I had occasion recently to read two books by Donal Dorr almost back to back. One is a new edition ( widely revised and updated) of his classic 1982 text, Option for the Poor. The second was a book entitled, Spirituality: Our Deepest Heart's Desire ( The Columba Press, 2008). The two prompted me to think again about the important topic of putting spirituality and Catholic Social Teaching together more closely. Alas, usual accounts of Catholic Social Teaching almost exclusively present it as a moral or ethical vision, un-rooted in the spiritual practices necessary to anchor it. Much of what passes as spirituality in our contemporary world lacks much depth in its social analysis of the structural context of our world.
Dorr, an Irish priest, is a former consultor to the Pontifical Commission for Justice and Peace ( which takes special interest in social topics such as economic development, immigration, ecological issues). But Dorr has also provided training and support in offering workshops on spirituality.
Option for the Poor was an excellent text, for my money the best general introduction to Catholic Social Teaching for beginners. But it is now almost twenty years old. Hence, Orbis Press is about to publish this fall a new, revised and updated version, to carry it through much of the papacy of John Paul II and the social encyclical of Benedict XVI. It has gained a revised title to capture the newer inclusion of ecological concern in papal social teaching since 1992. It is now called, Option for the Poor and for the Earth. It presents a careful analysis of papal social documents and also pronouncements by Synods of Bishops and also from the Pontifical Commission for Justice and Peace. It does exegesis as well of other papal pronouncents, outside encyclicals, found in the various addresses of the popes on social issues.Orbis Press sent me an advance copy to offer some words of endorsement for the book jacket. I noted, in my endorsement, Dorr's appreciation of the decided strengths of Catholic Social Teaching but also his critique of some of its inconsistencies and weaknesses or lacunae. I think it is an indispensable tool for anyone wanting to know the thrust, direction, inner tensions and strengths of the Catholic vision for human dignity, the good society, economic development, globalization. In a sense, this new book simply has no real peer as a reliable, illuminating and helpful introduction to understand Catholic Social Thought.
Just now, of course, we may need a judicious understanding of that important tradition because of some bizarre claims by Representative Paul Ryan that his budget proposal ( which is anything but an option for the poor!) and that his proposals to scale back federal concern for education, health, a safety net for the poor are in accord with Catholic Social Teaching. Our best kept secret is always in danger of being domesticated or distorted for ideological purposes.
I had occasion last fall to write an essay ( it will eventually be a chapter in a book) for a conference, at Louvain University in Belgium, on Catholic Social Movements and Catholic Social Teaching. Many of these movements ( e.g. The Community of San Egidio, Pax Christi, Jesuit Refugee Service, Catholics concernedd with the environment) do in fact take Catholic Social Teaching quite seriously. For them, it is not, as for the majority of Catholics, the church's best kept secret. In my essay I focused on Pax Christi ( an international Catholic group working for non-violent conflict resolution and the reduction of war); Jesuit Refugee Service ( a worldwide presence of Jesuits and volunteers in refugee camps providing medical aid, education and fighting for humanitarian rights) and The Green Sisters ( some fifty ecological centers run by Roman Catholic sisters in the United States which have organic gardens, give their surplus to the poor, conduct workshops on environmental responsibility).
Compared to more general papal social encyclicals or Vatican social teaching about peace, justice, human rights etc, these three groups had the luxury of specializing on one issue and going in depth into it. They also bolster and encapsulate their social justice work with deep layers of spirituality.
Because Dorr places emphasis both on social justice movements and advocacy and, simultaneously, spirituality, he would know that, without an ongoing life of prayer and rich religious symbols, those working for justice, the more humane restructuring of the world economy, justice for refugees and immigrants, fighting human trafficking etc. can easily burn out. Or their vision can degenerate into a purely secular, political vision. Dorr insists, then, that social justice activists need a spirituality of intimacy with God, with friends. They need to know their own vulnerability to pass over to the vulnerabilities of others. If spirituality entails, as Walter Burghardt used to put it, a long, lingering, loving look at the real, it brings us face to face not with a remote God but one who is present and at work in the world around us, grieving over its injustices and failures to respect human dignity and enticing us to make our real world more in the image of God's kingdom.
Without a continusous life of spirituality ( pausing, listening, praying, going deeper, examining our actions) there is a danger that social justice activists, in trying to read the signs of the times, will rest content with analytic and empirical data and not read what is happening in our world, our nation, our local communities, through the eyes of God's vision of a reign of justice, respect, reverence even for all, especially the weak, the vulnerable those who lack voice. Without spirituality, there is the other danger of being pusillanimous, failing truly to advocate and work for real just social change. It takes courage to fight against odds, in season and out.
Spirituality entails being present to God, present to ourselves and to others and to the world which surrounds us. An option for the poor is merely abstract or theoretical or maybe dangerous if it does not involve actually experiencing the poor and marginalized, being with them in some real sense. As Dorr says: " If we now face the reality of living in ' a global village' the next step that is required is a major expansion of the virtue of humanitarian solidarity and concern."
Dorr is also keenly aware that spirituality involves moral judgements about action. Morality is a key element in any authentic spirituality. Hence, he has chapters in Spirituality: Our Deepest Heart's Desire on a spirituality of human rights; a spirituality of social justice; ecological spirituality ( both its contemplative aspect and its active aspect). He inveighs against " the highly individualistic conception of spirituality which is so common in the West today." Spirituality, if it only involves meditation and going deeper into one's self can, often, be quite delusional. That is why we need directors or what the Irish used to call ' soul friends' to help us to see ( all that is real, even what we do not want to see), judge ( in the light of the gospel) and act. Without a real spirituality, we will not go beyond seeing to judging in the light of the gospel. But without a real sense of the social imperatives toward the common good found in Catholic Social Teaching, we may never come to act.As Jesus commanded us, it is not those who cry ' Lord, Lord' who will be saved but those who do the will of the father.
In a sense, Dorr ( who is quite sympathetic to Ignatian spirituality) reminds us in these two books that we are called to be contemplatives but in action. It is a life-time task and we will all surely stumble and go astray in one direction or the other. But the virtue of Dorr's books is to remind us of the direction a true spiritual life ( in our inter-dependent world rife with hunger, preventable illnesses, violation of human rights, unjust structures of oppression, a humanly caused degenerating environmental surround) must take.