Pope Francis’ much-anticipated apostolic exhortation on the family, Amoris Laetitia, does not disappoint. It is an incredible work that is full of good advice for both families and church leaders, delivered with theological richness and pastoral sensitivity. Do read the whole thing if you can.
A lot has already been written on many of the key elements of the document, but what struck me while reading it is how clearly Pope Francis connects family concerns with social concerns. He argues that families are only able to flourish if our societies are set up to support them.
This approach called to mind a great quote by St. John Paul II, who said, “As the family goes, so goes the nation, and so goes the whole world in which we live.” Part of Pope Francis’ emphasis in Amoris Laetitia could be summed up by flipping that idea around: As society goes, so goes the family. They are complementary ideas.
Here are ten quotes from the exhortation that connect particular social issues and our call to work for justice to family life. I’ve listed them by theme, and include each quote’s paragraph number in brackets.
1. Dignity of Work
Labour also makes possible the development of society and provides for the sustenance, stability and fruitfulness of one’s family: “May you see the prosperity of Jerusalem all the days of your life! May you see your children’s children!” (Ps 128:5-6)….This having been said, we can appreciate the suffering created by unemployment and the lack of steady work, as reflected in the Book of Ruth, Jesus’ own parable of the labourers forced to stand idly in the town square (Mt 20:1-16), and his personal experience of meeting people suffering from poverty and hunger. Sadly, these realities are present in many countries today, where the lack of employment opportunities takes its toll on the serenity of family life. [24-25]
2. Care for Creation
Nor can we overlook the social degeneration brought about by sin, as, for example, when human beings tyrannize nature, selfishly and even brutally ravaging it. This leads to the desertification of the earth (cf. Gen 3:17-19) and those social and economic imbalances denounced by the prophets, beginning with Elijah (cf. 1 Kg 21) and culminating in Jesus’ own words against injustice (cf. Lk 12:13; 16:1-31). 
3. Affordable Housing
The lack of dignified or affordable housing often leads to the postponement of formal relationships. It should be kept in mind that “the family has the right to decent housing, fitting for family life and commensurate to the number of the members, in a physical environment that provides the basic services for the life of the family and the community”. Families and homes go together. This makes us see how important it is to insist on the rights of the family and not only those of individuals… At times families suffer terribly when, faced with the illness of a loved one, they lack access to adequate health care, or struggle to find dignified employment. 
4. Forced Migration
Furthermore, forced migration of families, resulting from situations of war, persecution, poverty and injustice, and marked by the vicissitudes of a journey that often puts lives at risk, traumatizes people and destabilizes families. 
The problems faced by poor households are often all the more trying. For example, if a single mother has to raise a child by herself and needs to leave the child alone at home while she goes to work, the child can grow up exposed to all kind of risks and obstacles to personal growth. In such difficult situations of need, the Church must be particularly concerned to offer understanding, comfort and acceptance, rather than imposing straightaway a set of rules that only lead people to feel judged and abandoned by the very Mother called to show them God’s mercy. 
6. Women’s Rights
In this brief overview, I would like to stress the fact that, even though significant advances have been made in the recognition of women’s rights and their participation in public life, in some countries much remains to be done to promote these rights…The verbal, physical, and sexual violence that women endure in some marriages contradicts the very nature of the conjugal union. I think of the reprehensible genital mutilation of women practiced in some cultures, but also of their lack of equal access to dignified work and roles of decision-making. 
7. Protecting the Unborn
Here I feel it urgent to state that, if the family is the sanctuary of life, the place where life is conceived and cared for, it is a horrendous contradiction when it becomes a place where life is rejected and destroyed. So great is the value of a human life, and so inalienable the right to life of an innocent child growing in the mother’s womb, that no alleged right to one’s own body can justify a decision to terminate that life, which is an end in itself and which can never be considered the “property” of another human being. 
Families should not see themselves as a refuge from society, but instead go forth from their homes in a spirit of solidarity with others. In this way, they become a hub for integrating persons into society and a point of contact between the public and private spheres. Married couples should have a clear awareness of their social obligations. With this, their affection does not diminish but is flooded with new light. As the poet says:
“Your hands are my caress,
The harmony that fills my days.
I love you because your hands
Work for justice.
If I love you, it is because you are
My love, my companion and my all,
And on the street, side by side,
We are much more than just two”. 
9. The Family as a School of Mercy
“The family is thus an agent of pastoral activity through its explicit proclamation of the Gospel and its legacy of varied forms of witness, namely solidarity with the poor, openness to a diversity of people, the protection of creation, moral and material solidarity with other families, including those most in need, commitment to the promotion of the common good and the transformation of unjust social structures, beginning in the territory in which the family lives, through the practice of the corporal and spiritual works of mercy”. [310; quoting the Synod Fathers]
10. The Family as Transformer of the World
When a family is welcoming and reaches out to others, especially the poor and the neglected, it is “a symbol, witness and participant in the Church’s motherhood”. Social love, as a reflection of the Trinity, is what truly unifies the spiritual meaning of the family and its mission to others, for it makes present the kerygma in all its communal imperatives. The family lives its spirituality precisely by being at one and the same time a domestic church and a vital cell for transforming the world. 
A lot has already been written about Laudato Si’: On Care of Our Common Home, Pope Francis’ new encyclical on ecology. Most reactions have focused on the politics, the economics, or the science in it — all good, important perspectives. But the document is truly beautiful. There are passages that made me stop in my tracks and savor. As the writer Austen Ivereigh puts it:
Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement who spent most of her life with the poor, loved the Dostoevsky quote, “Beauty will save the world.” She saw immense suffering and injustice, and a devotion to the beautiful was her response. If you see and acknowledge beauty in something or someone, it becomes awfully difficult see haphazard destruction of creation and people and do nothing.
Pope Francis’ call for a renewed sense of wonder at the miracle of creation is a key ingredient the Church can offer to the ecological conversation, and to make that appeal with such rich language heightens the call’s potency.
Here are five of the encyclical’s most beautiful passages.
1) St. Francis of Assisi’s love of creation is a great example.
Just as happens when we fall in love with someone, whenever [St. Francis] would gaze at the sun, the moon or the smallest of animals, he burst into song, drawing all other creatures into his praise. He communed with all creation, even preaching to the flowers, inviting them “to praise the Lord, just as if they were endowed with reason.” (no. 11)
Fall in love with the Earth, this gift of pure abundance that God has freely given us. This disposition cannot be written off as “naive romanticism,” Pope Francis writes, “for it affects the choices which determine our behavior.” If we lose our wonder and awe, our attitude toward the Earth will be that of “masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on [our] immediate needs.”
2) We must listen for two cries.
Today, however, we have to realize that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor. (no. 50)
Humans are designed to feel compassion when they hear someone crying. The exterior expression of pain or sadness has an interior effect on the other. We don’t hear crying, though, if plug our ears and put our heads under a pillow. “When we fail to acknowledge as part of reality the worth of a poor person, a human embryo, a person with disabilities,” Pope Francis writes (no. 117), “it becomes difficult to hear the cry of nature itself; everything is connected.” As Jesus put it, whoever has ears ought to hear.
3) To grow your own care for the earth and for the poor, get in touch with your inner child.
The entire material universe speaks of God’s love, his boundless affection for us. Soil, water, mountains: everything is, as it were, a caress of God. The history of our friendship with God is always linked to particular places which take on an intensely personal meaning; we all remember places, and revisiting those memories does us much good. Anyone who has grown up in the hills or used to sit by the spring to drink, or played outdoors in the neighborhood square; going back to these places is a chance to recover something of their true selves. (no. 84)
Places form us. When we forget our intimate connection to place, we take it for granted, and the move to exploitation is not far off.
4) Take the long view.
Once we start to think about the kind of world we are leaving to future generations, we look at things differently; we realize that the world is a gift which we have freely received and must share with others…the world we have received also belongs to those who will follow us. (no. 159)
Taking the long view, what’s best for me right now might not line up with what’s best for all of us for centuries to come. If we see the planet as a gift — gift we have received and gift we will pass on — we can develop gratitude. And gratitude is the best tool for breaking down self-centeredness.
5) Simplify, simplify, simplify.
In reality, those who enjoy more and live better each moment are those who have given up dipping here and there, always on the look-out for what they do not have. They experience what it means to appreciate each person and each thing, learning familiarity with the simplest things and how to enjoy them. So they are able to shed unsatisfied needs, reducing their obsessiveness and weariness. Even living on little, they can live a lot, above all when they cultivate other pleasures and find satisfaction in fraternal encounters, in service, in developing their gifts, in music and art, in contact with nature, in prayer. Happiness means knowing how to limit some needs which only diminish us, and being open to the many different possibilities which life can offer. (no. 223)
Simplicity is not a superficial reduction of stuff, but what Pope Francis calls “an attitude of the heart” (no. 226), one which “is capable of being fully present to someone without thinking of what comes next, which accepts each moment as a gift from God to be lived to the full.” At the center of Laudato Si’ is this call to conversion: individual, communal, and global conversion, opening our hearts to the fire of God’s love for the world. Beauty is the first spark.
When I was invited to speak at a parish recently, I shared a story that my predecessor in Life & Justice Ministries, the late Larry DiPaul, loved to tell.
At the end of a family gathering years ago, Larry packed up some leftover lasagna in a Tupperware container to take home. Larry was a prolific coffee drinker, and he stopped at a 711 he often frequented on the drive back from his family’s house.
Outside the store, he saw a guy he called “711 Sam,” a homeless man who was almost always hanging out there. Larry had chatted with him in passing occasionally, and paused to talk on his way back to the car.
“How’s it going, Sam?” Larry asked.
“Not bad, Larry, not bad,” Sam replied. “But I’m pretty hungry tonight.”
A light bulb went off in Larry’s head.
“Hey, I’ve got some lasagna in my car. Would you like it?”
“Oh, sure, thank you, Brother Larry.”
Larry walked over to his car, grabbed the lasagna, and brought it back to Sam.
“Hold on just a second,” Sam said. He walked into the 711 and returned a moment later with two knives and two forks.
Larry didn’t understand. “Why do you have two, Sam?” he asked. “Do you have a friend around?”
Sam held out one set to Larry.
“A meal goes a much longer way when you have someone to share it with,” Sam said.
And so they sat together on the curb and ate the lasagna together.
The phrase “social justice” means a lot of different things, depending on the context. From a Catholic perspective, one of my favorite definitions of the term is right relationship. Social justice is all about building relationships between people that reflect God’s dream for us – relationships marked by mercy, compassion, and mutual kinship.
Sam taught Larry an incredible lesson about right relationship that night outside the 711. At first, Larry saw Sam as a recipient of Larry’s own generosity. It was a one-way relationship: the giver and the receiver. Then, Sam’s surprising gesture shook Larry up and fundamentally altered their relationship. Sam and Larry became companions – a word that literally means those who break bread together.
Of course, social justice also includes political work to change the social structures that permit evils like poverty, hunger, abortion, and so many more. But as a priest friend of mine likes to say, “You can’t work to end poverty if you don’t know any poor people.”
Right relationship is also at the core of what the Church has termed “the New Evangelization,” which is an ongoing process that calls Catholics to share the Good News with new vigor in a world where so many are searching for meaning. The New Evangelization is all about deepening our relationship with Christ as friend and savior and deepening the relationships we build with one another as Church. This shared emphasis on relationship makes social justice work and the New Evangelization natural partners.
The role of social justice ministry within the New Evangelization is the topic of two presentations Dr. Jonathan Reyes will lead here in the Diocese of Camden on Tuesday, December 9. He will explore how these two ministry priorities inform and encourage each other. A gifted teacher, Dr. Reyes is the executive director of the Department of Justice, Peace, and Human Development for the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. Join us for either free event to reflect on how we, as individuals and as faith communities, can more effectively proclaim Christ’s Gospel of justice and love.
If you go…
Social Justice and the New Evangelization
Dr. Jonathan Reyes, Ph.D.
Executive director of the Department of Justice, Peace, and Human Development for the US Conference of Catholic Bishops
Dr. Reyes will lead two sessions on Tuesday, December 9: 1:30 pm – 3:30 pm primarily for parish staffs and volunteers, and 7:30 pm – 9:00 pm for a general audience. Both sessions will be held at Church of the Holy Family’s Aquin Center (226 Hurffville Rd, Sewell, NJ 08080). Admission is free.
To register or for more information, please contact Norma Guzman at 856.583.6170 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sponsored by Diocese of Camden Life & Justice Ministries and the Office for Evangelization.
This is the first in a series of “Best Practices” posts that will cover various aspects of Life & Justice Ministries. Today, Renee Lavender, director of religious education at the Catholic Community of the Holy Spirit in Mullica Hill/Woodstown, NJ, shares some of her strategies for forming disciples in Catholic Social Teaching.
Renee focuses here on one of the parish’s “faith festivals,” which are intergenerational programs that include age-specific breakouts and whole-family activities. This past winter, the festival was entitled “Faith that is Witnessed: Catholic Social Teaching.” Read her reflection and then download the fabulous prayer service used to open the night, which is included at the end.
Ampersand: What are some different hands-on activities you included in the “Faith that is Witnessed” faith festival to introduce Catholic Social Teaching to different age groups?
Renee Lavender: We try and incorporate a different hands-on activity for each grade level once we break into groups or provide at least a different activity for Primary, Middle, and Junior High groups and finally an Intergenerational activity:
- The primary levels listened to a story concerning our elderly neighbors and ways that help them reconnect with memories. The children colored placemats on which space was made available for individuals to write a memory which made them feel “warm” inside especially during this past winter. These placement were later delivered to St. Mary’s Retirement Village in Cherry Hill.
- The Middle Level listened to a story that highlighted the work of volunteers at a soup kitchen. They then focused on the Corporal Works of Mercy along with designing posters entitled “The ABC’s of Stewardship Soup”. Students were invited beforehand to bring in cans of soup. These cans were collected and boxed by students and later sent to the Disciple’s Pantry.
- Our Junior High Level read an article: “From Manger to Mission -Through Baptism, We Are Sent; Through Eucharist We Are Nourished” by Jeanne Heiberg. They made mobiles that symbolize and recalled the mission of Jesus as well as their own mission as disciples of Jesus. They were initially told that something special would be done with mobiles; therefore to take extra effort in making. At the end of the session they exchanged with person across from them. The message was that our Mission as disciples is to share our talents and gifts with others.
- The Intergenerational activity included our parish family (preschoolers –grandparents) decorating and filling “Valentine Bags” for the clients of the Disciple’s Pantry. When individuals come to pick up food from the distribution center they also receive a Valentine Bag for each member of their family. We wanted to impress upon our Faith Festival families that Valentine’s Day, a day devoted to love, is more about action than a feeling.
Ampersand: Why do you think young people responded well to these activities?
Renee Lavender: All the groups mentioned they liked the opportunity to work not only in their own leveled groups but also to have the opportunity to share time with other members of our parish community.
They appreciated the fact that they were actively involved throughout the evening while working in groups rather than just sitting and listening.
The younger children loved the idea that their contribution was being sent to St. Mary’s.
The Middle-level students enjoyed the fact that their posters were on display and that they were actively involved with the boxing of their soup contribution.
Junior High mentioned that they liked being involved in the Opening prayer service. Also it was fun to be with their peers for part of the time in small groups.
The intergenerational piece seemed to be the most powerful experience for people. Everyone had the opportunity meet and share time together. Even the youngest of children were empowered to decorate, fill and box the Valentine Bags for the Disciples Pantry.
At the end of the evening all the participants were involved in cleanup of the facility and/or loading the van with boxes of Valentine Bags and soup. It truly was community building and faith sharing event.
Ampersand: What social service organizations have you connected with? Have those partnerships been positive?
Renee Lavender: We are involved in collecting food throughout the year for both Disciple’s Pantry (Salem County) and St. Vincent De Paul Ministry (Gloucester County). Our parish is also part of the Interfaith Hospitality Network which invites displaced families to live at out Parish Center for three separate weeks throughout the year. Accommodations include transportation to the Glassboro facility, along with lodging and meals. Parishioners are invited to prepare meals, serve meals, and take care of laundry needs, drive van or stay overnight as a host.
Our Junior High have taken part in preparing sandwiches for the “Sandwich Ministry” at the Cathedral in Camden. All the above collaborations have been quite positive and a definite blessing for the volunteers.
Ampersand: Any ideas for how families could include those who are poor and vulnerable in prayer or activity together?
Renee Lavender: Some families have initiated trips to the Ronald McDonald House along with volunteering at Cathedral Kitchen since their involvement with food collection and/or hosting our displaced families.
During Lent families were challenged each week to determine how much they would normally spend on one take- out meal (pizza, Chinese food) and place that money in the Rice Bowl. “Give More Take-Out Less” will be our motto next year since many families embraced this opportunity.
In regards to prayer we are going to focus more this year on gratitude and having families be more mindful of grace before meals and introduce the “Examen” as a prayer opportunity during one of our Faith Festivals.
Renee was kind enough to share the beautiful opening prayer service (and other prayer experiences) used during the Faith Festival. Feel free to print, adapt to your own needs, and use.
Faith that is Witnessed Intergenerational Prayer
On Sunday, the Catholic Church will canonize Popes John XXIII and John Paul II. It’s worth taking some time to read up on them and the canonization at the USCCB’s special site for the historic day, or dip into any of their great books.
In this space, I’d like to highlight three quotes from each saint-to-be that demonstrate their shared, deep commitment to the promotion of human dignity and social justice. They are truly two Life & Justice Saints.
First, Pope John XXIII.
1) “Individual human beings are the foundation, the cause and the end of every social institution.” Mater et Magistra, no. 219.
In Mater et Magistra, his 1961 encyclical on Christianity and social progress, Pope John XXIII boils all of Catholic social teaching down to this principle. When we evaluate any of our social institutions — governments, businesses, economies, schools, healthcare systems, and so on — we are called to examine how they affect individual persons. Profit or success for those few at the top are not enough.
2) “We must speak of man’s rights. Man has the right to live. He has the right to bodily integrity and to the means necessary for the proper development of life, particularly food, clothing, shelter, medical care, rest, and, finally, the necessary social services…” Pacem in Terris, no. 11
In his seminal 1963 encyclical Pacem in Terris, John XXIII articulates and explores basic human rights from a Catholic Christian perspective. In the most forceful way up to that point in papal history, John XXIII asserts that all human beings have inviolable rights, including the right to life and the right to live well, because they are created by God.
3) “The common good ‘must take account of all those social conditions which favor the full development of human personality.’…It is generally accepted today that the common good is best safeguarded when personal rights and duties are guaranteed.” Pacem in Terris, nos. 58, 60
If individual human rights are one side of the coin, the common good is the other side. The phrase “common good” appears 73 times between Mater et Magistra and Pacem in Terris. Not only do all humans have individual rights, but we all have responsibilities to make sure the rights of others are upheld. In a special way, civil authorities have an obligation to promote the common good through creating social structures that promote the well-being of all.
Now, on to Pope John Paul II.
1) “Solidarity… is not a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people, both near and far. On the contrary, it is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say, to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all.” Solicitudo Rei Socialis, no. 38.
What a compelling, strong stand against our tendency toward individualism. John Paul II makes it clear that Catholicism and any form of libertarianism are not compatible.
2) “The Gospel of God’s love for man, the Gospel of the dignity of the person and the Gospel of life are a single and indivisible Gospel.” Evangelium Vitae, no. 2.
If “common good” was Pope John XXIII’s favorite phrase, “human dignity” is Pope John Paul II’s favorite. In this encyclical, he shows how the Church’s care for all human life represents our striving to emulate God’s love for each and every person.
3) “Human life belongs only to God: for this reason whoever attacks human life, in some way attacks God himself.” Evangelium Vitae, no. 9.
In an era that has devalued certain forms of human life, Pope John Paul II reminds us that everything we have is a gift from God — most importantly life itself. As a world, how are we doing at cherishing that gift?
This week especially, we thank God for the gifts of Popes John XXIII and Pope John Paul II, and pray that we might have the courage and zeal to promote life & justice the way they did.
The Internet is buzzing today with the release of Pope Francis’ first apostolic exhortation, “Evangelii Gaudium” (“The Joy of the Gospel”). It is a wide-ranging letter that covers scores of elements of discipleship. You (and I) really should read the whole thing.
Fr. Jim Martin, SJ, who did read the whole thing, is pumped up:
You can read his insightful analysis on his Facebook page.
There are so many themes that demand our reflection and response, but here on this Life & Justice blog, I’d like to point out a few passages that show how, for Pope Francis, a concern for the poor and vulnerable is an essential element of spreading the Gospel. As disciples, our commitment to protecting life at all stages and working to change systemic injustices is not marginal or optional. He writes in paragraph 201 (emphasis mine here and throughout):
No one must say that they cannot be close to the poor because their own lifestyle demands more attention to other areas. This is an excuse commonly heard in academic, business or professional, and even ecclesial circles. While it is quite true that the essential vocation and mission of the lay faithful is to strive that earthly realities and all human activity may be transformed by the Gospel, none of us can think we are exempt from concern for the poor and for social justice: “Spiritual conversion, the intensity of the love of God and neighbour, zeal for justice and peace, the Gospel meaning of the poor and of poverty, are required of everyone”.
Starting in paragraph 52, Pope Francis lays out challenges to evangelization and discipleship today. The headings he uses are, “No to an economy of exclusion,” “No to the new idolatry of money,” “No to a financial system which rules rather than serves,” and “No to the inequality which spawns violence.”
Pope Francis writes on the violence of income inequality, and rejects libertarian economics:
While the earnings of a minority are growing exponentially, so too is the gap separating the majority from the prosperity enjoyed by those happy few. This imbalance is the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation. Consequently, they reject the right of states, charged with vigilance for the common good, to exercise any form of control. A new tyranny is thus born, invisible and often virtual, which unilaterally and relentlessly imposes its own laws and rules.
Here, Pope Francis is not writing about individual or communal acts of charity, as important as they are. Instead, he is emphasizing the Catholic teaching that governments are responsible for helping to correct social structures that perpetuate injustice:
The need to resolve the structural causes of poverty cannot be delayed, not only for the pragmatic reason of its urgency for the good order of society, but because society needs to be cured of a sickness which is weakening and frustrating it, and which can only lead to new crises. Welfare projects, which meet certain urgent needs, should be considered merely temporary responses. As long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation and by attacking the structural causes of inequality, no solution will be found for the world’s problems or, for that matter, to any problems. Inequality is the root of social ills.
Pope Francis criticizes “trickle-down theories” of economics that assume that the unregulated economy will bring about greater justice in the world. Instead of people serving as cogs in an economy that will naturally take care of everyone, Pope Francis writes we must regulate our economies to assure they promote the good of all.
Money must serve, not rule! The Pope loves everyone, rich and poor alike, but he is obliged in the name of Christ to remind all that the rich must help, respect and promote the poor. I exhort you [political leaders] to generous solidarity and a return of economics and finance to an ethical approach which favours human beings.
Pope Francis also targets social libertarianism. The “me-first” individualism that enables laissez-faire economics also leads to a marginalization of the unborn. He writes in paragraph 213:
Among the vulnerable for whom the Church wishes to care with particular love and concern are unborn children, the most defenceless and innocent among us. Nowadays efforts are made to deny them their human dignity and to do with them whatever one pleases, taking their lives and passing laws preventing anyone from standing in the way of this.
Catholicism’s assertion that every single human being is the beautiful creation of God leads the Church to a consistent life ethic you just can’t find in any political party today. Pope Francis draws a clear connection between the protection of the poor and the protection of the unborn:
Frequently, as a way of ridiculing the Church’s effort to defend their lives, attempts are made to present her position as ideological, obscurantist and conservative. Yet this defence of unborn life is closely linked to the defence of each and every other human right. It involves the conviction that a human being is always sacred and inviolable, in any situation and at every stage of development. Human beings are ends in themselves and never a means of resolving other problems. Once this conviction disappears, so do solid and lasting foundations for the defence of human rights, which would always be subject to the passing whims of the powers that be.
Why, for Pope Francis, is working for a more just society such an important part of faith? Because for him, faith draws us out from “narrowness and self-absorption” (paragraph 8), into an encounter with Christ found in our sisters and brothers.
In paragraph 183, he writes:
An authentic faith – which is never comfortable or completely personal – always involves a deep desire to change the world, to transmit values, to leave this earth somehow better that we found it. We love this magnificent planet on which God has put us, and we love the human family which dwells here, with all its tragedies and struggles, its hopes and aspirations, its strengths and weaknesses.
In our own journeys of discipleship, may our love for this magnificent planet and our human family grow ever stronger, and may God give us the grace to make the world closer to how He wants it to be.
Bishop Stephen E. Blaire of Stockton, California wrote this year’s Labor Day Statement for the USCCB. It includes some great reflections on a key Catholic social teaching principle: the dignity of work. Here are six notable quotes from the document, with a brief reflection after each.
Labor Day is an opportunity to take stock of the ways workers are honored and respected. Earlier this year, Pope Francis pointed out, “Work is fundamental to the dignity of a person. . . . It gives one the ability to maintain oneself, one’s family, to contribute to the growth of one’s own nation.” Unfortunately, millions of workers today are denied this honor and respect as a result of unemployment, underemployment, unjust wages, wage theft, abuse, and exploitation.
Lots of ideas in this one short paragraph. Pope Francis’ quote highlights how one’s work is deeply bound up with one’s dignity. Through work, we’re not merely building up the world, but co-creating with God. We are created in God’s image and likeness; God is at work; we share in that work.
Bishop Blaire also names a number of threats to the dignity of work. The two that grab me are underemployment and unjust wages. Sometimes, just having a job is not enough. Just wages allow a worker to make enough money to provide her or his family with the necessities required for human life.
The dignity of the individual and the demands of justice require, particularly today, that economic choices do not cause disparities in wealth to increase in an excessive and morally unacceptable manner…
Here, Bishop Blaire quotes a pope who writes so well on poverty and income inequality. It’s a quote by…Pope Benedict XVI, from Caritas in Veritate (no. 32). We see this disparity within our own communities, separated by neighborhoods or city boundaries. It takes just 15 minutes to travel from Camden, one of the poorest cities in the country, to Moorestown, NJ, which was named the best place to live in the country in 2005.
What kind of response is called for?
The current imbalances are not inevitable, but demand boldness in promoting a just economy that reduces inequality by creating jobs that pay a living wage and share with workers some profits of the company. It also requires ensuring a strong safety net for jobless workers and their families and those who are incapable of work.
Some basic guiding principles from Bishop Blaire for resetting our nation’s economic priorities: make sure the minimum wage is a living wage, allow workers to share in a company’s profits, create a “circle of protection” around government programs that support those who are unemployed and those who are unable to work.
As individuals and families, as the Church, as community organizations, as businesses, as government, we all have a responsibility to promote the dignity of work and to honor workers’ rights.
Whose job is this? Everyone’s. It is not just up to the government, or just up to churches, or up to businesses. The responsibility for building an economy that serves people belongs to all.
Since the end of the Civil War, unions have been an important part of our economy because they provide protections for workers and more importantly a way for workers to participate in company decisions that affect them. Catholic teaching has consistently affirmed the right of workers to choose to form a union…The Church, in accord with her principles on the life and dignity of the human person, wishes to collaborate with unions in securing the rights and dignity of workers.
The Church’s persistent defense of workers’ right to form unions is under-reported. Bishop Blaire reminds Catholics here that when unions are “focused on the important issues of living wages and appropriate benefits, raising the minimum wage, stopping wage theft, standing up for safe and healthy working conditions, and other issues that promote the common good,” they are on the Church’s side.
Whenever possible we should support businesses and enterprises that protect human life and dignity, pay just wages, and protect workers’ rights. We should support immigration policies that bring immigrant workers out of the shadows to a legal status and offer them a just and fair path to citizenship, so that their human rights are protected and the wages for all workers rise.
Here are some concrete things we can support by our choices as consumers and by contacting our legislators. Some ideas:
And remember to pray this Labor Day Weekend for economic justice throughout the world.