Three Thoughts About Catholic Social Teaching (homily)
Twenty Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Amos 6:1-7; Luke 16:19-31
The readings today very much call to mind Catholic social teaching.
I want to make three points about this.
The first is that Catholic social teaching is what Cardinal Bernadine called “a seamless garment.” There are seven major aspects of the teaching and we have to see them all in relation to each other. We can’t just focus on one. And there’s an underlying principle that unifies them all, a logic, a fundamental commitment. That’s the key thing. That’s what we have to use to interpret our experience and our actions, and that underlying principle is the respect for life, for all life.
We therefore have to be committed to the rights of the unborn, we have to be opposed to abortion. It’s a no-brainer. It’s obvious. At the same time and for the same reason we also have to be committed to the poor man Lazarus, the one covered with sores, the one at our own doorstep. He’s not cute, like a baby. He’s not innocent like a baby. He’s ugly. He’s smelly. He’s harder to love. Impossible. And yet in the logic of the seamless garment, in the logic of Christ, we have to honor him and love him and care for him with just the same compassion and just the same tenderness.
That’s the thing for all of us. Whenever we get attached to one particular part of Catholic social teaching—and that’s fine, that’s natural, we’re all called to certain things—but whenever we get attached to one part of that teaching, we have to continually remind ourselves of the other parts, see our own particular concern in relation to the whole system of thought. If we’re strongly committed to the rights of workers—one of the elements of our teaching—we have to stop and think now and then about the environment, about the rights of nature, because that’s another element. If we’re strongly committed to the environment, we have to stop and think about the necessary relation between that commitment and the rights of the unborn.
It all holds together. It has to hold together.
In fact, maybe that’s part of the call for each of us here. Whatever in Catholic social teaching makes us the most uncomfortable, whatever we tend not to see, whatever isn’t quite natural to us, that’s what we’re supposed to look at and think about.
The second point. We can’t let all this get politicized, we can’t let all this get cast in terms of Republicans versus Democrats, Liberals versus Conservatives, and we do, we inevitably do, and we have to stop that. What the Church calls us to and what the scriptures call us to are underlying principles, an underlying ethic, an ethic of compassion, an ethic of listening, an ethic of love. The practical applications are up to us to think through, and people of good will can and do disagree. We have to never lose sight of this.
At the end of the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man, Jesus doesn’t say: and so go and vote for a Republican. Go and vote for a Democrat. And the bishops never say that either. And the Pope never says that. No Pope ever has.
Principles versus application. That’s the key.
A person passionately committed to the environment may honestly think that the policies of the Republicans can best achieve the end of protecting and nurturing the natural world. A person passionately committed to ending abortion may honestly think that the policies of the Democrats can best achieve the practical end of decreasing the number of abortions in this country.
This is for us to decide, using our own brains and our own best thinking. The Church respects that and the Church wants that. It wants us to think. It wants us to apply our reasoning and our research to the problems of our time and the problems of our lives, and how that works exactly will be different for each of us.
And that leads to the third and final point I want to make: obedience to authority.
The root meaning of the word “obedience” is to listen. To obey the Church is to listen to her with all openness and prayerfulness and then to act in our lives according to the best dictates of our own consciences. We have to do that. At the heart of all Catholic moral teaching is a belief in the sanctity and freedom of individual conscience—educated and formed by the tradition.
Now there are those who pick and choose here, and I want to urge them not to—or I want to urge them to recognize it when they do—when they say that the American bishops are too liberal, for example, and decide that this one bishop, or this one alternate group, is more Catholic or more obedient to the tradition. What these people are really doing is exercising their own individual consciences, exercising their own freedom, exercising their own minds, as we all have to, and so let’s say that, let’s honor that. Let’s not call an act of conscience an act of blind obedience. It isn’t. Let’s not criticize others for not blindly obeying when we don’t either. Let’s honor each other as thinking people living together with the questions.
I’ve heard people say that in his statements about the environment Pope John Paul had been co-opted by the left—or that in the Bishops Pastoral on the Columbia River the bishops had been co-opted by the left. And then turn around and quote the bishops on some other issue and say: see, we have to do this.
Wait a minute.
Besides, it’s not some pope who’s arguing all this or some group of conservative cardinals or liberal cardinals or some college or some website. It’s Jesus. It’s our Lord. The authority is the authority of scripture—of the Prophets, of Isaiah and Jeremiah and of Amos today, thundering from the sycamores, “Wow to the complacent of Zion.” The authority is the authority of the parables, the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man, and the Parable of the Prodigal, and the Parable of the Good Samaritan, and every other parable in Luke and every other parable in every other gospel. If we read the prophets and the gospels and don’t at least get what the Church calls the preferential option for the poor, we’re not reading the gospels. We’re not getting it at all.
If we go to mass and receive the Eucharist and don’t act, don’t change our lives, don’t open our eyes, and to more than our own pet issue, more than our own personal project, more than our own politics, we’re just not there yet. We need even more the grace of the Eucharist. Because the Eucharist itself commits us. The Eucharist itself calls us, inherently, intrinsically. That’s the authority of Catholic social teaching, however messy, however difficult to figure out and act out. The call is in the very bread and wine.
“Jesus would reject a relationship in which we merely gazed at him in silent adoration,” Amy Florian says. “Christ is to be worshiped, but Christ is also to be received, broken and shared for the salvation of the world. A Christian who is intensely concerned that the consecrated host not be left alone in the chapel must, therefore, also be concerned about the homeless people left alone in the streets. Those who reverence Christ’s presence in the host must also reverence Christ’s presence in human bodies.”
This is Catholic social teaching. This is it. It’s the Eucharist.