The Moment, the Message, the Messenger
The Catholic Church’s social teachings need to be heard today throughout our country. Our church has much to say to this moment. But our collective record in conveying these teachings is rather modest. Can we do better? What voices can be gathered to share our rich and growing heritage of social teachings? And how can the message be delivered in new and more effective ways? Can we learn from the mistakes we have made in our own efforts? There seems to be relatively little willingness on the part of voters and policy makers to hear what Catholics have to say. And when we do speak up, we often give the impression that we are at odds with ourselves and our own church leaders.
To succeed where we have failed in the past we need to become wiser and more resourceful. We need to be both well versed and grounded in our beliefs and moral visions and at the same time cunning in the ways we reach out to those who would otherwise dismiss us.
We can no longer allow ourselves the satisfaction of speaking to a limited audience of like minds, when our goal must be nothing short of the conversion of those who do not agree with us. This will take intelligence and planning. It will not come easy. You cannot have everything you think you might want and be successful in today’s climate, a climate that celebrates a distorted individualism at the cost of human dignity and the collective good - the twin pillars of Catholic social thought.
The next generation of progressive-minded Catholic leaders must do some serious soul-searching. They need to ask themselves why the full range of our church’s social teachings is rarely taught and seldom heard.
With this in mind, and speaking as one who has attempted, albeit with limited success, to spread Catholic social teachings for a quarter century, allow me to share seven points that might be useful. Seven is a good Catholic number. My points grow out of personal experience as well as years of observing the ways of our church.
1. The Power of Sacramental Language
We need to communicate better by using sacramental language. Catholics of left, right and center share a sacramental view of the world, whether they can articulate it or not. To think sacramentally is to be Catholic. To speak sacramentally is to infuse our conversations with mystery and symbols. Tom Groome understands this. So do Joan Chittister and Edwina Gately. And so do Andrew Greeley and Eugene Kennedy. Each has written in sacramental language concerning our shared visions of reality.
Expressing ourselves sacramentally means understanding that the ordinary in our lives at all times touches the extra-ordinary, the sacred. Our traditional Catholic view is really quite compatible with modern science and evolving notions of cosmology. We speak of a living universe, a cosmos consciousness, the sacredness of life, the unity of spirit and matter. All this is very Catholic talk. It is also hopeful talk. We need not shy away from proclaiming the sacred in all life, indeed in all creation.
To be practical, this means that when we speak of the Gospel challenges and of Catholic social teaching, which flows out of them, we should infuse our language with Catholic sacramental ideals. I am not speaking of some vague sacramental utterance. I mean we need to link our sacraments, the seven officially defined and the countless unofficial ones, with the physical and social challenges we face as sons and daughters of God.
We need to link the water of our baptism with the rights of all humans to fresh and lifegiving water. We need to link the food of the Eucharist with the rights of all people to eat and come to the eucharistic banquet as equals and as loving brothers and sisters. It means that the anointing oil of confirmation calls us to be healers and nurturers. It means that we are first and foremost brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, and only secondarily citizens of a given nation. These are radical stances. They also ring true to the soul of Catholics worldwide.
My next three points are intended to keep young idealists from stumbling as they come to the moral forum of social issues. My fear is that early mistakes could hobble an organization’s effectiveness for years to come.
2. Commitment to Fetal Life
Unabashedly support fetal life, mothers and pregnant women. A Catholic sacramental view of creation supports the sacredness of life across the spectrum. For Catholics who feel that the criminalization of abortion is not the most practical way to combat abortion, the onus is especially strong to work for social, economic and political reforms that support fetal life and the lives of mothers and children. Fighting abortion cannot be a back-burner issue. It needs to be on the progressives’ front agenda. Political efforts to reduce abortions dramatically in America are key.
Without an array of such supportive efforts, Catholic social teaching is seriously compromised and the sacramental vision our church upholds makes less sense. Progressives need to support and nurture life across the board. Once it is clear they do, without exceptions, they can open up greater dialogue in America for building a truly compassionate society. Supporting fetal life will furthermore expose the shallowness of those on the right who claim to support life, but frequently end up abandoning newborns at birth.
3. A Moratorium on Church Renewal
Put aside, at least for now, the church renewal issues. I know this can sound like treason. As a practical matter, progressive Catholic voices need to come together around the pressing social, economic and political issues that face the wider human family and our seemingly mortally wounded planet. As one who has vigorously supported church renewal since the Second Vatican Council, I think I can speak with some authority here. A moratorium on church renewal may be in order.
Believe me, I understand the connection between Catholic renewal and Catholic social teachings. It can be summed up in these words: An institution that does not practice justice is unlikely to be an effective voice for justice in the world. That said, it is also clear that progressive Catholics who have pushed courageously for reform in the church for decades have been ostracized by their bishops and have been marginalized in the church. The result has been that the very pressing moral messages the world needs to hear from thoughtful and challenging Catholics have been minimized.
We are at a new moment in the church, entering a new pontificate. It is unlikely that Catholic institutional renewal efforts will gain much ground in the short run. At the same time, the social teachings that propel Catholic thought, teachings that urgently need to be heard, have been diminished because of the marginalization of the very voices that need to be heard. If Catholic progressives were to put aside renewal for the time being and focus on the world’s social issues, they could not be denied the church forums needed to enhance calls for serious social change.
4. Speak the Beatitudes
To those who will speak out, I say cultivate language that grows out of the Beatitudes. Consider lacing your language with words that touch on compassion and forgiveness and nonviolence and mercy. Ground yourselves in the Beatitudes. I know the word justice, as in social justice, is high in the progressive lexicon. It has been at the top of my list of favorite words for years. But gradually I have been asking if it scares people away more than it sets a mood for receptiveness in responding to the church’s social teachings. The word justice gets overused and seems to remain too much in an abstract arena apart from most people’s conscious thought and lives. Furthermore, it means different things to different people.
We were raised to pledge allegiance to our flag, ending our pledges with the ringing call for liberty and justice for all. But who in our national leadership speaks of justice? Why is there so little regard for this high ideal? The word itself almost seems un-American these days. The America of today likes to stress liberty and hardly ever mentions justice. Looking back at State of the Union messages by recent presidents, we find liberty mentioned more than justiceabout eight times more. And when President George W. Bush speaks of justice, the word mostly suggests vengeance, as in, We’ll bring ’em to justice.
Maybe it is time for a verbal recall. Might asking for simple fairness stand a better chance? It might not have the ring that good old Bible-thumping justice has. But fairness is a concept more readily understood and altogether less threatening. We need to understand our pulverized audience and how it hears what we have to say. We need to stop speaking to ourselves and figure out ways to reach more effectively those who are less versed in the social issues or in our church’s social teachings. Notice, I write about social teachings and social issues, but refrain from using the words social justice. Who among us can define real justice in today’s world?
5. Affirm the Mission
Know your mission well. Boil it down to 10 words or less. Know what you are about. Every effort to hone your mission represents time well spent. It can evolve, but at any given moment you need to know what you stand for and why you are about the tasks you undertake. A short mission statement will not only help you to know yourself better. It will enable others to hear your message more clearly.
6. The Medium Is the Message
Remember that there should be no separation between how one conveys the message and the message itself. There is nothing sadder than to hear gifted bearers of the good news get dragged into the gutters of anger and violence. There is a place for self-righteousness, I suppose. But make it private, if necessary. Meanwhile, conduct your work and lives with confidence and grace, always nonviolently while never diminishing the dignity of your opponent. Words matter. It is so easy to make exceptions and ridicule others when what we really want to confront is what they have to say. To be effective, especially in our broadcast-driven society, make yourselves the message and never veer from it.
RememberI say this with regretthat the power of persuasion is less in print today than in broadcast journalism and the many new media appearing on the Internet, changing the way and the pace of idea exchanges. I am an unrepentant print person. But I recognize the power of imagery and the need for almost reckless speed in responding to the issues of the day. Dangers lurk in these dark waters, but they cannot be avoided. I hope it is a phase; I suspect it is not. So any Catholic organization that wants to preach the fullness of the church’s social teachings must be readily available to the media, articulate on the issues and quick with well thought out responses. Not easy, but possible.
7. Community and Prayer
We live in an environment that stresses individual satisfaction at the cost of the wider collective good. The issue has to do with identity. Other cultures, especially Asian cultures, for example, use the same word for brothers and sisters as they do for cousins. It is common for Vietnamese brothers and sisters who have recently immigrated to the United States to pool their incomes. We are told that virtually any tax, especially any redistributive tax, works against human progress. Education that stresses the common good, starting with the notion of the primary nature of the global family, is necessary, but does not go far and deep enough.
Prayer, especially meditation, can move us down the collective path by stilling the ego and taking us into a deeper space, the arena of shared being. We are, after all, human beings, not human doings. But we identify ourselves as doers, not as be-ers. It is through the practice of meditation, of much-needed stillness and mindfulness, that we can gain deeper insights into the true nature of Spirit that unites us all and forms our deepest, true identity.
So the social teachings of the Catholic Church require us to teach prayer and meditation? You bet. It is in meditation that Catholic traditions and the spiritual practices of many of the unchurched young can find common ground, opening doors to some of the wider social and economic responsibilities required of us.
The Mystical Body of Christ, after all, is inclusive, coming out of the rich Catholic tradition and full of possibilities for reaching the modern mind. But like Catholic social teachings, its cosmic nature and the consequent responsibilities are too infrequently taught. The Catholic vision, mystic to the core, after all, is catholic, collective and challenging. It might not be that people are not listening; it might rather be that we have yet to grasp the fullness of what we have been gifted to spread to a hungry world.
A Final Word
Remembering the above seven points, of course, does not assure success. Disregarding them, however, could seriously damage the carrier of the word and the message itself. Also remember that anyone who wants to stand up for change, who attempts to become a voice for the poor and marginalized, who advocates basic fairness, who speaks of compassion and forgiveness, is going to face gale-like opposition. That voice will quickly attract many opponents. The status quo is enormously resistant to change. So be persistent and consistent and focused. Your opponents will be. Meanwhile exude charity. In Christian matters, the means are the ends. Be smart; be wise. Respect your opponentsand don’t give them any rope to drag you down.