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Social Justice’ and ‘Peace and Justice' Catholics
Deacon Keith Fournier
CHESAPEAKE, Va. (Catholic Online) – I have been in many gatherings over the last few years where a disturbing trend in language is evident. Colleagues whom I respect have begun to use the phrases “Social Justice Catholics” and “Peace and Justice Catholics” in a disparaging manner. Now, do not misunderstand my concern. They do so as an almost “shorthand” manner of exposing the hypocrisy and dangerous error committed by some of our Catholic friends who embrace these labels. What is that error? Their failure to build their claim upon the firm foundation which the Church proclaims, the dignity of every human person from conception, throughout all of life, up to and including a Natural death. More on that later...
First, let me address the importance of language. When I was a young man I had the privilege of serving at the side of a giant of our contemporary Church history, Fr. Michael Scanlan, the now Chancellor of the Franciscan University of Steubenville. Back then, I held several positions as the early recovery of that wonderful University took place. In one of those positions, I was responsible for all conferences on campus. It enabled me to invite some tremendously gifted people to the campus in those early days. Many have gone on to continue their fruitful service to the Church. One was Karl Keating, the indefatigable defender of the faith and founder of “Catholic Answers”.
Karl, as many know, is prolific. One of his earliest works is entitled “Catholicism and Fundamentalism: The Attack on "Romanism" by "Bible Christians". It has rightly become a “classic” of sorts for anyone interested in Catholic apologetics. However, I recalled a passing conversation I had with Karl, many years ago, as I considered writing this article. I suggested to him that the subtitle might have given up ground we should never give up because Catholics are “Bible Christians”.
Oh, I knew what he meant. He was addressing the sort of “Bible Only” approach taken by some Christians which rejects how we even received the Bible and the essential role and place of the Church. However, I still insist that Catholics and Orthodox are the “real” Bible Christians. I mean no disrespect to Karl Keating, his work over all these years has been superb. However, I am making a point, terms and expressions truly do matter, especially in our work to infuse the culture with the values informed by our faith.
That brings me to my subject, the expressions “Social Justice Catholics” and "Peace and Justice Catholics." First, let me make this point; I claim that I am both. And you my readers, if you insist that children in the womb are our first neighbors and must be protected against being killed as a matter of justice and solidarity, are also. It is time we took these terms back from some who have wrongly claimed them exclusively as their own.
Over the decades I have been involved in the fundamental human rights struggle of our age, the Pro-Life movement, I have been uncomfortable with the acceptance of a kind of primacy of political language in our circles. In an age which has lost its moral anchor, the clarity of our proclamation and prophetic witness requires our insistence upon the fact that our unwavering commitment to this fundamental human right, the right to life, and our absolute insistence that the dignity of the person is the epicenter of every Social Justice issue has never been more important.
The “politicized” language has not served us well. We should not first be “conservatives”, “neo-Conservatives,”, “liberals”, “progressives”, Democrats, Republicans…. or any permutation of these political labels. We must first be Catholic Christians, standing in the middle of the fullness of wisdom which the Magisterium of our Church offers us in her Social Doctrine and seeking to make the truths and principles which that instruction offers to us the leaven of all our work to build a more just society.
I insist that we should use the term “Social Justice Catholics”. If we are opposed by those who have lost sight of the fundamental connection between recognizing the rights of children in the womb (the poorest of the poor, our first neighbors) and our claim to be concerned about all human rights, we should take them on, not with political arguments but with the very Social Doctrine of our Church. I also propose we take back another term which is also being wrongly used in a similarly almost disparaging manner in some circles these days “Peace and Justice Catholics”.
We should all be “Peace and Justice Catholics”. It was not that long ago that the prophet from Calcutta, the humble little nun we called “Mother Teresa" reminded us “And today the greatest means - the greatest destroyer of peace is abortion.” Oh, I can hear it coming from some of my colleagues! First, anyone who has read me over the years knows that I have a strong aversion to war. That is because I believe the Lord does as well and the Church is and must be a champion of peace, properly understood. However, I will save that discussion for another article....
Let me conclude this one by suggesting that we contend for this wonderful term “Peace and Justice Catholics” in a simple manner. In some circles within our Catholic community we often hear, or see on bumper stickers, the words of the late Pope Pius XII “Peace is the Fruit of Justice.” Pope Paul VI turned the insight into the popular phrase “If you want peace, work for justice.” Make no mistake, it is true. Again, in the words of Mother Teresa “…because if a mother can kill her own child… what is left for me to kill you and you to kill me? There is nothing between.” Our insistence upon the justice claims of our youngest neighbors makes us peacemakers.
Violence begins in the womb when we allow the crime of killing children residing therein to continue,calling it a "choice" and a "right" when it is always and everywhere wrong. Then we compund the evil by allowing what our Church rightly calls a "horrendous crime" to be protected and promoted and then backed up by the police power of the State. The war on the womb has gone on for far too long. The weapons used against these children are weapons of war, surgical strikes and chemical weapons the evil results of which, if shown, would cause even the most hardened of hearts to recoil. However, we hide it and we are now reaping the whirlwind of violence which it has unleashed.
In his encyclical letter “On Social Concerns” the late giant of the Social Doctrine of the Church made a vital point. Remember, he is the one to whom the entire “Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church” is dedicated with these words “To His Holiness Pope John Paul II, Master of Social Doctrine and Evangelical Witness to Justice and Peace.” After alluding to this motto of Pius XII, pope John Paul wrote, “Today, one could say, with the same exactness and the same power of biblical inspiration (
cf. Is. 32:17, Jas. 3:18) opus solidaritatis pax – peace is the fruit of solidarity.” (On Social Concerns, #39)
By the way, that very word “solidarity” is another example of my premise. It was not that long ago that my insistence on using that term in my pro-life work was the source of argument with some of my friends because, in their mind it sounded too “left wing.” I would regularly respond “NONSENSE! Our solidarity with children in the womb is the very heart of our Pro-Life position!” Fortunately, the word is now embraced even by many of them. Maybe we should make up the new bumper stickers which read “'Peace is the Fruit of Solidarity' with all, including children in the womb.”
We should all be “Social Justice” and “Peace and Justice" Catholics.
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