In the 15th Chapter of the Gospel of John, Jesus says to His disciples: “You are my friends if you do what I command you. . . . This I command you: love one another.” In this simple but direct statement offered on the eve of His Crucifixion, Jesus expresses the “cost of discipleship” that is the essence of the Christian encounter and Catholic social doctrine. Love not in a sentimental or romantic sense, but active love based on an affirmation of the sacramental integrity of human existence and the dignity of each individual human being. By self-example, Jesus showed His friends the “Way”; it is the Way of the Cross as the ultimate and ironic symbol of hope and redemption in history. “A harsh and dreadful love,” Dorothy Day called it, one that connects the spiritual and social realms of human existence in a web of mutuality, solidarity, and shared relationship in Christ.
It is by love that we become not strangers but friends, to use Jesus’ words, bound in an integral humanism that is central to a Catholic and Christian understanding of the just social order and the common good. These virtues, neatly summed up in the old expression the Corporal Works of Mercy, have been extolled in the Church’s great social documents and in its centuries-long tradition of apostolic and lay pastoral and prophetic witness. As the Church universal commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council, an assembly generally regarded as the most important religious gathering of the modern era, it is useful for Catholics and others to reflect on this long heritage of thought and action, and to rediscover the wisdom and practical – though at times controversial – implications of Catholic social doctrine.
My particular assignment is to offer some reflections on the theme of “Rights and Responsibility” and its relationship to the larger corpus of Catholic social teachings. Suffice to say, notions of rights and responsibilities transcend partisan political allegiances and narrow denominational loyalties. Pope John XXIII made this point quite clearly in his great encyclical Pacem in Terris (1963). All human rights accrue because of human dignity, Pope John wrote in a wide-ranging reflection on contemporary concerns, and laws should “clearly indicate how a man must behave toward his fellows in society.”
In words that had sweeping social implications, but rested on a long tradition of Catholic public discourse, John XXIII continued: “Any well-regulated and productive association of men in society demands the acceptance of one fundamental principle: that each individual man is truly a person. . . . As such he has rights and duties, which together follow as a direct consequence from his nature. These rights and duties are universal and inviolable, and therefore altogether inalienable.” (One should allow that the pontiff was speaking in an inclusive and not a gender-specific sense.) To be human, in other words, is to possess dignity and to have rights and responsibilities that create a framework for social justice and personal freedom. More than 35 years later, Pope John Paul II echoed these sentiments when he observed, “The secret to true peace resides in its respect for human rights.”
In the authoritative Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (2004) that was published almost 40 years after Pacem in Terris, there are more than 85 separate index references to both rights and responsibilities, ranging in scope from human rights, rights of women, labor, a just wage, the rights of the state, natural law, disability, war and peace, conscientious objection, family, the political community, social life, and ecumenism, to name just a few. The topics cover a wealth of moral, political, social and cultural themes that cast light on the depth of Catholic social doctrine, and what Cardinal Joseph Bernadin termed a “comprehensive and consistent ethic of life.”
The four decades that separated Pacem in Terris from the Compendium (1963-2004) were heady times in world affairs and within Catholic culture and everyday life. For the global Church and for the Church in the United States, these years witnessed tremendous social and demographic changes and a succession of significant and sometimes controversial developments. The conclusion of the Second Vatican Council in 1965, and the promulgation of its 16 documents, signaled the possibilities of a new style of public theology and sacred ministry—indeed, as John W. O’Malley said, a new relationship between the past and future grounded in the present moment of Church and human history. What also is notable of those four decades, at least as it pertains to the issue of rights and responsibilities, was the prominence of Catholic movements for social justice that embraced the spirit and intent of aggiornamento, the new opening John XXIII spoke of as the animating spirit of the Council and its engagement of the modern world.
In the concluding sessions of the Second Vatican Council, at least three major documents reinforced the importance of a Catholic sense of rights and responsibilities. Perhaps most explicitly, Gaudium et Spes (Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, 1965) picked up on social justice themes enunciated in Pacem in Terris. “For it is the human person that is to be saved, and human society to be restored,” the document read. “Never has the human race possessed such an abundance of wealth, resources and economic power, and yet a large part of the world’s population is still racked by hunger and need, and very many are illiterate.”
With reference to the “anxieties” and “imbalances” in world affairs, the document continued, “The social character of human beings indicates that the advancement of the human person and the growth of society are dependent on each other.” “Consequently, everything should be rendered to a person which is required to lead a truly human life, such as food, clothing, shelter, the rights to free choice of one’s state in life and to found a family, to education, to work. . . to respect. . . and to a just freedom, including religious freedom.” Noting a universal responsibility to oppose “any social and political slavery and [to] safeguarding the basic rights of all under any form of government,” Gaudium et Spes encouraged the faithful to “play their part in enterprises of a community nature.” This pronouncement would have far-reaching implications in the so-called Developing World.
This integral relationship between rights and responsibilities informed at least two other major Council documents: the path-breaking statement on religious freedom (Dignitatis Humanae) and an equally controversial statement on ecumenism (Nostra Aetate). Path-breaking yet controversial because each represented the new approach (aggiornamento) heralded at the Council’s opening, and because some perceived the documents as questioning a sense of Catholic exceptionalism. It is worth noting that the American hierarchy and their advisors played a critical role in the internal struggles to secure each document’s final approval.
In a kind of parallelism, as Council fathers concluded their deliberations in 1965, far beyond the Vatican Catholic social teaching on rights and responsibilities resonated in lay and episcopal efforts to remake the social order. Perhaps the most notable example came in Latin America with the emergence of Liberation Theology. Implicitly and explicitly, priests, nuns and the laity gathered in intentional communities and developed a critique of poverty, injustice, and human suffering that was framed in the light of Catholic social teachings and the real life experiences of human beings. Frequently dismissed for their uncompromising critique of political and economic conditions, or rebuked by critics for perceived Marxist leanings, spiritual leaders like Dom Helder Camara, Oscar Romero, and the Peruvian theologian Gustavo Gutierrez endeavored through grassroots efforts to give meaning to the notion of a “preferential option for the poor.”
It was Helder Camera, who was present at Vatican II and soon to be named a Cardinal, who quipped famously: “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.” Similarly, as Gutierrez wrote in his influential book, A Theology of Liberation (1971), the essence of Christian spirituality was “contemplation, prayer, and action” [my emphasis]. Solidarity and social justice, Gutierrez wrote, required a “spirituality from below” that accepted “Our discourse on God cannot be separated from the everyday life of the poor of this world, a life infused with sorrow and hope.” Episcopal conferences in Medellin (1968) and Puebla (1979) seemed to encourage the movement in the face of withering criticism from skeptics who suspected a more sinister and political agenda.
Within the United States, the spirit of Vatican II and a commitment to rights, responsibility and justice encouraged a growing number of Catholics to heed the call to social activism. This came in many forms, from involvement in the civil rights and antipoverty campaigns, farm worker rights, the plight of the urban poor, and of course the anti-war movement. Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, the Berrigan brothers, and the prominence of the Catholic Left spoke to both a radical interpretation of the Gospel and a growing political and cultural conflict within American Catholicism that was not dissimilar to the contentiousness over Liberation Theology. Daniel Berrigan wrote unapologetically that prophetic witness meant we are called to “do the Word.” Catholic politician and vice presidential candidate Sargent Shriver, who admired Day, Merton and Berrigan, sought to apply Catholic social justice principles in such different causes as the Peace Corps, the War on Poverty, and with his wife Eunice in the Special Olympics.
Established in 1969, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Campaign for Human Development was a domestic antipoverty and social justice effort aligned with a global Church effort to “address the root causes of poverty” through “community-controlled self-help organizations and transformative social justice, education and solidarity between the poor and non-poor.” Although it has become controversial in its own right, the Campaign for Human Development was the clearest expression of the American hierarchy’s post-Vatican II commitment to the Church’s social justice principles, to protecting the rights of the poor and vulnerable, and to demonstrating a faith-based responsibility to transform the social order.
Pax Christi, Catholic Worker houses of hospitality, Catholic Trade Unionists, Catholic Relief Services, the National Apostolate for Inclusion Ministry, the campaign for human rights in Northern Ireland, South Africa, Rwanda—the myriad of lay and episcopal-initiated organizations and movements dedicated to issues of human dignity, rights, and a responsibility to social renewal all attest to the rich diversity of a global Church. From John Ryan’s theory of the living wage, New York’s P.O.T.S., Camden’s Sacred Heart parish, Misericordia Homes in Chicago, Washington’s Horace McKenna Center, and the Plowshare Movement, to those who staff the soup kitchens, shelters, and clothing banks that bring comfort and momentary relief—these all show how Catholic social doctrine on rights and responsibility has shaped lives in the service of building the Kingdom of God.
I would like to conclude on a personal note by acknowledging one of the least well known of all the global Catholic movements dedicated to living out the Gospel through prophetic witness to the least among us. Outside Paris in 1964, Jean Vanier established a community known as L’Arche (French for the Ark). L’Arche is now an international and ecumenical federation with more than 100 communities in 30-plus countries. Its members live in community with people with intellectual disabilities, whom Vanier has often remarked are the “most wounded and discriminated against.” Communion, compassion, and community, and the encouragement to “just do a little something,” are the means to a deeper spiritual and social life.
L’Arche’s gentle personalism is relational and reciprocal, and gives living example to the integral humanism at the heart of a Catholic sense of rights and responsibilities. Now in his mid-80’s, Jean Vanier has longed maintained that L’Arche seeks to be “a sign and not a solution.” A “sign of hope” in a violent world, and an example of how to fulfill the commandment to love one another. By such deeds do we become friends—friends of Jesus and each other.
By Dennis Downey, Ph.D. He is a Professor of History and Director of the University Honors College at Millersville University, and a member of the Diocesan Commission on Catholic Social Doctrine.
Examination of Conscience
• Do I recognize and respect the economic, social, political, and cultural rights of others?
• Do I live in material comfort and excess while remaining insensitive to the needs of others whose rights are unfulfilled?
• Do I take seriously my responsibility to ensure that the rights of persons in need are realized? • Do I urge those in power to implement programs and policies that give priority to the human dignity and rights of all, especially the vulnerable?