Year of prayer intention for August: To build structures for justice and peace


Reflecting on the Jubilee Year of Prayer theme for August, one may ask the question: should we as Christians, as Roman Catholics, be involved in social justice and peace issues at all?

Are not matters relating to the economy, food distribution, capital loans, housing, employment, welfare, women’s proper role in society, youth, the elderly, the homeless, agricultural workers, education, immigration, prison reform, capital punishment, nuclear disarmament, and, we might add, a flag flying over the State Capitol, matters of purely human well-being and not of our spiritual well-being properly speaking, and consequently, more properly the domain of the state rather than of the Church?

With the help of the moral theologian, Father Francis F.X. Meehan, I will attempt to examine how our Church has addressed these concerns over the years.

Numerous examples can be cited to show Pope John Paul II’s strong preoccupation with social justice issues. Early on in his papacy, during a trip to the Philippines, he confronted then President Fidel Marcos with a strong challenge when he said: “Even in exceptional circumstances that may at times arise, one can never justify any violation of the fundamental dignity of the human person or of the basic rights that safeguard this dignity.” In speaking to sugarcane workers on the Negroes Island in the Philippines, Pope John Paul supported free associations of workers protected by law; he also repeated a theme often stated at Puebla and in Brazil that the land is a “gift of God for the benefit of all,” and it is “inadmissible to use this gift in such a manner that the benefits it produces serve only a limited number of people, while the others, the vast majority, are excluded from the benefits which the land yields.”

The pope has even gone further and stated that “it is necessary to call by their names injustice, the exploitation of man by the state, of institutions, of mechanisms of economic systems and of regimes operating so often without sensitivity … It is necessary to call by name every social injustice, discrimination, violence inflicted on man against his body, against his spirit, against his conscience and against his convictions.” (General Audience Address, Feb. 21, 1979, in Origins, March 8, 1979, p. 601).

Such positions of Pope John Paul II are in line with an array of statements by popes of modern times, stemming from Pope Leo XIII to Paul VI.

In the famous social encyclical of 1891, Rerum Novarum, Leo XIII reminded the world that the Church does not so concentrate “her energies on caring for souls as to overlook the things which pertain to mortal and earthly life.” “It is the opinion of some … that the social question … is merely economic. The precise opposite is the truth,” says Leo XIII. “It is first of all moral and religious, and for that reason its solution is to be expected mainly from the moral law and the pronouncements of religion.” Rather than being outside of the sphere of religious and moral life, social problems, according to Pope Leo XIII are intimately tied to religion.

Pope Pius XI, while cautioning that “from her divine mission the Church is directly concerned with the spiritual and not with the temporal, still, as all these things aid one another and are closely intertwined, the Church fosters the temporal prosperity of individuals and society as effectively as if she had been instituted for that purpose alone” (Ubi Arcano, Dec. 23, 1922).

The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World of the Second Vatican Council is a key document in this regard. The document sees not only individuals as sinners to be saved, but rather that “Christ was crucified and rose again … so that this world might be fashioned anew according to God’s design and reach its fulfillment” (Guadium et Spes, Art.2).

As Father Meehan concludes, “If the world itself is to be renewed through the Paschal Mystery, then the pastoral apostolate of the Church shares in this work of history always under and through the grace of the Lord of history.” The Council document refers to “the duty imposed on us to build up a better world in truth and justice. We are witnessing,” the bishops of the Council state, “the birth of a new humanism, where man is defined before all else by his responsibility to his brothers and at the court of history.”

In each nation and social group there is a growing number of men and women who are conscious that they themselves are the craftsmen and molders of their community’s culture. All over the world the sense of autonomy and responsibility increases with effects of the greatest importance for the spiritual and moral maturity of mankind.

Among recent documents summoning Christian people to their moral responsibility for peace and justice in the world are the social encyclicals of Pope John XXIII Pacem in Terris and Mater et Magistra, Pope Paul VI’s Populorum Progressio and Pope John Paul’s Laborem Exercens and Centesimus Annus. The 1971 Synod of Bishops document on “Justice in the World” contained the now much-quoted statement that “Action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world fully appear to us as a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the Gospel, or, in other words, of the Church’s mission for the redemption of the human race and its liberation from every oppressive situation.”

This document calls for active witness on the part of the Christian community in social justice concerns. “We must be prepared,” say the bishops, “to take on new functions and new duties in every sector of human activity and especially in the sector of world society, if justice is really to be put into practice. Our action is to be directed above all at those men and nations which because of various forms of oppression and because of the present character of our society are silent, indeed voiceless, victims of injustice” (NCCB Doc., p.38).

For at least the last three decades, the American Catholic bishops have taken up this challenge and spoken on a broad array of justice and peace issues. Let me cite some of these. They have addressed the issues of:

1 … continuing racism and discrimination especially against African-Americans, Hispanics, and Indians.

2 … the “human tragedies” behind the statistics of joblessness.

3 … they have spoken in behalf of farm workers.

4 … they have addressed the issue of how a real estate industry can bring about subtle but effective discrimination in housing.

5 … the issue (of) a form of crime that sometimes goes unnoticed  white-collar crime.

6 … of how a penal system is “sometimes a cause of increased crime” and of how prisons are often “settings for gross violations of prisoners’ rights.”

They have also called for alternatives to capital punishment.

They have likewise spoken with force of the rights of the unborn and, yet compassionately, of the individual woman who needs our help (cf. Father Meehan).

On housing, the bishops were explicit about what is needed at the grassroots:

“It is not enough to point to the reality of poor housing and recommend that the government and other institutions take appropriate action. We must also reflect on our own responsibilities and opportunities for action. We call on individual Catholics, dioceses, and parishes, as well as their Catholic organizations, to join us in a new commitment to those who suffer from poor housing … With its roots deep in the community, the parish can play a critical advocacy role regarding the housing problems of its people” (“The Right to a Decent Home,” Nov. 20, 1975, par. 70, 80).

The American bishops have produced a very provocative document on peace, the arms race, and nuclear disarmament which calls for much reflection and soul-searching on the part of us all, “The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response.”

While our Holy Father and our bishops have spoken often and well on a wide variety of social issues, when it comes to certain social teachings “people often do not know what the bishops have said,” says Father Meehan; and what is more significant, when they do hear them, they often don’t like what they hear.

Too often the issues get dropped, like hot potatoes, never to be picked up again. I cite the bishops’ statements on capital punishment as one example. The bishops’ peace statement may prove to be another.

As Father Meehan has observed, “people, priests, (and) religious … go about things as usual. The social wisdom has not penetrated to the everyday psyche of the church in a way that would make it an administrative priority or a spontaneous pastoral impulse” (Father Meehan).

At the level of the Incarnation and the Redemption that came through it, one “begins to understand that every piece of food given to one’s brother takes part in the New Creation brought about by Christ” (Father Meehan).

“After the Lord Jesus’ coming … human welfare is always a piece of the Divine” (again Father Meehan).

Our commitment to Christ involves us then, in embracing human life in its totality; just as nothing nobly human was foreign to Christ, nothing that enhances the human and spiritual well-being of man and woman should be foreign to a Christian.

One of the beautiful Gospel stories about Jesus’ compassion for the hungry is found in the Gospel of Mark (6:34-43) and is repeated in the Gospels of Matthew, Luke and John. When the disciples approach Jesus to tell him to dismiss the large crowd, who had come to hear him speak, in order that the people could get something to eat, Jesus tells them, “give them something to eat yourselves” (Mark 6:37).

Jesus did not let his disciples off the hook, even in so mundane a matter as providing food.

“Give them something to eat yourselves,” he tells them.

Jesus does not let us off the hook, as well, when it comes to matters of social justice and peace.

As with his disciples, He will help us find a proper way out of all dilemmas, if we but put our trust in him.

In this month of August we recall that Christ calls us to take a further step in our vocation as committed Christians by praying for that kind of trust in him that will enable us to build structures for justice and peace in the world in which we live.