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Chapter 6: Love, Justice, Mercy, and Social Responsibility

Question G: How Does Christian Love Shape Social Responsibility?

Christian love requires not only fulfilling all specific responsibilities toward others, but understanding and approaching the whole area of social responsibilities in a specifically Christian way. The true objective must be kept in view: not to establish the kingdom on earth, but to do what can be done within an integrated Christian life to promote the kingdom, which is not of this world. In so doing, one also will make the most authentic possible contribution to overcoming injustice or at least mitigating it, and building a better world.98

Influenced by the optimism of various forms of secular humanism, many Christians have projected a utopia comparable to those imagined by utopian nonbelievers. Since such thinking loses touch with reality, those who indulge in it are prone to turn the fulfillment of social responsibility into many large ideas and much empty talk.

What follows is intended to be realistic and practical. Although it may strike some as rather negative, minimal, and pessimistic, it is better—since only God can bring on the dawn of justice and peace throughout the world—to light one small candle from the light of Christ than to work for the world’s illumination by other lights, which never will overcome the darkness of sin or do away with the shadow of death.

1. One Is Not Called to Establish the Kingdom on Earth

Christians, and the laity in a special way, are called to work for the renewal of the whole temporal order (see AA 5, 7; 2.D.3.c, above). The Church’s social doctrine provides them with necessary guidance: norms for criticizing existing structures and guiding practical efforts to reform them. Misunderstanding both these norms and their mission, those with scope for action on behalf of social justice may suppose they not only should try to develop and carry out appropriate, although more or less limited, projects, but should even attempt to work out an overall plan for a better world, with a view to transforming the contemporary world into a good and just global community, a Christian counterpart of the secular humanists’ utopias.

This aim is illusory. Secular humanistic approaches to human misery are stimulated by a residue of Christian hope: secular humanism of every kind anticipates the establishment of an ideal human community in this world. In this anticipation, modern secular humanism is remarkably like the outlook of Jesus’ time: the expectation of an earthly kingdom was so strong that right up to Jesus’ ascension the apostles continued to ask him: “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1.6). Against this persistent and recurrent expectation of an earthly kingdom, faith teaches that earthly progress must not be confused with the growth of God’s kingdom (see GS 39). A perfect human community will come to be only with the parousia. Meanwhile some men and women will not be people of good will: weeds will grow with wheat until the harvest (see Mt 13.36–43).99

Therefore, the only complete better world, the only real universal communion (of all willing to share in it), the only true civilization of love is the kingdom—and it is not of this world.100 This is the authentic Christian counterpart of secular utopias. Faith therefore teaches Christians to seek “a better country, that is, a heavenly one” (Heb 11.16) and offers no alternative. Since the only realistic plan for a perfect world is God’s plan for bringing on the kingdom, any plan for such a world which Christians try to fabricate will result from confusing their limited role with that of divine providence. Moreover, since God’s plan is certain to succeed while any alternative is certain to fail, the Christian rejection of these alternatives is rooted not in pessimism but in hope. Jesus articulated God’s plan when, anticipating the joy of hope’s fulfillment, he proclaimed the Beatitudes, which both “prevent us from worshipping earthly goods” and “divert us from an unrealistic and ruinous search for a perfect world, ‘for the form of this world is passing away’ (1 Cor 7.31).”101

2. One Should Integrate Social Responsibility into One’s Vocation

The Church’s social teachings require that people participate in morally upright ways in action for social justice and forbid abandoning the public domain. Those teachings should be used to understand public issues, evaluate possible ways of dealing with them, and guide one’s actions in respect to them.

Although mercy requires that the demands of justice not only be fulfilled but exceeded, Christians sometimes organize their lives without considering their responsibilities in respect to social justice. Treating these responsibilities as an afterthought is a mistake, however, since they affect every area of one’s life, and also make their own specific demands.102

a) One should commit oneself to promoting social justice. Taking into account the contemporary situation—the misery of many people and the persistence of unjust structures—is important for many decisions, especially those by which people commit themselves to elements of their personal vocations (see 2.E.3.b). Every Christian has gifts suitable for promoting social justice; a few have the extraordinary gifts needed for social leadership, while others have the common gifts needed to contribute in various ways to the struggle against unjust structures and particular social evils. Of course, not everyone is called to be an activist; a contemplative nun can make a unique contribution. In fulfilling their personal vocations, however, Christians are not pursuing merely individualistic self-fulfillment, but are making their proper contribution to the kingdom. Each therefore is called to further social justice in accord with his or her personal vocation.103

By committing oneself to one’s vocation and carrying it out, then, one fulfills one’s social responsibilities to the whole world as well as possible (see GS 43). It follows that those who seek, accept, and faithfully fulfill their personal vocations should not feel guilty when faithfulness to their vocation precludes doing on behalf of social justice something which plainly needs doing. The remaining unmet needs of the Church and the world devolve upon others, and should be consigned by prayer to God’s mercy.

b) One should adopt a style of life suited to social responsibility. People living in comparative comfort in an affluent society are tempted to quiet their consciences by verbally espousing liberal causes, lending token support to ineffectual social movements, vehemently condemning powerful agents of putative injustice such as multinational corporations, and making other gestures, all the while ignoring the injunction: “Let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action” (1 Jn 3.18).104 Instead of following so conventional and hypocritical a path, a person should talk less and practice a more genuinely Christian style of life, which will enable him or her to do for others what really can be done, even though it may seem likely to make little difference to the massive injustices crushing the less fortunate.

This means setting aside individualism and adopting the attitude of solidarity with the poor and oppressed. One should be ambitious to serve others, not jealous of one’s personal freedom to do as one pleases. Consumption should be limited to what is truly necessary to maintain oneself and fulfill the responsibilities of one’s personal vocation. As John Paul II teaches: “We must find a simple way of living. For it is not right that the standard of living of the rich countries should seek to maintain itself by draining off a great part of the reserves of energy and raw materials that are meant to serve the whole of humanity.”105 People should restrain their impulses to seek sensory gratification, in order to gain the freedom and power to make the sacrifices and endure the sufferings inevitably involved in pursuing justice and doing works of mercy.

c) There are various ways of working for social justice. The Church enjoins the laity to participate in public affairs: “May all Christians be aware of their special and personal vocation in the political community” (GS 75; cf. AA 7, 14; GS 43).106 A person may well be able to work as a civil servant and in some situations even to seek and hold an elective office: “Catholics skilled in public affairs and adequately enlightened in faith and Christian doctrine should not refuse to administer public affairs, since by doing so in a worthy manner they can further the common good and at the same time prepare the way for the gospel” (AA 14). Also, available political means should be used to oppose officially sanctioned injustices, such as legalized abortion (see 11.D.6).

It also is possible for a person to contribute to social justice by accepting appropriate roles, available to a faithful Christian, in small-scale organizations. These roles include participation in religious confraternities of a traditional sort—for example, a St. Vincent de Paul society—and in civic communities, such as a local citizens’ association. They also include work in diverse sorts of voluntary associations formed precisely for social action, for example, the various groups that make up the prolife movement in the United States and various other nations. When such associations are sound, they have several marks: the full and active participation of their members, democratic processes, a focus on efforts to raise consciousness concerning the injustices they strive to overcome, and, in some cases, carrying on projects to change unjust policies and structures.

The opportunities to work for social justice offered by small-scale communities and voluntary associations should not be scorned as insignificant. Working in these ways, an individual can do some good, help some people, and overcome some injustices. Such work can be an effective apostolate and can provide material for the heavenly kingdom (see GS 38–39).

d) Only good means may be used to promote social justice. In taking on and fulfilling roles and responsibilities, a person sometimes may tolerate and even materially cooperate in injustices (see 7.F.4–5). But there are limits. For example, justice demands that those seeking office not purchase the support of special interest groups by promising them unfair advantages. Moreover, moral absolutes must never be set aside: since they mark out and safeguard certain important rights of every person, they cannot be violated without violating the dignity of persons.107

An individual may not make moral compromises to gain or hold a position of power or influence, even in order to use it to do good. Because such positions often cannot be obtained or held without unjust dealing or violations of moral absolutes, moral limits sometimes put such positions beyond the reach of a faithful Christian or require abandoning them—as St. Thomas More did.

3. One Should Act in Specifically Christian Ways to Promote Justice

Many people think of social justice as an objective which can be promoted in only one way, and suppose that way to be common to nonbelievers and Christians alike. But faithfulness to Jesus, who proclaimed the truth and bore consistent witness to it by his action, requires Christians to proceed as he did. If they do, their efforts to promote social justice will be a genuine apostolate and will markedly differ from nonbelievers’ efforts.

a) One should work for justice by going to the roots of injustice. Strategies aimed at intensifying enmity in order to destroy those who do injustice plainly are wicked, since greater hatred is worse in itself and is an added obstacle to repentance. While certain kinds of pressure can be used rightly to rectify unjust social, political, and economic structures, such activities should be subordinated to a general strategy of peacemaking, based on trust in the power of God’s grace to make truth and love effective.

The roots of injustice are personal sins, and the conversion of sinners builds up the kingdom as nothing else does. The magisterium teaches:

 The acute need for radical reforms of the structures which conceal poverty and which are themselves forms of violence, should not let us lose sight of the fact that the source of injustice is in the hearts of men. Therefore it is only by making an appeal to the moral potential of the person and to the constant need for interior conversion, that social change will be brought about which will truly be in the service of man [note omitted].108
Only an approach which strives to remedy the spiritual poverty of those who do injustice, as well as the material poverty of those who suffer it, is adequate to an authentic Christian preferential option for the poor, that is, a commitment most vigorously to serve those whose needs are greatest (see 2.C.2.d).109 So, in a Christian strategy for promoting justice and peace, the first and indispensable element, the foundation of every other effort, is to know what justice requires, to bear witness to it in ways appropriate to one’s personal vocation both by speech and by action (accepting as a consequence inevitable personal suffering for justice’ sake), and to pray for the conversion of those who violate the requirements of justice, beginning with oneself.110

b) The very sharing of Christian faith powerfully promotes justice. Christian faith provides an adequate rationale to repent and do justice, and the hope that follows on faith is adequate to motivate a life in accord with faith’s requirement of love. Thus, justice is promoted by sharing Christian faith with those who sin against justice, as well as by sharing faith and hope with those who are the victims of injustice. Faith in providence and awareness of human free choice liberate such people from the idea that their condition depends on mere luck or blind fate, and raises their consciousness of their own dignity. Hope provides them with motivation for building up the kingdom, which enables them to struggle perseveringly against injustice without hatred, selfishness, and the use of immoral means, and even to intercede, as Jesus did, for those who treat them unjustly.

c) Justice should be advocated even when it seems impractical. Politics is the art of the possible, and nonbelievers naturally limit the possible to what is humanly possible. In the making of public policy and in every other practical affair, they therefore limit the options under consideration to those which are feasible; and often all such options make seemingly necessary compromises with well-established conditions of injustice or else with powerful countermovements which are themselves unjust.

In bearing witness to the gospel, however, one should assume that whatever is right, even if it is humanly impossible, is possible to God and worth pursuing. So, prejudices about feasibility should be set aside while every problem and movement is examined creatively in the light of the gospel, so that a truly just option can be articulated and advocated. Doing so not only bears witness to the truth but makes a unique contribution to public debate, by setting out the radical standard of justice as a possibility to be considered seriously, not ignored as impractical.

d) One should not despair of the fruitfulness of one’s efforts. Quite often, one’s best efforts on behalf of justice and peace will appear to meet with little or no success. Even when something is accomplished, the good outcome is likely to be vulnerable and temporary.

Nevertheless, Christians ought to do their best to achieve the good they can. For whatever is achieved really will benefit those who suffer from injustice and its consequences. And, as John Paul II teaches:

 However imperfect and temporary are all the things that can and ought to be done through the combined efforts of everyone and through divine grace at a given moment of history, in order to make people’s lives “more human”, nothing will be lost or will have been in vain. This is the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, in an enlightening passage of the Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes: “After we have promoted on earth, in the Spirit of the Lord and in accord with his command, the goods of human dignity, familial communion, and freedom—that is to say, all the good fruits of our nature and effort—then we shall find them once more, but cleansed of all dirt, lit up, and transformed, when Christ gives back to the Father an eternal and universal Kingdom . . .. On this earth the Kingdom is present in mystery even now.” (GS 39)111

4. Each Christian Should Shape His or Her Life by Moral Truth

In what follows in this volume, relevant moral absolutes will be laid out clearly, not because Christian morality is merely or even mainly negative in its bearing on others, but because it is determinedly concerned to respect and protect the dignity of every person. There also will be many affirmative norms, more or less exigent. But all these together still will not tell anybody exactly how to fulfill his or her personal responsibilities. As Vatican II teaches, the Church’s teaching always provides necessary principles, but it does not always provide solutions to concrete problems (see GS 33, 43). So individuals must apply the affirmative norms to the possibilities in a situation, in order to arrive at an ultimate practical judgment of Christian prudence as to what is to be done. Hence, for this part of the book to be fruitful, it will be necessary to make use of chapter five.

98. A relevant and helpful work: Donal Dorr, Spirituality and Justice (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1984).

99. John Paul II, Centesimus annus, 25, AAS 83 (1991) 823–24, OR, 6 May 1991, 9, teaches: “When people think they possess the secret of a perfect social organization which makes evil impossible, they also think that they can use any means, including violence and deceit, in order to bring that organization into being. Politics then becomes a ‘secular religion’ which operates under the illusion of creating paradise in this world. But no political society—which possesses its own autonomy and laws [note omitted]—can ever be confused with the Kingdom of God. The Gospel parable of the weeds among the wheat (cf. Mt 13.24–30, 36–43) teaches that it is for God alone to separate the subjects of the Kingdom from the subjects of the Evil One, and that this judgment will take place at the end of time. By presuming to anticipate judgment here and now, man puts himself in the place of God and sets himself against the patience of God.”

100. John Paul II, Sollicitudo rei socialis, 48, AAS 80 (1988) 583, OR, 29 Feb. 1988, 13, teaches: “The Church well knows that no temporal achievement is to be identified with the Kingdom of God, but that all such achievements simply reflect and in a sense anticipate the glory of the Kingdom, the Kingdom which we await at the end of history, when the Lord will come again.”

101. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation, 62, AAS 79 (1987) 581, OR, 14 Apr. 1986, 5.

102. CIC, c. 225, §2, declares: “Each lay person in accord with his or her condition is bound by a special duty to imbue and perfect the order of temporal affairs with the spirit of the gospel; they thus give witness to Christ in a special way in carrying out those affairs and in exercising secular duties.”

103. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Instruction on Certain Aspects of the “Theology of Liberation”, 11.3, AAS 76 (1984) 903, OR, 10 Sept. 1984, 4: “All priests, religious and laypeople who hear this call for justice and who want to work for evangelization and the advancement of mankind, will do so in communion with their bishop and with the Church, each in accord with his or her own specific ecclesial vocation.”

104. Paul VI, Octogesima adveniens, 48, AAS 63 (1971) 437–38, OR, 20 May 1971, 9, teaches: “Let each one examine himself, to see what he has done up to now, and what he ought to do. It is not enough to recall principles, state intentions, point to crying injustice and utter prophetic denunciations; these words will lack real weight unless they are accompanied for each individual by a livelier awareness of personal responsibility and by effective action. It is too easy to throw back on others responsibility for injustice, if at the same time one does not realize how each one shares in it personally, and how personal conversion is needed first.”

105. John Paul II, Homily in Yankee Stadium, 6, AAS 71 (1979) 1172, OR, 22 Oct. 1979, 5.

106. John Paul II, Christifideles laici, 42, AAS 81 (1989) 472–73, OR, 6 Feb. 1989, 14, teaches: “Charges of careerism, idolatry of power, egoism and corruption that are oftentimes directed at persons in government, parliaments, the ruling classes, or political parties, as well as the common opinion that participating in politics is an absolute moral danger, do not in the least justify either scepticism or an absence on the part of Christians in public life.”

107. John Paul II, Homily at Mass for Youth (Belo Horizonte, Brazil), 5, Inseg. 3.2 (1980) 8, OR, 14 July 1980, 1, teaches: “Sharing as priest, bishop and cardinal the lives of innumerable young people at University, in youth groups, in excursions in the mountains, in clubs for reflection and prayer, I learned that a youth begins to grow old in a dangerous way, when he lets himself be deceived by the facile and convenient principle that ‘the end justifies the means’; when he adopts the belief that the only hope of improving society is to promote struggle and hatred between social groups, that it is to be found in the Utopia of a classless society, which very soon reveals itself as the creator of new classes. I became convinced that only love draws closer things that are different, and brings about union in diversity.”

108. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Instruction on Certain Aspects of the “Theology of Liberation”, 11.8, AAS 76 (1984) 905, OR, 10 Sept. 1984, 4.

109. John Paul II, Centesimus annus, 57, AAS 83 (1991) 862, OR, 6 May 1991, 15, teaches: “Today more than ever, the Church is aware that her social message will gain credibility more immediately from the witness of actions than as a result of its internal logic and consistency. This awareness is also a source of her preferential option for the poor, which is never exclusive or discriminatory towards other groups. This option is not limited to material poverty, since it is well known that there are many other forms of poverty, especially in modern society—not only economic but cultural and spiritual poverty as well.” Cf. John Paul II, Discourse to Cardinals, Members of the Roman Curia, and Pontifical Household, 9, AAS 77 (1985) 510–11, OR, 21 Jan. 1985, 7–8.

110. An example of the execution of this strategy: You Reject Them, You Reject Me: The Prison Letters of Joan Andrews, ed. Richard Cowden Guido (Manassas, Va.: Trinity Communications, 1988).

111. John Paul II, Sollicitudo rei socialis, 48, AAS 80 (1988) 583, OR, 29 Feb. 1988, 13 (translation of quotation from GS 39 supplied).