As the Election Season Begins, Time for a New Christian Social Movement
As the political season in the United States of America moves into full gear with the midterm elections opening up into the 2016 presidential campaign, my mind turns again to political and social participation.
I will attend the Values Voter Summit this weekend in Washington, D.C. I know that politics alone will never fix what ails this nation that I love. However, I also know that failing to participate politically, socially and economically, will only allow the downward spiral in our culture to continue.
We need to an approach to political, social and economic participation which recognizes the limitations of identifying with the current political labels. One which is informed by classical Christian social thought. That thought has its roots in the natural moral law, the Bible and the unbroken teaching of the Christian church.
The Orthodox Church has preserved much of the Patristic teaching (teaching of the early Church fathers) on the social questions. As they point us to giants such as Bishop John Chrysostom they do us a great service. Some of the churches descended from the Protestant Reformers have held onto to some social teaching – or are trying to recover and represent it. They assist us as well.
I write this article as a Catholic Christian.
I believe that the Catholic Church has a well-developed body of social teaching which offers principles which can steer western culture away from its own self-destruction. It is not only for Catholics, other Christians or even just religious people. It is for all people and all nations.
It is offered to all who want to build a truly human society and promote the real common good. The teaching is called social because it speaks to human society and to the formation, role and rightful place of social institutions.
Sadly, there is no shortage of people and groups using snippets out of the body of Catholic social thought to lend borrowed authority to their own political, cultural, social and economic proposals. They sometimes use quotes from or references to this or that individual writing, in a piecemeal proof text way, in order to push their own pet agenda.
That is why it is important to go to the source and read it for yourself. It has been compiled in an excellent resource called the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church.
Contrary to the relativism of our age – which rejects any notion of the very existence of objective moral truth – Catholic social teaching insists that that there are unchangeable truths which can be known by all men and women through the exercise of reason. They are revealed in the natural moral law (Catechism #1950-1960).
This Natural Moral Law is present in the heart of each man and established by reason. This law is universal in its precepts and its authority extends to all men. It expresses the dignity of the person and determines the basis for his fundamental rights and duties.(Catechism of the Catholic Church# 1956)
It is here that we find those foundational human rights which must be recognized by the civil or positive law as rightfully belonging to all men and women. The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (paragraph 140) explains:
The exercise of freedom implies a reference to a natural moral law, of a universal character, that precedes and unites all rights and duties. The natural law is nothing other than the light of intellect infused within us by God. Thanks to this, we know what must be done and what must be avoided. This light or this law has been given by God to creation.
It consists in the participation in his eternal law, which is identified with God himself. This law is called natural because the reason that promulgates it is proper to human nature. It is universal; it extends to all people insofar as it is established by reason.
In its principal precepts, the divine and natural law is presented in the Decalogue and indicates the primary and essential norms regulating moral life. Its central focus is the act of aspiring and submitting to God, the source and judge of everything that is good, and also the act of seeing others as equal to oneself. The natural law expresses the dignity of the person and lays the foundations of the person’s fundamental duties.
This natural moral law is fully revealed through faith and revelation. However, foundational truths, such as the dignity of every human person at every age and stage, the nature and ends of marriage, our obligations in solidarity to one another – are all knowable through the exercise of human reason. It roots us together in a fundamental moral code, a set of recognizable truths which are written on the human heart and should inform our life together.
These truths should provide a framework for structuring our social life and building a common home. We should begin to once again acknowledge them together, agree upon them and build a movement rooted in them. We do not need to quote Catholic or other Christian sources or even frame them in particularly religious language. They are objectively true and hearts respond when they are proclaimed.
Christian social teaching offers principles to be worked into the loaf of every aspect of human culture. For example, it challenges any notion of human freedom which begins and ends with the isolated, atomistic, person as the measure of its application. We are by nature and grace called to relationship. Only in communion can we become fully human and find human flourishing. This is the Christian vision of the human person which must inform a new movement.
Human freedom must be exercised within a moral constitution or it will go astray and can devolve into various and sometimes even hidden forms of anarchy. We currently mouth the word freedom in the West, while we build our own shackles, engaging in dehumanizing behavior.
There is a moral basis to a truly free society. Morality is not an add-on. It is at the heart of truly human social life. Freedom is not only about having a right to choose but choosing what is right. Preserving and protecting authentic freedom requires us to embed within the political polity the safeguards of such a robust vision of freedom; it is not only a freedom from, but a freedom for.
Our capacity for freedom must be ordered toward choosing the good, the true and the beautiful, if it is to flourish. It must respect the truth about the human person, promote marriage and the family and foster the real common good.
Freedom brings with it a responsibility to act justly and with compassion and mercy. It must recognize our obligation in solidarity to one another – because we truly are our brother and sisters keeper. This is called the principle of solidarity or social charity.
The Church also reminds all men and women of our obligation to give a love of preference to the poor, in all of their manifestations, not just the economically poor.This refers to the kind of love which the Lord Himself shows in his own identification with the poor. The implications of our response to this command are expounded upon in the 25th chapter of the Gospel of St Matthew.
This means incorporating in the whole social order, including the political and economic order, a special concern for their well-being and opportunity. We can construct a system which includes them within its embrace and expands the promise of participation and advancement. Christians should be leading the way in this task.
Christian social teaching does not propose a particular economic theory. However, it does insist that every economic order must be at the service of the dignity of the human person and the family and further the real common good. Though the economic order certainly involves money, it is at the service of the human person.
In recent papal encyclicals and magisterial teaching offered by the Catholic Church the market economy has been recognized as having a real potential for promoting all of these goods – when properly understood and morally structured.
The Catholic Church prophetically stood against the materialism of the atheistic Marxist system. She also cautions nations which have adopted a form of liberal capitalism that there are dangers in any form of economism or materialism which ends up promoting the use of persons as products and fails to recognize the value of being over acquiring.
She reminds consumerist Western culture that the market economy must be at the service the human person, the family and the common good, lest “capitalism” conflate its claims to offering freedom and end up encouraging business practices which devolve into greed.
She warns against — and rejects — collectivism, whether of the left or the right on the political spectrum. The Church’s social doctrine holds that authentically human social relationships of friendship, solidarity and reciprocity can be conducted within economic activity and are not only outside it or after it.
As Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI wrote in his 1999 encyclical letter Charity in Truth, “The economic sphere is neither ethically neutral, nor inherently inhuman and opposed to society. It is part and parcel of human activity and precisely because it is human, it must be structured and governed in an ethical manner.”
Contrary to what some people wrote after that letter was published, it neither endorsed nor rejected capitalism. As the social teaching of the Catholic Church consistently has done in the past, it simply did not use the term. The social teaching prefers the terms market economy or free economy. So it is with the Apostolic Exhortation entitled The Gospel of Joy released by Pope Francis.
Markets can only be free when free people are engaged in them. Freedom is a good of the human person. It is not an ethereal concept floating around in the cosmos. A free economy should seek to continually expand by opening the way for the participation for as many people as possible, while promoting enterprise and initiative.
Also, though we are obligated to give a love of preference to the poor because we recognize our solidarity with them, this call to solidarity should be applied through the application of the social and economic ordering principle of subsidiarity. That word comes from a latin root which means help.
Subsidiarity in governance and economic participation rejects the usurping by a larger entity of the proper participation which can be done at the lowest practicable level. Subsidiarity is bottom up. It must defer to and help the lower form of government and respect mediating associations, beginning with the family.
The West, with all of its promise of freedom, flirts with an instrumentalist materialism which too easily can forget that the market was made for man not man for the market. In this sort of mistaken approach to a free market economic order, the accumulation of capital can come to be viewed as prior to the flourishing of the person, the family and the common good.
The Bible does not say that money is the root of all evil. Rather, that the love of money is the root of all evil. (I Tim. 6:10) It refers to a wrong approach to the goods of this earth, including money, evidenced by turning them into idols.
A Christian approach to social activism must be unashamed of speaking of morality. We cannot separate moral, social and economic issues in the body politic, just as we cannot separate the spirit, soul and body of a person. Human society is a form of corporate person.
All of our political and economic concerns have some moral dimension because they concern the human person and formation of human communities. The reason we should care about expanding economic opportunity is because we respect the dignity of every human person and want to expand participation to as many human persons as we can.
The reason we should care for all of the poor, in all of their manifestations, is because they all have human dignity, having all been created in the Image of God.
That brings me to my final thought, the primacy of life. I am sick of the tired old siren song emanating from the establishment of the Republican Party at election time that we should stay away from social issues and particularly, the fundamental Human Right to Life. Our defense of children in the womb is a solidarity issue.Those of us who insist upon caring for children in the womb, the elderly, the infirm, the poor in all of their manifestations and the marginalized are doing what is right because it is right.
We insist upon the recognition that every single human person, at every age and stage of life, has human dignity precisely because they are created in the Image of God. They have an inalienable and undeniable Right to Life. They are also our neighbors. It is always and everywhere wrong to take the life of an innocent neighbor, wherever they live, including the first home of the womb.
In the Joy of the Gospel Pope Francis wrote:
… among the vulnerable for whom the Church wishes to care, with particular love and concern, are unborn children, the most defenseless and innocent among us. Nowadays efforts are made to deny them their human dignity and to do with them whatever one pleases, taking their lives and passing laws preventing anyone from standing in the way of this. Frequently, as a way of ridiculing the Church’s effort to defend their lives, attempts are made to present her position as ideological, obscurantist and conservative.
Yet this defense of unborn life is closely linked to the defense of each and every other human right. It involves the conviction that a human being is always sacred and inviolable, in any situation and at every stage of development. Human beings are ends in themselves and never a means of resolving other problems.
Once this conviction disappears, so do solid and lasting foundations for the defense of human rights, which would always be subject to the passing whims of the powers that be. Reason alone is sufficient to recognize the inviolable value of each single human life, but if we also look at the issue from the standpoint of faith, “every violation of the personal dignity of the human being cries out in vengeance to God and is an offense against the creator of the individual.
Precisely because this involves the internal consistency of our message about the value of the human person, the Church cannot be expected to change her position on this question. I want to be completely honest in this regard. This is not something subject to alleged reforms or “modernizations”. It is not “progressive” to try to resolve problems by eliminating a human life. (Par. 213,214)
He is correct. It is not “progressive” to try to resolve problems by eliminating a human life. We must be unashamedly clear about this truth. It is time for courage. It is time for clarity. It is time for Christian cooperation. We need a movement which cannot be contained by any of the current political labels; an authentically Christian social movement.
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