Putting Spirituality and Catholic Social Teaching Together

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. 

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Stanley Kopacz
6 years 7 months ago
Maybe I need these books.  Spirituality does not come easily to me these days as I sense an oncoming collapse in environment, resources and sustainability of our civilization.  Spaceship Earth is presently a ship of fools, I'm afraid.  This keeps me at a level of anger that is incompatible with spirituality.  I see spirituality as slow and nurturing.  Meanwhile, materialism and greed (and understandable economic desperation) are mowing down the world fast like a giant weedwhacker.
Jim McCrea
6 years 7 months ago
Can overfed rich people be happy? The Reign of God makes practical demands.
Joe Kash
6 years 7 months ago
Can overfed rich people like President Obama and Vice President Biden get to heaven by being forced with threat of jail-time and forcing other with threat of jail time to give to poor people through taxes?  Or is it better to be like Governor Romney who donates all of his fathers money and over 10% of his own money voluntarily?
Rick Fueyo
6 years 7 months ago
“I suggest you read Charles Murray's 'Losing Ground', Myron Magnet's 'The Dream and the Nightmare' and Charles Murray's latest book, 'Coming Apart.'  There are others but this will make the case very dramatically.”
I have read reviews of the books in critiques of the methodology.  It's pretty telling that you only address statistics regarding black illegitimacy, and cite Murray’s latest book, since his primary thesis is that the social indicia cited was even effecting the white population, although I acknowledge that he is best known, at least in social science circles, for his racist tome, “The Bell Curve”.  They are only half a step above Jonah Goldberg is terms of results oriented nonsense
David Frum takes apart his reasoning here - http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/02/06/charles-murray-book-review.html
The far more significant is that or permission for the breakdown to describe is economic, but of course that's not of interest to Murray’s readers, as they hail from a political coalition that conspicuously seeks to advance policies to further suppress their wages.
And of course you know make the point that we’ve harmed the poor by being too generous to them, that they have it too good, a la the WSJ’s “Lucky Duckies.”
And then we learned this week from a Federal Reserve that the poor have had a 35% decrease in wealth between the years 2001-2010, while the rich have had a 16% increase in wealth.  So by your logic and that of Murray, you should see the poor impove of their moral failings brought about by excess, as the deprivation will steer them back to the narrow road.
J Cosgrove
6 years 7 months ago
''I acknowledge that he is best known, at least in social science circles, for his racist tome, “The Bell Curve”''

I suggest you read the two Murray books I mentioned and also read the Bell Curve especially his afterword.  He was well known prior to writing the Bell Curve with Richard Herrnstein.  Calling someone a racist is another example of what I was talking about.  I assume you have read the book to make such a comment.  If so then maybe you could detail why it is racist.  If not, then your comment was really inappropriate and indicative of the problem I said was common here.

And by the way, Frum praises ''Losing Ground.''

Finding a negative review is not an indictment of anything just as finding a positive review.  I suggest you specify just why it is not an insightful analysis of the Great Society/War on Poverty.  A lot of things happened in the 60's, the proliferation of the pill, a cultural revolution which included a very strong sexual component, a sea change in attitudes towards what causes poverty and massive government intervention into the lives of the underclass.  All four can be identified with the destruction of the Black community but in very differnt ways.  It was indeed a Witches Brew.  Each of these forces had secondary and tertiary effects, few of them positive.

I have met Charles Murray, have read a lot about him and read a lot of what he wrote.  He is one of the most decent human beings on the planet.  So to call him a racist, is beyond the pale but not untypical.  In a later printing of the Bell Curve, he included an afterword about the reception of the book.  Most of this afterword is on the Amazon web site for the book.  After reading it, you may want to retract your comment.

For Fr. Coleman, the editors and other readers.  I am sorry this got sidelined with a discussion of Charles Murray but in reality his writings have a lot to say on social justice and how good intentions go awry and end up hurting the poor instead on helping them.
J Cosgrove
6 years 7 months ago
I will ask two questions that I have asked before since they both seem very relevant to this post.

First, what is spirituality?  I have asked it before but haven't seen a satisfactory answer to it despite the frequent use of the term.  There seems to an equivalence with self examination here.  It is certainly used a lot in this OP.

Second, is something socially just or Catholic Social Teaching if it hurts the poor even if it has good intentions?  And related, is Catholic Social Teaching different from what is socially just?  Or are they just different terms for the same idea?

Beth Cioffoletti
6 years 7 months ago

1. Spirituality is your relationship with God, how you define that and how you live it.

2. Catholic social teaching is justice.  Justice does not hurt the poor ( or anyone ).  Justice is rooted in the nature of God. 
Thomas Farrell
6 years 7 months ago
Fr. Coleman:

The ancient Hebrew prophet Amos and certain other ancient Hebrew prophets called for economic justice (also known as social justice) within the covenant community.

But it is not likely that the historical Jesus did.

I know, I know, John Dominic Crossan likes to connect the kingdom of God with imagined economic justice. However, I think Crossan is wrong about that.

Even so, even Crossan allows, as do other critical biblical scholars, that the historical Jesus was proclaiming the kingdom of God (also known as the reign of God).

Because you are a member of the Society of Jesus (also known as Companions of Jesus), I would urge you to give up your concerns about social justice as you understand it and devote your time and energies instead to proclaiming the reign of God and to urging people, including poor people, to seek the reign of God in their lives.

To get you started in redirecting your energies to proclaiming the reign of God, you should study the new book by Anthony de Mello, S.J. (1931-1987), a clinical psychologist and spiritual director in India: RECOVERING LIFE: AWAKEN TO REALITY.

Tony makes it clear that even poor people can be happy. That's good news.

In effect, what Tony describes as being happy is living under the reign of God that the historical Jesus proclaimed.
Stanley Kopacz
6 years 7 months ago
Can starving poor people be happy?  The Reign of God makes practical demands.
Beth Cioffoletti
6 years 7 months ago
I don't know how you can awaken to reality (or the reign of God) without some sense of justice, and the relation between those that have and those that don't.

The essence of the Gospel, in my opinion, is rooted in the concept and mystery of chesed - the power and mercy of God made manifest in our compassion.

"The mystery of the Good Samaritan is this, then: the mystery of chesed, power and mercy. In the end, it is Christ Himself who lies wounded by the roadside. It is Christ Who comes by in the person of the Samaritan. And Christ is the bond, the compassion and understanding between them. This is how the Church is made of living stones, compacted together in mercy. Where there is on the one hand a helpless one, beaten and half dead, and on the other an outcast with no moral standing and the one leans down in pity to help the other, then there takes place a divine epiphany and awakening. There is "man," there reality is made human, and in answer to this movement of compassion, a Presence is made on the earth, and the bright cloud of the majesty of God overshadows their poverty and their love. There may be no consolation in it. There may be nothing humanly charming about it. It is not necessarily like the movies. Perhaps the encounter is outwardly sordid and unattractive. But the Presence of God is brought about on earth there, and Christ is there, and God is in communion with man."
Thomas Merton. Seasons of Celebration. (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1950): 181-182.
J Cosgrove
6 years 7 months ago

''Spirituality is your relationship with God, how you define that and how you live it.''

The problem I have with this definition is that it is very vague.  It could mean anything or very different things to different people.  It could mean whatever one does even if you do not believe in God.  That is why I have asked this question before and it would be interesting to see how Fr. Coleman defines it.  He certainly uses the term a lot.

''Catholic social teaching is justice.  Justice does not hurt the poor ( or anyone ).  Justice is rooted in the nature of God. ''

Justice is notoriously hard to define and this problem was made famous by Plato's discussion of Socrates and his quest for a definition of justice.  Even Socrates would agree that it would not be just to hurt the defenseless but that does not really get at just what justice is.

I maintain that many of the programs that people have espoused over the years to help the poor have actually hurt them big time.  So what a lot of people recommend would not be socially just and a lot of what is called Catholic Social Teaching is not socially just.  That seems to be at the essence of a lot of the disagreements between so called ''liberals'' and ''conservatives.''  Both who claim these titles say what they espouse helps the poor more.  So the contention is over tactics not objectives.  If everyone had that understanding then there might be more civil conversations here and elsewhere instead of attacking someone's motives like it is a given they are wrong and needs no discussion.

For example, you have said I am interested in coddling the rich.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  I have nothing against the rich per se and I am certainly not one of them and I do not desire that they get richer.  I just happen to believe that the secret to helping the poor lies mainly with what the rich do and not the government.  I believe there is ample data to support that and we can then disagree on whether that is a good interpretation or not.  But instead we go oft with demonizing rhetoric which assumes that we are the right ones and those who disagree with us are prima facie wrong and no discussion ensues.
Rick Fueyo
6 years 7 months ago
"I maintain that many of the programs that people have espoused over the years to help the poor have actually hurt them big time."

This position remains absurd no matter how often repeated. 

I appreciate I appreciate that it's oft repeated right-wing shibboleth, let's be appreciated for what it is, an attempt to assuage consciences, to use the big lie to rationalize a position which is understood on a commonsense issue to be wrong.

This reminds me of the individual who wants to wear a mink floorlength coat but also wants the company, who convinces herself that all of the minks that make up her coat died from natural causes. 

I realize that those that read and drink from the Conintern are immune to external  empirical reality, but just look at the example of Jesus.  He did not help hungry the masses by withholding the loaves and fishes to avoid moral hazard, because he understood it was not a hazard.

To pretend that the poor are being harmed when they are being helped is just to rationalize evil 
6 years 7 months ago
I maintain than many businesses established over the years to make money have failed, and I conclude, therefore, that only a fool goes into business. I can quote Plato on that subject, but Plato wrote a lot and maybe he was just saying, you know what I mean?

Beth, thank you for wrestling with the problem. To those who have the problem and need to be wrestled with, I'd suggest they read the Donal Door books Father Coleman recommended. They seem to cover exactly the points you don't understand.  No sense arguing in a vacuum.
Lawson Hunsicker
6 years 7 months ago
''But instead we go oft with demonizing rhetoric which assumes that we are the right ones and those who disagree with us are prima facie wrong and no discussion ensues.''

Rick, looks like you proved JR's point. Ironic.
J Cosgrove
6 years 7 months ago
''This position remains absurd no matter how often repeated. ''

Have you taken a look at some of the inner cities?  There is close to 70% illegitimacy in the Black community, and 40% for all children currently born.  I do not believe these are absurd observations unless you believe the devastating poverty for the underclass is deserved or desired.  The sexual revolution fostered by our liberal elite along with the perverse incentives of the War on Poverty and other social program created a real witches brew that has produced a new form of enslavement for a large part of our population where fatherless children is the norm not the exception.

I suggest you read Charles Murray's ''Losing Ground'', Myron Magnet's ''The Dream and the Nightmare'' and Charles Murray's latest book, ''Coming Apart.''  There are others but this will make the case very dramatically.
Joe Kash
6 years 7 months ago

Rick F. has a point.  Just look at the Washington DC Public School system and how all of this big government spending helps those poor kids.  Social Justice at its finest!  If we only spent more in DC not only would the teachers be happier but maybe this preferential option for the poor would even teach them to read.
Vince Killoran
6 years 7 months ago
Thanks Rick for pointing out how free marketers play a kind  of Twister to get away from engaging with capitalism's serious dificiencies.

Please, let's not trot out Charles Murray and the War on Poverty again!  We've debated that many, many times on this site.

David Backes
6 years 7 months ago
Stanley (#3), given your analysis of the predicament we are in, and how it is blocking your spiritual development, I'd invite you to take a look at my New Wood blog.  Here's the description from the main page: ''We live in a finite world. There’s only so much oil, only so much gas, only so much coal. And there’s only so much time. In a century likely to be defined by limits, redirecting our seemingly infinite desires is the major challenge. If we succeed, it will be because during this century we took seriously the spiritual journey, and listened again to ancient wisdom—not out of fear, not out of superstition, but out of understanding, desire, and joy.''


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