Dom Hélder Pessoa Câmara was a tiny man with a big voice. An archbishop in Brazil during a brutal military dictatorship, he became a tireless advocate for justice.
Câmara famously remarked, “If I give bread to the poor, everyone calls me a saint. If I show why the poor have no bread, they call me a communist and a subversive.”
The government silenced Archbishop Câmara for his involvement in the politics of his day. Today, his cause for sainthood is before Rome.
A friend of mine works at a parish and leads discussion groups on Catholic issues. One day, after a meeting, a woman came up to her and mentioned something that had come up during the conversation. “But isn’t that … political?” she asked anxiously, as if it were off-limits to talk of government debates in a Catholic environment.
Ah, politics. It’s a dirty word in the U.S. these days. Our political discussions often deteriorate into name calling and outright lies. Rarely do you hear someone called “a politician” in an admiring way.
And some Catholics, even those who vigorously advocate for strict laws regarding abortion, think that contentious public issues are off-limits in church. Our parishes are great on acts of charity, as we should be. But if someone wants to talk about health care reform or climate change, we wonder if that’s too “political.”
Let’s be clear: our church never endorses candidates for office and nor do our parishes. Most of us agree that as far as political parties go, neither of our major parties embraces all the issues important to Catholic social teaching.
All the more reason that we should be active in discussing these issues and making our voices heard.
Catholic social teaching has been described as “our best kept secret,” which is a shame, as Catholic social teaching endeavors to apply the Gospel to our life in community.
“There is no ‘social gospel,’” a wise person told me. “There is just the Gospel.”
In his book, “Living Justice, Catholic Social Teaching in Action,” Jesuit Father Thomas Massaro discusses the long history of social documents written by our popes. From “Rerum Novarum,” an encyclical written by Pope Leo XIII way back in 1891, which focused on workers’ rights, to the modern writings of St. John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI, and Pope Francis, our leaders have taken on the cause of human rights.
Father Massaro discusses the nine key themes of Catholic social teaching as articulated by our popes. They include an option for the poor and vulnerable, support for labor unions, and a commitment to the common good.
Here’s one that resonates with all Catholics: the dignity of every person. We rightly focus on that when we discuss abortion. But did you know that our church extends this teaching to those on death row and to everyone desperately crossing a border toward freedom?
“Even those who commit heinous crimes, acquire debilitating diseases, or find themselves separated from their homelands or from gainful employment,” Father Massaro writes, “retain immense worth and are to be accorded the greatest of dignity.”
Human rights are Catholic issues. For thoughts by our U.S. Catholic bishops on many issues facing our country, visit their website at usccb.org or read Catholic media. And for suggestions from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on contacting your congressional representatives, visit votervoice.net/usccb/home.
Here’s just one example from this website: “Tell Congress to maintain critical food security programs in the Farm Bill.”
We can have healthy differences of opinion on how to address the broad themes of social justice. But as Catholics, we’re called to bring Gospel values to the town square.
Effie Caldarola is a wife, mom and grandmother who received her master’s degree in pastoral ministry from Seattle University.