Let Catholic social teaching shape your new year
Our faith is too important to let slip.
We all know the routine once Christmas enters the rearview mirror. Maybe we packed on a few holiday party pounds. Maybe we spent too much on gifts under the tree. No matter the ailment, there’s a new year just around the corner. “This is the year I keep my resolutions!” we proclaim—always in good faith to start. “No, really . . . this is it! I’m going to get healthy! I’m going to save money!”
Then life hits. We go back to work or school. The resolve we had just a few weeks ago fades. U.S. News reports 80 percent of New Year’s resolutions fail by February. Why are these commitments so hard to keep? One reason is New Year’s resolutions tend to have an individual focus. I’m doing something to improve my life, so the consequences of my actions or inactions only impact me.
What if instead we took a more global approach to New Year’s resolutions? What if resolutions were about serving others and allowing ourselves to be transformed along the way? The seven principles of Catholic social teaching offer a rich place to start brainstorming some selfless resolutions.
Our faith is too important of a call to let slip.
Catholic Social Teaching 101
Catholic social teaching is rooted in the biblical belief that all people are created in the image of God—and should be able to live as such. There are rights and responsibilities that need to be upheld in order for everyone’s dignity to be respected. The teachings call forth the Lord’s demand for justice for the poor and vulnerable from the Old Testament. It also puts Christ’s criteria for the final judgment front and center: Feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, and visit the sick and imprisoned.
The term Catholic social teaching refers to the body of doctrine created by the church to help apply the teachings of Jesus Christ to the modern world. It serves as the moral compass for justice issues related to economic, social, and political life.
Catholic social teaching emerged in a formal way with the rise of modernity, when Christian values no longer dominated societal thought. Church leaders began to lay out church social teaching in published encyclicals and pastoral documents, beginning with Rerum Novarum (On Capital and Labor), written by Pope Leo XIII in 1891. The most recent Catholic social teaching document is Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’ (On Care for Our Common Home).
The social teachings of the church grow and develop over time, as do the ways people live them out. Here are descriptions of and ideas for acting out the principles of Catholic social teaching in 2018. What will you resolve to do this new year?
Life and dignity of the human person
God created humanity in God’s own image and likeness (Gen. 1:27). As God’s beloved creation, we—all people—have dignity that’s inherent to our human person. Nothing and no one can take our dignity away. The principle of human dignity is the foundation for all Catholic social teaching. It affirms the sacredness of every person, recognizing that within our different abilities and backgrounds we share a common humanity and a common brokenness.
Human dignity must be respected always. Catholic social teaching is clear: “Every type of discrimination, whether social or cultural, whether based on sex, race, color, social condition, language or religion, is to be overcome and eradicated as contrary to God’s intent” (Gaudium et Spes, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World).
Participate in Christian-Muslim dialogue Some local churches and mosques host interfaith dialogues, which are chances to come together and break barriers so often put up between people of different faiths. Actions like the executive travel ban have cast an unfair shadow over our Muslim brothers and sisters. Through dialogue, we come to know others for who they really are.
Go shopping with a refugee family Many refugees feel unsafe, fearing discrimination or getting picked up by an ICE agent. I knew a woman who went grocery shopping with her Somali neighbor every Saturday. Both got their errands done safely, and they became fast friends in the process.
Consume media with discerning eyes and ears Assumptions and generalizations are littered throughout online and print media today. Be alert to how news outlets portray people of different races or ethnicities. Are all sides of the story being told? How legitimate are the sources? It’s easy to get sucked into biased narratives that degrade human dignity.
Call to family, community, and participation
We all have abilities to make a difference. Catholic social teaching demands we use our gifts to better the common good—the good that comes when all in society can live fulfilled lives.
The authors of Gaudium et Spes note, “Citizens, for their part, should remember that they have the right and the duty . . . to contribute according to their ability to the true progress of their community.” Bernard Evans, author of Lazarus at the Table: Catholics and Social Justice (Liturgical Press), writes, “People have a right to be involved—directly or indirectly—in decision-making processes that affect their lives.” By participating in the community through work, parish involvement, political action, and family life, we take responsibility for our development as individuals and society.
Schedule a monthly family fun day Families are the first teachers of faith, emphasizes Pope Francis. Between work, school, sports practices, and more commitments, family time can get stretched thin. Carve out family time on the calendar. Visit a museum. Take a bike ride. Just be together.
Assist a teacher whose class includes students with disabilities More helping hands will make it possible for students with disabilities to be better integrated into the life of the community. If your parish does not have disability accommodations, address that with the parish council.
Knock on doors to help with voter registration When it comes to politics, Catholics do have an agenda to push: the gospel of Jesus Christ. Catholics have a moral responsibility to participate in public life. Ensure that your neighbors are prepared to use their voices on Election Day by helping with voter registration.
Rights and responsibilities
Society acknowledges human dignity by ensuring people have the rights to live dignified lives (Justitia in Mundo, Justice in the World). This includes rights to food, clothing, shelter, rest, medical care, and economic security in times of hardship (Pacem in Terris, Peace on Earth).
Catholics view such rights in the context of community. Individuals contribute to the common good when they can live out their callings to the fullest. It is hard to make the world a better place on an empty stomach or without a place to sleep. We are responsible for helping one another flourish.
Start a lunchtime conversation group at work to discuss social justice issues Do you believe black lives matter? Are you frustrated by pollution and other sins against the environment? Chances are others around you feel the same way. Start local and consider what your office can do to advocate for the common good.
Commit to regularly calling your local and state representatives Make your voice heard by the people with the power to enact better policies. Your senator knows which issues are most pressing to her constituents by the amount of communication made about the issue. The call can be brief. Create a simple script if you are nervous.
Protest peacefully outside your state capital A congressional staffer once told me the most effective way to be heard in politics is to show up. Bring a sign and speak your truth on an issue that is meaningful to you with others who feel the same way.
Option for the poor and vulnerable
Jesus proclaimed, “Blessed are the poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” Following his message, Catholic social teaching asserts whenever we are given a choice, we should choose the option that best serves those people in greatest need.
In his apostolic letter Octogesima Adveniens (The Eightieth Anniversary), Pope Paul VI looks beyond charity and urges society to address the larger systemic issues that perpetuate poverty so that people in poverty will not be in their situations forever. Further, the synod of bishops note in Justicia in Mundo that it is the church’s responsibility to promote justice and fight against injustices. They say the church must be a church of the poor. Pope Francis continues to preach this message today.
Give directly to the poor Walk down any busy street and your chances of being asked for help are high. Pope Francis says to give to people experiencing poverty without judgment. Keep cash and extra granola bars on hand for people who are hungry and in need. You could also carry wallet-sized handouts with information about local shelters.
Share a meal at your local Catholic Worker house People from all walks of life gather at Catholic Worker houses around the world every night to break bread together. They are nourished by the food—for some it may be their only meal of the day—and fellowship. Catholic Worker gladly accepts food donations, too.
Offer your skills to a homeless shelter Maybe you are good at fixing bikes, cooking for crowds, or offering legal advice. See how your particular talents could be put to use at a local shelter.
The dignity of work and the rights of workers
Concerns about working conditions prompted Pope Leo XIII to write Rerum Novarum in the late 19th century, the first formal social teaching document from the Catholic Church. A Catholic theology of work understands that people work to provide basic needs for themselves and their families.
Work is also a primary way to discover our God-given abilities. In his social encyclical celebrating the 100th anniversary of Rerum Novarum, Pope John Paul II writes that work is the human response to God’s gift. As such, the church calls employers to honor laborers with just wages and opportunities to take on new responsibilities. Further, Catholic social teaching favors labor unions to work communally for justice in the workplace and deems unemployment an evil (Laborem Exercens, On Human Work).
Buy fair trade items The “fair trade” label on food and other products signals that the producers, often in developing countries, were paid a just wage and are working in healthy, safe environments. The extra dollar or two you spend on fair trade coffee can help improve the lives of workers globally.
Mentor a college student or person new to your field There will always be a learning curve to any new job. Offer to support someone just starting out by meeting for coffee or being available for a phone call. Listen to their questions. Help problem solve. Share your own wisdom.
Volunteer as a job coach at a correctional facility More than half of people recently released from prison are unemployed for at least one year after their release, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research. Read resumes or host mock interviews to help soon-to-be-released people get a head start on the job hunt.
Jesus preaches solidarity in his Sermon on the Mount when the Son of God tells the disciples he is the hungry, the thirsty, the naked. Solidarity begins with an encounter. People practicing solidarity understand that all of humanity is part of one family “whatever our national, racial, ethnic, economic, and ideological differences may be” (USCCB).
The practice of solidarity demands that we tend to the needs of all individuals, especially the poor and vulnerable. As the saying goes, when one hurts, we all hurt. Pope John XXIII put solidarity in a more global context, too, reminding people that countries depend on each other to prosper (Pacem in Terris).
Befriend someone of a different background Solidarity can be practiced only through encounters with other people. I am able to practice empathy better because I (a white American woman) have friends who are black, Korean, and male. Each of us brings different experiences and baggage to the table. We learn from each other.
Practice moderation Many around the world live on very limited resources. See what it is like to live with less, too. Hold to a one-drink or no-dessert limit when you are out to eat. Fast from meat on Mondays. Then donate the money you would have spent to a shelter.
Worship with people of other faiths Again, we learn about others through sharing experiences. Ever wonder what a Jewish Shabbat service is like? Ask a rabbi if you could attend a service one Friday. Take note of any commonalities you sense with your tradition. Ask questions about the differences.
Care for God’s creation
The world and all its creatures are gifts from God the Creator. Mountains and hills, seas and rivers, beasts wild and tame, bless the Lord! rejoices the prophet Daniel (3:75–81). Catholic social teaching invites us to experience the world through a sacramental lens, finding God in the rustling winds, chirping birds, and the entire natural world. It also laments environmental degradation. The church calls us to be good stewards of the earth’s resources.
Pope Francis raised awareness of the environment in Laudato Si’, the most recent social encyclical. The pope lays out a vision of unity and promise when it comes to caring for our common home, praying, “May our struggles and concern for this planet never take away the joy of our hope.”
Set up a compost station in your house The Natural Resources Defense Council reports Americans throw away some $165 billion worth of food every year. This is an injustice to the 42 million Americans who face food insecurity, and it creates colossal waste for landfills. Designate a bucket or corner of your yard for kitchen waste. Eventually you can use the compost for gardening.
Garden A pastor once preached that care for creation can be judged by the dirt under our fingernails. Stay close to creation by kneeling in its soil. Show your admiration for the gifts of the earth by tending a garden and watching its produce blossom.
Road trip to a state or national park Stand in awe of the grandeur of God’s creation. Reverence the trees and trails with your hiking boots. Sometimes caring for creation means being simply and deeply present to the earth around you.
Make 2018 your year to commit to Catholic social teaching. Start with one or two concrete ways you can honor human dignity and better the common good. Encourage your neighbors to do the same. Together we will bring forth the kingdom of God one step at a time.
This article also appears in the January 2018 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 83, No. 1, pages 12–19).
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