the righteous were surprised at the king’s reply. The surprise was not in hearing that they would be judged by their acts of love, mercy and justice. Rather, they were surprised at where these acts of mercy and justice were to be done: among those who were hungry, thirsty and in need of clothing, among strangers, prisoners and the sick; among those who lacked the basic necessities of life; among those who were least able to return the kindness.
In John’s Gospel we read of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples (John 13:1-11). Jesus then tells them that they should do to one another as he has to them (v.15). A little later (v.34) Jesus tells his disciples: “I give you a new commandment that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”
The gospel could not be clearer. To be followers of Jesus Christ – to be Christians – means above all that we love one another precisely because God has loved us. To love as Jesus loves calls us to serve any one in need, without questioning, without judging, without expecting a reward. “Do to one another as I have done to you.”
Jesus proclaimed the good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind and freedom to the oppressed (Luke 4:18-19). Throughout his ministry Jesus addressed the daily physical needs of people, especially those who were poor, those who were struggling in any way, those who were vulnerable.
The church that Jesus founded also reaches out, as part of its central mission, to people as part of its central mission, to people with these same needs. Particularly for the past 100 years the church has been developing its teaching on social, economic and political issues. What the church is attempting is to take the gospel and weave it into the daily living of people. This teaching offers fundamental principles about the human person and about society. I will attempt to summarize these main principles.
Every human being is created by God, redeemed by Jesus Christ and called to communion with God. For this reason every person has a sacred dignity; each of us has a special place within God’s creation. Each of us is so loved by God that the only possible response we can offer is to love God in return, and to love and respect all that God has created.
  1. In this sacred dignity all humans are equal. Respect for the dignity of others allows for no distinctions or discriminations based on gender, race, language, religion or social conditions. Respect for the dignity of others does not allow oppressive economic and social differences within God’s human family.
  2. The dignity of the human person means that all life is sacred. Christians respect the lives of all humans and extend this respect to all creation. Life is a loving gift of the Creator. Our response – always and everywhere – must be to show loving respect for such a gift. The dignity of the human person is the foundation of the church’s teaching about people and how we organize our society.
  3. We hear very much today about individual rights. Many of us are quick to claim personal rights against the claims of others – sometimes even against the good of the community. Catholic social teaching offers a balanced view of individual rights. Human rights flow from our God-given dignity, belonging to us precisely as humans and so belonging to all people. Rights are not optional. They are not granted by human laws or by individual accomplishments. They are part of what it means to be a human person, and so human rights surround and protect the dignity of each person.
  4. Among the most fundamental rights one can have is the right to life. From conception to natural death, people have the right to live their lives as fully as they can. Catholic teaching condemns abortion, euthanasia and assisted suicide as grave sins against the Creator of all life.
  5. Flowing from the right to life is another fundamental human right, namely the right to means enabling one to live life with dignity. The right to life means that every person on this planet has the right to a share of earthly goods sufficient for oneself and one’s family. Every person has the right to adequate food, clothing, housing, health care, education, employment and a safe environment. One cannot speak of the right to life without acknowledging the right to live that life in a manner that reflects the dignity of creatures made in God’s image.
  6. When discussing individual rights one must necessarily discuss the responsibilities that come with these rights. Rights and responsibilities always go together. It is especially necessary to balance individual human rights with community responsibilities. Every time we claim an individual right, we must consider the impact of that claim on the larger society. For example, ownership of private property must never be regarded as an absolute right. The right to own carries with it a responsibility to use one’s property in a manner that respects the neighbour and contributes to the common good.
    Christians understand that responsibilities have as their source love of neighbour. We have responsibilities to one another, to our families, to our communities, to the larger society. Our response to God’s love for us must itself be a loving concern for people around us and for the community and societies we build. “The one who loves the parent loves the child.” As Christians we must never focus only on our own needs, on claiming our own rights, without asking how our actions affect the larger community.
  7. Humans are social beings. We realize our dignity, exercise our rights and live out our responsibilities in relationships with others. Our full human development, our movement toward God, take place in a social context – in our families, among friends, in the work place, in our communities.
    Families are especially important settings for us to realize our dependence upon others. Families are where we first experience how much we are loved and how we are to love in return. It is in families that we learn moral principles and how to contribute to the building of community.
    Communities also shape and individual’s growth as a responsible and loving human person. Cultural norms and expectations, laws and public policies can influence that development. When people live in poverty or have to struggle for basic rights, it is difficult for them to realize their dignity, to grow as loving and responsible persons, and even to contribute to their community.