It was a beautiful summer afternoon for a picnic with neighbors, but we were all troubled. The discussion was about the horrible police shootings of the past year, the sniper attack on police in Dallas, and complaining about the Roman Catholic Church saying nothing about it. A Unitarian – Universalist friend, whose church is trying to do something commented, “I was brought up Catholic with the social encyclicals – what has happened to the Church?” But there is a Roman Catholic response, quiet and isolated. The director of social ministry at St. John’s Cathedral in Milwaukee has made a call for discussions on race. Also a recent vigil at the Cathedral in remembrance of the LGBT people murdered in Orlando, Florida, showed a ray of hope for a community whose official doctrine on gays causes social confusion, tension and concern.
The comment about Catholic Social Teaching was poignant and surprising to me. Who, other than a few ‘professional Catholics’ knows about Catholic Social Teaching? Bill Droel in this blog has pointed out that this year is the 125th anniversary of the first modern social encyclical, Rerum Novarum. I haven’t seen mention anywhere else.
Rerum Novarum – On the Conditon of Labor (1891), was both condemned and praised for stating that workers had the right to organize. The capitalist industrial revolution had forged a society of death, illness and desperation for workers. Catholic leaders such as Bishop von Ketteler of Germany, Cardinal Manning of England, and Cardinal Gibbons of the U.S. saw the need for a Catholic defense of the poor.
Looking back, the encyclical could be faulted as chauvinistic and authoritarian, but it is the basis for a prescription to achieve peace and justice. Subsequent encyclicals have progressively fortified the hope for a just society. Fundamental to Rerum Novarum is the principle that each and every human person has transcendental value. The integrity of the person is confirmed with the recognition of everyone having the ability to make moral choices and to cooperate with others to make a better life. The poor are included as a special concern.
…it is in the power of a ruler to benefit every order of the State.
And amongst the rest to promote in the highest degree the interests of the poor; and this by virtue of his office, and without being exposed to any undue interference - for it is the province of the commonwealth to consult for the common good. #26
This is in stark contrast to the liberatism of the time based on the utilitarianism of J. S. Mill (1806-1873) "the greatest good for the greatest number" which leaves out the marginaized - those forced into poverty and those relegated as social outcasts. Liberal morality refers to David Hume (1711 - 1776) who thought that morality was simply the customs of a particular time in history which leaves us mired in repeating the same mistakes over and over.
The obvious conclusion after reading Rerum Novarum is – the death and destruction caused by poverty is morally wrong. Random, violent acts cannot be justified in the name of the economics, the “greatest good for the greatest number” nor in the name of law and order. So, what do we do about this?
The social encyclicals show a progression from Rerum Novarum, but Pope Francis’ analysis and rhetoric has brought a new dimension of awareness (concientización in the language of Liberation Theology). His language is personal and relevant - no matter if it is about climate change or income inequality. He is an advocate of justice, as previous popes, but he underlines another dimension of law and justice. Francis, in his declaration of a Jubilee Year of Mercy, defines mercy as; “…the fundamental law that dwells in the heart of every person who looks sincerely into the eyes of his brothers and sisters on the path of life.”
Recognizing humanity in each other is the path to a concrete understanding of what Leo XIII calls, “the common good.” Political activism to achieve the “common good” is more realistic and practical when it is sanctioned and explained in the language of Pope Francis.
Let us consider a quote from John Allen’s article on Pope Francis in a 2016 special edition of Time magazine.
America is the mother ship of free-market global capitalism that Francis, history’s firsts pontiff from the developing world, routinely excoriates as ‘savage’ for fostering an ‘economy that kills,’ denouncing it as responsible for a ‘throwaway culture’ in which whole categories of human beings are regarded as disposable.