Teaching Catholic Social Justice Principles

by Gerald Darring


Gerald is the author of a number of books on Catholic Social Teaching and on Scriptures. A father of three children, he has been a lay missionary, a businessman, a high school and college teacher. He also held the chair of the Archdiocesan Peace and Justice Commission in Mobile, Alabama for a number of years. His next publication will be an educational kit on Catholic social teaching. It is scheduled to be published by Loyola Press in April, 2000. See his impressive website: Theology Library.

           The twentieth century, for all its evils, left us with a more democratized world. This means that more and more people are involved in social decision making, and it raises the question of how people are prepared to contribute to such decision making.

          If the followers of Christ do not make the attempt to promote Christian principles of social justice, then people will operate out of the received wisdom of the secular world. For Catholic educators, this means teaching the principles that have been articulated in the tradition of Catholic social teaching.

          For such teaching to be effective, it must include the major themes of the tradition: the dignity of the human person, the sanctity of life, the call to family and community, the common good, human rights, the option for the poor and vulnerable, the dignity of work, the rights of workers, interdependence, solidarity, care for God's creation, and the call to be peacemakers.

          The teaching of social justice must also include action. Students must learn to identify social justice not just with abstract principles but also with concrete steps that we can take individually and corporately to create a more just world.

          The teaching of social justice must be based on the experiences of students themselves. All of us have been touched in some measure by affronts to our dignity and denials of rights, and all of us are threatened by war, social division, and destruction of the environment. These experiences must be brought into our teaching of social justice.

          The teaching of social justice must be challenging. It must avoid partisanship but not controversy. To be partisan in our teaching is to distract from the purpose of our teaching of social justice; to be controversial is to refuse to surrender to the forces of the status quo.

          In teaching social justice, we must make certain connections. We must make biblical connections, links to the message of the prophets, the liberating story of the exodus, and the gospel message of peace and justice. We must make liturgical connections, creating an awareness of the importance of the work we bring to the altar as our sacrifice. Just as Catholics gather in their churches to worship God, so they must come together outside of their churches to work for the coming of God's kingdom.

          We must make historical connections linking our contemporary efforts for a better world to the work of those who have gone before us, people like Francis de Sales and Dorothy Day. We must make spiritual connections, linking our prayer life with our work for a better world.

          In helping others to participate actively in the life of society, we Catholics have at our disposal several powerful tools. We have the scriptures, filled with our ancestors' experiences of God's liberating power and of our own empowerment for the struggle against injustice. We have the sacramental tradition of the church, teaching us to value life, to heal wounds, to feed one another, and to love and serve our brothers and sisters. We have, finally, the marvelous tradition of Catholic social teaching, which seeks to apply to the modern world the ageless principles of justice and peace on which our religion is founded.

          What greater contribution can we make to the world as educators than to help ensure that the wonderful powers of our scriptures, our sacraments, and our tradition of social teaching are brought to bear on the efforts to deal with the problems of contemporary life.

 ©Gerald Darring, 2001