By Ted Schmidt
The evolution of justice as the central concern for the Catholic church, and in particular, the Canadian Catholic church is an exciting story with a long history, a history defined by the realization that charity, while always and everywhere important for the Christian, is not the central concern of the gospel. Nobody, but nobody, ever gets murdered for doing charity. As Catholics advanced in their study and embrace of the scriptural story which defines us, they slowly began to understand that Jesus, the Lord of history, did not die for charity, but was murdered for justice, the central component of his root metaphor: the Kingdom or Reign of God.
This biblical insight for Catholics gets articulated in our social teaching. This social teaching has thrilled and encouraged many Canadian Catholics, yet it has not totally been embraced by the Catholic populace at large.
Almost two decades have elapsed since the Canadian bishops released their prophetic Labour Day statement of 1976, Words to Action. Arguably the finest document ever produced by the Canadian hierarchy, it made several salient points which we would do well to remind ourselves of as we set out on this topic.
Using as its foundation the "signs of the times" theology which was so prominent at Vatican II, the bishops defined the global situation in stark terms: "We live in a world that oppresses at least half the human race and this scandal threatens to get worse". For gospel-driven Christians, this situation is intolerable. We must change these conditions and move from words to action.
The bishops ask the question for us: "What does faith in Jesus Christ tell us about our social and political responsibilities in these times?" By the mid-70s and through the agency of many base Christian communities and the theologians who walked with them, a new understanding of the demands of Jesus in the modern world had begun to form in the global Catholic community. What had precipitated this drastic change?
First, a global spiritual awakening had occurred. The 60s were a time of profound ferment. "The times, they are a' changin". sang Bob Dylan. From our perspective in 1995, we see how right Dylan was. The ground was rapidly shifting. Young people, possibly inspired by the youthful idealism of John F. Kennedy and the civil rights movement articulated by Martin Luther King Jr., began to challenge the whole idea of privilege, whether it be class, race or gender. For those graced with the eyes of faith, this spirit of the age could not be solely explained in secular language. Something much deeper was occurring. For these people, there was the deeply held belief that the hand of God was operative in all the great movements of this decade: the anti-war movement, the civil rights movement, the first stirrings of the feminist movement, the cries of the poor for inclusion. These were all recognized by progressive church people as moments of revelation which called for a response.
Secondly, papal leadership was quite extraordinary in this period. The first truly modern Pope, Paul VI, had travelled extensively and had seen the horrible conditions under which so many people were living and dying. His encyclical, Populorum Progressio, (1967) addressed this situation: "The social question has become worldwide". Pope Paul insists that a change in attitudes is not sufficient. There must be reform of structures as well. The Pope goes even further. In cases of longstanding injustice, revolution cannot be ruled out (#31). Social justice and the cause of the poor is given higher priority than social stability. Talk is not enough. Paul demands "concrete action towards man's complete development" (intro #5). For him and for all Catholics "the hour for action has now sounded" (#80).
There can be no doubt that Paul VI, with his global view, made the poor more cognizant of their rights. His great gift to the Catholic church in his pontificate was the insistence that justice was integral to the gospel. As well, Paul VI developed the beginnings of a spirituality of justice. In an address at the end of the Council, the Pope insisted that "the old story of the Samaritan has formed the pattern for the Council's spirituality":
"If we remember that behind the face of everyman and particularly when tears and suffering have made it even more transparent, we recognize the face of Christ, and in the face of Christ, we can and must recognize the face of the heavenly Father, then our humanism becomes Christianity and our Christianity becomes theocentric (God centred) so that we too can proclaim that to know God, one must know man".
Pope Paul's ideas on a spirituality of justice (since then deepened by men like Gustavo Gutierrez, Jon Sobrino and Leonardo Boff) silenced critics who maintained that justice-making was mere "social work" and not a gospel imperative.
Thirdly, Medellin, building on the energy and the analyses of Populorum Progressio (On The Advancement of Peoples) and Gaudium et Spec (Joys and Hope) (1965), added an insight and expression which in retrospect has changed the Catholic church forever. A small city in Colombia, Medellin was the setting of the second Latin American bishops meeting in August of 1968. Paul VI travelled there to address the assembled bishops.
What came out of Medellin was quite extraordinary. Emboldened by the new openings created by Vatican II and Populorum Progressio, the Latin American bishops heard the "deafening cry" of their people for liberation. They denounced poverty as a human creation brought about by unjust structures. This was the primary and fundamental violence. What to do in such a situation? They as pastors must give "preference to the poorest and most needy sectors". In time, this has become known simply as "the option for the poor".
Building on the work of popular Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire, the bishops proposed conscientization, a dramatic awakening of the poor so that they may become the agents of their own liberation.
The impact of Medellin was staggering. Led by men like Dom Helder Camara and Gustavo Gutierrez, the Latin American church officially left the embrace of the wealthy and the military and took their place where Jesus took his, among the people.
Medellin was a watershed in 20th century Catholicism. Concrete and using the language of liberation in its official documents, Medellin infused fresh language and fresh approaches into the struggle for justice. Liberation replaced development as the reigning language and analytical lens; participation and self-determination became the means of liberation. The great struggle for justice had been legitimated.
North Americans in particular have not paid close enough attention to Medellin's influence. In many ways, the documents arising from this Latin American conference have produced the language for the peace and justice struggles all over the world. Originally indigenous in its approach, it rapidly enlarged its influence wherever there were oppressive regimes. The Philippines, Korea, South Africa and East Asia quickly borrowed these liberationist themes to inspire Christian witness.
Fourth, and most important for Catholics, was their growing appreciation for the Word of God. For many reasons, generally linked to the reactionary nature of the papacy in the post-Reformation era, Catholics were scripturally retarded. It was Protestants who had the Word; Catholics had tradition. Gradually, this changed and with the encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu in 1943, Catholic biblical scholarship leapt into the modern world. So rapid was this biblical incorporation into ecclesial life that Catholics began to take their place in the first ranks of scholarship where they remain today.
As Catholics in the post-war period familiarized themselves with their scriptural story, they were stunned to discover that the bible itself was a primer for justice. The creation stories, God's liberation of forgotten slaves in Exodus, the voices of the prophets, the witness of the countercultural martyrs of the Book of Revelation, the Reign of God in Jesus' preaching, the murder of the Lord himself at the hands of corrupt religion and the politics of empire, were enough to call into question the established world order which marginalizes too many. Most of all, in God's raising of Jesus from the dead, many Catholics found themselves profoundly convicted that God has vindicated all of history's victims, and the only place for Catholics to be was on the side of a God who daily threatens the world with more resurrection.
As the faithful expanded their knowledge of scripture, Catholic social teaching more and more abandoned Thomistic categories based on natural law and accepted their social roles as stemming directly from gospel mandates.
In his brilliant encyclical of 1975, Evangelii Nuntiandi (On Proclaiming the Good News), Paul VI states the following:
"As the one who proclaims the Gospel, Christ announces above all a kingdom, which is the Kingdom of God; he attributes so much importance to this Kingdom that by comparison with it everything else becomes the .other things that shall be added unto you.. Therefore, the Kingdom of God must be treated as the absolute, to which everything else must be referred".
From now on Catholics must know that the church is not an end in itself. To build the Kingdom is to be spiritual, as in the example of the martyrs of Central America who were murdered for the Kingdom and its values of justice and solidarity and the dignity of all.
In this same document Paul insisted that evangelization took place by witness, "which requires presence, a sharing of life, a solidarity". Christians embracing this biblical vision, modelled on the witness of Jesus, quickly began to realize that such a witness would guarantee a severe reaction, quite often a modern crucifixion. It may be for this reason that Canadian bishops could write with much truth that, "the challenge of living the Gospel of justice in this way is a disturbing experience for all of us". (Words to Action, 1976)
When one asks why the gospel of justice so cogently proclaimed in ecclesial documents, so insistent that the church's vocation is "to be present in the heart of the world by proclaiming the Good News to the poor, freedom to the oppressed and joy to the afflicted," and that "action on behalf of justice... fully appear to us as a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the gospel" has not been acted on, we must agree with the Canadian bishops above: "It is a disturbing experience". Pope John Paul in Crossing the Threshold, puts it succinctly as well: "The gospel is not a promise of easy success. It does not promise a comfortable life to anyone. It makes demands..." (p. 103).
The People of God
When one visits parishes and sees the obvious goodwill of the people of God worshipping there, one experiences a mild euphoric feeling. This is a safe place, a good place, even a holy place. One would have to be a cynic to suggest that the Lord is not in this place. The beautiful faces of old and young alike always inspires us. But one must go further. As a critical Catholic one must always ask: What is missing here? The answer I submit is that the Canadian and American church is riddled with individualism and avoidance of the Cross.
When one analyses the culture we live in (and where our schools and churches are planted) we see a phenomenal and hardly subtle counter-evangelization taking place. Relentlessly upbeat and cheerful, the omnivorous media invite us to a cost-free place at life's banquet. We are constantly reminded at a fundamental level that to be a real person in this society one must possess good looks, the requisite accoutre-ments of the good life: status, prestige, power and sex appeal. This indeed may be the good life; it is decidedly not the God life.
In this model of spirituality, self is the centre and the Reign of God the periphery. The private self, free for interpersonal relationships, constitutes the focal point of religion, not the Reign of God in all its dimensions for all brothers and sisters (justice). "Successful" North American churches preach the North American gospel of individual self-fulfillment. This truncated view of human existence is promoted as the gospel. In fact it is the glamorization and acceptance of the capitalist ethic of personal choice as ultimate.
This individualism, promoted by the consumerist culture, has invaded our churches and sapped our vitality. If we had powerful biblical preaching in our churches the centrality of the cross would be restored. But this, as they say, is a downer. Anyone who preaches this will face rapidly diminishing congregations. He will be accused of upsetting the people, dividing the church, sowing discord, being negative: all things, of course, said about Jesus.
To stand on the side of the refugee, the marginalized and disenfranchised is to court unpopularity. As Catholics steadily moved into the middle class and beyond, less and less did they want to be associated with society's outcasts.
The Canadian bishops described most accurately these values which have insinuated themselves in Canadian life. Our country "is still profoundly marked by the founders of liberal capitalism. We carry forward many of the consequences of their lives, for their ideas have become our institutions". (Society to be Transformed)
This profound sociological insight remains hidden to most Catholics. With little reflection, they seemed to have equated cultural values with the gospel. When the economic system which has rewarded us so well gets criticized, it is analogous to an attack on "faith". But faith in what? In this largely unknown yet terribly important statement, the bishops continue:
"Their values shape much of today's economic system which, in turn, gives rise to materialistic aspirations that are the idols that millions worship today. Those values constitute an economic religion that inhibits the development of an ethic of sharing. While people have worked hard to plant the seeds of human solidarity and love, the dominant economic and social structures of our times have become the rocky ground of self-service and self-aggrandizement". (Society to be Transformed)
What is the end result of immersion in this system "where pursuit of self-interest is presented as a value?"
"Many are kept from achieving basic necessities while others, trapped in their wealth, find great difficulty in meeting God, in knowing the person of Jesus and living his message. Succeeding generations are drawn into a culture, into ways of thinking and behaving alien to God's purpose". (#14)
These are shocking words. They describe the same "blindness" that Jesus talked about: people sucked into the culture, profoundly at odds with God's purposes. Six years earlier, the bishops of the world stressed, "a renewal of heart... which awakens a critical sense... which will make us renounce these cultural values when they cease to promote justice for all". (Justice in the World, #51)
The Canadian bishops in 1977 similarly called for conversion: "God calls you to break out of inadequate patterns of thinking and acting, to live new lives..." (#17)
Post-war Catholics born in relative affluence, raised in individualism, propangandized incessantly by the media, did not all take to this strong ethical critique of capitalism which brought them so much privilege.
Thus it should not surprise us that many Catholics are not accepting the gospel of justice. There are many Catholics among the neo-conservative movement offended because the justice critique unmasks their vested interest in the status quo; or perhaps the reason is that they simply do not understand the church's rationale for its stand.
There are many factors involved in resisting the powerful gospel initiatives of justice. All of us, clergy as well as laity, have been compromised by our cultural addictions. Among the laity there are some in whom there is no evidence of any spirituality whatsoever. There are others who feel they have been abandoned by the church in their Catholic education as there are no ongoing programs of bible study, adult education or ecumenical outreach. Then there are the well-informed, many of whom are frustrated. They want the church to be involved in peace and justice initiatives but get little support. What do they do and where do they go?
However, we need to remember that the insights gleaned from Vatican II to the present are relatively new in the history of the church. Just as it took 35 years for us to begin to understand the meaning of the splitting of the atom, similarly the difficulty in understanding the change in thinking occasioned by Vatican II is what Denis Hurley, the great archbishop of Durban, South Africa, termed, "the greatest change of thinking in the history of the church". If this is so, and I believe it is, is it possible to have quickly integrated the profundities of the justice movements encouraged by the Council? Perhaps we are just beginning to do so.
Canadian sociologist Reginald Bibby has said it well and it fits the present church to a "T": "It appears that large numbers of people are failing to have their spiritual needs met. One of the great religious ironies of our time is that Canada's religious groups are going broke when the populations are growing hungry".
The churches will continue to feed their congregants thin gruel for the long march through history if they continue to be obsessed with a gospel of personal transformation with no social thrust. As Martin Luther King used to say, the gospel that ends with the individual, ends. It is a truncated, broken root, radically incomplete.
The only possible hope for the church is a prophetic spirituality linked with a deep mysticism. Personal and social transformation are inextricably linked. In the future, Catholics along with all people of good will, will meet their Lord fundamentally where He told us to look for him in the abandoned victims of history whom he died for.
Here on the road to Jericho they will not only offer them a cup of water, they will organize the highway in a new structure of grace, so no brigands will need to leap out at the innocent. That is what justice is about. Some will be murdered in this venture, others will be marginalized, all will be criticized. That will be the pattern or it will not be of Jesus. These justice lovers will celebrate Eucharist and proclaim with their lives and blood that the messianic age is here. Peace and justice will regain their place at the heart of Jesus' proclamation of the Reign of God.
Ted Schmidt teaches religion at Bishop Marrocco/Thomas Merton high school in Toronto, On. He is also a member of the Publishing Group of Catholic New Times, an independent Catholic newspaper.