Nation Building — Catholic Social Doctrine Demystified

It is often said, - not entirely in jest - that the Catholic Social Doctrine is a well-kept secret of the Church. Part of the problem is that the language of encyclicals (or circulars issued by the pope) is often ‘heavy’ and not easy to understand or relate to. While it may be necessary to use such language in order to be precise, it is incumbent on pastors to explain them in the context of the layman’s daily life and in a language in which he or she can relate to easily. At the same time, when Catholics are made aware of the social doctrine of the Church, they are often bewildered; they find it controversial, political, worldly, and quite irrelevant to their lives as Catholics.

In fact, Catholic social teaching is based on Scripture and in the Apostolic tradition. Many people find this quite surprising because they often think that Catholic social doctrine is an attempt by the Church to be ‘hip’, not an attempt to be faithful to the teaching of Christ. In simple terms, the main theme of the social doctrine is the inherent value, worth and dignity of each of God’s human beings. We have to look deep into ourselves and ask, do we really believe that human beings are created in the image and likeness of God (cf. Genesis 1:26-27)? If our answer is in the affirmative, we have no choice but to accept the fact that ALL human persons have an inherent value, worth, and distinction irrespective of how they may appear to us. But what are the practical implications of this belief?

In recent weeks much has been said and written about migrant workers without documents being hunted down, paraded as criminals, arrested and detained in squalid conditions. We read about migrants who have been cheated of thousands of Ringgit, who have not been paid for months by employers and then summarily dismissed. We may feel sorry for them - if we don’t blame them for being a social problem - and then we move on with our lives. But is it that simple? Not quite! The social doctrine of the Church says that we cannot simply turn away and ignore this reality in our midst. We have a responsibility to at least understand what is really happening. After all, these are human beings who are involved, human persons who we believe are created in the likeness and image of God.

Catholic social doctrine is not based on a particular political or economic theory. Rather it is a logical consequence of the two great commandments that we are called to live by, however uncomfortable it may be. The first commandment is, as we all know, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37). If this is all that is required of us as Christians, life would be quite easy. We could have a nice cosy relationship with God, and ignore the harsh realities of pain, injustice and sufferings of people around us. However, Jesus dragged us out of our comfort zone by adding “And the second (commandment) is like it: You shall love your neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:39-40). It is this demand to love – as much as we love ourselves – not just a perfect God, but also our highly imperfect neighbours, however uncomfortable that may be, that forms the basis of all Catholic social teaching.

Every Christian knows that we should love our neighbour. In fact, this commandment has been repeated to us so many times that there is a danger that we don’t fully understand the depth and width of its implications. After all, the archetypical example of loving our neighbour is the parable of the Good Samaritan: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers... ” (cf. Luke 10:29-37) - all very safely removed from us in time and culture, so much so that we often fail to interpret it in the context of our lives and culture today. It is not often that we come across a traveller on a donkey who has been set upon by brigands and robbers in our day and age. And if we did, we would certainly not ‘pass by on the other side.’ But what if we see that the domestic worker next door is being abused, overworked, unpaid or starved? Many of us would be loath to get involved, to rescue her from her condition of suffering and injustice, because we would not want to jeopardise our good relations with our ‘neighbour’. Shouldn’t we ask ourselves, “who is my neighbour?” in this situation and look for the answer in the above mentioned parable.

Pope Saint John Paul XXIIIThe classic references to Catholic social teaching are two encyclicals: Pacem in Terris, (Peace on Earth) written in 1963 by Pope John XXIII and Gaudium et Spes (Joy and Hope) written in 1965 by Pope Paul VI. In Pacem in Terris, John XXIII states quite plainly that “...everyone has the right to life, to bodily integrity, and to the means which are suitable for the proper development of life; these are primarily food, clothing, shelter, rest, medical care, and finally the necessary social services. Therefore, a human being also has the right to security in cases of sickness, inability to work, widowhood, old age, unemployment, or in any other case in which he is deprived of the means of subsistence through no fault of his own.” But it is not enough to merely acknowledge that everyone has these rights. John XXIII points out the “since men are social by nature they are meant to live with others and to work for one another's welfare”. It is imperative that each of us “contribute generously to the establishment of a civic order in which rights and duties are more sincerely and effectively acknowledged and fulfilled.”

Working for the establishment of such a civic order is simply another way of saying “..Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as in heaven” which we religiously recite in the Our Father. As Christians therefore, how can we stay away from involvement in “worldly affairs” such as politics and the economy, which directly impacts everyone’s right to life, bodily integrity, and the means for the proper development of life, such as food, clothing etc.? Seen in this light, can we remain indifferent to corruption at any level? Should we remain indifferent when refugees and asylum seekers in our country are harassed, denied access to work and education and extorted by the authorities or agents? Can we as Christians “pass by on the other side” as did the Priest and the Levite in the parable of the Good Samaritan?

In Gaudium et Spes, Pope Paul VI echoes a similar message when he talks about human dignity: “...Therefore, there must be made available to all people everything necessary for leading a life truly human, such as food, clothing, and shelter; the right to choose a state of life freely and to found a family, the right to education, to employment, to a good reputation, to respect, to appropriate information, to activity in accord with the upright norm of one’s own conscience, to protection of privacy and rightful freedom even in matters religious.” (GS 26). This acknowledgement of human dignity comes with responsibilities for us as Christians. Gaudium et Spes states quite clearly: “In our times a special obligation binds us to make ourselves the neighbour of every person without exception and of actively helping him when he comes across our path, whether he be an old person abandoned by all, a foreign labourers unjustly looked down upon, a refugee, a child born of an unlawful union and wrongly suffering for a sin he did not commit, or a hungry person who disturbs our conscience by recalling the voice of the Lord, "As long as you did it for one of these, the least of my brethren, you did it for me" (Matt. 25:40).

The classic references to Catholic social teaching are two encyclicals: Pacem in Terris, (Peace on Earth) written in 1963 by Pope John XXIII and Gaudium et Spes (Joy and Hope) written in 1965 by Pope Paul VI.

The social teaching of the Church impels us to get involved in creating a better world in which human rights and dignity are protected and promoted. There can be no excuse for not wanting to “get our hands dirty” through involvement in politics and the economy, because this is where the rights and dignity of human persons are impacted, either in a positive or a negative way. Our task is to ensure that the dignity of the human person is upheld and all human beings are served, by the economic and political institutions in society, instead of being exploited for selfish interests of the rich and powerful. “Your Kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as in heaven” is not simply a nice-sounding prayer; it should be a commitment that we are prepared to work towards realisation, in line with the social teaching of the Church.

Joseph Paul Maliamauv is a former teacher and officer with UNHCR working with Vietnamese refugees, a major part of Joseph's working career has been spent as a corporate trainer and management consultant. Alongside his professional career, Joseph has always been involved in social issues, including community organising, consumerism, and human rights, and was instrumental in setting up the Malaysian chapter of Amnesty International. He is currently a full-time volunteer with Tenaganita. He holds a BEc(Hons) from the University of Malaya and a Masters Degree in Continuing Education from the University of Warwick, UK.

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