A Best Kept Secret

by Carla Mae Streeter, OP

Your voting choice in the national elections may not be that difficult -if you know the secret.

Secret? What secret? Allow me to let you in on the Catholic social teaching secret. As a life-long Catholic, a Dominican Sister, and a teacher, I can navigate the archives of two thousand years of Catholic history quite well. Today, most of the press we read on the Catholic Church as an institution is not good news. But I have news for you, and it is good news indeed.

Many of us are not aware that starting back in 1891 Pope Leo XIII issued a document called “On the Condition of Labor.” In it Leo affirmed the belief that the human person has basic rights; rights to food, clothing, shelter, and to a living wage. He also declared that the rights of the poor must be “specially cared for and protected by the government.”

In 1931 Pius XI picked up the ball with “The Reconstruction of the Social Order,” and the documents haven’t stopped since. In a slim volume called Catholic Social Teaching: Our Best Kept Secret, authors Henriot, DeBerri, and Schultheis glean twelve major themes from all these documents. (The sleuths among us can probably Google this title on Amazon and come up with an inexpensive used copy. Look for the 1987 copyright.)

Sometimes those active in social justice need a cheerleader once in a while. The institutional Catholic Church may be suffering from historic patriarchy in the issues of pedophilia and women religious in our day, but the social justice themes are enough to bring tears to the eyes and joy to the heart. Here they’ve really got it right.

First off, those in leadership link the religious and social dimensions of life. Social human construction of the world is not “secular” in the sense of being outside God’s dynamic plan. Faith and justice are dynamically linked in the realization of the reign of God. Then comes the recurring theme of the dignity of the human person. As made in the image of God, women and men have first place in the social order, a dignity that can be recognized and protected only in community with others. The big question in all legislation then becomes, “What is happening to people?”

From these two basic principles the rest flows: All human persons have inalienable rights (political-legal, e.g. voting, free speech, migration) and social-economic (e.g. food, shelter, work, education, health care). The most vulnerable human persons are the poor, and so there is a preferential option for the poor. The “poor” are the economically disadvantaged, those who often do not have voice or access to society’s infrastructure.

There is the link of love and justice, the promotion of the common good, the principle of subsidiarity which calls for decisions to be made as close as possible to the level of local initiative, political participation, economic justice, stewardship of the world’s resources, a sense of global solidarity, and finally, the promotion of peace as the fruit of justice. Remember, this started back in 1891. Thought you would like to know. Now the secret is out.

So what does this have to do with a national vote in November? A lot. Which party not only talks the talk, but walks the walk on these principles? If government is for the common good, who’s good are we talking about? The wealthy? The middle class? The poor? I say all of the above, and in relation to one another, not in opposition. And what good are we talking about, if not the good that fosters our precious humanness and that of those around us? So we go for the gold…the best we can do. The secret is not only out, it’s time for it to hit the road and show up at the polls.

Carla Mae Streeter, OP, is Professor Emerita at Aquinas Institute of Theology and a board member of Workers’ Rights and the Peace Economy Project.

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