15 years ago in U.S. Catholic: How does our garden grow?

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By Bishop Robert Morneau

This article appeared in the June 1999 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 64, No. 6, pages 34-37).

Although stewardship may not be a familiar term to most Catholics, it is the core of the Christian way of life. Bishop Robert Morneau plots out a plan for tending to all that has been entrusted to us.

Some years ago I came across a poem by the Spaniard Antonio Machado (1875-1939), and after memorizing it I had many a sleepless night. The verse involves a dialogue between the wind (could it be the Holy Spirit?) and the individual soul. Here is the poem as translated by Robert Bly:

The wind, one brilliant day, called to my soul with an aroma of jasmine.

“In return for this jasmine odor, I’d like all the odor of your roses.”

“I have no roses; I have no flowers left now in my garden…. All are dead.”

“Then I’ll take the waters of the fountains, and the yellow leaves and the dried-up petals.”

The wind left…. I wept. I said to my soul, “What have you done with the garden entrusted to you?”

The poem ends with the stewardship question: What have we done with the garden entrusted to us? What have we done with the garden of our bodies and souls, of our family and friends, of our political and cultural heritage, of nature and the globe, of everything? Stewardship is inclusive, demanding, and exhilarating.

In 1992 the National Conference of Catholic Bishops issued the pastoral letter Stewardship: A Disciple’s Response. Although the committee that wrote the document began its work with the problem of a shortage of financial support of the church and her mission, the final document went far beyond financial concerns. As articulated in the letter, stewardship is a way of life beginning in conversion of heart. If we are truly followers of Jesus (disciples), then we express that relationship by being good stewards of our time, talent, and treasure. To turn this around: Can I claim to be a good Christian if I fail in justly and generously sharing all the gifts God has given to me? And implicit within the theology and practice of stewardship is the importance of doing justice in our times.

Yet, even given this broad perspective, there is a danger that stewardship might be limited to the church’s inner life: maintaining its own programs, buildings, ministries. Properly understood, the theology presented in the pastoral letter is highly inclusive and has a direct relationship to the issues of social justice. That relationship needs to be explicit. But what is stewardship? What is social justice all about? How are they connected? Is there a good “case study” that demonstrates that connection?

Creation held in trust

Stewardship is about four things: 1) receiving God’s gifts gratefully, 2) nurturing and tending those gifts responsibly, 3) sharing those gifts justly and charitably, and 4) returning those gifts to God in abundance. As good stewards we recognize that God is the source of every gift, of all holiness. Further, we are to exercise great discipline in developing the talents given us. What God has given is to be shared—because we are not owners but trustees. We measure the quantity of stewardship in terms of our just and charitable dispositions of all that has been given us. Finally, as death comes to us, we must render an account of all that has been entrusted to us: our time, be it short or long; our talents, be they many or few; our treasure, be it minimal or bountiful.

Second, stewardship is inclusive and demanding. It involves every dimension of our life. One of the best ways to formulate the stewardship question is in terms of an analogy: What have we done and what are we doing with the garden entrusted to us? Most accurately, with the gardens given us to tend?

Here are some possibilities: Our physical garden: How well do we manage our health by proper exercise and nutrition, by watching our weight, by taking or allowing time for leisure? Our psychological garden: Do we respect our emotional life and seek help in times of illness? Our social garden: Do we care sufficiently for those around us in our immediate families and friendships as well as exercise concern for these issues of our broader society? Our political garden: Are we knowledgeable citizens and do we assume appropriate responsibility for the common good? Our economic garden: How do we accumulate and disperse our financial resources with justice and charity? Our ecological garden: How well do we attend to the needs of our planet by proper use of our water, air, and soil? Our cultural garden: Do we support the arts and those who attempt to bring beauty into our lives? Our technological garden: How well do we use the great gift of technology—computers, mass media—in making the world a healthier and safer place? Our spiritual garden: What care do we give to our relationship with God in worship, personal prayer, and our unique call to ministry?

There is no area of life that is not part of stewardship. All is gift; all is grace. God is the origin of life, of freedom, of everything that we are and have. Because stewardship is so inclusive, it is extremely demanding. No surprise that many refuse to embrace their identity as stewards to avoid the awesome responsibility that such a designation holds. If I am an absolute owner—and not a steward—I need answer only to myself.

As a way of life, stewardship is also an expression of discipleship. In following Christ, every disciple is in a constant process of conversion, a turning away from the false self to the living and true God. Conversion involves a change of attitude and behavior. But there is something deeper here, a change of image and therefore a change in our very identity. The disciple appropriates the image of being a steward, a caretaker of God’s world in all of its aspects. Once the image is changed, this affects our attitudes and our lifestyle. Stewardship makes a difference. Stewardship shapes destinies.

How justice prevails

Justice has to do with promoting and protecting rights as well as acknowledging and living out our basic responsibilities. Individual justice deals primarily with the moral claims of individuals, whereas social justice is concerned about the rights and duties that exist within families, communities, and nations. The human person is a social being. It is within social structures that we receive our education, health care, and employment. When social justice is denied, the dignity of the human person is deeply injured.

Within the Catholic tradition we have a rich philosophy of social justice. In recent years the church has summarized the principles that describe the building blocks of social justice:

  • Every human person has an intrinsic dignity that must be honored.
  • As social beings we need one another and have a right to belong.
  • Everyone has a right to work, to employment.
  • Workers have rights and corresponding duties.
  • Those who are poor and vulnerable should be given preferential treatment.
  • We are all one family, and thus the principle of solidarity should undergird all our transactions.

The major issues in our society, often hotly debated, involve social justice: wars, abortion, assisted suicide, unemployment, housing, health care, education, family life, and prison reform, among others. In every one of these issues the question of rights and duties often arises in circumstances that are extremely complex. One need only review the decisions of the United States Supreme Court to realize that easy black-and-white resolutions are hard to come by. Doing justice is difficult work demanding intelligence, integrity, and much wisdom.

Every day all of us are involved in justice issues: raising our children, responsible voting, fulfilling our duties as employees (if an employer, making sure that employees’ rights are protected), driving safely, contributing to those in need, caring for the earth. Justice is not reserved to the courtroom. Whenever people interact—at home, at school, in the office—justice issues are involved.

Cultivate a new language

Stewardship is returning a proportion of our time, talent, and treasure to the Lord, from whom all things come. As stewards of our political and economic gardens, we must necessarily be concerned about issues of social justice. We are to have care and concern for the common good. This will be a challenge in an age of ingrained individualism. As Robert Bellah and his associates demonstrated back in 1984 in their Habits of the Heart, our primary language today is that of the “I.” Unfortunately our secondary language, still known but not used existentially, is that of the common good, duty, rights, justice. Language helps to shape reality just as reality tends to mold our language.

Stewards must be bilingual in a sense: speaking of the self as well as of the community. The development not only of a vocabulary but a way of life involves conversion, a turning away from selfishness to a life that includes others, developing a sense of solidarity. Dorothy Day (1897-1980), a woman who exercised through Catholic Worker stewardship in the land of justice, held that conversion is both a falling in love with God and a freedom that enables us to reach out to those who are in need.

Conversion, a radical change of heart, is a gift and a task. The gift dimension is the working of grace, God’s free bestowal of love and light into our souls. The task dimension is our effort to uproot values and prejudices that blind us to the needs of the poor. Our culture stresses the values of domination, competition, control. Too easily we buy into “the system” and thereby fail in our civic responsibilities. Unfortunately it sometimes takes personal or national tragedies to shock us awake to what really matters in life.

There are many individuals who have linked stewardship with social justice. Oscar Romero (1917-1980), the archbishop of San Salvador, challenged the unjust system of his land knowing that as a steward he had to care for his people in every dimension of their lives. He paid the price with his life. The layman Blessed Frederic Ozanam (1813-1853), who was gifted with a rich academic career and could have easily justified staying in that arena, gathered about him other individuals to form the St. Vincent de Paul Society to serve the poor in France. Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965) spent 53 years of his life in central Africa using his medical talent in serving 100,000 people. All stewards, all doing the work of justice.

Our corporate responsibility

Stewardship is to be exercised not only by individuals but also by corporate persons—by they the nation, the state, the local community, or various entities within these structures. As we talk about stewardship being linked with social justice, an organization comes to mind that does this linkage in an exemplary way: the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD). This organization was created by the U.S. bishops in 1970 for the following purposes: “to raise funds to assist self-help programs designed and run by the poor, to educate the more affluent about the root causes of poverty, and to change attitudes about the plight of the poor.”

CCHD has exercised remarkable stewardship in doing the work of justice. And, of course, the organization does this work in the name of the larger church that provides the financial support. A unique feature of the campaign—and a key to its success—is that it supports the changing of unjust social structures. It is one thing to help individuals by addressing their immediate needs (housing, medical care, employment); it is another to help change the system that keeps people homeless, helpless, and unemployed.

Another key dimension of the work of CCHD is to change attitudes. Often people have a stereotyping image of those who are poor and hurting. Until we truly understand the situation of an individual or group of people, we will lack the compassion to be of real assistance. Through a sustained program of education, CCHD has helped thousands of people change their attitudes by giving them facts and figures regarding those in our communities who are living in poverty. More than anything, the concept of the dignity of every human person has been the foundational idea to bring about a change of attitude and, hopefully, a change of behavior.

Precisely because of the unique and far-reaching task that it was given by the bishops of the United States, the CCHD has not been without its critics—some say its emphases on poverty groups and institutional change are too liberal, for example. In a report to the committee of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in February 1979, the acting chairman of the CCHD’s Ad Hoc Committee, Bishop Francis Mugavero, stated: “The debate over CCHD’s criteria and guidelines is really a debate over CCHD itself. Without the focus on poverty, the self-determination requirement, and the emphasis on institutional change, CCHD would be an entirely different entity. … CCHD in its current form enjoys broad support in the Catholic community, has an excellent record of stewardship and performance, and is a unique American witness against poverty and injustice. On the key issues of poverty orientation, self-determination, and institutional change, CCHD is fully consistent with the biblical values and is a concrete reflection of Catholic social teaching. If CCHD were to abandon these commitments, what would take its place? And what kind of witness would this give to the nation and the world today?”

The stewardship exercised by CCHD involves three extremely important themes. One is participation. The basic principle—“growth demands participation”—is a proven adage. Everyone has the right to participate in those matters that shape and mold their destinies. Yet so many individuals are cut off from participation because of structures or prejudices that block their involvement. CCHD works diligently in helping the poor participate in shaping their own lives.

A second theme is that of empowerment. Again so many people are powerless due to circumstances that are historical, political, and cultural. CCHD aims at giving people an appropriate control of their lives, and with that control comes a sense of dignity and worth. In a world where too many people live in oppression and exploitation, an organization that empowers people is a sign of gospel presence.

Education is a third theme in the work of CCHD. The church’s teaching mission is crucial in helping to create what Pope John Paul II calls a “civilization of love.” Truth is foundational to a healthy society. Illusions lead to disease. We must constantly be given the truth: the truth of God’s redeeming love, the truth of the dignity of every person, the truth that our freedom creates serious responsibility, the truth that justice is necessary for peace.

There are many other corporate structures that also witness to the ministry of stewardship and the work of social justice. Catholic Relief Services, Catholic Charities USA, the Red Cross, and the Salvation Army are but a few that come to mind. These organizations receive, nurture, and share God’s gifts in the cause of promoting and protecting the rights of people.

In a confirmation letter to me from a high-school junior, the candidate wrote: “God is the reason I’m alive today. I am deeply indebted to God for all that has been given me. By using my gifts I am saying to God that ‘I love you’ and ‘I want to honor you by being the best person I can be.’ I want everyone to know who God is.”

That’s evangelization—helping people to know who God is. That is the essential mission of the church. One of the best ways of helping people to know God is by living as good stewards and doing the work of social justice. For when the sick are tended, the poor are helped, the alien is welcomed, the hungry are fed, the homeless are given shelter—then people will again come to know who God is and that God is truly present among the people.

Image: Flickr photo cc by D. Sharon Pruitt

Read more articles from past issues here: From the U.S. Catholic archives