November 6, 2009

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Basic Catholicism: Social justice and charity

John F. Fink(Thirty-ninth in a series)

Jesus left no doubt about how we are going to be judged at the end of the world.

The 25th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, verses 31-46, tells us plainly that we will be saved if we feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, and visit the sick and those in prison. Conversely, those who do not do that will be condemned.

The Catholic Church as an institution does all those things. Every diocese spends considerable resources on Catholic Charities or Catholic Social Services that help the poor, the immigrants, the homeless and others in need.

Catholic hospitals care for the sick, and Catholic chaplains are assigned to other hospitals. The St. Vincent de Paul Society aids the hungry and those who need clothing or household appliances. There is also a ministry to those in prison.

The Church’s services aren’t confined only to this country either. Catholic Relief Services, an agency of the Catholic bishops, is not only a relief agency in poor countries throughout the world, but it especially helps the poor in those countries learn to help themselves. Most people in the Western world enjoy a better standard of living than those in so-called developing nations. It is our obligation, therefore, to help those people to the best of our ability.

The Church’s social doctrine flows from its belief that the human person is sacred. Each individual not only has the right to life but to all those things that are required for human decency.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “The decisive point of the social question is that goods created by God for everyone should in fact reach everyone in accordance with justice and with the help of charity” (# 2459).

Meeting the needs of the poor, the sick, the homeless, immigrants, etc., is both a matter of justice and charity. In justice, we must try to remove the symptoms and causes of poverty and injustice. In charity, we must help those who are suffering from poverty and injustice.

This does not mean that inequality in society is always wrong, just when it becomes excessive. We don’t all have the same talents, and we don’t all work as hard. It would be unjust, in fact, to reward everyone the same. The Church does not believe in socialism. In fact, it strongly condemns it.

The Church’s social justice doctrine has been developed most thoroughly since 1891 when Pope Leo XIII wrote an encyclical titled “Rerum Novarum” (“On the Social Question”). Since that time, most of his successors have written their own encyclicals on that subject, and the Second Vatican Council included social justice in its document “Gaudium et Spes” (“The Church in the Modern World”).

An important aspect of the Church’s social doctrine is what is called “the preferential option for the poor.” That means that it is our obligation to put the needs of the poor and the vulnerable first.

Exactly how to do that in specific situations, though, is usually a matter of judgment. †

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