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.