CNA - Saint of the Day

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Essay 4 - Submitted Essay - Social Justice - A Historical Perspective

In the closing chapter of the great novel “The Robe” written in 1942 by Lloyd C Douglas, Marcellus , a Roman Centurion who by the toss of a dice gained possession of the seamless robe of Christ, stands before Caligula and is asked for the final time to renounce his ‘misguided allegiance to this Galilean Jew--who called himself a King’[1]. In response, having undergone a radical conversion to Christianity and having exercised principles of social justice in his own life, Marcellus replies:

'Your Majesty, if the Empire desires peace and justice and good will among all men, my King will be on the side of the Empire and her Emperor. If the Empire and the Emperor desire to pursue the slavery and slaughter that has brought agony and terror and despair to the world'---- 'if there is then nothing further for men to hope for but chains and hunger at the hands of our Empire--my King will march forward to right this wrong! Not to-morrow, sire! Your Majesty may not be so fortunate as to witness the establishment of this Kingdom. But it will surely come!'[2]

Marcellus, through martyrdom, bears witness to the power of the Gospel; a power that he has come to understand can fundamentally amend many social realities that offend the dignity of the human person. Today as the Church strives to evangelise in a world that is torn by many injustices, the good news of Christ is not received nor entertained eagerly. Yet humanity, with all the difficulties facing it on many sides, has greater need than ever of the Gospel: “of the faith that saves, of the hope that enlightens, of the charity that loves.”[3]

Historical Aspects of Social Justice

‘Catholic social teaching is a central and essential element of our faith’[4], whose deep roots are firmly embedded in the Old Testament, especially in the Prophets who were outspoken advocates for justice in society.  Exilic experiences along with the knowledge that individuals are made in the image and likeness of God, shaped the structures of social justice. Central to this was the Torah which called for integrity in the various areas of daily life. Stipulated within, were directives that directly concerned honesty in trading, fair treatment of slaves along with care of the poor, the widow and the orphan, and the oppressed. It extended unto the legislators and rulers whose duty ‘was to exercise justice in their dealings with their subjects.’[5] The Prophet Amos shows that in many instances these directives did not prevail, and he condemned those ‘who trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain’ and who ‘afflict the righteous…take a bribe, and push aside the needy in the gate’. (Amos 5:11-12).

The religiosity surrounding the social doctrine of the Old Testament was often exercised most scrupulously, whilst real heartfelt care and attention to the needy was lacking. In Isaiah 58 we read a poetic and emotive call for pure religion which is disposed to aid the helpless. Isaiah reminds Israel that fasting that serves self-interest and contributes to the oppression of the weak ‘will not make your voice heard on high.’(Is 58:4) The kind of life that God wished his people to lead was one always ordered to aid the immediate community and hence the nation. In order to meet this end one was reminded through the Prophet Micah ‘to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God’. (Micah 6:8)

A New Commandment

Catholic social doctrine ‘is a teaching founded on the life and words of Jesus Christ’[6], and in the New Testament is more anthroprocentric in its focus. The transition from the Old to the New Testament involves a quantum leap from a sense of justice where God is for those who experience poverty and discrimination, ‘to a God who makes himself one of them, who chooses poverty and weakness for himself’[7]. Another great change instituted by Jesus was the movement from social justice by rule of limited revenge to social justice by forgiveness, patience and generosity. He was the prophet who most exemplified its core values. Having delivered the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus brought into focus six elements of the prevailing Israelite social justice system that he came not to abolish but to release their full potential. Using the authoritative ‘I’(Mat 5:21-48), echoing the name of God from the Old Testament, Jesus radicalises the law focusing hearts and minds of the true meaning of love for neighbour. He caps this new philosophy with the teaching of the ‘Our Father’ demonstrating the intrinsic link that exists between faith and deeds in the unity of life. Pope John Paul II reflects this reality when he says ‘the unity of life of the lay faithful is of the greatest importance: indeed they must be sanctified in everyday professional and social life.’[8] Prayer therefore is a fundamental piece of our positive action towards others. It is the fuel that spurs us on to see in the other a valid image of the living God and in seeing it, we are challenged to respond to it accordingly.

The words and example of Jesus exemplified a necessary balance between the spiritual and the tangible proving that our mission in the Church should not only be one of personal spiritual activity but also one of public witness. This was engraved in the hearts and minds of all those who followed His example and in imitating Him, freely gave witness solely to ‘encourage one another and build up each other’. (1Thess 5:11) They lived lives dedicated to putting in place supports needed by the marginalised that acted towards the common good and in turn strengthened society. These were the deeds that gave life to their faith and caused St James to exclaim, ‘faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.’ (Js 2:17)

Christ has redeemed the person with all the richness of his personality and social life. He reveals that God is Father and that we are called to become his children in the Spirit and therefore brothers and sisters among ourselves. The New Commandment, ‘that you love one another and I have loved you’ (Jn 3:18), therefore ‘must inspire, purify and elevate all human relationships in society and politics’[9]. It is precisely on these relationships, and the love shown through them, that we will be judged. In Matthew 25:31-46 Jesus reveals how, in the end, those who exercised the corporal works of mercy toward a neighbour will be gathered up into the beatific vision and those who chose to ignore the needs of another will be counted amongst those who caused them and eternally separated from God.

Modern Social Doctrine

The Christian community, centred on the person of Christ, is a ‘community called to Christian orthodoxy and orthopraxis; right belief and right living.’[10] Over the past century and a half the Church has contributed to the building up of the kingdom by producing a significant body of teaching in the area of social doctrine that is now summed up in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. This has been developed by the universal Church through the teaching of the popes in encyclical letters from Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum through John XXIII’s Pacem in Terris to Benedict XVI’s Caritas in Veritate. These teachings, which are applied to the social issues and challenges of the respective age, are based on several key concepts which have, at their core, the promotion of the intrinsic dignity of the human person. Stemming from this belief in the sanctity of human life is solidarity, a teaching that promotes charity, motivates justice and strives to make all aware that ‘if one part suffers, every part suffers with it’ and ‘if one part is praised, every part rejoices with it.’ (1 Cor 12:26)

Pope Benedict XVI reminds us that ‘the just ordering of society and the State is a central responsibility of politics.’[11] Political authority, based on human nature, belongs to the same moral order established by God. This authority gives political leaders a responsibility to make decisions that follow the moral order and create laws and structures that allow people, either as groups or individuals, to reach their human and spiritual fulfilment more fully and easily. Only in this way is the common good achieved.

The Church wants her social doctrine to be part of catechesis which is ‘the systematic teaching of Christian doctrine in its entirety with a view to initiating believers into the fullness of Gospel life’.[12] The faithful must be reminded once again that this life of social action is walked on two feet; one of service and charity which provides immediate acts of mercy to the needy, and the other of justice which works, albeit on a longer time scale and in a more complex way, to change the structures of society that promote inequality. Christ calls us to be faithful in our actions, not necessarily successful. The lack of success may in certain cases cause one to doubt their efforts, but imprinted in the hearts of all who heed the call to ‘love one another’ must be the knowledge that charity ‘transforms our impatience and our doubts into the sure hope that God holds the world in his hands’.[13]

[1] See ‘The Robe’ Chapter 25 p507
[2] ibid
[3] Cardinal Renato Martino on presenting the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, Vatican City, 2 April 2004
[4] Raymond Field - Foreword to the Companion to the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church
[5] See ‘Social Justice’ by Dr Christian A. Eberhart  <>
[6] Raymond Field – Forward to the Companion of the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church p 7.
[7] Ranerio Cantalamessa – ‘The Canticle of the Sun’ p8 On the Franciscan Charism
[8] See Pope John Paul II - Christifideles Laici Chpt 1 par 17
[9] See Compendium of Social Doctrine no.33
[10] See the Companion to the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church pp 17-18
[11] See Deus Caritas Est par. 28(a)
[12] See the Compendium of Social Doctrine of the Church pp 529; cf. JPII Catechesis Tradendae, 18
[13] See Deus Caritas Est par. 39

Múlier, ecce fílius tuus, Totus Tuus! Fergal

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