Faith & Values
Call for social justice especially valid today
A landmark document on social teaching called "Justice in the World," issued 40 years ago by the Synod of Bishops that gathered in Rome, is still relevant. The global economic crisis, the unpredictability of terrorism, mounting environmental problems — all call for effective response from people of faith with a perspective for social justice.
Special to The Seattle Times
Economic hardship for the poor seemed to accelerate during this past year, despite the recent uptick in the nation's overall economy. Recently, some leading religious periodicals, such as Commonweal and Christian Century, had cover articles reminding people of their moral duty to look out for those least able to take care of themselves.
I found a cover article by Father Peter Henriot SJ in America Magazine, "Remembering Justice," on Nov. 14 was the most helpful. Henriot recalled that 40 years ago the Synod of Bishops that gathered in Rome issued a landmark document on social teaching called "Justice in the World."
The document is still relevant. The global economic crisis, the unpredictability of terrorism, mounting environmental problems — all call for effective response from people of faith with a perspective for social justice.
The document's message, Henriot observes, can be summed up in one well-known sentence: "Action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world fully appear to us as a constitutive [that is, essential] dimension of the preaching of the Gospel. ... There is simply no sharing of the good news of Jesus Christ if the commitment to justice is downplayed or eliminated."
"Justice in the World" gave a brief but powerful scriptural analysis of God as liberator of the oppressed in the Old Testament and Jesus as preacher of justice for the poor in the New Testament. The bishops affirmed "love of neighbor and justice cannot be separated," for love recognizes the dignity and rights of one's neighbor.
The 1971 synod statement also broke new and important ground — however controversial — in its call for an internal examination of conscience by the church itself. "While the church is bound to give witness to justice, it recognizes that anyone who ventures to speak to people about justice must first be just in their eyes. Hence, we must undertake an examination of the modes of acting and of the possessions and lifestyle found within the church itself."
At the time, this was a call to respect and promote rights within the church and a call for a "sparingness" in lifestyle among all Christians, including bishops, priests and religious.
The scandals that have rocked the church in recent years bring to even greater relevance this call for an honest self-examination of conscience.
Great strides have been made in the protection of children and the accountability of leaders in the past decade, but as Pope John Paul II himself noted, an ongoing self-examination and repentance is needed and is central to the Gospel itself.
For our own ongoing examination of conscience for the new year, perhaps we could draw upon three principles from Catholic social teaching:
• Preferential option for the poor and the vulnerable. While the common good embraces all, those who are weak, vulnerable and most in need deserve preferential concern. A basic moral test for our society is how we treat the most vulnerable in our midst.
• The dignity of work and the rights of workers. The economy must serve the people, not the other way around. Work is more than a way to make a living; it is a form of continuing participation in God's creation. Workers, employers, and unions should not only advance their own interests, but also work together to advance economic justice and the well-being of all.
• Solidarity. We are one human family, whatever our national, racial, ethnic, economic and ideological differences. We are our brothers' and sisters' keepers, wherever they may be. Solidarity includes the Scriptural call to welcome the stranger among us including immigrants seeking work and a decent life for their families.
We obviously can't do these just on our own. It's God's work, as well as ours. So prayer and trust in divine providence are crucial as we move forward together.
Fr. Patrick Howell SJ is the rector (religious superior) of the Jesuit Community at Seattle University and professor of pastoral theology. Readers may send feedback to email@example.com.
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