Editor’s note: Archbishop Gomez has written the foreword to the 4th edition of “Catholics in the Public Square,” by Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted of Phoenix. In light of the California Presidential Primary Election on June 7, the archbishop’s column this week and next are adapted from his new forward, which offers his reflections on the duties and demands of Catholic social teaching.
Catholic social teaching gives us a vision of the world as it could be and as it should be. The world as God created it to be.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ is the most radical doctrine in the history of ideas. If the world believed what Jesus proclaimed — that God is our Father and we are all brothers and sisters created in his image with God-given dignity and a transcendent destiny — every society could be transformed overnight.
Of course, always what stands in the way of God’s beautiful plan for creation is human sin and weakness.
Every structure of social injustice starts in the hearts of individuals. Societies do not sin, people do. So for Catholics, social reform means more than raising consciousness, expanding opportunities and building new programs. Those things are necessary. But true justice and lasting peace require the conversion of hearts and the renewal of minds.
The Catholic vision is spiritual not political. Catholics belong first of all to the “city of God.” But we have a duty to build up the “city of man,” to correct injustices and seek a world that reflects God’s desires for his children — what Jesus called the Kingdom of God and the apostles called the new heavens and new earth.
The Church does not draft legislation or propose technical solutions to social problems. Instead, the Church articulates universal principles that are rooted in the laws of nature and that reflect the wisdom the universal Church has gained in more than 2,000 years of serving people under many different nations, cultural realities, government systems and economic orders.
The motive and measure in everything we do is our concern to promote the flourishing of the human person. Our principles drive us to work for justice and the common good, to protect the vulnerable and lift up the weak, to promote freedom and human dignity and to prefer remedies that are personal, local and small-scale, a principle the Church calls “subsidiarity.”
In 21st century America, the Church confronts a highly secularized and ethnically diversified society, shaped by the economic forces of globalization, a technocratic mentality and a consumerist lifestyle. This is the “age of the individual.” Our society is centered on the individual self — with an often exaggerated preoccupation for individuals’ unlimited rights and their freedoms for self-definition and self-invention. Happiness and meaning in American life are defined increasingly according to individualistic concerns for material pleasure and comfort.
We see many signs that, as a people, we are becoming more withdrawn from our communities and from the duties of our common life. More and more we seem less able to have empathy for those we don’t know. Pope Francis speaks of the “globalization of indifference” to suffering and cruelty in the world. And he is on to something.
In America and abroad, the people of our globalized society seem to tolerate a growing list of injustices and indignities.
To name just a few: widespread abortion; the “quiet” euthanasia of the old and sick; birth control policies targeting the poor and “unfit”; racial discrimination; a widening gap between poor and rich; pollution of the environment, especially in poor and minority communities; pornography and drug addiction; the death penalty and scandalous conditions in our prisons; the erosion of religious liberty; a broken immigration system that breaks up families and leaves a permanent underclass living in the shadows of our prosperity.
The Church’s social teaching “speaks” to all of these issues. The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, an essential resource, is nearly 500 pages long. But in the face of so many daily injustices that cry out to heaven, we can feel tempted to compartmentalize our compassion, to draw up lines of division about who and what we will care about.
For decades now, we have accepted a basic “fault-line” in the Church’s social witness — between self-described “pro-life” Catholics and those who consider themselves “peace and justice” Catholics. This is a false divide and one that is a scandal to Christ and the Church’s faithful witness in society.
But God does not see the world through the limitations of our political categories of “left” and “right,” “liberal” and “conservative.”
He is our Father and he sees only his children. When one of God’s children is suffering injustice he calls the rest of us to love and compassion and to “make things right.” Our concern for human dignity and life can never be partial or a half-measure. How can we justify defending the dignity of some and not others or protecting God’s creation while neglecting some of his most vulnerable creatures?
Let’s pray for one another this week and for our state and our country.
And let’s ask our Blessed Mother Mary to help all of us to work together to live our faith and to make the vision of Catholic social teaching a reality in our times.
Next week: Confronting the fundamental injustices and violence in our society.