This is a guest post by Dr. Maureen Day, Assistant Professor of Pastoral Theology at the Franciscan School of Theology in Oceanside, California. Dr. Day is a graduate of the Graduate Theological Union and teaches courses in moral theology and pastoral ministry at the Franciscan School of Theology. Her research focuses on American Catholic civic engagement.
Imagine this: A group of enthusiastic, college-educated young adults who are willing – no, thrilled – to spend the next year of their life living in a low-income neighborhood and working with an underserved population, all for room, board, health insurance and a stipend of 80 dollars per month through the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. After orientation, in which Jesuits and laypeople present pieces of Catholic Social Teaching (CST) and discuss the ways they live these out, we are all blown away. We, religious adults running to the unknown margins of society, had no idea that the Church had any stance on social justice. This prompted one of the insiders to tell us that the social justice tradition within the Church is “our best kept secret.” We were proud of our Church after learning about it, but as I reflect on this more deeply, we should have also felt robbed that we had never heard a homily mentioning social sin or the preferential option for the poor.
As I became more enmeshed in Catholic academic work, I realized it has become cliché to hear CST referred to as “our best kept secret.” This phrase should make politically-aware Catholics upset, frustrated, sad – if nothing else, concerned – but typically this phrase elicits a knowing chuckle and a shaking head. It is not wise to take Catholic ignorance or opposition to CST lightly. And, unfortunately, more than my anecdote indicates that the typical Catholic does not see much of a connection to faith and justice.
National data demonstrates that Catholics simply do not strongly agree with – or perhaps do not know – the Church’s teaching on social justice. William D’Antonio, Michele Dillon and Mary L. Gautier’s 2013 publication shows that more than half of American Catholics believe that our country needs a “stiffer enforcement of the death penalty” (62%) and “further cutbacks in welfare programs” (54%). Only 34 percent say that the Church’s involvement in justice issues is “very important” to them. Looking from attitudes to practices, financial giving is very low among Catholics, with Catholics who regularly attend Mass giving only 3.7 percent of their income to their parish or other organizations (Smith and Emerson 2008). Catholics are also fairly stingy in donating their time; according to the 2008 General Social Survey, only twelve percent of Catholics had participated in a community service or civic organization within the last twelve months. Granted, while this treasure and time data do not perfectly reflect social justice involvement, it at least illustrates the civic disengagement that characterizes contemporary American Catholics. Introducing CST to parishes becomes even more complicated when one considers that 80 percent of Catholics do not approve of politics being discussed in church (Putnam and Campbell 2010).
So, given this, how do we take the light out from under the bushel basket and move it onto a lamp stand? One possible way to bring social justice into the hearts and minds of Catholics is through their firm commitment to the poor. Despite indifference or opposition to social justice, the D’Antonio team found that a solid 68 percent of Catholics believe that helping the poor is “very important.” Clergy and lay ministers would do well to employ a strategy of graduality to CST. As Pope John Paul II discusses in Familiaris consortio, ministers can meet the faithful where they are, inviting them into a “continuous, permanent conversion” that is “brought about concretely in steps which lead us ever forward.” A pastoral example of this would be to offer Catholics immersions and service opportunities that bring them face to face with people who are socially or economically vulnerable. Through Catholics’ extant care for the poor and some guided ministerial reflection, the faithful may gently begin to embrace bits of CST, for the good of the Church, the world and themselves. CST is one secret we should not keep and I hope this post begins a conversation on effectively bringing this good news to our parishes and beyond.