This past July, I was asked to participate in an event honoring Bishop Peter Rosazza at Boston College’s School of Theology and Ministry.  Bishop Peter’s ministries were marked by his commitment to Catholic young adults through the National Catholic Student Coalition and his participation in the drafting of Economic Justice for All.  The challenge I was given – to reflect on the relevance of Economic Justice for All for a new generation of Catholics seeking to live according to Catholic social teaching.  What does the EJFA say to my 26 yr old sister, an eight-grade science teacher at a Catholic grade school beginning her professional career and seeking to live her Catholic faith?

Part 1: Dealing with Our Emotions

Economic Justice for All gives all Catholics a mission connected with their secular vocations— we have the competency and power to fight for economic justice – to bring the Gospel into economic affairs and work for the Kingdom of God – our gift and our task.

Our faith is not just a weekend obligation, a mystery to be celebrated around the altar on Sunday. It is a pervasive reality to be practiced every day in homes, offices, factories, schools, and businesses across our land. We cannot separate what we believe from how we act in the marketplace and the broader community, for this is where we make our primary contribution to the pursuit of economic justice.”  (Economic Justice For All, 25)

And yet, when we begin to parse out what it means to live according to Catholic social teaching, our feelings of empowerment are often short lived and replaced by feelings of anxiety, frustration, being overwhelmed and finally guilt.

We are a culture increasingly of anxiety.  Anxiety among young adults is evident in the pressure to succeed, the fear of failure, the uncertainty of the current economic crisis, war, terrorism,  and natural disasters.  It is this culture of anxiety which manifests and feeds the insatiable consumerism of American society. And, it is this anxiety which is present in our appropriation of the challenges of Catholic social teaching and which can ultimately lead to an overwhelming sense of powerlessness.

As  students, we learn about global poverty in the slums of Kibera, racial and economic injustice in New Orleans, the conditions of Appalachia, the mistreatment of workers, and each of us could add to this list.  Initially, we spring into action, and this is the beautiful impetus that makes service learning and service trips successful.  These concrete experiences begin in us a process of conscience-raising and we spring into action.   However, the euphoria of action gets tempered by the realization that the world is plagued by deep structural injustices, sins and violence.  Overwhelmed by the magnitude of the problems, each of us is faced with the stark question – with so much injustice – can I make a difference? Anxious, overwhelmed and no longer confident of our own competency, we struggle with feelings of powerlessness. When the structures and reach of economic power seem like a Hydra; it is easy to imagine that one would need to be Hercules to successfully work for economic justice.

The reality of being anxious and overwhelmed is combated through the deep commitment to try and a strong sense of community. Focused on action, a quick and easy list emerges: buy fair trade, buy local, buy organic and environment friendly products, and  favor stores that prioritize human rights, safeguarding the environment and treat their workers at home and abroad with just wages.

It is at this point that we quickly meet frustration.  Many of us, including myself – cannot afford to only buy fair trade, organic, environmentally friendly, or local products. While, no one enters theology for the money, it is a salary which firmly places me within the middle class of America (and by profession, among the privileged). Trying to carry my commitment for economic justice into the marketplace, two disappointing realities hit me on my weekly trips to the supermarket.  First, for the majority of items, I could not identify where they came from, what conditions in which they were produced or the ethical status of all the subsidiaries involved in production.   Second, I watched my grocery bill SKYROCKET. The unavoidable reality is that we always have incomplete information and financial limitations when buying our most common goods.

This reality and frustration are further complicated by the current financial situation and high unemployment rates, particularly for 18-30 year olds.  All of these feelings of anxiety, and frustration, are magnified in the face of growing economic uncertainty for individuals and families. Catholic social teaching on economic justice places a high importance on ethical judgment in our basic role as consumer.  This should highlight the role of conscience and the agency of lay Catholics; however, when confronted by these complex realities and constraints, it is easy to understand why many young Catholics quickly transition from a sense of empowerment to overwhelming powerlessness.

How to overcome these emotions and retrieve that empowerment intended by Economic Justice for All?
Stay tuned for Part 2: From Anxiety and Frustration to the Empowerment of Catholic Social Teaching