A U.S. bishop reflects on Pope Francis’ challenge to the Mexican bishops.

When Pope Francis delivered a strongly worded speech to the Mexican bishops during his recent visit, I felt both uncomfortable and challenged as a bishop in the United States. I heard clearly that we as bishops cannot just preach the Gospel and then remain on the sidelines while injustices prevail. As spiritual leaders of the church, we must be engaged in promoting the common good more than just guiding others to do so. I realized that as a bishop, I also must pick up the victim of robbers, pour oil and wine over his wounds, bandage them and bring him to the inn.

I recalled the words the pope spoke in St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington, D.C., this past September when he reminded the bishops gathered there that we needed to be “lucidly aware of the battle between light and darkness being fought in this world” and that we must “realize that the price of lasting victory is allowing ourselves to be wounded and consumed.” In other words, we have to be in the midst of the fray.

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I cannot forget sitting in Congress and hearing from Pope Francis a Magna Carta for the church in the United States: to defend liberty as Lincoln did; to dream of full civil rights as Martin Luther King Jr. did, to strive for justice and the cause of the oppressed as Dorothy Day did and to sow peace in the contemplative style as Thomas Merton did. The message is the same whether we hear it in Washington, D.C., in Mexico or in California. It is only the circumstances and applications that are different. It is a message for the church to be engaged in the great work of human development for peace and justice that respects the dignity of the human person and promotes the common good. This is a work of God. Numbers 9 and 10 of the Second Vatican Council’s “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World” propose that as human beings we “co-operate in finding the solutions to the outstanding problems of our time.”

The church respects the political, social and economic orders. It is not our mission to structure these arenas of human endeavor nor to give them an ideology. While individual members of the church are integral parts of these endeavors and have a civic and human responsibility to be so, as participants they maintain an autonomy that is enhanced by their professional, educational and experiential training. The church respects their autonomy and their freedom to act in accord with their consciences.

However, this does not mean that the church must sit on the sidelines and simply offer spiritual platitudes. The church has a mission to offer the light of Christ to the world. Jesus has redeemed all creation. The Gospel speaks to every dimension of human existence and to each and every arena of human striving. The political, the social and the economic orders of the world exist to serve the well-being of each and all. Four issues identified in Nos. 9 and 10 of the “Constitution on the Church” remain alive today. Developing nations still need to share in the political and economic benefits of modern civilization; the place of women still needs to advance; agricultural workers in many places still need to be set free from inhuman conditions; industrial workers being replaced by machines still need new opportunities.

Serving the Human Person

The Gospel is primary in the formation of conscience. The church speaks to the responsibility of political leaders to promote the dignity of every human person, especially the poor and most vulnerable, and to create, promote and protect the common good. The church calls for a social order built on solidarity among all peoples and calls for right relations that respect honesty, truth, human rights and freedom, especially in the practice of one’s religious faith. The church speaks of the economy in terms of serving the human person and speaks against the greedy accumulation of wealth to the detriment of the poor and an unfair and inequitable distribution of the goods of the earth. The earth and its goods belong to the human family and are entrusted to our care.

Indeed the church’s mission is to reflect the light of Christ in the world, but its mission is more than that. “Be doers of the word and not hearers only” (Jas 1:22). But when the tire meets the road, when the church becomes engaged in the real issues of life, this is where you begin to hear, “The pope can speak on spiritual matters, but he does not have any authority to speak on economic or political issues,” or, “The church certainly should give alms and feed the poor and care for those who are suffering, but stay out of the structural issues of politics, the social order and economics.”

It is true that the church respects the autonomy of the various arenas of life and that her members certainly should engage in the various realms of human endeavor. But it must also be said, in accord with Vatican II, that the church’s mission is to do more. The “Constitution on the Church in the Modern World” suggests ways for the church to be engaged beyond proclaiming the Gospel in word only.

The first way is by collaboration (Nos. 9, 10). We work together with all people of good will, and even with some of not so good will, to promote the common good. The church can be a partner with other faith traditions, community organizations, government and business in promoting what is just and right for society. Of course, the church cannot cooperate in matters of evil and must observe the ethical and moral principles of cooperation. But we do not have to be scrupulous to the point that we cannot shake hands with those opposed to us; we can work with them on matters related to the common good with means that are morally acceptable.

The church does not have all the answers, but it can be a partner in striving to improve the human condition. We can offer a moral perspective that flows from the light of Christ. In standing against the evil of abortion, we can improve how we work to address the desperate situations that people find themselves in that give occasion to such evil. Our opposition to physician-assisted suicide can engage us in strengthening palliative care and better helping people to die well. We can do our part in promoting better paying jobs and reducing the higher unemployment rates in places like the San Joaquin Valley, where I am a bishop and where people are working two or three low-paying jobs to keep food on the table. We can organize our parishes to be more active in keeping children in school through graduation. (The dropout rate is still too high in my diocese, and dropouts too easily can find a home in a dangerous gang.) No less important is how we care for God’s creation in places like the San Joaquin Valley, where so many suffer from poor air quality. Most important, we can strengthen and promote the family as the basic unit of society.

The second way for the church to become more engaged is through dialogue. Pope Paul VI gave us the tools. Pope Francis is witnessing to its importance in the pursuit of peace and better human relationships. Dialogue opens the doors of mercy. “Dialogue is our method,” he told the U.S. bishops. He further emphasized that harsh and divisive language has no place in our society.

Dialogue requires the wisdom that comes from the Holy Spirit in understanding our faith, an openness of heart to the pursuit of that which is good and true and a boldness of spirit, as exemplified by the apostles in the Acts of the Apostles. It requires an ability to listen and to seek to understand. How many times Francis has reminded us of our sinfulness. As sinners we need to be open to learning, to letting the Spirit guide us and to acknowledging that we do not know it all. The transformation of the world in Christ might begin with our being willing to dialogue with the world on the advancement of the human condition so that we might learn from the world and better know what needs transformation by the Gospel.

Yes, I still feel some discomfort in applying the words of Pope Francis to myself as a bishop of the church. I still ask myself if I have walked closely enough with the poor. But it is never too late to accept the challenge. The Year of Mercy is a good time for me to examine my conscience and to undergo a new conversion of heart. The great question of our day, for us bishops and for all of us as the church, is this: How do we as the church in today’s very complex world witness to the light of Christ and collaborate in making our world more just, building a solidarity with all people of good will for peace and reconciliation?

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Charles Erlinger
1 year 10 months ago
One of the ways to concretize what the bishop seems to be talking about, but do so in stages, is to start by making a distinction between building up the common good and justly apportioning the common good. These seem to me both to be parts of social justice. Building up the common good, I sense, is somewhat less controversial than the "distributive justice" part, which requires apportionment. Not only does the building up part seem relatively less controversial (what the bishop calls "promoting"), we know more or less how to do it. Keeping in mind that the common good consists, generally, of all of the good things that a society, acting virtuously, can create, develop, and produce, such as philosophies and sciences and religions and arts and commerce and education and satisfying work opportunities and physical security and on and on, we can point to demonstrated accomplishment and proficiency during long and numerous historical periods, if not to an uninterrupted continuum. But regarding the apportionment or distributive justice part, we have a different record. No doubt this is due to many different factors, but it might be possible to look at the problem a slightly different way from how it has been viewed at times in the past. We often compare the problem of distributive justice or fair apportionment to the process of "slicing up the pie." The analogy, in my opinion, is completely false because it implies that if apportionment takes place, no matter how justly it Is done, when it is done you are left wth an empty plate, and the storehouse of common good is empty. On the other hand look at the combination of both processes ( building up and apportioning out) as a system. Specifically, look at it as a positive feedback loop (in electronics, think of an amplifier, for example). The idea would be that to the degree that the common good is apportioned virtuously (prudently and justly) the apportionment itself produces an improved capability to build up or "promote" in the bishop' s word. That is, those who are already building up proficiently are augmented by others who have benefitted from being built up and each successive generation of built-up fellow humans contributes more capability and proficiency to the process. Changing the analogy does not, of course, provide a recipe or set of assembly instructions on exactly how to do what needs to be done in concrete circumstances, but it might help us to approach the hard work with fewer sighs and grimaces.

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