Social Justice and the Laity

Social Justice and the Laity July 23, 2007
“The Church calls everyone to make faith a reality in their lives, as the best path . . .
for attaining true freedom, which includes the recognition of human rights and social justice.”

– John Paul II

(Original February 2007 post from Evangelical Catholicism Blog)

Tito from Custos Fidei had a link to an article quoting part of an informal conversation Pope Benedict XVI had with some priests from the Rome diocese, where he emphasized that the Church is not “an international organization, (the Church) is not an executive body or an organ of power. Nor is she a social agency (although she does undertake social work), but a spiritual body.” (Read the complete story from CWNews)

(Emphasis added by Tito) Tito comments further:

“I know, I know, Dorothy Day and her cult following are all in an uproar but what do you expect from emotional people that let their feelings rule rational thought.”

Here I attempt to explain that as lay Catholics we have a very important mission in ensuring the common good, in which no lay Catholic is exempted from, based on recent writings by both John Paul II and Benedict XVI. I do not attempt to even wonder what Tito meant by the Catholic workers letting “their feelings rule rational thought,” because that means that acting as a Christian, serving others as the Workers do through the Corporal Works of Mercy is mere sentimentality without reconciling faith and reason. That is for another post and on this one I will let Tito explain himself and give him the benefit of the doubt. Even those who oppose some of the more radical ideas of the Catholic Worker Movement in regards to pacifism and economics praise and value the work they do with the poor and the needy.


Firstly, Dorothy Day was not a priest nor any other Catholic Worker is a priest: they are lay Catholics like most of us. Day and Maurin as well as the thousands of lay Catholics around the world who day in and day out serve others through the Spiritual and Corporal Works of Mercy are just fulfilling the call that we are all called to fulfill in the name of God’s love. Dorothy Day did not (and most lay Catholics who work towards a social order) do not want to make the Church a social agency, because they are, simply, lay Catholics.

Secular Social Justice vs. Christ-centered Social Justice

Some cringe at the word “social justice” perhaps because they are thinking of secular social justice, which is empty and without a true foundation that does not recognize Christ in the Eucharist. It is only by recognizing Christ in the Eucharist, and hence, in ourselves, that we can then recognize that same Christ in our neighbors and love them as we love Christ himself present in the Sacrament (Mt 25). Without Christ, we will keep asking “who is my neighbor?” (Lk 10:29). And it was then that Christ told the parable of the Good Samaritan.

Some Catholics try to make the term “social justice” so complicated and far-fetched that almost seems as something foreign or evil. To work towards a just social order or to ensure the common good is to simply care for each other, to love Christ in everyone: the sick, the prisoner, the stranger. When we take this love to a greater level in which we serve the criminal, the homeless, the immigrant, unconditionally united by a “sincere mutual love” (1 Peter 10:22) and we actively work in the political and social realm to take care of them and protect them as if they would be our own families or friends, that is when we are working towards a new social order, and this is what all Christians are called to do, to love one another intensely!

The Church, in her Social doctrine, is so clear as to how we can answer the question posed in Lk 10:29 (“who is my neighbor?”) that it takes us away from our comfort zone–it challenges us our traditional way of thinking and acting. That may be the reason why we often do not welcome these doctrines, which are at the very core of Christianity itself and the great commandment to love one’s neighbor.

Furthermore, Catholic Social doctrine is not a product of Vatican II, for those who also cringe at what has stemmed from the Ecumenical Council. Its roots trace to the early Church, but it was not until perhaps Leo XIII, when the Church took a clearer and more organized stance on specific social issues.

Role of priests

The statement that Tito is referring to, is taken out from an informal conversation between Pope Benedict XVI and priests from Rome where he asks them to have their lives in the Eucharist, which does not contradict the initiatives of Dorothy Day, the Catholic Worker, or any lay Catholic who serves the poor and needy. This is not to say that lay Catholics are discouraged from participating actively in the political sphere to seek social order.

We find precedence on this topic with a speech by John Paul II directed to priests (not lay Catholics):

“You are priests, not social or political leaders. Let us not be under the illusion that we are serving the Gospel through an exaggerated interest in the wide field of temporal problems.”

Many of us know how some priests have taken active roles in governments forgetting their pastoral roles, which may have triggered this statement by John Paul II.

Justice is for politics, not the Church

Deus Caritas Est touches on how the State is the primary responsible for ensuring social order: “The just ordering of society and the State is a central responsibility of politics.” (28a)

Furthermore, Pope Benedict XVI also mentions how this justice “must undergo constant purification, since it can never be completely free of the danger of a certain ethical blindness caused by the dazzling effect of power and special interests.” (28a)

We have all seen how this justice can be distorted through libertarianism and relativism. Thus, the Pope understands that in order for there to be true justice faith and politics must meet: “Faith enables reason to do its work more effectively and to see its proper object more clearly. This is where Catholic social doctrine has its place: it has no intention of giving the Church power over the State.” (28a)

Role of the laity

According to the Pope then, we see that social order is to be brought about by the State and not by priests. But how must faith and politics meet if priests are on the sidelines? By forming the consciences of the laity who are to take an active part within the political and social realm:

“…the Church wishes to help form consciences in political life and to stimulate greater insight into the authentic requirements of justice as well as greater readiness to act accordingly, even when this might involve conflict with situations of personal interest. Building a just social and civil order, wherein each person receives what is his or her due, is an essential task which every generation must take up anew. As a political task, this cannot be the Church’s immediate responsibility. (28a)

Hence, the role of priests is to form the consciences of lay Catholics and of all in society. No lay Catholic can consider himself exempted from working towards a just social order, according to the Pope, because he considers this an “essential task” for everyone. Many lay Catholics make the mistake of reading the lines on the encyclical about the Church not taking an active political role and stop there, but our great Pope makes his point, as always, very clear:

“The direct duty to work for a just ordering of society, on the other hand, is proper to the lay faithful. As citizens of the State, they are called to take part in public life in a personal capacity. So they cannot relinquish their participation “in the many different economic, social, legislative, administrative and cultural areas, which are intended to promote organically and institutionally the common good.” The mission of the lay faithful is therefore to configure social life correctly, respecting its legitimate autonomy and cooperating with other citizens according to their respective competences and fulfilling their own responsibility. Even if the specific expressions of ecclesial charity can never be confused with the activity of the State, it still remains true that charity must animate the entire lives of the lay faithful and
therefore also their political activity, lived as “social charity.” (29)

John Paul II also acknowledged the important role of the laity in ensuring the common good:
“You men and women in public life, called to serve the common good, exclude no one from your concerns; take special care of the weakest sectors of society.” Take note: “exclude no one.”

Social justice is for everyone

So are those who work towards a social justice, evil? Liberals? Lefties? Is Dorothy Day going to burn in hell eternally for being a Communist once and then converting to the Church and really performing the Corporal Works of Mercy? No. (I have heard such claims about Dorothy Day by some Catholics though) Many Catholics who work actively towards an end of abortion fail to recognize that their work is also contributing towards demanding social justice for all.

We should all work towards justice for everyone, because we are all members of the Mystical body of Christ and if we truly believe in the Eucharist and how it unites us all, then we should all recognize our important and beautiful call to “love one another constantly.” (1 Peter 1:22)

On a more personal note, here is the quote by John Paul II that changed my view of the world entirely and one of the reasons you read more about social issues on this blog than before. It is not enough to feel compassion, because we have a responsibility towards all, each individual, not just our families, our loved ones, or our nation, but all. Very challenging. Very radical. Very thought-provoking.

“This then 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.” (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, 38)

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