When you’re out in
parishes, what’s your impression of the average Catholic’s
grasp of Catholic social teaching?
I did a number of presentations in parishes last fall on
Faithful Citizenship, the U.S. bishops’ letter on political
responsibility, and I saw a rampant lack of understanding of
Catholic social thought. At one parish it degenerated into a
shouting match between a Kerry supporter and a Bush
supporter, with one screaming that this administration is
massacring thousands of Iraqis in the war, and the other
saying, “You really don’t care about unborn babies.” It
really got ugly.
At some parishes it turned out to
be a very partisan experience. People expected me to tell
them how Catholic social teaching shows that their candidate
is clearly Catholic and the other is clearly not. Of course,
I didn’t do that. I took the approach of Faithful
Citizenship, which was an approach that frankly satisfied no
one in the room, neither the Kerry nor the Bush supporters.
It was interesting that the same
people who were praising the pope for having a very strong
stance on abortion and stem cell research were absolutely
opposed to his positions on war and peace and capital
punishment. There’s a curious disconnect between people’s
views on life issues and the Catholic Church’s position on
social issues. In general, Catholics are not skilled at
looking at issues of politics and social morality from the
standpoint of faith.
We haven’t trained them to do it. Issues of social justice
are not heard from the pulpit. Most of our priests simply
don’t know how to preach on those issues or are afraid to.
When I ask my students what they
have heard about social justice issues, most of them say
that apart from the Advent giving tree or a Confirmation
service project, nothing. So their understanding of Catholic
social teaching is that we should be engaged in works of
charity for the unfortunate but not in critiquing social
But what distinguishes the church’s
contemporary concern for the poor is that we work not only
to relieve the obvious symptoms of poverty but also to
attack the causes of poverty. In other words: Yes, I need to
give my old clothing to the homeless, but I also need to
ask, “Why is there homelessness?” It’s not either/or; it’s
both/and. We must offer the response of charity but also
remember the demands of justice. What are the structural
conditions that lead to people being in need in the first
But we haven’t taught our people
how to be political without being partisan. We need to
discuss these issues in a way that calls both major parties
to task rather than saying that Catholic social teaching
supports one as being the “Catholic party” and the other one
How can we be political
without being partisan?
Catholic social teaching is not intended to give us
definitive answers. It can give us a lens to use to look at
social reality from a standpoint of faith.
At the Faithful Citizenship
programs, I closed with a section on political discernment
called “How to decide when neither candidate is perfect.” I
talked about the importance of prayer, of listening to the
debates, and then turning off the TV and asking yourself,
“What did I hear concerning care for the environment?
Concerning care for the poor and the vulnerable? Concerning
the common good? What did I hear about advancing peace and
the promotion of justice for all, not just for myself? What
did I hear about a global sense of solidarity?” Then take
that to prayer and use those questions to reach a judgment.
So what exactly is Catholic
It’s a body of teaching given by the leaders of the church,
usually the pope or bishops, that seeks to apply the
insights of the scriptures and Christian convictions to
issues of social, political, and economic importance in
contemporary life. It’s generally seen as beginning with
Rerum Novarum (Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encylical on capital and
labor) and continuing to the present, the latest document
being the just-released compendium of Catholic social
teaching (see sidebar on page 21).
Catholic social teaching basically
tries to answer the question, “Now that I’m a disciple of
Christ, what does that discipleship mean for living in
What are some of those
Catholic social teaching makes no sense unless you realize
that at its core is a conviction of the intrinsic sacred
dignity of the human person—that all people, regardless of
race, class, gender, sexual orientation, or any human
characteristic, are sons and daughters of God and have a
dignity that is not a human conferral. In other words, our
responsibility is not to give dignity to other people but to
recognize and protect dignity that is already there.
The second point of Catholic social
teaching flows from that and says that every human being, by
virtue of being human, has certain fundamental human rights,
including the rights to food, clothing, shelter, medical
care, basic education, a living wage, and the right to work
in a safe environment.
Another major foundation of
Catholic social thought is that we are bound to each other
in a network of care, called solidarity. So there’s no such
thing as a “self-made” man or woman. I can only become who
God meant me to be by rubbing shoulders with lots of
different people. That also means that we all are truly
responsible for everyone.
A final pillar of Catholic social
teaching is that the poor and the vulnerable have a special
claim upon the Christian conscience. I think this is the
most controversial aspect of Catholic social teaching in the
Is the church saying that
God favors poor people?
It doesn’t mean that the poor are holier than others or more
moral or more upstanding. It does mean that because the poor
are often most vulnerable and most targeted for
exploitation, God has a special concern and care for them,
and the community should also have a special concern and
care for them.
It’s like when I was the only one
of my siblings who never had my tonsils out. When you got
your tonsils out, you were treated like royalty: You got ice
cream for dessert and didn’t have to walk the dog. I
remember going to my mom and being very upset, saying, “You
love them more than you love me.” My mom explained to me
that she loved all her children, but that the others were
sick and needed her more than I did. My mother wasn’t a
theologian, but she perfectly explained the option for the
Earlier you used the term
“common good.” What does that mean?
It’s our public life together that makes human flourishing
possible. Another way of explaining common good is to use
the African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child.”
People can’t achieve their human potential in isolation or
apart from what’s going on in society around them.
In the U.S. we’ve segmented our
social lives, with people living in gated communities and
trying to live their lives in social bubbles so they don’t
have to deal with “undesirable elements.” But that’s a myth.
The idea that you can have a healthy community in isolation
from the wider society is simply ludicrous.
Americans learned on September 11
that we are connected to the world, whether we choose to be
or not. We cannot gate ourselves; we are far more
interdependent than we want to admit.
What is the teaching called
the “social mortgage”?
Pope John XXIII was the first to use that expression in his
social teaching, but it’s a very ancient insight from the
Fathers of the church. It says that ownership of private
property is not an absolute right. It must always be used on
behalf of the common good of society. My property is not
simply mine to do whatever I want with it. Whatever I own is
ultimately a gift from God. We’re simply stewards of these
goods to be administered as God would intend them to be
Does that tie into
Yes, because we’ve become a nation of consumers rather than
citizens. Pope John Paul II’s teaching on
consumerism—perhaps the least appreciated aspect of his
social teaching—says that in a consumer society, personal
worth is determined by what you have, how much you have, and
your ability to get more. Having replaces being.
Besides reducing ourselves to our
possessions, consumerism also means the poor are literally
worthless. In a consumerist society what the poor have isn’t
worth having, and they certainly can’t get more. So then, as
the pope says, they are seen as “irksome intruders,” trying
to consume what others have produced.
I believe that one of the next
great frontiers of Catholic social thought will be to
examine what it means to be a Christian in a consumerist
society. In the U.S. we’re living on an island of affluence
surrounded by an ocean of misery.
Why hasn’t any bishop said
that politicans who don’t make the needs of the poor a
priority can’t receive Communion, as some did with abortion?
Many bishops and most Catholics approach moral issues from
the standpoint of identifying individual actors who are
personally responsible. That comes from a very traditional
understanding of sin in which you need to have personal
knowledge plus the freedom to commit this act that you know
is against the moral law.
In that framework it’s much easier
to go to Confession and say, “Father, I confess that I
helped my girlfriend procure an abortion,” versus going into
the confessional saying, “Father, I aided and abetted a
society that’s morally indifferent to the poor.”
This same kind of tension is also
found in our teaching on racism. The U.S. bishops’ teaching
is far more willing to condemn racism when it’s a matter of
blatant acts of prejudice or discrimination perpetrated by
an individual or group of individuals, such as people who
would burn a cross on the yard of an interracial couple’s
home or an employer who consciously refuses to hire African
Americans or Latinos. It’s much more reticent in critiquing
a social system that perpetrates racial inequality on
I don’t think many bishops, nor
many Catholics, truly understand what we mean when we talk
about structures of sin or social sin.
What exactly is social sin?
Social institutions and processes are not morally neutral;
they reflect the values and the biases of those who create
and maintain them.
So let’s say, for the sake of
argument, there was a society that believed that men were
more valuable or superior to women. If that’s a widespread
value in a society, then you’re going to create systems of
language, religion, economics, and family life that reflect
that bias. That’s what we mean by social sin.
We are then born into a world
already formed by these structures, and we grow up thinking
that these structures and the values that they incarnate are
perfectly normal and legitimate. One of the characteristics
of social sin, then, is that we’re often blind to its
How does the concept of
social sin apply to the issue of racism, for example?
One of the key concepts in contemporary thinking about
racial justice is white privilege. Because we live in a
society that attaches a pervasive social stigma to dark skin
color, those with light skin color have certain advantages,
privileges, and benefits that persons of color do not enjoy.
Conversely, people of color have certain systemic
disadvantages, burdens, and stigmas that they have to
From a white perspective everything
is normal, because white people don’t see the advantages
that are inherent simply by being born in society with
physical characteristics prized by society.
It shows up in common everyday
occurrences, such as the fact that people often express
surprise that an African American is “intelligent” and
“articulate.” I wish I had $5 for every time a white person
has said that to me! It shows how they’ve been malformed by
an ethos that they aren’t even aware of. That’s the
structural sin of white privilege and white advantage.
What still needs to be done
Perhaps the area of race relations that is most resistant to
change is housing. African Americans still encounter far
more pervasive discrimination in the process of housing
selection and mortgage lending than any other racial or
ethnic group. This is important because residence is
significant for determining so many things—access to
education, health care, even wealth.
African Americans are still more
racially segregated than either Latinos or Asians. Some
people think that’s due to their own preference, that they
want to “live with their own kind.” Yet, on paper, both
blacks and whites say they want to live in an integrated
neighborhood. But each has a very different understanding of
what “integrated” is.
African Americans would see the
most desirable racial mixture as 35 to 50 percent black. For
most whites, that’s too much integration. Studies show that
8 percent black is the tolerance level for whites. So racial
segregation is a major place where we need to look at making
systemic changes if we’re going to move beyond where we are
Another thing—and this may sound
very elementary—is that, because of enduring residential
segregation, most white people have very little chance to
talk to a black person concretely about his or her life
experience. Without that, you’re not going to make
substantial progress in race relations. And this is where
the Catholic Church can make a very powerful contribution,
because the Catholic community cuts across all income and
We are not taught how to talk about
race in an interracial context. Whites talk about race among
themselves, blacks talk about race among themselves, Latinos
talk about race among themselves. But when we get together,
there is this strange code of civility that results in
silence or avoidance. And as long as that’s there, there’s
very little chance for any kind of understanding to take
Tell us about the new
pastoral letter on racism that you’re assisting the bishops
First let me say that the first pastoral letter on racism,
Brothers and Sisters to Us, was a very significant
achievement for the Catholic community. For the first time
in the history of the United States, the bishops of the
United States declared that racism is a sin. That was a
pretty bold and significant move.
It also was one of the first
documents that began to look at what the bishops called
“anonymous sinfulness”—that the sinfulness of racism wasn’t
carried simply by deliberate acts of malicious individuals;
it could be carried by a social system.
But that document was not without
its flaws. Just consider the title the bishops used:
Brothers and Sisters to Us. Who’s the “us”? This was a
document for white people, addressed to white people. Our
teaching is not done from the perspective of those who are
the victims of this injustice.
And the world today is not the
world of 1979, when the document was written. There has been
a seismic shift in the demographic composition of the U.S.
The last census revealed that less than two thirds of
Americans belong to the “white-only” group.
So what do you see as the
greatest internal challenge for the church when it comes to
According to the website of the U.S. Conference of Catholic
Bishops, 46 percent of the Catholic Church in America is
people of color. You wouldn’t know that by looking at the
leadership of the church—not just the bishops but also the
leaders in our major Catholic organizations and
The Catholic Church can’t be
credible in talking about racism if it doesn’t call itself
to account. The demographic shift that’s going on within the
Catholic Church is posing urgent questions it has to address
if it’s going to remain viable. The church is getting
browner. It has to adjust to that reality.
Another issue the bishops need to
address is new forms of resistance to racial inclusion as
the dominant group feels threatened by its loss of numbers.
What are some of those new
forms of resistance?
The glass-ceiling phenomenon would be one. Studies have
shown that while African Americans experience few barriers
in being admitted to entry-level positions, when it comes to
promotion to middle or senior management, that’s when women
and racial minorities encounter the next barrier. I call it
the resurgence of tokenism, where people of color are
present but in limited numbers and in very limited kinds of
Another form of resistance is the
use of the Internet as a tool for racist propaganda. If you
Google the “N-word,” you are directed to millions of sites,
some with the most vile forms of racial intolerance that are
deliberately targeted at kids. We also have the rise of
white supremacist music targeted at young people.
Another form of resistance is what
I call “rational racism” or “reasonable discrimination.”
That’s when people say, “Granted, not all blacks are lazy,
dumb, and violent, but most are, and therefore, I am
justified in treating you as if you are until you prove that
That would seem to be progress,
since they’re not saying all black people are lazy, dumb,
and violent. But it puts the person of color in the hole, so
they’re always having to prove themselves. That justifies,
for example, cab drivers passing by an African American. So
the cab driver’s not being prejudiced, he’s simply
exercising a “rational” form of caution
How can the church help
with issues of racial justice?
It needs to be proactive, conscious, and intentional in
promoting the fact that one of the glories of being Catholic
is that we have people who share our faith but who don’t
look like us.
At my parish in Milwaukee, All
Saints, because we’re predominantly an African American
parish and we have a gospel choir, we always get suburban
parishes who send their religious education classes to our
church. Afterward I’ll go to our visitors, who are always
white, and I’ll say, “Why are you here?” Most of them look
uncomfortable and say they don’t know.
So I have them look around, I point
out the variety of people present, and I say, “This is why
you are here. You are here because you are practicing for
the kingdom of God. Because when you get to the kingdom, not
everyone is going to look like you.”
No one has ever talked to them
about race relations like that, in the context of faith.
That is one of my missions in life, to engage the issue of
race, not simply as a justice issue, although it is that,
but to engage it in the light of faith.
appeared in the February 2005 (Volume 70; Number 2: pages
18-22) issue of U.S. Catholic. U.S. Catholic is published by
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