US Catholic Faith in Real Life

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What would you pay for a good cup of coffee?

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If we all pitch in a little more, everyone would come out ahead.

By Kathy McGourty, a youth minister in Bloomingdale, Illinois who holds an M.A. in theology.

[Sounding Boards are one person's take on a many-sided subject and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of U.S. Catholic, its editors, or the Claretians.]

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At a Catholic school retreat for fifth graders, my co-workers and I led them in a team building game. Four groups, each with a hula hoop, had to get all of their classmates’ shoes into their own hoop. They could carry only two shoes at a time, and they could not prevent anyone from carrying shoes away from their hoop. Ten minutes into running, falling, and laughing, they began to notice that nobody was making any progress. Soon kids were shouting, “This will never work! No one is going to win this way!”

There was never any rule about the hula hoops being immobile, we announced. Hula hoops were soon moved to new spots, but the goal remained elusive. Eventually, two teams put their hula hoops together and worked as a combined team to gather shoes. Finally, all the teams stacked their hula hoops on top of each other and all the shoes were gathered into one pile. In the end they realized the importance of acting as one team, not in competition, and that no one wins until everyone wins.

Social responsibility follows the same understanding. It is a call to live in relationship with God, and by extension, with God’s people and creation. The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church says, “Humanity is coming to understand ever more clearly that it is linked by one sole destiny that requires joint acceptance of responsibility, a responsibility inspired by an integral and shared humanism.” God’s call is not only for our individual salvation but also for the world’s redemption. We all must do our part.

For example, the most traded commodity around the world is coffee. In the 1980s when a new method of growing coffee—in the sun rather than shade—produced a cheaper, but lower quality product, coffee prices around the globe plummeted. In order to yield any profit at all, coffee growers now must commit all of their land to growing coffee, meaning they can’t use any land to grow their own food. Imported food is expensive, though, so the poor get poorer.

Meanwhile, stockholders of the coffee companies, or any public company, continue to expect increased profits and share value. The companies, seeking to reduce costs, often move manufacturing plants for ever lower wages. People are laid off, left behind, and in the scramble to survive, purchase the cheapest products they can find, including coffee. 

We are running around and falling, but there is no laughing, and unlike in the hula hoop game, very few of us have realized that “no one is going to win this way,” even if it seems like coffee drinkers are getting ahead by having access to cheaper and cheaper coffee.

If “winning” is sustaining life and doing so comfortably, can we win when a select few are able to do so and most others are not? For Christians, winning is loving our neighbors as ourselves. If we see food, shelter, clothing, clean water, education, health care, and employment as fundamental goals for ourselves and our family, then it is more difficult to love others as ourselves when we support a system that denies these basic rights to our neighbors.

As Christians, we need to embrace social responsibility. Just as the fifth graders realized the importance of acting as one team, and that no one wins until everyone wins, so too must we recognize that we all experience the same call to actively love our neighbors.

The call to social responsibility speaks specifically to a country like the United States, where it is easy to be misled by our sense of “winning.” “Few are guilty, but all are responsible,” Abraham Heschel wrote, reminding us that we have a role in that never-ending hula hoop game and awakening us from the lull of complacency toward social justice. Our response to the call should take the form of three steps: educate, advocate, and participate.

The first step is to educate yourself and others through experience, contemporary reflection, and mission trips. Educate through immersion, not evasion. Start by learning, for example, about the plight of the coffee growers in developing nations, and then consider traveling to meet those who are suffering because of our desire for cheaper coffee. If you can’t meet them in person, visit websites like to read more about how consumer choices impact real people. 

This education step is a difficult one because it reveals our own role in unjust systems, but it cannot be the reason we allow injustice to continue. By listening to the coffee growers, I understand now that loving God and neighbor includes more than giving to charity—it includes buying fair trade coffee, where roasters and sellers provide respectable wages and purchase beans from growers at a fair price. As Pope Benedict wrote in Caritas in Veritate, “Purchasing becomes a moral—and not simply economic—issue.” 

The second step is to advocate through action. Purchase fair trade products as much as possible, for yourself and as gifts for others. Advocate by asking your grocer to stock fair trade products. Educate others and encourage them to do the same. Be counted in meetings, in community organizing, and in protests.

As an American descended from Italian immigrants, I am sometimes a complacent citizen. I can vote and speak out. However, undocumented immigrants cannot. So I attend rallies and write to representatives on their behalf, calling for reform of our broken immigration system and an end to the separation of families.

Advocating takes the form of accompaniment as well. At a protest against the School of Americas, a young woman spoke about the torture she experienced at age 4 because her parents were grassroots organizers in El Salvador. She was moved that more than 20,000 people were in attendance, listening to her story. “And if you tell my story to five more people,” she said, “that’s 100,000 people that have heard my story and might work for a change.” 

The third step is to participate by denouncing unjust structures and systems. The phrase “live simply so that others can simply live” is attributed to St. Elizabeth Seton. If we take this to heart, we must denounce the practices that cause the running-around-shoe-grabbing. We must realize the rules never said we can’t pool our resources and win together. Move those hula hoops!

When Fidelity’s investments included those that financially supported the regime responsible for genocide in Darfur, the group Save Darfur called for investors to close their Fidelity accounts, denouncing such connections. You can also denounce the goal of profit over people by moving your stocks to “socially balanced” investments portfolios.

Denouncing injustice doesn’t mean doing away with systems. Social responsibility, for instance, doesn’t oppose market capitalism but instead calls for accountability and responsibility in market actions.

Pope Benedict XVI denounced injustice in Caritas in Veritate: “The conviction that the economy must be autonomous, that it must be shielded from ‘influences’ of a moral character, has led [humanity] to abuse the economic process in a thoroughly destructive way.” The market system can be a good and useful instrument, and has meant for an increased standard of living for many people, but the pope adds that the market becomes a harmful when those at the helm are motivated by selfish ends.

We can have a free market without hoarding and amassing excesses beyond our needs, where excessive salaries do not come at the expense of a sufficient wage that sustains a family life for the average worker. Consumers can take into account the negative impacts of a lower priced, lower quality product (such as coffee) and see every purchase and investment as a moral—not just economic—decision.

Being socially responsible means asking how much of what we have do we really own in God’s eyes? Is it God’s intention that some humans acquire a hundredfold of what many others need? Living in union with God, we know the answer is no. If God’s intention is that all are fed and sustained by the earth, and our systems prevent that, then we have not been agents of God’s love. We have not loved our neighbors—be they coffee growers, factory workers, immigrants, or countless other low-paid service personnel—as ourselves.

We cannot live as individuals. How we live impacts others and for this reason it is important to be socially responsible, to respond to God’s trust in us. It’s not about guilt, it’s about responsibility. All that we do should be processed through the lens of “How will this affect others?” and “Is this the best way to respond to God’s love?” We must learn to pool our resources, work together, stack our hula hoops on top of one another. Because no one wins until everyone wins.

Flickr photo cc by jsbarrie