Important challenges in certain important areas of social life
Happy, excited. These name my reaction when the religious education coordinator of the parish gave me a copy of DOCAT: What to do? It is a Catechism for young people on the social doctrine of the Catholic Church. It is a teaching that Catholics, especially in southern Minnesota, hear too little about.
A choir of praise greeted the release of Pope Francis’ gift to young people during World Youth Day 2016. According to this opinion of the book. An accompanying app receives the same praise here. Proofreading the text allows me to add my own praise and some criticism as well, which I will save for a future article.
I will cite a flaw, in my opinion, right away simply because it struck me when I first opened the book. For an important instruction intended for a young public – and in a hurry -, it is very long. The book is quite small and very attractive, but quite small type in the central text and even smaller in the interesting sidebars make for a lot of words. I wonder which high school or college students are going to read this book. Hope they do.
On the strengths of DOCAT
There is a lot of interesting and stimulating content in this book. I had been worried that I would find a lot of sound clips and generalities that were safe, but, in fact, the book has a strong impact on some controversial topics. In the Catholic way, he tries to make everyone, whether right-wing or left-wing, uncomfortable.
The range of topics was a bit wider than I expected. This partly explains the excessive length. Two introductory chapters specify, among other things:
- Let everything revolve around the love of God;
- This salvation is for the body as for the spirit, for the history as for the sky, for the communities as for the individuals;
- That the Church has a social doctrine because human beings are not just individuals; they are also social beings;
- Let the Church not replace state and politics but encourage members to get involved in both in order to correct unjust structures in society.
Two things impressed me in these introductory chapters. They were very strong on social sin. Without using that term, this part signals what turns out to be the book’s continuing concern for unjust structures. These are societal channels that go unnoticed by those at ease in prosperous countries. Time and time again we read how economic structures we pay so little attention to work against the poor.
The following chapters cover topics related to:
- The person
- The principles of the social doctrine of the Church
- Economic life
- Political life
- The international community
- The environment
- Peace and violence
Each chapter includes a section of extensive citations from Church documents on social justice by Leo XII Rerum Novarum to Pope Francis Laudato Si. Docat ends with a chapter on personal and societal commitment. Boxes on each page feature relevant quotes from religious and secular figures.
Strong messages on the economy
On almost every subject, the authors find a link with the economy and poverty. They constantly push the potentially complacent reader out of any comfort zone of individual complacency. Even when the topic of the chapter is simply the person, it reminds us of the horrors Europeans endure on Native American peoples and the economic, social, political and, in general, structural causes of poverty today. (Boxes on pages 62 and 63)
The authors enumerate the four usual principles of Catholic social teaching: the dignity of the human person, the common good, subsidiarity and solidarity. In no time, however, they added a fifth – durability. It comes in the context of the private property discussion. Ownership is allowed, but the goods of the earth are for everyone, including future generations. Interestingly, this comes before the environmental discussion has even started.
The principles of subsidiarity and solidarity specify the places in which to seek solutions to problems. Subsidiarity encourages solutions at the smallest and most local levels. Solidarity extends to larger and larger groups, where there must be solutions to problems that local communities cannot handle. Faced with both, as if to keep the different interests at stake on track, the authors insist on a “preferential option for the poor”. (## 94-103)
The chapter on economic life, welfare and justice for all clearly states the ambivalence of the Church towards all economic systems, including capitalism. Markets have to serve everyone or they are not fair. (# 161) The market economy, although it has proven to be very effective, must be subordinated to the rule of law. Governments must provide clear rules and make arrangements for those who have neither jobs nor money. (# 160)
American-style challenges: work, family, peace
There is a lot in DOCAT that American readers would do well to listen to:
- Workers should participate in decisions about their work experience. (# 145) There is a “moral” right to work. (# 148) Wages should support a family, and employers, unions and government should work together to create flexible employment models to benefit families. (# 149)
- No one has the right to decide whether another human life is worth living. Both abortion and euthanasia are against the law of God and the moral law. The same sensitivity we owe to our threatened natural world should inspire protection for the most vulnerable among us. (## 71-79)
- Of course, the Church is in favor of peace. The authors of DOCAT are more precise. They question the logic of the manufacture and trade of arms:
Any excessive accumulation of arms and their universal trade are morally unjustifiable. (# 295)
- And they question the mechanism of fear that nations relied on to prevent World War III:
The Church expressly rejects the so-called “logic of deterrence”. The indiscriminate destruction of cities, countries and populations by biological, chemical or nuclear weapons of mass destruction is a serious crime against God and humanity. (# 296)
And on the question that practically consumes me: ecology
- The Church’s recent concern for the environment is evident in DOCAT. An example is this quote from Pope Benedict XVI:
[T]technologically advanced societies must be prepared to encourage more sober lifestyles, while reducing their energy consumption and improving its efficiency. At the same time, we must encourage the research and use of forms of energy with less impact on the environment and a global redistribution of energy resources, so that countries deprived of these resources can have access to them. (p. 248, “Message for the World Day of Peace” 2010)
- And these from Pope Francis:
We have not yet succeeded in adopting a circular production model capable of preserving resources for present and future generations, while limiting as much as possible the use of non-renewable resources, by moderating their consumption, by maximizing their efficient use, by reusing and recycling them. (p. 238, Laudato Si 22)
Daily experience and scientific research show that the worst effects of all environmental damage are suffered by the poorest. (p. 241, Laudato Si 48)
- The only kind of prosperity that Christians can advocate is that which “uses resources sparingly and thoughtfully– in other words, it does not continue to swallow up the limited resources of the earth…. “(# 268, emphasis in original)
The English edition (but I’m not assuming the German original) contains a strong message from the American bishops on climate change. (pp. 248-49) And the authors give Jimmy Carter a concluding and sobering word:
We have to face the prospect of changing our basic lifestyles. This change will either be effected on our own in a planned and rational manner, or will be forced upon us in chaos and suffering by the inexorable laws of nature. (p. 247, a speech from 1976)
Personal and social commitment
A final chapter deals with certain specificities of personal “love in action”. He talks about the involvement of Christians in Christian and secular movements to fight against social evils. There are movements, especially political parties, which agree with some but not all of the Church’s positions. Here, DOCAT’s position is somewhat confused, if not too strong. On political parties which, of course, do not agree 100 percent with the Church, active participation is approved, but
The prerequisite for responsible engagement is the fundamental recognition by the party of inviolable human dignity, human rights, personality and the defense of innocent human life at all stages of its development and in all conditions of dependence, marriage as the union of a man and a woman…. (# 319)
This appears to ban membership in the Democratic Party of the United States. But then,
Belonging to Jesus means no professional, financial, economic or political collaboration with criminal organizations … government systems of injustice or companies that destroy the environment, violate human dignity (wages below life, disgusting working conditions, work children), harass and persecute the Church, manufacture weapons of mass destruction or ruthlessly pursue profits regardless of the social consequences. (# 321)
I think probably a majority of Americans would find themselves on the wrong side of one or more of these boundaries. Some of these are areas where the Church sits closer to Democrats than Republicans.
We live in an imperfect world, where choices are seldom right and often not wrong either. One of DOCAT’s messages is that social justice is not easy. The document gives important indications. It also has some weaknesses, but that’s a topic for a future post.
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