Can Catholic Social Teaching Heal Our Country?

Pope Francis washing the feet of men and women on Holy Thursday

1980, Connecticut.  A group of Catholic and Protestant Irish teens, whose ancestors killed each other, and whose parents hated each other, travel to America and manage to forge new friendships that last a lifetime.


1994, South Africa.  Victims and perpetrators of the systematic racial discrimination system known as apartheid, come together to publically share their stories and listen to each other.


2005, Baltimore, MD.  A fifty year-old husband and father, who has struggled with rage and addiction for most of his adult life, begins a habit of meditative prayer, helping him find a harmony in himself and his relationships that he has never known.


Over the past few weeks since the election, I’ve been reflecting on these stories and others like them.  I’ve read many articles, watched many videos and broadcasts, and had many long, deep discussions with friends from across the political spectrum.  I’ve been asking myself the questions that many in America and elsewhere are asking: What is the path to peace amongst so much division?  How do we cure our nation of the disease that plagues it?


The Disease

Many have tried to diagnose the polarization of our society and have proposed a long list of causes: tribalism, fear, dualistic thinking, identity politics, an echo-chamber within our social media, cultural segregation between urban and rural communities, racism, xenophobia, misogyny, white fragility, race-baiting, elitism, the breakdown of the family, a failed education system, and demagoguery to name a few.  I don’t dispute the validity of those claims, however, as a Christian, I believe that the sickness that infects our country ultimately springs from the original spiritual sickness that infects our souls: sin.  Each one of us, while fundamentally good and created in the image of God, is also radically broken by sin.  We prioritize our needs over those of others.  We choose lesser goods over greater ones.  We pick the short-term fix over the long-term solution.  We horde in the face of other’s deprivation. We exploit the vulnerable.  We fail to see differing perspectives.  We offer help mostly out of self-interest.  We scape-goat when consequences and responsibility confront us.  We care more about being right than being righteous.  We rationalize and excuse evil when it suits us. We pick and choose who is worthy of justice.


The World’s Cure

Humanity has a time-tested, reliable way to bring people together that has worked across times and cultures to unite a disparate group and it’s at the root of every alien invasion, zombie apocalypse, or robot take-over movie: give people a common enemy.  From the Crusades to the Cold War, nothing helps “us” come together like a “them.”  It’s easier to understand light in the presence of dark, heat in the presence of cold, Christendom in the presence of Islam, the “Free World” in the presence of the “Soviet Bloc,” liberal in the presence of conservative.  It’s why political campaigns are so often galvanized by negativity towards the opposing view. It’s why after 8 years of one political party in power, it’s easy to mobilize the opposing party to action.  It’s why we often support ideas from “our side” but reject similar ideas from the “other side.” 


The Church’s Cure

From the beginning, Jesus and the Church rejected this type of unity as false.  In healing one divide, you only create another.  Hence, Jesus taught that our unity must be focused not around a common enemy, but a common love: God.  And because we love God, we must love what God loves: ourselves, our neighbors, even our enemies.  Even when faced with persecution and hate, respond with love, for in Christ there is no Jew or Greek, no slave or free, no woman or man, no democrat or republican.  We are one in the Lord and so we cannot say to the Muslim refugee, the Appalachian coal miner, the crony capitalist, the feminist activist, the KKK member, the wall-street banker, the army vet, the abortion doctor, the establishment congressman, the welfare recipient, the prison inmate, the social justice warrior, the alt-right tea partier, the transgender couple in your bathroom, the baker who won’t celebrate your same-sex wedding, or any other person we that, “We do not need you.”  Just as the eye cannot say to the foot, I do not need you because you are not an eye, we must be one because our heavenly Father is one.  God’s love for every single sinner, and his call to us to participate in sharing that love, is the message at the core of the Christian cure: what we call the “good news” or the gospel.  


In its wisdom, the Catholic Church has articulated principles that guide us in how to apply the gospel to particular areas.  Catholic Social Teaching is the Church’s application of the gospel on the societal level.  It does not give specific one-size-fits-all policies that every society must follow exactly, but rather guiding principles that must be prudentially applied by conscientious Christian leaders, citizens, and communities.  There are far too many to elucidate them all here but I will offer a few that I think would be especially helpful for mending the wounds of 21st century America.


Dignity of the Human Person

The idea that all human beings are infinitely valuable as children of God. Again, this is the heart of the gospel.  Interestingly, our Declaration of Independence expresses a similar idea: that our creator has created every one of us equal, and endowed us with certain inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  However, we Americans have famously excluded certain groups from personhood when it is inconvenient to accommodate them.  The most glaring examples are the institution of African-American slavery and the treatment of the American Indians.  However, even to this day, each of our political parties’ policies have blind spots that fail to recognize the dignity of certain groups of people (the unborn, the poor, refugees, the terminally ill, prisoners, citizens of other nations, etc).  If more Christians advocated a consistent ethic of human life that respects the dignity of all, it may go a long way towards healing the animosity felt by those who are excluded.


The Common Good

Concern for the Common Good teaches us to work broadly for just and inclusive systems that seek the good of all humanity, not just our own interests.  This principle is a safeguard against our human tendency to prioritize the majority over the minority or the powerful over the weak.  This goes hand in hand with the Preferential Option for the Poor which asks us to consider policies with a special consideration for their impact on those who are most vulnerable and least powerful, namely the poor.  


Sounds easier said than done, right?  It looks great on paper but how do we get the hard hearts of our citizens to accept these ideas?  And even if we do always favor the poor, how do we avoid enabling the dependency of the poor or inciting the resentment of the rich?  Even if we do succeed in respecting the dignity of oppressed people, what’s to keep us from finding new groups to dehumanize and neglect?  



Solidarity takes the idea of the Common Good to a deeper level.  If concern for the common good and a preferential option for the poor motivate us to donate to charities or vote for policies that we believe will help a marginalized group, solidarity motivates us to invite someone over for dinner.  To be in solidarity with others is to be of one heart and mind with them, to understand their struggles, to know their names, to walk a mile in their shoes. Solidarity calls us to be true neighbors with those who are different than us.  This is the hardest of the principles to enact in practice but is in fact the most powerful way to bring peace to our country.


If you look to the examples of reconciliation with which I began this post, you will notice the first two (the Ulster Project and the Truth & Reconciliation Commission) are steeped in solidarity.  They allowed groups that hated each other to see one another’s humanity and both resulted in miraculous reconciliations.  To offer a more pedestrian example, the day after the election, my friend Andy (whose political leanings are pretty much the opposite of mine) called me. His question to me was this: “How come we like each other and can have a respectful conversation about serious topics even though we disagree so fundamentally?” The answer is that we lived on the same floor in college. I would come to his room and we would play Xbox, eat Oreos, and make fun of each other’s mothers (sorry, Mom).  In short, we are friends.  I don’t think of him as liberal or conservative. I think of him as Andy.  Solidarity is the silver bullet to the Us/Them polarity.  Pope Francis has frequently proposed the corollary idea of accompaniment, walking with those who may live very differently than us, or live in a sinful manner.  Yes, we should have conversations that allow us to challenge contrary or sinful ideas, but those conversations are only meaningful if the people involved know and respect each other.  Seeking solidarity and the common good, while recognizing the inherent dignity of all gives us new eyes to see the “other” as one of “us.”  


The Home Remedy

The final ingredient, is actually the one that must happen first and it is the most important.   If you only took the principles above, you may mistake Christianity as a program for social transformation which kind of misses the point.  At its core, Christianity is about the love of God for us.  We are not the saviors of the world who will bring about justice by our efforts, Jesus is.  Christianity is first about God’s love and then about how we reflect that love.  The moon provides no light on its own, only that which it reflects from the sun.  All of our efforts, must be rooted in God’s love for us. Rather, all my efforts must be rooted in God’s love for me.  All your efforts must be rooted in God’s love for you.  I point us back to the 50 year-old man I mentioned at the outset, who found greater inner peace through prayer.  This is the cornerstone.  Peace between people can only happen when we first allow God to establish peace in our hearts and minds.  This is the wisdom behind the Peace Prayer (and also Where is the Love?).  Before we tackle external evil, we must deal with the internal, for we do indeed have a common enemy, but it is not ISIS or North Korea. It is the evil in each of our hearts.  We must first have peace within if we hope to establish it in our relationships and society.  


The Prescription:

    #1: Immerse ourselves in prayer.  Take regular time to meditate and let the Lord into your heart and mind.  If this is new for you, setting aside a few minutes a day a few times a week is a good place to start.  Set a reminder in your phone.  If you don’t know where to start try this, or this, or these.

    #2: Intentionally seek solidarity with those who think and live differently than you.  Travel to a place with demographics that are foreign to you.  Invite, befriend, and reach out to those who are “other.”  Remember their dignity and to seek the common good (not just your good or that of those with whom you normally identify).  Remember when you are with those different from yourself, that you are not primarily out to change their minds but to experience Jesus in that person.  Remember that you are different members of one body in Christ and that you need each other just as the body needs both ear and hand.

    #3 Give all Glory to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, who is, who was, and who evermore shall be.  

Written by the Holy Rukus