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.


Around the Web

Check out these recent articles from around the web:

New Front in the Fight With Infant Mortality By Eduardo Porter: “Pregnant women, across the country and anywhere along the income spectrum, will for the first time have guaranteed access to health insurance offering a minimum standard of care that will help keep their babies alive.”

A Call to Moral Theologians: Biotechnology Needs More Attention by Brian Green, CMT: “Hurlbut’s overarching point of was the importance of moral reflection on our growing biotechnological power. Calling cloning and stem cells issues that have the genuine power to change the course of civilization, Hurlbut emphasized the importance of engaging these issues in the right way, because once a path is chosen we may effectively become locked in to the moral outcomes.”

High-School Sports Aren’t Killing Academics by Daniel H. Bowen and Collin Hitt: “Despite negative stereotypes about sports culture and Ripley’s presumption that academics and athletics are at odds with one another, we believe that the greater body of evidence shows that school-sponsored sports programs appear to benefit students. Successes on the playing field can carry over to the classroom and vice versa.”

Why Russia Is Growing More Xenophobic by Ilan Berman: “More and more, Russians from across the political spectrum are identifying with (and organizing around) a national identity tinged with racism.”

Lead Still Major Problem Worldwide by Kevin Clarke, America: “Even though lead poisoning is entirely preventable, lead exposure causes 143,000 deaths and 600,000 new cases of children with intellectual disabilities every year, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).”

Vatican Insider Interview with Bishop Robert W. McElroy: “The statements, the actions and the gestures of Pope Francis have illuminated the scandal of global poverty not with harshness, but with a gentleness of truth that stirs the conscience to recognize realities that one already knows, but prefers not to recognize.”

Don’t abandon the women of Afghanistan By Paula J. Dobriansky and Melanne S. Verveer: “The international community must work to ensure that women’s gains in recent years are protected and that Afghan women continue to make political and economic progress. Any future support for the country’s government must be explicitly tied to continued defense of equal rights and continued progress of female citizens.”

Remembering Genocide in Kigali by Kerry Weber: “Perhaps one of the most notable characteristics of the Kigali Memorial Centre is its simplicity: a small fountain; a stone courtyard; some gardens, with water fixtures flowing through them. And the long, brown slabs of brick marking the graves of 250,000 of the men, women and children who died in the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.”

Vatican’s media adviser offers ‘Top 10′ ways to understand Pope Francis by Carol Glatz, CNS: “No matter how some media may want to spin it, Pope Francis won’t fit into the political categories of left or right, and he will challenge everyone with the truth of the Gospel, said the Vatican’s media adviser.”

When We Don’t Feel Like Loving Our ‘Loved Ones’ by Michael Wear: “In some areas of Christian culture, our vision of loving the stranger is expanding while our vision of loving those closest to us is restricting.”

Assad’s War of Starvation by John Kerry: “The world already knows that Bashar al-Assad has used chemical weapons, indiscriminate bombing, arbitrary detentions, rape, and torture against his own citizens. What is far less well known, and equally intolerable, is the systematic denial of medical assistance, food supplies, and other humanitarian aid to huge portions of the population. This denial of the most basic human rights must end before the war’s death toll — now surpassing 100,000 — reaches even more catastrophic levels.”


Around the Web

Check out these recent articles from around the web:

Put Social Justice Back in the Social Contract by Tiziana Dearing: “We desperately need problem-solving rooted in the principles of human dignity and ‘right relationships’ today. And we need to teach people that using social justice in our policies should not be something special. It should be baseline.”

Your Annual Reminder to Ignore the U.S. News & World Report College Rankings John Tierney: “Dupes fork over their hard-earned money for the rankings to see how their kid (and, thus, they themselves!) stack up against the kid down the street. Ha! Sweetie, did you see that Bowdoin is ranked 20 spots higher than Oberlin?! Ah, the smug satisfaction and inner glow that come from having bested the Joneses. No matter how ludicrous that ‘besting’ is.”

Liberation theology finds new welcome in Pope Francis’ Vatican by RNS: “Francis, who has called for ‘a poor church for the poor,’ will meet in the next few days with the Rev. Gustavo Gutierrez, a Peruvian theologian and scholar who is considered the founder of liberation theology.”

Congolese bishop says he hopes international pressure helps his country by Francis Njuguna, Catholic News Service: “A bishop from eastern Congo said people in the area continue to suffer from an ongoing government-rebel conflict, and he hoped pressure from the international community would help relieve the situation.”

Mindlessly Gutting Food Stamps by NY Times: “Instead of providing aid for the hungry, House Republicans want to reduce the food stamp program — the most basic part of the social safety net — with $40 billion in cuts across the next decade.”

The Paradoxical Commandments by Paul Brian Campbell, SJ: “A version of the commandments below became famous because they were on the wall of one of Mother Teresa’s homes in Calcutta, but the original — part of a booklet for student leaders — was composed by Kent M. Keith in 1968. People are illogical, unreasonable, and self-centered. Love them anyway…”

Pursuing the Dream by John Carr: “Pope Francis’ new leadership and example offer a way forward. He calls us to get out of ourselves and our ecclesial corners and into ‘the streets.’ Pope Francis also has a dream, ‘a church which is poor and for the poor.’ If we truly pursue Francis’ dream, it will help realize Dr. King’s dream as well.”

No Child Should Die Of Things We Can Prevent by Caryl Stern: “More than two decades ago, UNICEF had a crazy idea: Focus on simple solutions, and you’ll save millions of children. Immunize them, so they don’t get diseases we know how to prevent. Encourage their mothers to breastfeed. Monitor their growth, so we know if they’re malnourished. Get them insecticide-treated mosquito nets, so they don’t get malaria. If they get diarrhea, give them an inexpensive solution of salts and sugars that will prevent them from dying of dehydration. It worked. Since 1990, 90 million children have survived because they had access to such simple, life-saving solutions, according to a new report released today by UNICEF…Those are heartening numbers, but they’re clearly not enough.”

Hannah Arendt, Augustinian by Fr. Robert Barron: “The great moral lesson — articulated by both Augustine and Hannah Arendt — is that we must refuse to be beguiled by the glittering banality of wickedness and we must consistently choose the substance over the shadow.”

Mikhail Gorbachev admits he is a Christian by Malcolm Moore: “Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Communist leader of the Soviet Union, has acknowledged his Christian faith for the first time, paying a surprise visit to pray at the tomb of St Francis of Assisi.”

Meanwhile, in the Refugee Crisis by Gershom Gorenberg: “Whether or not the United States uses arms in Syria, it needs to use money and visas to relieve suffering.”

Forgetting Ourselves Completely by Matthew Warner, The Radical Life: “So humility is not really thinking less of yourself as much as it’s thinking of yourself less. We live in a culture that celebrates, encourages and applauds shameless selfishness, self-absorption and individualism. The antidote is genuine humility.”


Around the Web

Check out these recent articles from around the web:

A Policy of Rape Continues by Nicholas Kristof: “We’re at the 10-year-anniversary of the beginning of the genocide in Darfur, yet, instead of subsiding, it has been amplified this year. Just in the first five months of 2013, according to the United Nations, another 300,000 people in Darfur have been driven from their homes — and untold numbers killed or raped.”

Pro-Baby, but Stingy With Money to Support Them by Eduardo Porter: “But though American families may have adapted better than others to women’s march into the labor force, the United States lags far behind in providing the government support that makes it easier for many couples to start a family.”

Pope decries ‘dealers of death,’ opposes drug legalization by John Allen: “In his most pointed bit of political commentary since arriving in Brazil two days ago, Pope Francis this afternoon blasted narco-traffickers as ‘dealers of death’ and came out against trends in Latin America towards the legalization of drugs.”

Vatican Radio: Homily at Marian Shrine at Aparecida: “It is true that nowadays, to some extent, everyone, including our young people, feels attracted by the many idols which take the place of God and appear to offer hope: money, success, power, pleasure. Often a growing sense of loneliness and emptiness in the hearts of many people leads them to seek satisfaction in these ephemeral idols.”

What Will Happen to the Other 367,000 Babies Born Monday?  by Amanda Marcotte: “Of the nonroyal 367,000 babies born Monday, UNICEF estimates that 24,000 will probably not live to see their fifth birthday. Most of the 24,000 children under  5 we lose a day around the world die from preventable causes: diarrhea, malaria, neonatal infection, pneumonia, preterm delivery, or lack of oxygen at birth.”

Pope Francis & Springtime by Michael Sean Winters: “It is this quality of Pope Francis, his simplicity, his ability to sense what ordinary people are thinking and feeling and to speak to them in ways that they understand, this is what has created the sense that it is springtime for the Church again. It is his awareness that if you are going to speak about poverty, it is best not to be spotted in a Mercedes, sit on a golden throne, and dress up in Baroque, jewel-laden attire.”

Reweaving the circle of protection by Kathy Saile and Galen Carey: “It’s been more than 140 days since sequestration went into effect, cutting $84 billion across the board from government programs this year. It may be difficult to comprehend the effects of that number. However, it is not difficult to comprehend that a child who is undernourished this year could have learning difficulties for the rest of her life—which will hurt her ability to earn enough money to provide for herself and her future children. It is not difficult to comprehend that a father in South Sudan who needlessly dies from AIDS this year because of reduced access to treatments will leave his family in dire straits. It is not difficult to comprehend that an elderly person on a fixed income in the Midwest will sit hungry and cold in a dingy apartment next winter because of cuts to essential assistance.”

Pope Francis: Arrival Speech in Rio, Vatican Radio: “Our generation will show that it can realize the promise found in each young person when we know how to give them space; how to create the material and spiritual conditions for their full development; how to give them a solid basis on which to build their lives; how to guarantee their safety and their education to be everything they can be; how to pass on to them lasting values that make life worth living; how to give them a transcendent horizon for their thirst for authentic happiness and their creativity for the good; how to give them the legacy of a world worthy of human life; and how to awaken in them their greatest potential as builders of their own destiny, sharing responsibility for the future of everyone.”

Pope Francis to Brazilian Bishops: Are we still a Church capable of warming hearts?: “A relentless process of globalization, an often uncontrolled process of urbanization, have promised great things. Many people have been captivated by the potential of globalization, which of course does contain positive elements. But many also completely overlook its darker side: the loss of a sense of life’s meaning, personal dissolution, a loss of the experience of belonging to any “nest” whatsoever, subtle but relentless violence, the inner fragmentation and breakup of families, loneliness and abandonment, divisions, and the inability to love, to forgive, to understand, the inner poison which makes life a hell, the need for affection because of feelings of inadequacy and unhappiness, the failed attempt to find an answer in drugs, alcohol, and sex, which only become further prisons.”

State Department seeks to broaden religious reach by Elizabeth Tenety, Washington Post: “The State Department announced this week the creation of its first office dedicated to outreach to the global faith community and religious leaders. The project, born in part of recommendations by its working group on religion and foreign policy, will be headed by Shaun Casey, a United Methodist member and professor at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington.”

Why millennials are leaving the church by Rachel Held Evans, CNN Belief Blog: “Having been advertised to our whole lives, we millennials have highly sensitive BS meters, and we’re not easily impressed with consumerism or performances. In fact, I would argue that church-as-performance is just one more thing driving us away from the church…”

Pope Francis: “Go, do not be afraid, and serve”: “Today, in the light of the word of God that we have heard, what is the Lord saying to us? Three simple ideas: Go, do not be afraid, and serve.”


Around the Web

Check out these recent articles from around the web:

Why Paid Family Leave Is Good for Everyone (Even People Who Don’t Use It) by Nanette Fondas: “The impact of family leave legislation, whether state or federal, is felt well beyond the direct benefit an individual worker receives. Parental leave and similar policies hold potential to reduce workplace bias and stigma faced by all women and men with caregiving responsibilities.”

Does Being Joyful Mean I Can’t be Sad? by Fr. James Martin, SJ: “Sadness is a natural response to pain, suffering and tragedy in life.  It is human, natural and even, in a way, desirable: sadness in response to a tragic event shows that you are emotionally alive.  If you weren’t sad from time to time, you would be something less than human.”

Sex abuse scandal keeps priests from healthy relationships with young people by Gerald Kleba: “The clergy abuse, the scandal of the cover-ups, and the subsequent ‘Protecting God’s Children’ program, which decrees that a priest can never be alone with young people, had made that impossible. No young priest today has a chance for the quality intimacy that makes celibacy worthwhile and compelling, because his life will have to be spent at arm’s length from the very youngsters who are the most in need.”

Everything I Can Do by Joey Kane: “God loves me because God made me. He made me just the way I am, and he loves me just the way I am. Because I have a good sense of humor, people feel more comfortable around me. Sometimes someone in my class says that he feels embarrassed to be around me. On the other hand, this same person asked me to sit at his table. This is a good example of the way it should be. I should be treated as if I don’t have Down syndrome. In fact, I do not even think of Down syndrome as being a disability, but many people think it is.”

A Better Life by Matt Kane: “Without diversity our world would be stagnant and our thoughts without purpose, for it is often through our differences that we are able to enrich the lives of those around us. While it is true that my parents’ act of social justice saved the life of only one person, it served to transform the lives of countless people in my community, whose world would be a little less bright, less full, were it not for Joey.”

Food stamps work, so why are we cutting them? by Melinda Henneberger: “Responding to poverty by paring back nutrition programs is like answering a rise in diabetes by slashing insulin production. And as Pete Gallego (D-Tex.) argued, almost all of the recipients are either children or elderly.”

A Free Miracle Food! by Nicholas Kristof: “The latest nutritional survey from The Lancet estimates that suboptimal breast-feeding claims the lives of 804,000 children annually. That’s more than the World Health Organization’s estimate of malaria deaths each year…if we want to save hundreds of thousands of lives, maybe a step forward is to offer more support to moms in poor counties trying to nurse their babies. ”


Around the Web

Check out these recent articles from around the web:

Subsidiarity and Libertarian “Small Government” by James Baresel, The Distributist Review

“Subsidarity is suspicious of centralized big business even more than it is suspicious of centralized big government. Subsidiarity would, in fact, prefer an expansion of government to the expansion of big business.”

All Good Things by David Frum

“Here are five essential tasks to commence before conservative reform truly rolls forward…Conservative reformers need to do a better job of starting with the problem and working forward, not starting with the answer and working backward…But one of the lessons I think conservatives should take from the 2012 Romney defeat is that the increasing concentration of wealth in America has dangerous political and intellectual consequences…Conservative reformers must not absent themselves from the environmental debate…Conservative reformers should make their peace with universal health coverage…conservative reformers should admit, if only to themselves, the harm that has been done by the politics of total war over the past five years.”

President of USCCB Joins Other Bishops’ Conferences in Letter to Leaders of G8 Nations; Urges Them to Protect the Poor, Address Fair Trade, Transparency

“Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, joined the Catholic Bishops’ Conferences of the Group of 8 nations (G8) to urge national leaders to protect the poor and assist developing countries at the upcoming G8 Summit in the United Kingdom”

Vatican’s U.N. observer stresses need to eradicate world hunger By Catholic News Service

“Finding a solution to the ‘ongoing scandal’ of worldwide hunger should be a top priority, said the Vatican’s representative to the United Nations.”

Things Modesty Hasn’t a Damn Thing to Do With by Bad Catholic, Patheos

“But almost everyone who has the courage to lift their heads above apathy’s drowning pool and talk about modesty at all — Christian, feminist, atheist, the lot — expresses the virtue as a thing primarily determined by its effect on the other, as if total modesty was, by way of dress, the ability to not tempt a man into lust. Thus seems to me the saddest, most hopeless definition of them all.”

Pope nixes ‘boring’ practice of reading text to students, uses Q&A by CNS

“He urged everyone to try to live more simply saying, ‘In a world where there is so much wealth, so many resources to feed everyone, it’s incomprehensible how there can be so many hungry children, so many children without an education, so many poor.’

Extreme poverty in the world ‘is a scandal’ and ‘a cry’ for help, he said. That is why ‘each one of us must think how we can become a little bit poorer’ and more like Christ.”

Is comic Jim Gaffigan the Catholic Church’s newest evangelizer?  by Michelle Boorstein, Washington Post

“Gaffigan seems to effortlessly embody the idea the Catholic Church and other denominations are desperately promoting: You can be a devout member of mainstream American life. You don’t have to leave God in order to live in the regular world.”

The City of God? by Archbishop Vincent G. Nichols

“Our relationships are an intrinsic part of who we are. As human beings we are not just individuals. We are each born into a human community and find our deepest fulfillment as persons in relationship to others, and I would add, to God. This idea is central to the Judeo-Christian vision of humanity created in the image and likeness of God, who is a communion of persons.”

It’s Cuomo vs. Dolan in NY Abortion Fight by Kevin Clarke, America

“The governor is now set on a course toward an epic confrontation with the state’s leading Catholic prelate, N.Y. Cardinal Timothy Dolan, who previously promised Cuomo that he would do all in his power to prevent an expansion of abortion rights in New York.”

Bishop Joseph M. Sullivan, Advocate for the Poor, Dies at 83 by NY Times

“In the late 1980s, as whole neighborhoods were being ravaged by AIDS, drug abuse and crime, Bishop Sullivan went to Washington to testify before Congress about the plight many people were facing.”

Why Finnish babies sleep in cardboard boxes by BBC News

“For 75 years, Finland’s expectant mothers have been given a box by the state. It’s like a starter kit of clothes, sheets and toys that can even be used as a bed. And some say it helped Finland achieve one of the world’s lowest infant mortality rates.”