A Call to Do God’s Work
By Bishop Robert McElroy
For the past century, from the worker movements of Catholic action in France, Belgium, and Italy to Pope John XXIII’s call to restructure the economies of the world in “Mater et Magistra,” to the piercing missionary message of the Latin American Church at Aparecida, the words see, judge, and act have provided a powerful pathway for those who seek to renew the temporal order in the light of the Gospel and justice.
As the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace described this pathway, it lies in “seeing clearly the situation, judging with principles that foster the integral development of people, and acting in a way which implements these principles in the light of everyone’s unique situation.” There is no greater charter…than the simple but rich architecture of these three words: see, judge, and act. Yet these words, which carry with them such a powerful history of social transformation around the world in service to the dignity of the human person, must be renewed and reexamined at every age and seen against the background of those social, economic, and political forces in each historical moment.
In the United States, we stand at a pivotal moment as a people and as a nation, in which bitter divisions cleave our country and pollute our national dialog. In our reflections in these days, we must identify the ways in which our very ability to see, judge, and act on behalf of justice is being endangered by cultural currents which leave us isolated, embittered, and angry. We must make the issues of jobs, housing, immigration, economic disparities, and the environment foundations for common efforts rather than of division. We must see prophetic words and prophetic actions which produce unity and cohesion and we must do so in the spirit of hope which is realistic. For as Pope Francis stated in Bolivia: “You are sowers of change and sowers of change never lose hope.”
One of the most striking elements of “Laudato Si” is its clear and bold analysis of the empirical realities that threaten the Earth which is our common home. “Seeing the situation clearly” is the whole foundation for that encyclical. It is the starting point for transformative justice. Pope Francis was unafraid to venture into this controversial set of questions about climate change and the environment despite the fact that massive social and economic forces, especially within our own country, have conspired to obscure the scientific realities of climate change and environmental degradation, in the very same way that the tobacco companies obscured for decades the medical science pertaining to smoking.
There is a lesson for us here, as agents of change and justice. Never be afraid to speak the truth. Always find your foundation for reflection and action in the fulness of empirical reality. Design strategies for change upon ever fuller dissemination of truths, even when they seem inconvenient to the cause. This is an especially important anchor for us in an age in which truth itself is under attack.
Pope Benedict lamented the diminishment of attention to the importance of objective truth in public life and discourse. Now we come to a time when alternative facts compete with real facts, and whole industries have arisen to shape public opinion in destructively isolated and dishonest patterns. The dictum “see clearly the situation” has seldom been more difficult in our society in the United States. Yet…the depth of marginalization in housing, work, and economic equality within the United States point us toward the clarification and humanization of truth, which leads to a deeper grasp of the realities of injustice and marginalization that confront our nation.
As Pope Francis underscored in his words to the Popular Movements in Bolivia: “When we look into the eyes of the suffering, when we see the faces of the endangered campesino, the poor laborer, the downtrodden native, the homeless family, the persecuted migrant, the unemployed young person, and the exploited child, we have seen and heard not a cold statistic but the pain of a suffering humanity, our own pain, our own flesh.”
One of the most important elements of our work as agents of justice in this country in this moment is to help our society as a whole become more attuned to this reality of humanized truth, through narrative and witness, listening and solidarity. In this way, you not only witness to the truth through the lives and experiences of the marginalized, you help us all to see the most powerful realities of our world in greater depth. Those realities embrace both scientific findings and stories of tragedy, economic analysis, and the tears of the human heart. “See clearly the situation” is not merely a step in your work on behalf of justice, it shapes everything you do to transform our world.
The fundamental political question of our age is whether our economic structures and systems in the United States will enjoy ever greater autonomy or whether they will be located effectively within a juridical structure which seeks to safeguard the dignity of the human person and the common good of our nation. In that battle, the tradition of Catholic social teaching is unequivocally on the side of strong governmental and societal protections for the powerless, the worker, the homeless, the hungry, those without decent medical care, and the unemployed. This stance flows from the teaching of the Book of Genesis: creation is the gift of God to all of humanity. Thus in the most fundamental way, there is a universal destination for all of the material goods that exist in the world. Wealth is a common heritage, not at its core a right of lineage or acquisition.
For this reason, free markets do not constitute a first principle of economic justice. Their moral worth is instrumental in nature and must be structured by government to accomplish the common good. In Catholic teaching, the very rights which are being denied in our society to large numbers of those who live in our nation are intrinsic human rights: medical care, decent housing, food, work, and the protection of human life from conception to natural death. Catholic teaching sees these rights not merely as points for negotiation, provided only if there is excess in society after the workings of the free market system accomplished their distribution of the nation’s wealth. Rather, these rights are basic claims which every man, woman, and family has upon our nation as a whole.
These fundamental principles which the Church points to as the basis for judgment for every political and social program that structures economic life within the United States. And they are supplemented in Catholic teaching by a grave suspicion about enormous levels of economic inequality in society. Pope Francis made clear the depth of this suspicion two years ago. He said: “Inequality is the root of social evil.” In his encyclical, “The Joy of the Gospel,” Francis unmasked inequality as the foundation for a process of exclusion that cuts immense segments of society off from meaningful participation in social, political, and economic life. It gives rise to a financial system that rules rather than serves humanity and a capitalism that literally kills those who have no utility as consumers.
When I quote the Pope that “this economy kills,” people often say to me, “Oh, come on, that’s just an exaggeration; it’s a form of speech.” I want to do an experiment with you. I want you to sit back in your chair for a moment. Close your eyes and think of someone you have known that our economy has killed: a senior who cannot afford medicine or rent; a mother or father who is dying, working two or three jobs, really dying because they cannot provide for their kids; young people who cannot find their way in the world in which there is no job for them, so they turn to drugs or gangs or suicide. Think of one person you know that this economy has killed. Now mourn them. Now call out their name; let all the world know that this economy kills.
For Catholic social teaching, the surest pathway to economic justice is the provision of meaningful and sustainable work for all men and women capable of work. The “Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church” states: “Economic and social imbalances in the world of work must be addressed by restoring a just hierarchy of values and placing the dignity of workers before all else.” In work, the Church proclaims, men and women find not only the most sustainable avenue to economic security, but also become co-creators with God in the world in which we live. Work is thus profoundly a sacred reality. It protects human dignity even as it spiritually enriches that dignity. If we truly are in our work co-creators with God, don’t we think that deserves at least $15 an hour?
What is the “act” that summarizes how we must act in this moment? I cam up with two words. The first has been provided in our past election. President Trump was the candidate of “disruption.” He said that he was “the disruptor”, challenging the operations of our government and society that need reform. Well now, we must all become disruptors. We must disrupt those who would seek to send troops into our streets to deport the undocumented, to rip mothers and fathers from their families. We must disrupt those who portray refugees as enemies rather than as our brothers and sisters in terrible need. We must disrupt those who train us to see Muslim men, women, and children as forces of fear rather than as children of God. We must disrupt those who seek to rob our medical care, especially from the poor. We must disrupt those who would take even food stamps and nutrition assistance from the mouths of children.
But as people of faith, as disciples of Christ, as children of Abraham, as followers of the Prophet Muhammad, as people of all faiths and no faith, we cannot merely be disruptors, we must also be rebuilders. We must rebuild this nation so that we place at its heart service to the dignity of the human person and assert what the American flag asserts is our heritage: every man, woman, and child is equal in this nation and called to be equal. We must rebuild a nation in solidarity, what Catholic teaching calls the sense that all of us are children of the one God. There are no children of a lesser God in our midst. All of us are called to be cohesive and embrace one another, and see ourselves as graced by God. We are called to rebuild a nation which does pay $15 per hour in wages; a nation which provides decent housing, clothing, and food for those who are poorest. We must rebuild our Earth, which is so much endangered by our own industries. So, let us see and judge and act! Let us disrupt and rebuild in solidarity and peace! Let us do God’s work!
About the Author
His Excellency, Most Reverend Robert W. McElroy was born and raised in San Francisco, California. He is a graduate of Harvard University, Stanford University, the Pontifical Gregorian University, and the Graduate Theological Union. Bishop McElroy was ordained to the priesthood in 1980; served as Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of San Francisco from 2010 until 2015; was named Bishop of San Diego by Pope Francis in April 2015. His episcopal motto is “Dignitatis Humanae,” which translates into English as “Human Dignity.” He delivered the above remarks at the first-ever regional World Meeting of Popular Movements held in the United States in Modesto, California (2-26-17).
Founded in 2007, the Assisi Project is a Fellowship of Franciscans in Spirit that seeks to live the Gospel of Jesus Christ through the inspiration of Saint Francis and Saint Clare of Assisi. Our mission is to serve the Church and to give witness to the Good News of Christ through formation and prayer, pilgrimage and retreat, and educating others about our way of life. In 2018, we will lead our eleventh annual fall pilgrimage to Assisi; meet monthly for Mass, faith formation, and faith sharing; and offer adults other opportunities to experience a Franciscan day of prayer and reflection. For more information about the Assisi Project and upcoming opportunities for formation, prayer, and pilgrimage in the Franciscan spiritual tradition, please contact Cliff Garvey at firstname.lastname@example.org. May the Lord give you peace!
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