Entering into my senior year this past August, I decided that I should seize the opportunity to learn more about the Catholic Church while I had access to some of the best theologians in the world. Almost by chance I stumbled upon and ended up adding the Catholic Social Tradition minor. I was looking for a class that offered the opportunity to study some of the papal encyclicals, writings that I did not even know existed until I came to Notre Dame. The class that offered this opportunity was the Catholic Social Tradition minor introductory class and while I was at first hesitant about the class, it ended up opening my eyes to a new perspective on the Church’s teaching.
Catholic Social Teaching is an aspect of our faith that is often forgotten about, regularly referred to as the Church’s Best Kept Secret. The Gospels and the life of Jesus Christ lay the foundation for Catholic Social Teaching. Although this foundation was laid over 2,000 years ago, the philosophy and term “Catholic Social Teaching” did not come about until a series of encyclicals were written on the idea of social teaching. Beginning with Rerum Novarum by Pope Leo XIII in 1891 and continuing today with Lumen Fidei by Pope Francis, the past 100+ years have featured prolific writing on thephilosophy of Catholic Social Teaching. So what is Catholic Social Teaching and why is it that we don’t hear more about it?
At its core, Catholic Social Teaching is a call to love and protect human dignity, most especially the dignity of the poor. Through the recognition of the dignity of the poor blossoms a commitment to improve the circumstances of the poor. We come to recognize this inherent dignity and this commitment through our experiences of Christ in the Eucharist, God humbling himself out of love for us. In seeking to understand Christ, we are often called to study his life. The life of Christ portrays a complete commitment to the poor. Consider that Jesus was born in a manger, the Holy Family fleeing from persecution and that he made a living as a carpenter. Jesus could have been born into any circumstances he chose. He could have been born an earthly king as well as a heavenly one and yet he chose to be among the poorest of the poor. This decision to live among the poor provides a lesson that no other king has been able to provide because Jesus truly lived out his teaching.
In the story of the Rich Young Man seeking to follow Jesus, Jesus told the young man “if you wish to be complete, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me” (Matthew 19:21). Jesus’ life and teaching revolve around a commitment to the poor, to loving those whom he considers his equals. This tenement is at the core of Catholic Social Teaching, this is how Jesus calls us to live our lives.
While the call to love and the model of Jesus’s life are a powerful foundation, in my Introduction to Catholic Social Teaching class, I found that the prolific writing on Catholic Social Teaching challenged many beliefs I had always believed to be endorsed by the Catholic Church. This class challenged be to come to a deeper understanding of my faith by way of reason, forcing me to examine and grapple with my beliefs rather than assume them to be true. In my next blog post I will expand upon the aspects of Catholic Social Teaching that I most struggled with and my perspective on them.