I am the product of 14 years of Catholic education, 10 in primary school and four at a Catholic liberal arts college. My teachers will be happy to hear that because of my education I have a deep love for Catholic social teaching. But my interpretation of the principles we are called to follow to make the world a more empathic and just place has changed over the years—and not necessarily for the better.
At 14, I was convinced I could solve poverty if I could get enough vans to go into cities to feed the homeless. At 21, my first instinct when confronted with poverty was to read journals, attend conferences and meet with powerful people. Along the way, I lost some of the practicality and enthusiasm for making people’s lives better right now in favor of top-down, systems-based approaches.
After my liberal arts education, I lost some of the practicality and enthusiasm for making people’s lives better right now.
The Gospel calls people to action: If someone is hungry, give them something to eat. It does not say, “If someone is hungry, understand the systems in place that led to their hunger (especially the cyclical nature of poverty), see what sociological factors led to them being hungry in this particular geographic area, and then write to your congressperson to fix the issue.”
I do not want to give the impression that understanding systems is not important. But an intense focus on these systems can lead to “analysis paralysis,” where action is always put off in favor of more research. I have to remind myself that even though I want to know more about systems of violence and about the intersectionality of race, gender and identity, there comes a time to put down the book and do something. Distributing peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in Milwaukee will not solve poverty, but neither will reading books about poverty for one’s whole life.
This is a critical and necessary time to renew our focus on Catholic social teaching. The natural world is being polluted, divided up and given over to corporations. Attempts to roll back health care programs violate the preferential option for the poor. The Supreme Court has weakened unions and ruled against the rights of workers. Migrant parents and children have been separated at the U.S.-Mexico border, a gross violation of the dignity of the family and the human person.
Distributing peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in Milwaukee will not solve poverty, but neither will reading books about poverty for one’s whole life.
My habit now is to respond to these problems with a curt phone call to a government leader that sounds something like this: “Hello, my name is Mary McConnaha, here is my phone number and zip code, and I would like you to vote this way on this bill.” As a small person in a very large world, I sometimes wonder how else I could make any kind of impact.
But there are more direct ways to live out Catholic social teaching. Many concerned with both care for creation and for the dignity of the human person gathered at the Standing Rock Sioux reservation to protest a pipeline running through Native American soil, coming from hundreds of miles away and risking fines or jail. In your own community, you might participate in a park cleanup or host a group of local refugees or new immigrants to a parish dinner. To support C.S.T.’s call to family, community and participation, you can volunteer to bring Eucharist to the homebound, who often suffer from loneliness and are in need of someone with whom to talk. To live in solidarity with others, you can join peaceful protests and demonstrations with those fighting for the vulnerable. There are an infinite number of ideas, and I hope you will find your own way to live out the call through your vocation.
If we are really to proclaim a love for the poor and vulnerable and a commitment to a more just and humane world, we eventually have to move. I will not stop using social media, writing and researching, as these are all part of my vocation, but those systems-tackling efforts will take time. In the meantime, there are human beings who need support.
We academics and products of liberal arts education need to ask ourselves: How would we have tackled the injustice when we were 14? The answer may lead us in a new, previously untapped direction. We may reach people, even if it is a few, sooner—living out our call to social justice.
Never forget what the 14-year-old you would have responded with when presented with a problem. Without this reminder, you might be overthinking it.