By Ben Shedlock
At the end of the Roman Catholic Mass, the priest dismisses the congregation by saying, “Go forth, glorifying God by your life.” This command reminds Catholics that our responsibilities to God lie mostly outside the church in the way we conduct our family, professional and civic lives. It reminds us to extend the powerful current of divine love we experience during the Eucharist into the world.
The priest’s exhortation poses some important questions. What truly glorifies God? What kind of life should I live? How can I take the deeply spiritual Eucharist into a determinedly secular world? For Catholic individuals and institutions, the answers lie in Catholic social teaching, a body of doctrines heralded and formed by centuries of prayer, discussion among leaders, debate at councils and official writings by popes.
Catholic social teaching is not about our prayer life or our worship—it is about using fruits to create social change. It is a transformer that converts the current of God’s love for us into the high-voltage action that is needed to build just communities and challenge systems of oppression.
The principles of Catholic social teaching guide Catholics as they go forth from the pews each Sunday, and they guide Catholic Charities in our work promoting life and dignity throughout Eastern Washington.
Catholic Social Teaching in Action
You can understand Catholic social teaching best by touring the work of Catholic Charities across our region. Start in downtown Spokane, where brand-new apartments house our neighbors who have experienced homelessness. Then take Highway 27 to the Pullman farmers market, where Catholic Charities has helped SNAP recipients increase the buying power of their benefits through our Food for All program. When our vulnerable neighbors can shop at farmers markets, they can more easily access and afford healthy foods.
Head west to Walla Walla, where you will find a new shelter, a HOPE Center called the LOFT, where homeless youth find safety and stability. Turn north to Okanogan County, where case management and emergency assistance have helped families rebuild from wildfire. Return to Spokane, where, despite histories of abuse and trauma, parents gain the emotional skills they need to raise healthy, happy children in CAPA and Rising Strong.
This is the world Catholic Charities Eastern Washington has created by faithfully applying the principles of Catholic Social Teaching. Through more than a dozen programs in 13 counties, 300-plus Catholic Charities employees and an army of thousands of volunteers strive to solve homelessness, provide housing for vulnerable people in our region, end the cycle of intergenerational poverty and provide a voice for the voiceless.
The Seven Principles of Catholic Social Teaching
One of those employees, Parish Social Ministry director Scott Cooper, calls Catholic social teaching a holistic vision for our society. In other words, Cooper often repeats, “It’s got something to make everyone equally uncomfortable.” It emphasizes the unborn, the immigrant and the labor organizer.
The categories of Catholic social teaching challenge each of our personal assumptions about the right way to respond to God’s love. They do not conform to our right-left ideological spectrum, east-west geopolitical map or global north-south economic divide. Instead, Catholic Social Teaching conforms to the Gospel, distilling its messages into seven principles. According to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, it offers “wisdom about building a just society and living lives of holiness amidst the challenges of a modern society.” These principles ground and guide us:
- Life and Dignity of the Human Person—A moral vision that places life and dignity as the cornerstone of society
- Call to Family, Community and Participation—A call to live out our faith by participating in public life and bringing our Christian beliefs to the conduct of our families, governments and economies
- Rights and Responsibilities—A responsibility to protect the rights of everyone in our society rather than focus solely on our own holiness
- Option for the Poor and Vulnerable—A measuring stick that pegs our society’s health to the welfare of the least of these (Mt 25:31-46)
- The Dignity of Work and Rights of Workers—A balance sheet that demands our economy place a higher premium on people than profit
- Solidarity—A reminder that we are all created in God’s image and carry a responsibility to love each other
- Care for God’s Creation—A requirement that we are to steward the Earth’s resources for all people
Over the next several months, Catholic Charities invites you to follow this column in SpokaneFāVS as we reflect on how Catholic social teaching guides our work and shapes our Eastern Washington community. The series will use examples from our programs to explore the meaning of each principle.