Rethinking the Social Question

“The exclusive binary model of market-plus-state is corrosive of society…”
Pope Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate 39

Pope Paul VI pictured in undated portraitThe recent beatification of Blessed Pope Paul VI has reminded us of his deep commitment to justice and the role of the Church’s social doctrine in lifting up human dignity and promoting the common good in the political, economic and social order.

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, in Caritas in Veritate (CIV), recalled that Paul VI urged the formation of an economy in which “all will be able to give and receive without one group making progress at the expense of the other” (Populorum Progessio 44).

As we approach another election, we are afforded the opportunity to exercise our right to participate in the political life of the country and our local communities. Yet it is arguable that our choices are often relegated to a narrow space between support for either bureaucratic state control or the pervasive laws of the market, to govern the totality of civil society. This false binary logic plays itself out in an increasingly hyper-partisan political culture pitting liberals against conservatives, free marketers against proponents of the welfare state, or other labels one decides to use. This overriding logic, according to Benedict XVI, has “accustomed us to think only in terms of the private business leader of a capitalistic bent on the one hand, and the State director on the other” (CIV 41). Perhaps it is time we reconsider the social question and how the political economy serves, or undermines, human life and dignity.

Church teaching calls for us all to be active participants in civic life. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) states, “It is necessary that all participate, each according to his position and role, in promoting the common good” (CCC 1913). This is also echoed in Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship: A Call to Political Responsibility from the Catholic Bishops of the United States (Faithful Citizenship 4). But the bishops also remark how Catholics often feel “politically disenfranchised”, given limited political options and how these compare to the breadth of the Catholic social teaching tradition.

This disenfranchisement, I believe, is traceable to the false binary logic that Benedict XVI describes. In CIV, building on the thought of both St. John Paul II and Blessed Paul VI, Benedict suggests we should think differently. He suggests that the social teaching of the Church has something more genuine to contribute to the social question than the current global order affords.

Benedict refers to an “economy of gratuitousness” (CIV 38) where both the political and economic life is oriented in the service of the person, promoting solidarity and human dignity. Ultimately, this is a political and economic order rooted in the values of love and gift, or reciprocity. A social order of this quality is better suited to the integral development of the human person in his or her material, social, political and spiritual being. Greater and more meaningful global participation in social life, especially by people on the margins of society, is possible than is reflected in our current economic and political arrangements.

Pope Francis has spoken many times of an economy that kills and excludes, where for many, “it is a struggle to live, and often, to live with precious little dignity (Evangelii Gaudium, #52). Such an economic and political order denies the “primacy of the human person” (EG #55), he argues, and lacks a truly humane purpose.

Paul VI and Benedict XVI challenged us to think imaginatively and consider the values that drive our global order.

How different would our world look if it were grounded on an ethic that placed the human person and the strength of families and communities first? Poverty, hunger, violence, the good of families and persons, political participation and other concerns, I suspect, would look radically different if the virtues of caritas, gift of self and love were the basis of our human interactions.

Perhaps it is time we rethink the social question anew.

Anthony J. Granado is a policy advisor at the USCCB’s Department of Justice, Peace & Human Development.

#Synod14 also talked family economics

Now that was something!

Dylan Corbett

Dylan Corbett

For the last couple weeks, the Church has been digesting the Synod on the Family, a meeting in Rome of bishops and families from around the world with the Holy Father.

Never has more ink—digital or actual—been spilled on such a meeting. Every word, press release and sound bite has been scrutinized, dissected and interpreted.

And yet, if you weren’t paying close attention, you may have missed some of the substance that didn’t generate as much media attention.

The Synod had some pretty incisive things to say about the relationship between the family and the economy. In fact, it offered a powerful critique of the world economy.

It wasn’t all good. The Synod Fathers had some pretty harsh words for the “economic systems”, “unemployment”, “culture of prosperity” and “disinterest” on the part of government that today “weakens the dignity of people”. This is what they said in their final report:

There is also a general feeling of powerlessness in the face of socio-cultural realities which oftentimes end in crushing families. Such is the case in increasing instances of poverty and unemployment in the workplace, which at times is a real nightmare… Families often feel abandoned by the disinterest and lack of attention by institutions. The State has the responsibility to pass laws and create work to ensure the future of young people and help them realize their plan of forming a family.

That’s tough stuff. But that’s where the Church has to dwell, because that place of family pain is where God dwells. Evangelization must take people where they’re at. As the Synod Fathers said:

… evangelization needs to clearly denounce cultural, social, political and economic factors, such as the excessive importance given to market logic which prevents authentic family life and leads to discrimination, poverty, exclusion, and violence.

In a complex world where relationships and institutions are increasingly fragile, pain and hope are felt and lived by those at the bottom. For many, the family is the last buffer in a world dominated by “the logic of the market”, where communities are fast evaporating, job security and pensions seem anachronistic, and loneliness and insecurity are more pervasive. Make no mistake, families are being put through the sieve. If that’s the case, perhaps the Church and the State need to think seriously about exercising a preferential option for the family.

As Cardinal Erdő of Hungary said during the days of the Synod, “the family is almost the last welcoming human reality in a world determined near exclusively by finance and technology. A new culture of the family can be the starting point for a renewed human civilization”.

Dylan Corbett is manager for mission & identity outreach at the USCCB’s Department of Justice, Peace & Human Development.

Poverty in America. We can and must do better.

In the early days of his pontificate, Pope Francis said, “How I would like a Church that is poor and for the poor!” He has followed this with an almost constant stream of reminders to all Catholics of the preferential option for the poor that ought to guide our personal choices, policies and priorities.

Last month, the US Census Bureau released its annual report on poverty in America for 2013. It reflected very modest gains…

  • the poverty rate declined for the first time in seven years, to 14.5%
  • child poverty declined for the first time in over a decade

…but also the prolonged pain and struggle for millions of American families, and a reminder that we have only really even begun to recover from the most recent recession:

 Poverty in America, 2000-2013

Source: US Census Bureau

Source: US Census Bureau

(Yes, the poverty rate for children is that high. For children under 5, the poverty rate is 22.5%: the younger you are in this country, the more likely you are to live in poverty.)

We can and we must do better. This report reminds us of the consequences of a still unhealed economy that cannot produce enough decent jobs. It is unacceptable that the richest country in the world denies close to 15 million children, almost 1 in 5, a basic level of peace and security. A society that cannot protect the lives and dignity of all its children needs to reassess its priorities.

The bishops of the United States, in A Place at the Table, chart a path forward:

“The Catholic way is to recognize the essential role and the complementary responsibilities of families, communities, the market, and government to work together to overcome poverty and advance human dignity.”

In partnership with Christian brothers and sisters in the Circle of Protection, the bishops, along with Catholic Charities USA and Catholic Relief Services, have been answering Pope Francis’ call to be “for the poor” regarding the proper role of government in ensuring basic human needs are met.

As Christians, we can also work in our communities and parishes to develop ways not only to assist our brothers and sisters struggling to live in dignity, but to create the opportunities for flourishing that lessen the need for government programs. In the words of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, “The more we strive to secure a common good corresponding to the real needs of our neighbors, the more effectively we love them” (Caritas in Veritate, no. 7).

Tom MulloyTom Mulloy is a policy advisor at the USCCB’s Department of Justice, Peace & Human Development.

Go deeper:
Check out Poverty USA’s Interactive Poverty Map to discover the level of poverty in your county.

Social justice. Are we listening?

A word cloud from the social encyclical of Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate.

A word cloud from the social encyclical of Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate.

It seemed not long ago that Pope Francis set off a firestorm of controversy around the question of social justice. That seems to have died down now. Of course, he keeps speaking, but are we really listening?

If you weren’t paying attention, you may have missed a classic Pope Francis moment last week. Speaking on the anniversary of Pope Benedict XVI’s social encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, Francis called for “deep reforms” in our economic and public life.

One would have thought that after a speech in which he once again called for “redistribution of wealth” and “redistribution of sovereignty”, there would have been controversy to follow. Instead there was uncanny silence.

He also had harsh words for poverty and inequality, saying that inequality threatens to erode our democracies. He ended his speech with a heartfelt plea to “keep alive the concern for the poor and social justice”.

No doubt about it, Pope Francis keeps talking about social justice. But, are we receiving his teaching? Do we believe that social justice is a meaningful term, that it has something to offer in terms of shaping American society, the economy and public life?

Pope Francis clearly does. In the same speech, he defines social justice as the difference between a society based on exclusion and one founded on inclusion.

Groups supported by the Catholic Campaign for Human Development struggle on the border between inclusion and exclusion. They work to stretch the border of fairness and dignity to more and more communities. They certainly know what a society built on exclusion looks like. Unemployment. Anxiety. Job insecurity. Drugs. Stolen wages. Excluded immigrants. Environmental damage. Catch up with the bills. Not making rent. A criminal record that comes back to haunt. Expensive education. No time to think about family. No time to think about community.

These are the hard truths of social injustice. You only come to know them by living its harsh reality or by exercising solidarity with those who do.

But CCHD groups also appreciate the hard won truths of social justice. Community. Economic empowerment. Jobs. Participation in public life. Education. Health. Culture. Fairness. Justice. Raising a family with confidence. The power to change one’s life for the better.

For Pope Francis, social justice isn’t a detached, abstract discourse. As he says, it’s about “overcoming the structural causes of inequality and poverty.” It’s about putting the pieces of a broken society back together. It’s about building “an economy and a market that does not exclude people, and which are equitable.” The question of social justice is not a grandiloquent discourse on the theological conditions of the perfect society. It is about how to live and love in a broken world.

A word cloud from a speech of Pope Francis on the Church's social mission.

A word cloud from a speech of Pope Francis on the Church’s social mission.

Because we have put profit before people, competition before community, there are those who suffer exclusion from our markets and from our democracy.

The bishops of the United States define just what social justice looks like in their 1986 pastoral letter on the economy, Economic Justice for All. In their words:

“Basic justice demands the establishment of minimum levels of participation in the life of the human community for all persons.”

For the bishops, social justice requires society be molded so that all can participate in our economy and public life. Participation and inclusion are the yardsticks of social justice.

If that’s true, that might mean that we need to take Pope Francis’ call to redistribute wealth and sovereignty seriously. How do we make sure all can participate in an economy that guarantees dignified work and the ability to raise a family? How do we make sure that all voices are represented at the table of our democracy? Those aren’t abstract questions. As Pope Benedict XVI put it in Caritas in Veritate:

“Testimony to Christ’s charity, through works of justice, peace and development, is part and parcel of evangelization, because Jesus Christ, who loves us, is concerned with the whole person.”

Do we want a society based on inclusion or exclusion? Our commitment to love like Jesus demands we hear the question.

McCloud headshotRalph McCloud is the executive director of the USCCB’s Catholic Campaign for Human Development.

Go deeper:
Learn about poverty in the United States and what CCHD groups are doing to address it at PovertyUSA and PobrezaUSA.

Follow CCHD on Twitter.

Can one person make a difference? On labor issues, absolutely.

Discussing the state of labor and workers in America is a challenge. There is so much to say and little space in which to say it. Such is the case with solutions—the challenges that workers, their families and our economy face are significant, and often discouraging and overwhelming. They lead us to ask the question: Can one person make a difference?

I say absolutely. It begins at the core of our teaching—human beings are made in the image and likeness of God. We are called to protect and affirm that dignity always.

In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis reflects on this in the context of “an economy of exclusion”:

Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded. We have created a “throw away” culture which is now spreading (no. 53).

We live in a society preoccupied with things, consumed with consuming, cajoled and prodded into buying this new product, getting that service done. But deeply embedded in those everyday consumer decisions are profound human consequences.

How often do we pause to consider the dignity of the human on the other side of those choices? Do we ever really stop and ponder the worker who made this thing we desire so strongly? It is easy to protect and affirm the human dignity of the people we can see, hear, and interact with; less so when it is a worker thousands of miles away, or hidden in a rural warehouse or laboring to clean as we rest.

We get discount clothes, but do we give a thought to whether workers in the factories and old textile towns who manufacture (or used to manufacture) them work in safe conditions and are paid just wages?

We get affordable, fresh produce, but do we give a thought to the migrant workers who toil in the fields, the exhausted Earth, or the small family farms that used to feed our country but can no longer compete?

Caregivers and domestic workers, the majority of whom are female and immigrant, work for poverty-level wages to care for the most vulnerable among us–our young and elderly. Do we give a thought to their circumstances, or whether and how the lack of quality care for the old and the young opens the door to the same attitudes that see no grave moral wrong in abortion and assisted suicide?

Pope Francis’ words should stir and challenge us. An economy of inclusion that alleviates poverty and creates decent work demands that we appreciate the human consequences of our decisions.

It is not easy to ask these questions, but our faith requires it. Now, everybody’s circumstances are different, and not all of us can act to the same degree. However, it is important to ask these questions, and make life- and dignity-affirming choices whenever we can. In the words of St. John Paul II:

It is therefore necessary to create life-styles in which the quest for truth, beauty, goodness and communion with others for the sake of common growth are the factors which determine consumer choices, savings and investments (Centesimus Annus, no. 36).

May God grant us all wisdom, charitable hearts and vision to see the needs of our sisters and brothers in the decisions we make each day.

Tom MulloyTom Mulloy is a policy advisor in the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Department of Justice, Peace & Human Development


Go deeper:
Check out organizations supported by the Catholic Campaign for Human Development working on labor issues.
Check out the bishops’ recent Labor Day Statement.