The following essay appears in the December 21 edition of the Catholic Star Herald.
Growing up, I might’ve asked my dad something like, “Are we having dinner at Grandma’s on Saturday or Sunday?” or “Is my basketball game at 1 or 3?”
If my question had an “or” in it, the answer was always the same:
He would just say “yes” and smile. Of course he knew the answer to my question, but he also knew “yes” was technically a correct response: we would be going to Grandma’s Saturday or Sunday! I would roll my eyes.
Of course, as a sign of parental influence, I now reply the same way whenever asked an “either-or” question. My wife Genevieve is most often the eye roller these days. It’s a smart-alecky habit entrenched in my DNA.
However, there is one either-or question I’ve heard a few times to which “Yes” is the only good response:
“Are you a pro-life Catholic or a peace-and-justice Catholic?”
These two labels have divided Catholics in our recent history. The stereotypes are pervasive. On one side, according to the popular wisdom, there are “pro-life Catholics” – those who are deeply committed to the anti-abortion movement. On the other side, according to the stereotype, there are “peace-and-justice Catholics,” who care first and foremost about issues like poverty, war, immigration and the environment.
“Pro-life Catholics” might think that “peace-and-justice Catholics” don’t care enough about abortion – the horrific, direct taking of a human life. “Peace-and-justice Catholics” might think that “pro-life Catholics” don’t care enough about injustices that harm people post-birth.
These are crude stereotypes, of course. But they continue to exist because there are grains of truth to them – these categories represent real and painful divisions within our church.
I’ve struggled with these divisions myself. In 2008, I started a graduate theology program at the University of Notre Dame. In our cohort of 17, I met Catholic peers who came from a wide variety of backgrounds, and before I really got to know them I had already grouped them into camps in my head. But as we shared our stories and faith journeys with one another, stereotypical divisions began to melt away. On a Thursday, we might pray for the unborn at Mass and Eucharistic adoration. The next day, we might spend the afternoon socializing with those who are materially poor at South Bend’s Catholic Worker house.
My classmates reminded me that we are not baptized “pro-life Catholics” or “peace-and-justice Catholics.” We are Catholics. If we are to take our faith seriously, then we must be pro-life and pro-justice. Both.
This is one reason why I already love my new job. Bishop Galante has appointed me to direct Life & Justice Ministries for the Diocese of Camden. The ampersand – & – is the most important part of the office’s title. It asserts that we are called to be “both-and” disciples, not “either-or” ones. Hopefully, we can move toward healing divisions among ourselves here in the Catholic Church of South Jersey.
Our commitment to matters of both life and justice is rooted in our belief that each person is created in the image and likeness of God, an idea we find right in the first chapter of the Bible: “God created man in his image; in the divine image he created him; male and female he created them.” Since each human is a beautiful, unique creation of God, each person possesses an inviolable dignity that can never be taken away.
Whenever and wherever that dignity is targeted by hate and sin – from the moment of a person’s conception all the way to natural death, and every minute in between – we must protect it. “Life, especially human life, belongs to God; whoever attacks human life attacks God’s very self,” Pope John Paul II wrote.
Unfortunately, living in a fallen world means that human dignity is constantly under threat. Click over to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ website to find an extensive list of issues people of faith are called to care about: stopping abortion, capital punishment and euthanasia; protecting the environment; providing debt relief for impoverished countries; preventing embryonic stem cell research and cloning; insuring health care is available for all; fighting homelessness and poverty; creating fair immigration policies and just labor standards; working to guarantee religious freedom; building a federal budget that creates a “circle of protection” around governmental programs that care for the poorest and most vulnerable in our society; persistently pursuing peace; and many more.
With all of the threats to human dignity around the world, there is so much to do. We must always be learning about attacks on dignity all over the planet, reflect on how we might be called to act, ask God for the necessary energy and hope, and then take concrete action together.
In the weeks and months ahead, I look forward to journeying with faith communities in South Jersey as we strive to build God’s Kingdom here on Earth. My goal is to be a resource and networker for life and justice efforts throughout the diocese. Please put me to work! Are you involved in something exciting worth sharing? Looking for ways to start a life and justice committee at your parish? Interested in learning more about a particular issue? Don’t hesitate to reach out.
May our God of Life and Justice bless you this Christmas season!