Stop the Excuses: Working for Social Justice is Not Optional for Catholics

The phrase “social justice” tends to trigger a wide range of responses depending on where one lands on the political spectrum. For some, it’s a pejorative. For others, a badge of honor. Either way, from a secular perspective, social justice is often viewed through the prism of partisan politics.

But for Catholics, it’s something much different. For us, social justice is a central component to our faith, a key part of Catholic Social Teaching (CST). If the mass is how we celebrate, enrich, and renew our commitment to Christ, then social justice is the manner in which we live and practice that commitment. As defined by the USCCB:

Catholic social teaching is based on and inseparable from our understanding of human life and human dignity. Every human being is created in the image of God and redeemed by Jesus Christ, and therefore is invaluable and worthy of respect as a member of the human family. Every person, from the moment of conception to natural death, has inherent dignity and a right to life consistent with that dignity. Human dignity comes from God, not from any human quality or accomplishment. Our commitment to the Catholic social mission must be rooted in and strengthened by our spiritual lives. In our relationship with God we experience the conversion of heart that is necessary to truly love one another as God has loved us.

What’s particularly important to note about the Catholic commitment to social justice is that, unlike its secular counterpart, it is consistent and enduring, not changing with the political seasons or latest political trends.

The rich theological tradition of Catholic Social Teaching is based on recognizing the inherent dignity of each human person through the unconditional love of God. Therefore, justice, in the eyes of the Church, is owed, not earned.

The worker is owed a living wage for his or her labor.

The unborn child is owed the right to life.

All persons, sick and healthy, are owed quality healthcare.

The earth is owed good stewardship.

The homeless are owed shelter.

The naked are owed clothing.

The hungry are owed food and drink.

Unfortunately, this is one of the biggest shortfalls in American society, even in many Christian circles. We have a bad habit of putting politics before Christ and allowing challenges—such as cost, labor, and time—to become excuses for inaction.

We operate under the impression that works of mercy and justice come strapped with contingencies, and only those we deem deserving—those who meet a particular set of standards—may receive them. But this is not the spirit of social justice or the gospel.

In fact, not only are humans inherently owed justice, but it’s our Christian duty to ensure that justice is properly distributed—especially to the poor and marginalized. This is not a suggestion. It’s a non-negotiable obligation, and the scripture makes it clear that we will be judged on how we treat the least of these.

That means that American Catholics must have a presence in social and political life. It means we are responsible for ensuring that the workers are paid justly, that unborn children are protected, that the earth is cared for, that the sick have quality medical care, that the homeless have homes, that the naked are clothed, and that the hungry are fed. We simply cannot shy away from civic involvement.

And to that point, we must remember that Catholic Social Teaching, with its commitment to social justice, is not a political ideology. It does not conform to any party platform, and so we cannot put our trust entirely in the Republicans or the Democrats. What we must do, instead, is look to the Church first, adjust our mindset to see social justice as the Church sees it, and then work together to find solutions that protect the dignity of all people.

Matthew Tyson is a Catholic writer and marketing strategist from Alabama. He is an advocate for pro-life ideology on the Left and a co-founder of The New Pro-Life Movement.


How Trump’s “America First” Budget Violates 5 Key Justice Principles of Catholic Social Teaching

This post began as a “top 5 shockingly immoral aspects of President Trump’s budget proposal.” The problem is that virtually the entire budget is shockingly immoral and unjust. Instead, I want to highlight 5 touchstones of Catholic Social Teaching on justice. I will provide one example of its violation; however, for every single one, you can find at least five instances of its violation in Trump’s ‘America First’ budget.

Human dignity can only be lived, realized, and promoted in community. The overarching frame for justice is justice as participation: Basic justice demands the establishment of minimum levels of participation in the life of the human community for all persons.” (Economic Justice for All, 77).

  1. Environmental Justice: “We’re not funding that anymore”

In Laudato Si, Pope Francis states, “The climate is a common good, belonging to all and meant for all. At the global level, it is a complex system linked to many of the essential conditions for human life” (23). In addition to acknowledging the scientific consensus, Pope Francis clearly articulates the obligation to care for creation, to protect access to needed resources for the poor and future generations – and to do so with extreme urgency. It is hard to imagine an American budget proposal more antithetical to Laudato Si than President Trump’s budget.  OMB Director Mick Mulvaney calls all programs addressing climate change “a waste of money,” and simply stated, “We’re not funding that anymore.” While the 30% proposed cut to the Environmental Protection Agency garners headlines, a closer look at the proposal shows that virtually every single program addressing climate change and rising sea levels—no matter the department—is on the chopping block.

  1. Distributive Justice: “Cannot justify their existence”

In Catholic theology, distributive justice is not optional. The Second Vatican Council stated: “The right to have a share of earthly goods sufficient for oneself and one’s family belongs to everyone. The fathers and doctors of the Church held this view, teaching that we are obliged to come to the relief of the poor and to do so not merely out of our superfluous goods”(26). Repeatedly, the Trump administration seems to claim that we cannot afford many of the social protection programs aimed at distributive justice. The budget calls for eliminating the Community Development Block Grant program and $1 billion in programs aimed at low-income housing, home ownership, and community development from HUD. When he visited Washington, DC, Pope Francis could not have been clearer “We can find no social or moral justification, no justification, no justification whatsoever, for lack of housing.” The cuts to Housing and Urban Development are just one example of many violations of distributive justice in this budget.

In 1986, Economic Justice for All explained the moral requirements of distributive justice and it remains applicable today:  “Minimum material resources are an absolute necessity for human life. If persons are to be recognized as members of the human community, then the community has an obligation to help fulfill these basic needs unless an absolute scarcity of resources makes this strictly impossible. No such scarcity exists in the United States today” (70). Read More


The Right To Healthcare Is Owed, Not Earned

For the better part of a decade, the healthcare debate has been at the center of American political discourse—thanks largely to the signing of the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

In both the 2012 and 2016 presidential races, the debate on whether to repeal or expand the ACA was a major component of each candidate’s platform—leading to some highly publicized conversations about the best way to ensure coverage for Americans.

At least that’s how it looked on the surface.

On its face, this entire debate  appeared to be about mechanics and methodology. What is the best way to run the system? What should and shouldn’t be regulated?

But if you strip it down to the underlying ideologies underpinning the approaches, you’ll discover that the debate is less about the how and more about the what.

What is healthcare in the first place?

Is it a right—something to which all people are entitled regardless of income, job status, age, or health?

Or is it a consumer good—a service that’s meant to be bought and sold on the market?

Approached from an entirely secular, political perspective, this is, admittedly, a complex question worthy of debate. However, for any Catholic, the answer should be a pretty simple.

Healthcare is a right. It absolutely is. And that’s not my opinion, but the position of the Church:

Life and physical health are precious gifts entrusted to us by God. We must take reasonable care of them, taking into account the needs of others and the common good. Concern for the health of its citizens requires that society help in the attainment of living-conditions that allow them to grow and reach maturity: food and clothing, housing, health care, basic education, employment, and social assistance. – The Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2288

All people need and should have access to comprehensive, quality health care that they can afford, and it should not depend on their stage of life, where or whether they or their parents work, how much they earn, where they live, or where they were born. The Bishops’ Conference believes health care reform should be truly universal and it should be genuinely affordable. — USCCB

It is vital that government leaders and financial leaders take heed and broaden their horizons, working to ensure that all citizens have dignified work, education and healthcare. – Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium

Health is not a consumer good but a universal right, so access to health services cannot be a privilege. — Pope Francis

This really shouldn’t be a controversial position for us. Healthcare is a right because we are committed to the right to life. And we cannot, in good conscience, promote and defend the right to life only to turn our backs on those who are without the necessary resources to actually exercise it. If we do, then we are hypocrites.

This does not mean that all Catholics must support an entirely government-run or single payer healthcare system. That’s not the position that the Church takes.

Instead, it means that we should adopt the mindset that healthcare is something owed, not earned. It is something to which all of us are entitled, simply because we are living, breathing children of God.

There are no exceptions here. Cost, labor, and time may be challenges, but they are not insurmountable, nor are they excuses for inaction. As Catholics, we have a Christian duty to support and promote healthcare as a right and do whatever we can, in our own capacity, to ensure all can take advantage of it.

Matthew Tyson is a Catholic writer and marketing strategist from Alabama. He is an advocate for pro-life ideology on the Left and a co-founder of The New Pro-Life Movement.


Hope and Wisdom Prevail at Princeton Conference on Forced Migration

Who is the refugee? Who do I recognize myself to be when confronted with the refugee? How does the politicization of refugees hurt and help them? What responsibility do faith communities have to respond to this crisis? What concretely can we do to respond? These are a few of the burning questions tackled earlier this month at an international gathering of scholars, students, and representatives from the US State Department, the United Nations, and various charities, human rights groups, and faith communities convened by the Princeton University Office of Religious Life and the Community of Sant’Egidio.

The gathering’s panels and roundtable discussions ranged from topics including gender and migration, global citizenship in an era of nationalism, the religious experiences of refugees, the media and migration, and many more. In contrast with popular media coverage of immigration issues, which can often be sensationalist and fleeting, these conversations probed deeply into the history, causes, and long-term implications of the present refugee crisis. Some participants, like Jane Bloom of the International Catholic Migration Commission, pointed out that migration was a fraught issue long before Donald Trump issued his bombshell executive order. How will these new arrivals impact US security, economics, and culture? How does accepting refugees affect relations with their nations of origin? These are the questions that every administration has to navigate in the course of fulfilling its duty to protect American interests and sovereignty.

In another sense, however, the current crisis reflects an even older problem—as old as human society itself. Recent efforts to label refugees as a threat to national security or an economic burden are just one manifestation of humans’ psychological impulse to project internal conflict outward onto others and to “otherize” fellow human beings in response to the experience of fear and anxiety. At its roots, the current resistance to refugees is not just about terrorist attacks and tax dollars. More fundamentally it is a test of our ability to respond reasonably and compassionately in the face of our inner fears and anxieties.

While conference participants clearly recognized the staggering challenges and complexity of the refugee crisis, their conversations did not devolve into despairing or unproductive hand wringing. Far from it, this well-informed and highly motivated group of people reported how their institutions have sprung into action to meet the crisis head-on and identified additional steps that need to be taken. One basic measure that numerous presenters emphasized is educating the public about refugees in order to combat the stereotypes, misconceptions, and “alternative facts” that perpetuate fears about this vulnerable and diverse group of people. For example, contrary to many Americans’ belief that accepting refugees exposes the country to greater risks of violence, studies show that immigrants are no more likely to commit crimes than the general US population (and probably less so). Read More


Republicans Shouldn’t Take Prenatal Care Guarantees from Pregnant Women

Republican Congressman John Shimkus expressed opposition yesterday to the mandate in the Affordable Care Act that healthcare plans must cover prenatal care. He argued that men should not have to contribute to the healthcare of pregnant women and their unborn children. Instead, he expressed his support for Americans choosing health insurance plans where coverage is chosen a la carte.

There are a number of problems with this line of thinking. First, it’s detached from reality. That is not how the marketplace has worked or will work, as Congressman Michael Doyle helpfully pointed out. Second, it ignores the practical impact that this would have on the cost of health insurance plans that include prenatal care. It would certainly make it less affordable and thus inaccessible for pregnant women and their children. Combined with Paul Ryan’s seeming inability to understand how insurance works, it is clear that Republicans lack the minimal technical knowledge required to produce healthcare reform that is actually feasible in the real world, let alone a plan that is prudent and helpful.

The case for removing the prenatal care mandate is also deeply immoral. It reflects a market morality that places consumer choice above human dignity and the sanctity of human life. Every single person who is pro-life, including the Congressman, should reject this perverse ordering of values. Pope Francis directly challenged this mentality, saying, “Health is not a consumer good but a universal right, so access to health services cannot be a privilege.”

Against this libertarian mentality that is driven by extreme individualism, unlimited choice, and maximized autonomy, a Christian approach recognizes that we all (including men!) have a responsibility to support pregnant women and unborn children (among others). Recognizing this is integral to building a culture of life. This type of commitment to community and mutual responsibility is essential for achieving the common good.

Until Republicans’ leading policy wonk figures out how insurance works, those Republicans trying to replace the Affordable Care Act develop a minimal understanding of how obtaining health insurance works in reality, and the Republican party starts to show a little more respect for life rather than unfettered choice, the party’s effort to cut taxes for the wealthy by wrecking the Affordable Care Act should be strongly opposed by all.


Rend Your Hearts, Not Your Garments

“Rend your hearts, not your garments!” These are the challenging words of the prophet Joel that greeted Christians in churches around the world as they marked the beginning of Lent with the celebration of Ash Wednesday.

Lent—too domesticated over time—is a radical ancient invitation to reject the globalization of superficiality that too often sullies our lives and our communities and to take up a new path that celebrates authentic encounter and encourages human and societal transformation.

It’s a 40-day journey right to the heart of who we are and who we long to be.

Jesus—the great protagonist of this holy season—shows us that life and redemption aren’t achieved through strength and power but by rejecting a privileged mentality and taking up the sufferings and dysfunction within our own lives and those of the entire human family.

Every person lost and broken wears the body of the Lord.

Rend your hearts, not your garments—artificial penance without true transformation.

Rend your hearts, not your garments—a formal and fulfilled fast which continues to keep us satisfied.

Rend your hearts, not your garments—superficial and egoistic prayer, which doesn’t reach the depth of our life to allow it to be touched by God.

Lent comes to us as a cry of truth and sure hope, which answers yes, it is possible not to put on makeup and draw plastic smiles as if nothing is happening.

Yes, it is possible that everything be made new and different because God continues to be “rich in kindness and mercy, always willing to forgive,” and encourages us to begin again and again.

This Lent, we are again invited to undertake a paschal journey to new life, a journey that includes the cross and suffering, which will be uncomfortable but not sterile.

We are invited to admit that something is not right in ourselves, in society, and in the Church—to change, to turn around, to be converted.


See, Judge, Act: Racism, Structural Sin, and Infant Mortality

At the beginning of each semester, I introduce my students to modern Catholic social teaching by emphasizing its dialogue with a changing world. We often start with Rerum Novarum, which was a moral reflection and response to a particular historical context in the wake of the Industrial Revolution and the emergence of new working conditions. According to Leo XIII, “Nothing is more useful than to look upon the world as it really is, and at the same time to seek elsewhere…for the solace to its troubles” (18).

Gaudium et Spes asserts strongly and simply that the duty of the Church (and of moral theology)  lies in “scrutinizing the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel” (4).

In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis urged all communities to engage in reading the signs of the times: “This is in fact a grave responsibility, since certain present realities, unless effectively dealt with, are capable of setting off processes of dehumanization which would then be hard to reverse. We need to distinguish clearly what might be a fruit of the kingdom from what runs counter to God’s plan” (51).

The common thread here emphasizes the primary methodology of Catholic social teaching, which was officially emphasized by Vatican II and can be boiled down to three words: See. Judge. Act.

Looking upon the world as it really is and scrutinizing the signs of the times requires seeing and listening. If we do not fully and accurately see the complexities of our world, we are virtually guaranteed to judge incompletely and act incorrectly.  Seeing clearly is the palpable drive behind Pope Francis’ Laudato Si.

In his recent speech to the World Meeting of Popular Movements in California, Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego expanded on the “See, judge, act” theme, explaining that these mean “seeing clearly the situation, judging with principles that foster the integral development of people and acting in a way which implements these principles in the light of everyone’s unique situation.” He went on to call for greater attention and renewal of “these words — which carry with them such a powerful history of social transformation around the world in service to the dignity of the human person.”

“Seeing” and listening can seem overwhelming. In an era of social media and alternative facts, I know that I feel like I am constantly on overload. Yet, as Christians, we must persist in seeking the truth and working to better understand the world in which we live. While we often look at economics and politics, one area Catholic social teaching should engage more is public health. In particular, recent research on racism and public health should be part of Catholic social teaching’s reflection on both racism and more broadly, social sin.

Racism, Structural Sin, & Infant Mortality

For at least ten years, public health experts have been researching the high prematurity and infant mortality rates within the African American community. I first encountered this research in the documentary Unnatural Causes: Is Inequality making us Sick? The current issue of The Nation has two in-depth articles on the current state of this research: “What’s Killing America’s Black Infants?” and “What It’s Like to Be Black and Pregnant When You Know How Dangerous That Can Be.”

Education, regular medical checkups, and a healthy lifestyle should reduce the risk for premature delivery, low birthrate, and infant mortality. In the US, however, an African American woman with a college degree has a higher risk for these outcomes than a white woman without a high school diploma. Controlling for genetic and socioeconomic causes, public health experts have identified the long-term experience of systemic racism as a significant cause of high infant mortality within the African American community.

This research is important for Catholic social teaching for two reasons. First, the life course perspective in public health urging attention to health and well-being from before birth throughout one’s life is deeply consonant with a Catholic consistent ethic of life. Attention to maternal-child health begins not with pregnancy, but with a woman’s development in utero and the health of her mother. Public health on racism and childbearing demonstrates the incredible importance of an intergenerational approach.

Second, this research provides a significant challenge to the standard Catholic social teaching approach to social or structural sin. In contrast to liberation theology, John Paul II and Benedict XVI emphasized that while the impact of social sin exceeded individual actions, we were still fundamentally talking about personal sin (An excellent primer on this debate is Kristin Heyer’s “Social Sin and Immigration: Good Fences Make for Bad Neighbors.”). Pope Francis has revitalized official Catholic social teaching’s attention to social structures, especially inequality. This growing public health research on racism also provides new evidence for rethinking and deepening our understanding of social sin.  It reminds us of the importance of preventative care throughout one’s life alongside maternity care, anti-poverty and nutrition programs, and civil rights. “Seeing” this information clearly has wide ranging relevance for our “judging” –policy formation and actions to implement them.