For Lent: A Simple Introduction to Catholic Social Teaching
Catholic Social Teaching has its roots long ago in Pope Leo XIII’s 1897 encyclical Rerum Novarum, literally meaning “of new things.” Its context was the industrial revolution, and it strove to address the excesses of unfettered capitalism: unsafe factories, poor working conditions, poverty, slums, broken families, child labor, discrimination, greed, and corruption.
Its distinctive feature is its concern for the poorest members of our society, echoing both the Jewish law of the Old Testament and the teachings of Jesus the Christ in the New Testament: “What you have done to the least of my brothers and sisters you have done to me.”
Pope Francis and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops have reiterated the importance of Catholic Social Teaching by defining seven principles for modern America. Here at St. Philip Neri, the Peace & Justice Commission presents these principles roughly one each week during Lent, the time we step back and reflect on our lives and set goals for ourselves as we prepare for Easter.
The unwavering theme in each of these principles is clear: The human person is the clearest reflection of God’s presence in the world. The bishops want us to use these principles as we answer what we must consistently be asking ourselves: How can we protect and promote the dignity of every person as we look at and respond to the world around us?
Today we begin with the first principle.
Life and Dignity of the Human Person
Human dignity emerges not from what people accomplish or own, but because each of us is created in the image and likeness of God. Consequently, every person is worthy of respect simply by being a human being! People do not lose their right to be treated with respect because of their race, disability, poverty, age, country of origin, religion, or financial failure. Nor do people gain greater respect because of what they own or accomplish or inherit.
Because we reflect God’s presence in the world, human life is sacred. Direct attacks on innocent human beings are never morally acceptable. Within our society, life is under direct attack from genocide, use of the death penalty, famine, euthanasia, abortion, unjust war, and torture. These intrinsic evils must always be opposed.
Not only does this teaching compel us to oppose these attacks, it also demands that we work to overcome poverty, racism, refugee camps, and all conditions that demean human life. Every form of social or cultural discrimination on the grounds of sex, race, color, social conditions, language, or religion must be curbed and eradicated as incompatible with God’s design.
Finally, Catholic teaching commands that people are more important than things or government policies, and that the measure of every institution is whether it threatens or enhances the life and dignity of the human person. “Doing nothing” actually isn’t allowed.
We can help . . . by doing what Pope Francis says, “A good Catholic meddles in politics.” Check out Catholic Charities Oregon . . . or Nuns on the Bus for volunteer, letter-writing, and other opportunities to help.
(To learn more about St. Philip Neri’s Peace & Justice Commission and how you might get involved in its ministry, please contact Alan at firstname.lastname@example.org)
Illustration by Brother Mickey McGrath
USCCB/Catholic Social Teaching