Some preliminary observations from your Justpeace Webservant
++ the executive summary being ++
Those who shut their ears to the cry of the poor will themselves also call and not be heard.
Behold a Clue!
On that day the deaf shall hear the words of a book; and out of gloom and darkness, the eyes of the blind shall see. The lowly will ever find joy in the Lord, and the poor rejoice in the Holy One of Israel. For the tyrant will be no more and the arrogant will have gone; all who are alert to do evil will be cut off, those whose mere word condemns a man, who ensnare his defender at the gate, and leave the just with an empty claim. Isaiah 29:18-21.
Woe to those who enact unjust statutes and who write oppressive decrees, depriving the needy of judgment and robbing my people's poor of their rights, making widows their plunder, and orphans their prey! What will you do on the day of punishment, when ruin comes from afar? To whom will you flee for help? Where will you leave your wealth, lest it sink beneath the captive or fall beneath the slain? Isaiah 10:1-3
Not to mention. . .
Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil, who change darkness into light, and light into darkness, who change bitter into sweet, and sweet into bitter! Woe to those who are wise in their own sight, and prudent in their own esteem! To those who acquit the guilty for bribes, and deprive the just man of his rights! Isaiah 5:20-23
As it says in Obadiah 15. . .
For near is the day of the Lord for all the nations! As you have done, so shall it be done to you, your deed shall come back upon your own head.The Bishop's Question:
The Bishops are asking this question: why are people so indifferent to the justice and peace
teachings of the Church. There are many possible answers to this question, but besides the usual
suspects of apathy and indifference and greed and lust for power and neglect
of evangelism and catechesis, there's the tendency to package partisan politics as church
teaching and also some confusion between questions of church reform/discipline and social
justice. Because of problems with evangelism and catechesis, there is a dearth of practical
models in many places that can be pointed to for example and instruction.
Idealism and Practicality
The Church's justice teaching often seems idealistic, people have a hard time seeing it as a
practical way of life. A Catholic governor can proclaim his dissent with a flippant, "The pope is
an old man." Some connections are missed between what they hear in church and how they live
in the world. And all too often, they don't hear it preached. There are notable exceptions, but
how often is the just word preached from pulpits? Behind those pulpits there are seminaries, and
one has to wonder a bit about the formation priests are receiving in the justice and peace
teachings of the Church.
How Soon We Forget. . .
Thus, we've forgotten or abandoned much of the wisdom of the work of justice and peace by previous generations.
Credit unions, co-operatives, worker-owned enterprises, solidarity -- here in the United States, as Catholics have prospered (as a demographic group) our interest and support for such activities has declined.
Sure, the situations and contexts are different today than they were (say) in 1929, but the problems remain, in particular, the exaltation of capital over labor. Likewise, the fundamental solutions remain, such as solidarity and conversion of ways and manners of living.
This direct action by an empowered laity today almost seems quaint in this alienated, decadent,
and deconstructed post-modernistic world. Yet, it provided catechesis about the link between the
teachings of the Church and the day-to-day lives of families that seems lacking in whatever it is
we are doing today.
The Many Needs of These Times
As to whether such efforts are needed today, the upper classes may be doing fine, but the working and poor classes aren't, and the middle class is itself being squeezed. There are many New Poor today, people who are experiencing the globalized marketplace in a very personal way. This is true not only in the United States, but everywhere on earth, and the poorer the nation, the more extensive the process.
Unions -- especially of low income workers -- and co-operatives and credit unions are ways to empower solidarity and participation and opportunity for everybody, not just those who already have and simply want more. Given the modern context, the old Wobbly "One Big Union" idea perhaps should be revisited, to effectively represent the interests of minimum wage workers and others making (for example) less than 200% of minimum wage. Certainly, corporations and governments can't be accused of too much concern for this group of people.
This isn't to say that some of this kind of organizing activity isn't happening, but not everywhere,
and not in some places where it is desperately needed. The average donation to Operation Rice
Bowl is about a quarter per Catholic. The Catholic Campaign for Human Development doesn't
do much better. We do some Habitat for Humanity, building one or two homes while turning a
blind eye to the destruction of thousands, even millions, of low-income dwellings. There's a bit
of farmworker organization effort loosely backed by Catholics -- but some are quick to condemn
such efforts as "communistic" while others embrace the union as a manifestation of Gospel
Abandoning the Issues of the Poor?
Instead of empowering the laity in the work of redemption in the world, eyes and hearts have
turned inward and focused on structure and process within the Church itself. There is no doubt
that the Church must always find within itself the ability to be ever new, yet ever faithful, and
must itself be just in its actions, but much of the modern conversation on church reform and
social justice are two different sets of issues. To replace justice with church reform
conversations and say, "this is the justice teaching of the Church," is to abandon the issues of the
poor in favor of the issues of the middle and upper and intellectual classes. All too often, we
start talking about justice, but we end up with a segue to something else that is more elitist, less
populist, and partisan in its orientation. Could the sense of the faithful be sending a message
about what is going on with justice and peace praxis? Is the lack of knowledge and interest in
justice teachings by so many Catholics a loud message that is not being understood?
Formation of our Consciences
Most people form their social and political consciences according to their political affiliations.
We then look within the justice teaching to find things that agree with our politics, and then
ignore or explain away those aspects with which we disagree. Such cafeteria Catholicism
enables irrelevance, because the authentic teaching is thereby held hostage to secular political
movements, most of which have dubious motives and even worse habits; they seem highly
suspect as a proper guide to the will of God in these matters. We have itching ears, and embrace
a wide variety of the most outrageous beliefs about social justice and poor people, the Church's
teachings to the contrary notwithstanding. Never let it be said that a little papal encyclical or
Bible verse ever got in the way of us doing pretty much whatever we wanted socially and
economically, on the left or the right, or in the middle.
Orthodoxy and Orthopraxis
The social justice teaching of the Catholic Church is about feeding the hungry and clothing the naked and sheltering the homeless. Then we ask, why are these people hungry? Why are these people naked? Why don't these people have homes to live in? What structures of sin encourage this situation? What hinders their participation? It rejects easy and facile and worldly answers (such as "they are lazy"). Having followed the command of Pope John XXIII to look and listen, justice calls us to take action, so that tomorrow there will be fewer hungry people than there were today. The work of justice and peace is orthopraxis, that is, the right practice, the way of life that flows from our beliefs as Catholic Christians. If we are being converted in Christ Jesus, this must have obvious effects on the way we behave with our fellow human beings in community.
With prudence and fortitude, in and yet not of the world, centered on Christ, the Eucharist, and the preferential option for the poor, the practice of social justice goes directly to the root of modern situations, circumstances, and challenges that enable, perpetuate, and transmit poverty and its associated structures of sin that Pope John Paul II has so strongly warned us about..
That's the social justice teaching of the Church.
Cafeteria Catholics of the Left, the Right, and the Middle
Not everybody agrees. It's beyond me how people can think that supporting abortion can have any relationship to justice, because abortion is the essence of injustice; it is violence directed against the helpless and weak. The question of abortion is not about how a woman controls "her own body"; it is about how she uses her body to control another human being. It is also about male violence towards women, and structures of sin that enable and even encourage fathers to evade their parental responsibilities and abandon the mothers of their children. It partakes of the dehumanization of women. It relates to unjust economic structures that make abortion seem to be to the economic advantage of both the mother and the society. (For a non-theistic discussion about the justice of abortion, see the website of Libertarians for Life.) There are many things involved with this issue, and all of them are very hard to contemplate, yet we must do so, for the sake of the children. We are all connected, and the loss of each child is a tragedy for all.
We humans have always had this ugly tendency to draw circles around certain groups of people and say, "These creatures are not human; kill and torture them if you want." That's what the European settlers of North America said about the Indians, Hitler said about the Jews, Southerners said about the Africans, and it is what the United States of America says about unborn children, the people of Iraq and Serbia and the Sudan and many other places. Some people are saying it about sick people who don't have insurance or assets to pay their hospital bills. One prominent "ethicist" who holds an endowed chair at an Ivy League university says that killing children with severe handicaps is morally permissible. Disabled children within the womb? What do we do there? Are we more civilized than Nazi Germany because we do it while the child is within the womb, rather than later on after they have been born?
On the other side of the spectrum, there are plenty of Catholic apologists for the worst excesses
of the globalized marketplace and the violent and aggressive posture the United States has taken
in the world. We kill thousands of Iraqi civilians every month, and some voices are silent or are
raised in defense of these murders. The Pope can speak eloquently of the requirements of the
common good, and hardly are the words out of his mouth than a chorus rises to explain "what he
really meant." And if his words are too hard to explain away, if he has spoken too plainly, he is
dismissed as a foreigner, an old man who is out of touch with the realities of modern life. (One
recent example of this was some of the commentary in US Catholic media providing appropriate
"spin control" to the Pope's remarks on his visit in 1998 to Cuba.)
Worldly Challenges to the Gospel
Many find it hard to understand something like the Church, old and yet new, full of freedom and liberty yet characterized by obedience, traditional yet ever-renewing, an institution empowered by a God that dares to Just Say No to the High and Mighty World Empire, These United States of America. "Who does this God think he is?" we ask, "Doesn't he know that we are the United States of America and we do whatever we want, whenever we want, to whomever we want (usually while making big bucks on the deal)?"
Because we are rich, proud, and arrogant, we Americans generally think the world operates for our national and personal convenience and instant gratification. What we want is what's important, what the Church tells us, well, if we like it, we go along with it. But if we don't, it's OK to dump the Church's teaching in favor of whatever. If you want to talk about "Americanism" in the US Church, this is the place to look for it.
I asked an African American woman what she thought about ordination of women, and she said, "That's a white woman's issue. We've got more important things to worry about." (I have heard this from others.) The poor should be the ones to lead the way, if indeed such church reform initiatives come from God. The call I hear is for the Church to learn justice -- to practice what it preaches, to defend the poor against the depredations of the rich, to evangelize and catechize the community concerning its responsibilities for the common good, to call those with power and responsibility to accountability for their actions. I don't hear much from the poor about the Democratic or the Republican parties, yet all too often when I tune into the Catholic social justice "system," that's the message.
A prominent Catholic scholar is invited to speak at a Catholic university's business school. His philosophy justifies the rich in their despoiling of the poor, and he curses the poor as "envious" of the rich. Other Catholic universities invite speakers who support abortion. The widespread defense of President Clinton by Catholic personalities and publications is scandalous -- as is the apologia for the American war machine and the deafening silence on justice issues from others (some of whom are bishops, priests, religious, or prominent laity). While the world around us catches fire and burns, we merrily fiddle away, ignoring the growing crises among the poor, closing our eyes to the sights that disturb us, shutting our ears to the cries for justice, silencing our voices which should respond with strength and conviction. We think we have more important things to think and talk about.
Let us be careful in our discernment regarding the "signs of the times" and the teachings of the Church regarding justice and peace. A regular examination of conscience is always in order. We must not abandon the issues of the poor in favor of a partisan and politicized cause du jour while people remain hungry and homeless and naked. The call of the Gospel is to a preferential option for the poor; the reality of modern life is a preferential -- sometimes exclusive -- option for the rich.
But the actions of others are not excuses for the rest of us. We have an obligation to form our consciences in accordance with the justice and peace teachings of the Church. This site is dedicated to such formation, with gratitude to Christ and His most blessed Mother. The fields are indeed white with the harvest. Where then are the workers?
Two Hearts + One Love,
The first version of this essay was published to cyberspace in December 1997, and is continually revised as seems necessary in light of my on-going discernment of the signs of these times.
Judge of the Earth,
Give the proud what they deserve.
How long, Lord, shall the wicked glory?
How long will they mouth haughty speeches,
Go on boasting, all these eVildoers?
They crush your people, Lord,
They torment your very own.
They kill the widow and alien;
The fatherless they murder.
They say, "The Lord does not see;
The God of Jacob takes no notice."
Understand, you stUpid people!
You fools, when will you be wise?
Does the one who shaped the ear not hear?
The one who formed the eye not see?
Does the one who guides nations not rebuke?
The one who teaches man not have knowledge?
The Lord does know human plans,
They are only puffs of air.