The social teaching of the Church has sometimes been called the her best-kept secret. That all changed last week.
The Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace published, amid much publicity, the eagerly awaited Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, a valuable resource for Catholics engaged in social justice work. The Vatican body then held its annual plenary assembly and concluded the week by staging a four-day conference called “First World Congress of Ecclesial Organisations Working for Justice and Peace”. In a message to participants, John Paul II said this time was “a renewed season of social holiness” and he called for saints who in their social work manifest the “inexhaustible fertility of the Gospel”. The congress, attended by 300 officials from 92 countries, was the first meeting of its kind organised by the council, and aimed at identifying the most effective pastoral ways in which to tackle national and global social injustices, and work for peace.
Social justice issues, which include human rights abuses, poverty and the plight of refugees, have been of increasing concern to the Church. Beyond the national sphere, the deepening inequalities between the materially rich and poor and the negative effects of globalisation have also come under growing ecclesial scrutiny.
In a speech to delegates, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Holy See’s Secretary of State, recalled Pope Paul VI’s words in the 1967 encyclical Populorum Progressio that “human society is sorely ill”. “Since then, the illness seems to have worsened; injustices and violence have multiplied”, the Cardinal said. Yet he maintained the Church has always been committed to the promotion of justice and peace: “We have a responsibility to follow this course, proclaiming the Gospel of Christ, which is a Gospel of justice and peace,” he said.
Speaker Oscar de Rojas, head of the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs Financing for Development Office, warned the conference that globalisation is leading to what John Paul II has termed “a culture of death”. There are, he said, great injustices in the system that work against a peaceful world and he called on Christians to fight for a more human, or just, face of globalisation, one that is “directed and controlled”. The conference was very much welcomed by delegates who found it providential, helpful in creating unity and building networks of solidarity.
Bishop Christopher Toohey of Wilcannia-Forbes, Australia, differentiated between a gathering of this kind and those that are government-sponsored. “This conference is based on a relationship with Jesus Christ that’s what binds us together”, he said. “It’s not a talk-fest. It’s more like a harnessing, or gathering of the forces, almost a gathering of the clan if you like.” The bishop was particularly struck by how many of the delegates were daily laying down their lives in their fight for social justice, and how, in countries where Catholics are a minority, the Church is often considered “the voice for justice”.
Archbishop Paul Bakyenga, of the Association of Member Episcopal Conferences of Eastern Africa, also valued being able to see what was happening in other countries and pointed out that “social justice is not about giving aid which is the responsibility of relief agencies, but rather about trying to change hearts, minds and attitudes”. However, a criticism sometimes levelled by more conservative critics is that the Church’s social doctrine is ideological with a predominately Left-wing bias. Cardinal Renato Martino, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, argued that his conclusions were profoundly based on the one, true Gospel.
Afurther criticism is that the Church is often quick to criticise, calling for radical changes in economic and social systems, yet offers no practical alternatives to those in place. “We don’t have a particular system to propose,” said Cardinal Martino. “We don’t say this is the Catholic system or this is the Christian system because the choice belongs to the lay people.” The Cardinal added that clergy did not run for public office. “We are not Marxists or communists, we are not capitalists,” he explained. “We are Christians, so the principal criterion is the centrality of the human being and in all economies, all systems, all employers must respect their employees as human beings.” Another world congress is planned to take place in about two or three years’ time.
Cardinal Martino announced at the conclusion of the conference that his council will next year publish three documents: the first on Poverty in the Age of Globalisation followed by pastoral letters on Human Rights and Human Rights for Prisoners.
The Cardinal said the Compendium on the Social Doctrine of the Church has already sold all 20,000 copies of its first edition, making it an instant bestseller.