One of the great problems confronting the Church over the past century has been the temptation to deviate from her mission of evangelization into one of accommodation or even capitulation to the premises and the expectations of secular society. Thus, overlooking the fact that there is a major difference between objective truth and subjective opinions, we have seen the release of official Church documents asserting that we are to propose the truth of the Gospel to the world, rather than proclaim that truth. Likewise, it seems that many Church leaders have chosen to overlook the fact that humanity comes to its true fulfillment through obedience to the creative and redemptive call of God. Instead, forsaking the spiritual reality that the growth and fruition of our humanity is realized through a humble and docile obedience to the truth and the call of God (evocation), they embrace more secular standards for self-fulfillment offered by theories of evolution.
Along the same lines, one particular construct of secular thought that needs to be seriously critiqued is that which is proposed under the heading of "social justice". Sadly, in order to develop various alliances with others seeking to promote the well-being of humanity, many Catholics have found it to be more expedient to avoid any direct references to Christ, to which some of our non-Catholic coworkers might take offense. To put it rather bluntly, such cooperative efforts allegedly require a renunciation of the Annunciation by Catholic participants, which is indicated by the degradation of Jesus Christ from being our Master to becoming merely a mascot for promoting the various ever-evolving agendas for renewing humanity offered under the banner of "social justice".
Among the consequences of such a sea change in the thinking of so many Catholics is that it results in the situation, wherein we are seeking to put new wine into old wineskins. By failing to challenge the allegation that Christ is not central to the authentic fulfillment of our humanity, Catholics risk embracing the error of secular thought that human development is based upon well-intentioned manipulation, rather than the transformation offered through the mystery of divine graciousness in Christ. In opposition to this, the Church proclaims that it is inadequate, if not inappropriate or even immoral, to change people and societies by manipulation.
God's Word proclaims that each person is to be reverenced as His child, not programmed like one of Pavlov's dogs. And while psychological manipulation may, for a time, change behaviors, only the gracious love of God offered to us in Christ can transform attitudes and relationships in accordance to the integrity of truth.
This raises some other question regarding "social justice". Are human beings merely social beings or covenantal beings? Is human dignity rooted in the intrinsic sacredness of one's personhood or in the attributes of one's personality? It should be noted here that human life, from its beginning, is covenantal. One's DNA is the fruit of the sharing of one's mother and father. One's life grows under the protection and care of numerous covenantal relationships. And one's destiny is most integrally realized by investing one's self in covenantal relationships.
Thus it is that to assert that one's humanity is based merely on one's functionality is seriously flawed. After all, such functionality is a standard that must be based upon the particular premises that happen dominate society at the time. And measuring human dignity in terms of functionality deny a person access to the authentic fulfillment offered through sacred covenantal commitments to God and to others. As a result, the highest form of relationship that can be nurtured is one that is symbiotic. As one popular song expresses it – ‘Some people want to use you; some people want to be used by you. Some people want to abuse you; some people want to be abused by you.’
Life based on functionality can offer quick transient thrills, but not authentic fulfillment. A third problem with the "social justice" agenda is its understanding of human rights. Such rights are viewed as intrinsic to the person. Although it may seem so for those who tend to think in terms of clichés, a careful critique of the nature of human dignity would show that this perspective is defective.
Even the Second Vatican Council taught that human dignity is dynamic and realized through one's obedience to the dictates of one's rightly-formed conscience. As an aside, it is worth noting that there is a big difference between a sincere conscience and a sin-seared conscience. In view of humanity's sins against the Lord of Life, then, human rights are based on God's right to be gracious and faithful to His original commitment to form us in His image and likeness. Human rights and human dignity cannot be fully realized in alienation from a reverent and repentant gratitude for the gracious fidelity of God to His Word. Thus it is that authentically human rights, properly appreciated, can never be in conflict with each other.
This brings us to another problem with the "social justice" agenda. Strictly speaking, secular ideas of justice involve giving each person what he/she deserves. Yet the center of the Christian proclamation, the cross of Christ, is based on the fact that, on Calvary, Jesus received what He did not deserve, an agonizing and humiliating death, while we sinners received what we did not deserve, the offer of mercy and eternal life.
Likewise, as Mahatma Mohandas Gandhi pointed out, if we were to live by the rule, "An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth", we would all be walking around blind and toothless. Thus it is that authentic spirituality is based not on a reactive justice, but rather on a proactive and sanctifying righteousness. The attitude of God, in Whose image we are created, is not one of retaliation, but one of reconciliation and regeneration. He is graciously committed to offer forgiveness, healing and a sanctifying intimacy to any who are willing to accept this invitation offered to the world through Jesus, His Son. Through the Gospel, He proclaims to humanity the fact that He wills to embrace all into His regenerative graciousness.
Thus, what we normally think of as human rights are not truly human unless they are in harmony with the reconciling righteousness offered to all in Christ. Thus any attempt to exercise a human right in a way that leads to alienation from the truth and fidelity of God's sanctifying righteousness deforms both the soul and society. Ultimately, a persistent pursuit of a self-righteous exercise of human rights in alienation from others will leave the soul in a state of everlasting perdition.
A final point needs to be made here. The primary purpose of any authentic ministry is not to help the poor, but rather to enter into a sanctifying solidarity with them. Even in situations that seem to be overwhelming, we cannot find true happiness by abandoning the poor to their fate or by nurturing in them a spirit of bitter resentment. It is thus wonderfully ironic, that our greatest wealth is to be found in our shared poverty. In Christ, such poverty does not lead to resentment, but rather to a greater receptivity to the reconciliation, resilience and regenerative graciousness ministered to us through His Holy Spirit. After all, to be perfectly honest with ourselves, we must all admit that all that we have is really merely a tentative sustaining grace entrusted to us to help us to prepare more deeply for the fullness of life offered to us in Christ. And as we grow in solidarity with those whose poverty is more obvious than our own, we are able to join more deeply with them in that hunger and thirst for righteousness, which Christ Himself promises will be satisfied. In Christ, our shared poverty becomes a shared receptivity to the graciousness of a God, Whose generosity cannot be exhausted even in eternity.
All the above points to a basic truth, to which Lord Jesus pointed the night before He died, when He prayed: that we all may be one. Thus the ultimate righteousness is to be realized not by arousing and appeasing resentments, but rather by being embraced more deeply into the compassionate, reconciling and regenerative love offered to all humanity in Christ. Thus, in the New Evangelization, we need to embrace anew the courage of our convictions in proclaiming that only in Him, with Him and through Him, can we realize that dignity which the Father willed to share with us from the beginning. Apart from Christ, try as we may, we can do nothing. But with Him, all things are possible.
Rev. Thomas Collins is a Catholic priest who serves the people of Virginia.