THE SERVANT GENERAL
OUR THEME FOR 2015
THE CHALLENGE FOR SOCIAL JUSTICE CATHOLICS
Here is a good article about work with the poor, including
its connection to life issues. It would do us well to learn
more as we embark on our theme for 2015, aiming for the Christian
ideal of no one in need.
Reclaiming the safety net: the challenge
for social justice Catholics
Where does the idea come from of having a social “safety
net” to help the poorest and most vulnerable among us?
It seems like an obvious and inevitable fact to most of us
today, apart from some radical individualists who believe
that the poor should sink or swim. But it hasn't always existed.
The ancient, pagan world made little provision for the weak
or unlucky. In Greece, the desperately poor might sell themselves
into slavery; in Rome the needy became hangers-on and parasitical
“clients” of the wealthy and powerful. Even the
“bread and circuses” offered the Roman plebes
was not really poor relief but a social lubricant designed
to keep to keep the mob politically pliant.
The first record we have in the West of systematic aid for
the less fortunate appears in the Hebrew Bible, where the
prophets demanded that the better off provide for widows and
orphans, and the Law prevented extortionate treatment of the
pooreven enjoining the Jubilee, a periodic cancellation
of debts and redistribution of income. Inspired by Jesus’
almost incessant talk of the importance of caring for the
poor, the early Church quickly developed its own system of
charity, distributed by deacons to the needy, Christian and
The most famous incident from that period was surely the story
of St. Lawrence, arrested by the Romans and ordered to produce
the Church’s reputed treasures. He called together the
widows, orphans and paupers who were supported by Christian
charity and presented them to the Romans, saying, “These
are the Church’s treasures.” On one level, Lawrence
was simply, almost sarcastically, showing his persecutors
where the Church had spent the money they were looking for.
More profoundly, he was demonstrating to pagans a profound
Christian principle: To us, the human person is the greatest
treasure on earth. We see our eternal salvation as conditional
on whether or not we recognize, honor, and act on that truthwhether
we rescue that treasure when it is endangered, preserve it
from harm, and defend its transcendent dignity. When Julian
the Apostate tried to restore paganism across the Empire,
he found himself frustrated by the massive goodwill won by
Christian charity toward the poor, which his pagan allies
saw no earthly reason to imitate.
Since then, in one form or another, the Church has always
been engaged in doing what we traditionally call the Corporal
Works of Mercy. Laymen, clergy, and religious alike saw it
as their solemn obligation to feed the hungry, give drink
to the thirsty, clothe the naked, harbor the homeless, visit
the sick, ransom the captive, and bury the dead. Sometimes
the local or royal government would play a part in that effort,
but much more often it was seen as the Church’s duty,
to be provided out of the lands possessed by bishops or monks,
or the funds raised by pious laymen and entrusted to their
local pastors and abbots for that purpose. One of the worst
blows struck against the poor in Western history was the destruction
of monasticism in much of Europe. In England especially, Henry
VIII’s seizure of the monasteries at one stroke deprived
the poor of their educators, hospitals, and soup kitchens.
It would be centuries before the English state stepped in
to fill up some of the vacuum it had created. In the interim,
the poor were largely left to fend for themselves, and controlled
by strict laws against both begging and vagrancyand savage
punishments for theft, including mutilation and death.
Our modern Western vision of social justice for the poor and
the vulnerable is unimaginable without its biblical, Christian
background. The concept of a social safety net is a profound
and fragile artifact of Christian civilization, and I think
it is quite unclear how long this idea will survive the collapse
of Christian faith. We saw with the rise of totalitarianism
in the 20th century how quickly people cut off from faith
can forget the moral values that they’d inherited from
their believing ancestors, and adhere to brutal and anti-human
visions of the Good, which conceive and treat human beings
as less than persons. The burden of my recent book, The Race
to Save Our Century, is the rise of such “Subhumanism”
and its roots in the failure of faith.
warned in The Devils that “if God does not exist, all
things are permissible.” He might also have added that
many other things seem pointless, wasteful, or futile. Without
belief in a God whose image each one of us bears, we do begin
to wonder, as the Germans did, whether some lives are “unworthy
of life.” Today, some ninety percent of preborn babies
diagnosed with Down Syndrome in America are routinely aborted
by their parents. In the Catholic kingdom of Belgium, euthanasia
is legal for sick children, with the permission of their parents.
In Switzerland, depressed patients are presented with the
“treatment option” of assisted suicide. What will
be the fate of the elderly all across aging societies such
as Europe and Japan, where grandparents will soon appear as
luxuries that society cannot afford? Assaults on the sanctity
of life will only increase, as our vision of the human person
grows dimmer and more degraded.
As the Christian roots of our post-Christian societies fade
with each generation, it will take a prophetic witness of
believers to keep alive the idea of human dignity. We must
see that our work on behalf of the poor contributes to that
dignity, and reflects its roots in the person of Jesus Christor
else it will utterly fail, becoming merely a means of quelling
social unrest and solving social problemsthat is, bread
How can we ensure that our work for the poor remains distinctly
Christian, and that our activities build up their human dignity?
How do we keep from breathing in the all-pervasive ideology
of our agethe “lowest common denominator”
of Utilitarian Hedonism, which asserts that the good of human
life is to accumulate happy moments, and at all costs avoid
suffering? Make no mistake, that theory is the unspoken common
ground that unites the most powerful liberals and conservatives
alike, though they differ on how to achieve it. Of course
as Christians we do not fetishize suffering, and the Church
has always worked to alleviate it where possible. But we hold
to a higher and much more challenging vision of human dignity,
a more human and dignified notion of what real happiness means.
We see happiness as coming from a life well-lived, one grounded
in virtue and aimed at a relationship with a loving, eternal
God. When we strive to aid people in danger or in need, we
can never use means that degrade their intrinsic dignity,
undermine their attempts at building up the virtues, or reduce
them to abstract “problems” we need to solve.
If we do, we ourselves will fail to build up the virtues,
and will starve our own relationships with Christ.
For all these reasons, we cannot subcontract our duties toward
the “least of Jesus’ brothers” to the programs
of an impersonal secular state. You and I are called to perform
the works of mercy ourselvesnot to buy indulgences through
our taxes to hire strangers to do them for us. It is all too
easy to forget the full humanity of people we never see, to
dispose of them and their needs with grandiose programs or
blasé slogans. We fall into patronizing pity, or resentful
indifference, toward masses of faceless strangers whose personal
failures and sufferings are boiled down into pie charts, bar
graphs, and “metrics.” The well-known socialist
statesman Josef Stalin recognized this when he quipped, “A
single death is a tragedy. A million deaths is a statistic.”
How can you and I avoid lapsing into such toxic cynicism?
There is only one way, I think, and it’s one that Pope
Pius XI enshrined at the heart of Catholic social teaching.
We must use as a litmus test of all our works and plans the
fundamental principle he called Subsidiarity. Put simply,
in bumper sticker language, what he meant was, “Think
globally, act locally.” Whatever we can do as private
citizens, families, churches and members of civil society
we MUST do. Only what we find, empirically, that we simply
cannot accomplish should be entrusted to local government.
The residue of problems that elude local government’s
reach should be bumped up to state government. It is only
those intractable issues that really require national legislation
that we should hand over to that most distant and unaccountable
actor, the nation-state. The Federal government, being the
bluntest instrument, should be our absolute last resort. Too
often, it seems that those with a heart for the poor have
mistaken the Church’s preferential option for the poor
for a preferential option for the federal government.
We must encounter the poor people who live near us, and act
toward them as genuine brothers and sisters, finding ways
to offer them opportunities and assistance that respect their
full humanity, including their potential to become and remain
self-sufficient. None of us would want his or her children
to be perpetually dependent. Why should we accept that fate
for our neighbors?
Because it is easier, cleaner, and cheaperat least in
the short run. So instead of working at soup kitchens or crisis
pregnancy centers, visiting prisoners and helping homeless
people to find affordable housing, we drop a dollar into second
collection baskets, and vote for politicians who promise to
take the poor off our consciences. We see panhandlers and
think to ourselves, “I gave at the officethe IRS
office.” Worst of all, some of us are willing to compromise
fundamental issues of human dignity for the sake of advancing
state-based solutions to poverty.
The poorest, most vulnerable human beings in America today
are preborn children, whom dishonest Supreme Court decisions
and complacent elite opinion abandons to destruction, for
any reason, all through nine months of pregnancy. Anyone who
supports such laws does not deserve the name of Christian.
Such people should not present themselves for Holy Communion
in Catholic churches, and if they do, according to canon law
pastors should refuse to give it to them. No Catholic may
endorse or support any candidate who does not favor full legal
protection for the preborn-regardless of his or her stance
on lesser prudential questions. If we scoff at the least of
Jesus’ brothers, who today are unborn babies, he warned
us what we would hear from him on judgment day: “Depart
from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been
prepared for the devil and his angels.” That’s
a phrase that “pro-choice” or otherwise compromised
Catholics should meditate on, every day.
The challenge for social justice Catholics today is to refuse
the thirty pieces of silver offered by statesmen in return
for compromise about the killing of the innocent. To reject
the false compassion that accepts the sin and abandons the
sinner. To leave the place of comfort where we can sit alongside
philanthropists giving TED talks and NGO leaders who party
with Bono, and go out to face rejection, scorn and spitting.
That might mean manning the barricades praying outside of
abortion clinics. Or teaching the undiluted Gospel of Life
in the teeth of sophisticates’ sneers. Or defending
the goodness and holiness of marriage against its powerful,
wealthy enemies. Or refusing Holy Communion to the Vice President
of the United States, then facing the consequences.
We are each called to different works, but our call is the
same: To the foot of the Cross. If we find ourselves far from
it, we know we have gone astray.
Editor's Note: Jason Jones delivered this address at the
Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture's Poverty Conference
on October 31.