Why Most People Get Catholic Social Justice Wrong

Christians often get slammed in the press and society-at-large because we’re seen as just so obstinate when it comes to compromising on social issues.  Why can’t we just see the wisdom of contraception, or abortion?  Why can’t we just support this simple solution to immigration or welfare reform?  If we value babies so much, why can’t we get behind IVF?  Why do we have to be so difficult?  It’s as if we don’t really care about solving social problems.   Of course, nothing could be less true, but that doesn’t stop people from having that perception of us.

I straddle two worlds.  First and foremost, I am a Catholic.  Secondly, but almost as important to me, I am a therapist and social scientist.  One of my graduate degrees in is social work and I serve as an adjunct professor in both the sociology and grad theology departments at Franciscan Univerity.  Because I am intimately involved in both worlds I tend to get an up-close view of all the different areas Christians and society talk past each other.  As I look at all these different conversations, the source of the disagreement has, I think become clearer to me.

If you read the Compendium of Social Doctrine of the Church (and I really recommend it) one thing become clear pretty much from page one.  There is a profound difference that most people–even most Catholics–don’t appreciate between social work and Catholic social justice work.  Secular social work (and social science, public health, science,  and medicine as well) is concerned with solving the short term problem in them most expedient, legal way possible.  If I am a secular, social problem-solver (for want of a better title) and you come to me with an issue, the only thing I care about is identifying the quickest, legal way to get the job done.  Similarly, if I am a secular social scientist presented with a social challenge, the most important thing to me is faciliating whatever compromises need to be made so the need I’ve identified can be addressed quickly.

But Catholic social justice work (and Catholic social science, public health, science, and medicine as well) has a different agenda.  As Catholics, we are aware that each person is made in the image and likeness of God.  Because of this, we are concerned, first and foremost, with upholding the inherent, God-given dignity of every person. That is the underlying concern of Catholic social justice. There are lots of people around who would like to solve society’s problems, but if Christians don’t stand for the dignity of the person, who will? Of course we want to solve social problems, but in addition to being concerned with efficiency and legality–like our secular counterparts–we have an additional obligation.  We must also make sure that any solution we propose actually respects both the dignity of the person being served and the dignity of the person doing the serving.

That’s what most social justice Catholics forget.  Catholic social thought isn’t really about solving problems.  It sees problem-solving primarily as a vehicle for standing for the dignity of the human person.  Solving problems is important but for the Christian, problem-solving is always simply a means to the greater end of defending the dignity of the human person.  A solution that does not do this is no solution at all.  A compromise that cuts corners on the dignity of the provider or person served is no compromise.  What does it profit man to gain the world but lose his soul?

Mother Theresa used to comment that she and her Missionaries of Charity are not social workers.  On the face of it, this was a ludicrous statement. If feeding the poor, clothing the naked, and attending to the needs of the sick, dying, and the orphaned isn’t social work, what is?  What she meant was that she and her order saw defending the dignity of the person as paramount and solving the person’s problems an important second.  Solving the problem isn’t the end-goal.  Promoting the dignity of the person is.  Clothing the naked defends their dignity but clothing the naked by stealing clothing doesn’t defend anyone’s dignity.  Supporting unions promotes the dignity of workers but only if it also comes with responsible participation in the corporate culture. Promoting childbearing supports the dignity of marriage but not if the means of having children turns life into a product and reproduction into a baby factory. Easing the pain of the dying defends their dignity but not if it means snuffing out their life–as if only the pain-free life has dignity. In every case, Christian social justice work sees solutions as the means to the greater end of defending the dignity of the person, while social work sees solutions as their own ends.

And that’s why I believe Catholics cannot legitimately support the “New Conversation on Marriage” which purports to solve the problem of marital instability…by redefining marriage out of existing and throwing the right of children to a mother and father under the bus.

So, the next time you get frustrated with some Catholic who is mucking up the works because they won’t agree to the obvious, simple answer, give thanks.  That person is standing up for your worth and dignity–even if you don’t think you’re worth the effort.

You’re welcome.

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