Help your students understand the importance of helping the poor and solidarity with the community and world by learning about the Church’s position on these important social justice topics.
As the commotion and excited voices of the student council members reverberated down the school’s primary wing, Ms. Jones attempted to refocus her second graders. She recapped that the school’s student leaders had just challenged the younger students to a school-wide food drive during the upcoming Lenten weeks. She asked her students for suggestions of how they might collect food items for Paul’s Pantry, the local food pantry. Billy, with hand waving wildly in the air, suddenly blurted out, “But Ms. Jones, we collected food for Paul’s Pantry last year! Our class collected the most. They need it again?”
Does Billy’s question present a special teachable moment regarding Catholic social doctrine? The Church in her social teaching never tires of emphasizing the needs of the poor. Within the Catholic Church the poor and vulnerable are a focus of preferential care. The decisions inspired by a preferential option for the poor embrace the charity needed to respond to the immense and continual needs of multitudes of the hungry, the homeless, and those without hope for a better future. Further, the principle of solidarity demands social action to promote the good of each individual. Understanding of the Catholic social principles of Option for the Poor and Vulnerable and Solidarity will inform and support Ms. Jones in her response to students like Billy.
Option for the Poor and Vulnerable
In the 1891 seminal writing of modern Catholic social teaching, The Condition of Labor, Pope Leo XIII responded to the plight of urbanized industrial workers in the throes of the Industrial Revolution. From that genesis, Catholic social doctrine has developed its involvement with for the needs of the poor to arrive at a stance of preferential love of the poor. Eighty years into the modern Catholic social doctrine era, Pope Paul VI in A Call to Action directly urged all Catholics to accept personal responsibility for justice. The more fortunate persons owe preferential respect and service to the poor in their special circumstances. Recognizing that societal circumstances differ by geographical location, Pope Paul VI directed Christian communities to analyze their local situations and become involved in social reforms by taking appropriate political action according to Gospel mandates and the Church’s social message. All Catholics were called to act on behalf of justice, both personally and in the particular situations of their own communal lives.
Concurrently, the world Synod of Bishops focused their 1971 statement Justice in the World on the critical social needs of the day and the urgency for structural changes that incorporate justice into societal life. The pillar of Catholic social mission is found in the most quoted statement of this document: “Action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world fully appear to us as a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the Gospel” (¶ 6). Justice is an essential element of Catholic life. To place justice in the forefront of the Church’s mission, the bishops demanded authentic practice by the Church itself by stating, “While the Church is bound to give witness to justice, she recognizes that everyone who ventures to speak to people about justice must first be just in their eyes” (¶ 40). The bishops challenged themselves to examine their possessions and lifestyles as well as the modes of operation within the Church citing particularly practices of just wages, freedom of expression, and decision-making. The Church herself must act as an authentic example of justice. All Church members, whether clerical or lay, are challenged to make their consciences aware of situations of injustice in their personal life situations and to opt in favor of standing with the poor and vulnerable.
Author Judith Merkle, S.N.D. de N., concluded that the papal social documents of Pope Paul VI and the 1971 document of the Synod of Bishops clearly placed social justice at the heart of the mission of the Church and brought political action into the realm of Christian discipleship. She maintained that, although the American Church faced the political issue of separation of Church and state, American Catholics shared in public life with commonly held social values which were based in faith. The political issue of separation was not a sense of separation of Church and responsibility for society. Further, the Second Vatican Council teachings thrust social awareness into the lifeblood of the post-conciliar American Church.
The American prelates, in their bold 1986 statement Economic Justice for All, extended the Christian charitable obligation to an evaluation of social and economic activity from the viewpoint of the powerless in order that no one is marginalized or denied rights and that justice is served. This perspective indicated a preferential, but not exclusive, option for the poor and thus does not create adversarial conflict between social classes. Pope John Paul II, in his 1987 encyclical On Social Concern, advanced the consistent theme of preferential care for the poor to include a global dimension.
The American Bishops in their 1998 publication Sharing Catholic Social Teaching: Challenges and Directions named Option for the Poor and Vulnerable as one of their seven Catholic Social Principles. This declaration implied a fundamental commitment to the poor in order to enable them to participate in the life of society. This was certainly not a new perspective. Citing contemporary social conditions that widen the divisions between the haves and have-nots, the bishops recalled the response of the Great King in the parable of the Last Judgment found in the Gospel of Mark: “I tell you solemnly, in so far as you did this [provide food, drink, welcome, clothes, and comfort in sickness or prison] to one of the least of mine, you did it to me” (Mk 25:40).
Kenneth Himes presented three ways to interpret preferential option for the poor. First, while there are many ways to perceive social concerns, Catholic social teaching encourages us to opt (choose) to see first (preferential) social circumstances from the perspective of a poor person. In seeking the common good, the perspective of the poor must be sought.
A second interpretation of preferential option for the poor is moral concern. Pope Benedict XVI, in God Is Love, reiterated that charity is an essential activity of the Church. Although we may in fact no longer be able to live the early Christian material communion as described in the Gospel of Luke “where all who believed were together and had all things in common; and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need” (Acts 2:44-5), Pope Benedict XVI maintained that “…within the community of believers there can never be room for a poverty that denies anyone that is needed for a dignified life” (¶ 20). We are obligated to lessen the distinction between rich and poor.
Thirdly, Catholic social doctrine has developed beyond the obligation of the rich gifting the poor. Working toward the common good necessitates that the poor and vulnerable are empowered to have active engagement in the processes and structural changes that improve their circumstances. The poor must be enabled to experience the fullness and richness of their humanity.
The Option for the Poor and Vulnerable principle requires an examination of personal, social, and political decisions in light of societal efforts toward achievement of the common good. Pope Benedict XVI maintained that all the poor and vulnerable must have their basic needs met with heartfelt concern and service rendered in humility. An option for the powerless and weak is respect for human dignity in the context of community. Treatment of the most vulnerable members of society is a litmus test of justice and indicates the health of societal life.
A key term found in Catholic social doctrine regarding the communal aspect of society is solidarity. Solidarity is one’s moral commitment to the common good in order to build bonds of common life (Himes). We belong to one human family. Pope John Paul II championed the social principle of solidarity, particularly on behalf of global solidarity, even to the point of naming it a Christian virtue. Framed by the poignant world events of the fall of communism and his personal experiences of communism and the Solidarity Movement in Poland, Pope John Paul II was an ardent advocate of solidarity. According to Pope John Paul II in On Social Concern, solidarity is an essential Christian social virtue which is “a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all” (¶38).
Grounding the virtue of solidarity in the scripture mandates of love for neighbor, Pope John Paul II, in On the Hundredth Anniversary of Rerum Novarum [The Condition of Labor], posited that the duty of global solidarity “extends progressively to all mankind [humankind], since no one can consider himself [or herself] extraneous or indifferent to the lot of another member of the human family” (¶ 51). The pontiff further postulated that modern means of communication enabled people to have global awareness of economic disparities and social problems and argued that nations must feel responsible for other nations. Catholic social doctrine teaches that social sin is overcome by an attitude of solidarity which is demonstrated in activity for the well-being of others at all levels.
In his claims for solidarity, Pope John Paul II took a new step in Catholic social teaching (Dorr). Previous to the pontificate of Pope John Paul II, the popes rejected confrontation as a means of opposing injustice and endorsed a consensus model. Pope Leo XIII encouraged the oppressed faithful to endure their sufferings in this temporal world for a reward in eternal life. Though admitting there may be extreme circumstances that warrant rebellion, Pope Paul VI opposed both violence and a confrontational approach. If an appeal to authority failed to bring an end to injustice, Pope John Paul II (1981) accepted the possible need for confrontation. However, in such situations, he called for decisive non-violent action in solidarity to confront unjust structures. According to Donal Dorr, this acceptance of confrontation, in the form of non-violent solidarity, marked an important contribution to Catholic social thought.
Solidarity within societies presumes humans’ interdependence upon one another as neighbor and not as enemy, but it is further an attitude of extending oneself for the well-being of others to build bonds in community. This extension of interdependence to communal responsibility reaches beyond all national boundaries. Our interdependence in today’s global world is unavoidable; but our interconnectedness for the well-being of all peoples is a choice. We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers on a global level. When human beings anywhere are diminished by violence, poverty, and denial of dignity and rights, we are diminished as well. We are called to stand in solidarity with all of the human family, regardless of differences, by establishing just social structures for the fair distribution of the earth’s and humans’ resources and by working for world peace, international human rights, and protection of the environment.
The many activities to benefit local, national, and international charities—which are already done so well in religious educational programs—are excellent opportunities to teach the Catholic social doctrine. An extension of these fund drives or collections is to engage the students as much as possible with the poor and vulnerable served by the activity. Whenever feasible, have the agency served give a presentation about its needs to the students and provide the causes for the prevalent conditions. When possible, have the students deliver the collected items to those served or make any personal connections that will help students see the relationship between their charitable efforts and the needs of those served. Have parents partner with their children to serve in soup kitchens or service agencies in order to promote family conversation around concern for others. In the case of national or international causes, use current events, any personal connections, presenters, internet resources, or other modes of study to connect students to the people served by your endeavors.
Use daily or weekly prayer to include the plight of vulnerable and poor people. Expand those prayers beyond your local boundaries to national and global needs. In age-appropriate activities, champion the cause of the vulnerable persons through letter-writing campaigns to local legislators or government leaders, letters to the editor, posters, or other means to stand in solidarity with the poor and to work for societal change. These can be interdisciplinary activities that focus on a social concern theme.
Present many saints and modern witnesses who served as role models by standing in solidarity and giving preferential care for the poor. An excellent resource for witnesses of many centuries and faith traditions is All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Times by Robert Ellsberg. Challenge students to tell the story of the people in their own lives, local communities, or world that witness to them the tenets of Catholic social teaching especially those who stand in solidarity with the poor. Search the newscasts or media for such witnesses in today’s world.
Finally, consider any activity, decision-making process, or policy from the perspective of a poor person. How would that decision affect a poor person in your educational institution? The Gospel “health” of your institution depends on your answer.
1. What motivates you to work for justice for the poor and vulnerable?
2. Who are the most vulnerable in your community? What responsibility do you have toward them?
3. With whom in your local community must you stand in solidarity? What actions of solidarity could you take?
4. How can you make global awareness more effective in your educational program?
5. What connections/disconnections can you make between the principle of option for the poor and your educational program policies regarding enrollment, tuition, dress codes, salaries, bullying or harassment, etc.? Is a preferential option for the poor and vulnerable a guiding principle in policy making?
6. What “saints” of social justice could you introduce to your students as examples of the principles of an option for the poor and solidarity? Discuss a school-wide strategy to present such role models.
Benedict XVI (2005). God is love. Retrieved on December 6, 2008 from vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/encyclicals/documents/hf_ben-xvi_enc_20051225_deus-caritas-est_en.html
Dorr, D. (2003). Option for the poor: A hundred years of Catholic social teaching. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.
Ellsberg, R. (2007). All saints: Daily reflections on saints, prophets, and witnesses for our time. New York, NY: Crossroad Publishing Company.
Himes, K. R. (2001). Responses to 101 questions on Catholic social teaching. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press.
John Paul II. (1981). On human work. In D. J. O’Brien & T. A. Shannon (Eds.), Catholic social thought: The documentary heritage (pp. 352-392). Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.
John Paul II. (1987). On social concern. In D. J. O’Brien & T. A. Shannon (Eds.), Catholic social thought: The documentary heritage (pp. 395-436). Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.
John Paul II. (1991). On the hundredth anniversary of rerum novarum. In D. J. O’Brien & T. A. Shannon (Eds.), Catholic social thought: The documentary heritage (pp. 439-488). Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.
Leo XIII. (1891). The condition of labor. In D. J. O’Brien & T. A. Shannon (Eds.), Catholic social thought: The documentary heritage (pp. 14-39). Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.
Merkle, J. A (2004). From the heart of the Church: The Catholic social tradition. Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press.
National Conference of Catholic Bishops. (1986). Economic justice for all. In D. J. O’Brien & T. A. Shannon (Eds.), Catholic social thought: The documentary heritage (pp. 572-680). Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.
Paul VI. (1971). A call to action. In D. J. O’Brien & T. A. Shannon (Eds.), Catholic social thought: The documentary heritage (pp. 265-286). Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.
Synod of Bishops. (1971). Justice in the world. In D. J. O’Brien & T. A. Shannon (Eds.), Catholic social thought: The documentary heritage (pp. 288-300). Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.
United States Catholic Conference. (1998). Sharing Catholic social teaching: Challenges and directions. Washington, D.C.: United States Catholic Conference.