At this point in the JustFaith program, participants are coming to a midpoint and it’s time for something a little different. Rather than discuss a book or video, they are asked to attend a day-long “border-crossing experience,” a project of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development CCHD, one of JustFaith’s partners.
This Journey to Justice Day is sandwiched between a preparatory pre-session and a post-session, during which participants will read a book about CCHD grantees (discussed in part 13 of this series) and watch a documentary about a the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, an independent, Boston-based community organization that received $35,000 from the CCHD in 1987. This latter is a surprising choice for introducing people to the work of CCHD as it describes a highly atypical grantee rather than one of the hundreds that affiliated with Alinskyian organizing networks.
The Journey to Justice Day experience itself begins with the following welcome: “For the next two sessions we will focus our attention on the work of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development and their [sic] efforts to empower the poor and marginalized to work for change in their communities.” In other words, this next segment of the JustFaith program is primarily oriented toward introducing and generating support for CCHD.
To that end, an “immersion experience” is organized that “includes interaction between parish people [Justfaith program participants] and empowered low-income people” – that is, not just the staff of an empowerment organization but with its actual members. It must take place at “an action site of the low-income group” and must emphasize “empowerment, so that the parishioners who are participating [or, in this case, again, the JustFaith participants] meet and experience poor and low-income people helping themselves.”
The immersion experience is designed to underscore “the causes of a problem – i.e. explores why a problem exists from the perspective of the members of the CCHD empowered low-income group and examines the structure(s) that need to be changed to break the cycle of poverty in the community.” (emphasis in original) Lastly, there is time built into the day for informal conversations between all parties.[i]
In other words, JustFaith participants will be spending time with CCHD-funded organizations that are specifically engaged in community organizing (as contrasted, say, to economic development grantees) and will be taught, just as the participants in these organizations are taught by the organizers, to understand problems related to poverty in terms of “structure(s) that need to be changed” – not necessarily as the Catholic Church understands those needs but as the “empowered poor” have been trained to understand them. It’s a critical distinction.
Following the Journey to Justice Day manual makes it clear that however individual JustFaith groups – even well-formed Catholic groups – come to this “experience,” the program itself is designed to introduce (if it hasn’t already been) or reinforce (if it has) the liberationist perspective rather than the Catholic perspective. So, before traveling to the “CCHD-funded project site,” JustFaith participants “explore the Church’s concept of social sin and its relationship to personal sin…” during a 45-minute period of “Prayer and Scripture Reflection.” [ii]
The material from which the presenter is to prepare his reflections is provided, not to be read but to be absorbed, owned, and reformulated for the group.[iii] So the presenter reads – and participants will be told, in some form or another, that “When we look at the words and practice of Jesus, there is one trait that stands out with extraordinary clarity, that is, the freedom of Jesus. This freedom showed itself as a freedom of initiative and movement, as an ease and frankness in speaking, as clarity in taking positions. Like the prophets, he both criticized and energized. He nurtured, nourished, and evoked a consciousness and perception that was an alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around him. He did not bend to the civil and religious powers, but neither did he adopt a provocative and unchanging attitude toward them. Jesus was a creative religious genius. Steeped as he was in the biblical and religious tradition of his people, he gave a personal interpretation of these without ever letting himself be hampered by the special rules of a particular religious school. His point of reference was the Creator's love of the poor. This took precedence over the law and every form of tradition. It was for this reason that he rejected ritualism as an absolutely valid way of constraining tradition.” [emphasis in the original]
The Church, of course, is not just another religious institution ritualistically “constraining tradition…” but JustFaith participants might reasonably conclude from the above that they are meant to think so, much as they are meant to identify with Jesus, removing the “yoke of suffocating religious traditions” from themselves: “…. His freedom is a gift and is experienced by others. It removes from the consciences of his hearers the yoke of suffocating religious traditions, social conventions, and dehumanizing barriers of fear. It was and remains the source of life for all who accept it.…. These ‘anawim’ do not enjoy even a mention in history, much less a leading role. Jesus' prophetic use of parables creates a place for the ‘anawim’ in history. The history of Jesus' kingdom was to be a history of compassion, ‘woven into the history of structures, events and institutions,’ to be sure, but unmediated by them.”
Then, participants discuss “social sin.” If they are faithful to the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, which is cited as the reference for this next section, they would understand that the term refers to the broader consequences of individual sin. People are social beings who influence one another. One person’s individual sins all too often have tentacles that worm their pernicious way into seemingly unrelated exchanges – into the economy and the music and art and literature of the society in which he travels. [iv]
“Structures of sin,” are laws or customs that give social approval and support to personal sin. Or, in the words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (#1869): “Thus sin makes men accomplices of one another and causes concupiscence, violence, and injustice to reign among them. Sins give rise to social situations and institutions that are contrary to the divine goodness. ‘Structures of sin’ are the expression and effect of personal sins. They lead their victims to do evil in their turn. In an analogous sense, they constitute a ‘social sin.’”
So, having an abortion is a personal sin. Legalizing abortion, which has been accomplished by individual legislators and their backers (and is therefore the product of their personal sin), becomes a “structure of sin” that gives people the impression abortion is morally acceptable.
One of the problematic developments that crops up around the discussion of “social sin” and “structures of sin” is the false idea that our primary moral responsibility is to address these structures politically. As one blogger expressed it (for the purposes of debunking): “How can people worry about paltry wrongs such as, ‘I lied,’ ‘I took the Lord’s name in vain,’ or ‘I indulged in lustful thoughts,’ when there are third world workers being cheated out of their just wages, the environment [is] being destroyed, racism [is] being perpetuated, nuclear weapons being [are] built and imperialist wars being fought? Isn’t it time that we stopped obsessing over these small issues of lying and swearing and sex in order to concentrate on the massive, societal evils that afflict our country and our planet?”[v]
This is the perspective the Journey to Justice fosters without stating it blatantly. A section in the manual for the discussion about “sin and grace” includes a quote from theologian Gregory Baum: “There can be no doubt that the notion of sin in theological teaching and religious practice has become excessively individualistic.”
The manual continues: “We have looked upon sin as a personal deed, a personal violation of a divine commandment, or an act of infidelity against God, freely committed with deliberation. What we have forgotten is the social dimension of sin and by doing so we have lost the key for understanding the violence in our history and the collective evil in which we are involved.”[vi]
This imbalanced emphasis on structures is purposeful: the Journey to Justice – like JustFaith – is designed to train people to address structures…which is why JustFaith participants are next to meet with the “empowered poor,” rather than simply with poor people. As the CCHD-funded empowerment organizations have trained the poor to address structures, so too are the JustFaith participants going to be trained to address them or, at the very least, to support others addressing them.
The missing – and very key component – in this empowerment training is a clear distinction between structures that are sinful and those that are imperfect (as will any enterprise involving fallen men necessarily be). This will become more apparent as participants become more deeply formed by JustFaith. For the time being, it is sufficient that they absorb the enthusiasm for empowerment and change, under the direction of Church-affiliated activists.
Spero columnist Stephanie Block also edits the New Mexico-based Los Pequenos newspaper and is a member of the Catholic Media Coalition.
[i] Donna Grimes, Poverty Education and Outreach Manager, “Manual for the Journey to Justice day: A Component of JustFaith 2011-2012,” Catholic Campaign for Human Development, p. 7 (“Critical Elements for the Immersion Experience”).
[ii] Manual…p. 9.
[iii] Manual, pp 15-19.
[iv] See #117 of the Compendium.
[v] Brendan Hodge, “All Morality is Personal,” The American Catholic, 4-5-10
[vi] Manual…p. 23.