In a global culture driven by excessive individualism, our tradition proclaims that the person is not only sacred but also social. How we organize our society, in economics and politics, in law and policy, directly affects human dignity and the capacity of individuals to grow in community. Marriage and the family are the central social institutions that must be supported and strengthened, not undermined. While our society often exalts individualism, the Catholic tradition teaches that human beings grow and achieve fulfillment in community. We believe people have a right and a duty to participate in society, seeking together the common good and well-being of all, especially the poor and vulnerable. Our Church teaches that the role of government and other institutions is to protect human life and human dignity and promote the common good. (from USCCB’s Catholic Social Teaching: Challenges and Directions) As summarized on the Diocese of Orange’s Respect Life, Justice and Peace web page (http://www.rcbo.org/respect-life.html), “As persons made in God’s image, we must model divine self-giving love. In community we realize the fulfillment of our dignity and rights in relationship with and to others.”
At Christmas, we ponder the great mystery of the Incarnation. In his 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus, Pope John Paul II wrote “It is not possible to understand man on the basis of economics alone, nor to simple define him on the basis of class membership … At the heart of every culture lies the attitude man takes to the greatest mystery: the mystery of God. Different cultures are basically different ways of facing the question of the meaning of personal existence.” On the eve of his election as Pope, Benedict XVI warned of a growing “dictatorship of relativism”, and in 2010, Cardinal William Levada gave our response: “The dictatorship of relativism does not so much seek to impose one view on everybody, but rather to drive from political life, academic life and cultural life anyone who refuses to concede that all truths are relative, or to put it more bluntly, that there is no truth which can be known with certainty. Against this relativism and skepticism, the Christian believer proclaims that Jesus Christ is the way, the truth and the life.”
As we make New Year’s resolutions, here are some thoughts we might keep in mind. “It is the duty of the laity – without idly waiting for norms and precepts from others – by their free planning and initiative to permeate not only people’s customs and mentality, but also the laws and structures of the civil community with a Christian sense of life.” (from Pope Paul VI’s Encyclical On the Development of Peoples) The US Catholic Bishops offer us an Examination of Conscience in Light of Catholic Social Teaching: Do I try to make positive contributions in my family and in my community? Are my beliefs, attitudes, and choices such that they strengthen or undermine the institution of the family? Am I aware of problems facing my local community and involved in efforts to find solutions? Do I stay informed and make my voice heard when needed? Do I support the efforts of poor persons to work for change in their neighborhoods and communities? Do my attitudes and interactions empower or disempower others?
The organization of society moves from the basic unit, the family, to the larger community while ensuring that everyone participates. The emphasis on the larger social group counterbalances unregulated individual rights, that left unconstrained, can turn toward anarchy. In his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est (God is Love, 2005), Pope Benedict summarized the centrality of this concept to our faith: “Only if I serve my neighbor can my eyes be opened to what God does for me and how much he loves me.”
Our family is where we learn to relate with each other, sacrifice for others and, most importantly, love one another. It is also where we develop our sense of participation, justice and other skills important in a well-functioning society. The family is often called the domestic or the first church. “The well-being of the individual person and of both human and Christian society is closely bound up with the healthy state of the community of marriage and the family,” explains Gaudium et Spes (The Church in the Modern World). Catholic social teaching urges that parents be supported in their effort to raise well-formed, healthy children. And at the core of the family is a stable, healthy marriage. (USCCB)
On their website www.cacatholic.org, California’s Catholic Bishops state: “We support and defend the institution of marriage as the basic foundation of society. We advocate for tax, workplace, welfare and divorce policies that enhance family unity. We support the fundamental rights of parents, and advocate for children’s well-being.
Marriage, history shows us, is intrinsic to stable, flourishing and hospitable societies. Although cultural differences have occurred, what has never changed is that marriage is the ideal relationship between a man and a woman for the purpose of procreation and the continuation of the human race. Family friendly policies include tax considerations for families raising children, flexible work hours—when possible—and family leave for caretaking of family members. When families fall into the state’s social safety net, it is imperative that their dignity and unity be preserved while all efforts are made to help them recover their financial independence. And when the misfortune of divorce hits a family, public policy must ensure that the children are the first priority. Pope John Paul II reminds us in his encyclical, Familiaris Consortio, that parents are the first and foremost educators of their children – and that their home is the first school of those social virtues which every society needs. “Knowing that marriage and the family constitute one of the most precious of human values, the Church wishes to speak and offer her help to those who are already aware of the value of marriage and the family and …to those who are uncertain and anxious and searching for the truth ….” (John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio, no. 1 (1981)
Humans gather in groups. In our Catholic faith, we are One Body with Christ. As One Body, we are called to care for all – that is, establish the common good. “The common good embraces the sum of those conditions of social life by which individuals, families, and groups can achieve their own fulfillment in a relatively thorough and ready way,” said the Second Vatican Council document Gaudium et Spes, (The Church in the Modern World). We may be called to sacrifice occasionally for justice – something that the modern world often has a hard time appreciating.
Our definition of community is not limited to those in our immediate neighborhood, but expands (with various degrees of influence and responsibility) to the entire world. We can have the most impact for good on our families, but we can also improve our neighborhood, city, state, nation and world through a variety of means such as community service or advocacy. “Christians must be conscious of their specific and proper role in the political community; they should be a shining example by their sense of responsibility and their dedication to the common good; they should show in practice how authority can be reconciled with freedom, personal initiative with solidarity and the needs of the social framework as a whole, and the advantages of unity with the benefits of diversity.” (The Church in the Modern World)
“This nation is not ruled by the majority,” said Thomas Jefferson, “it is ruled by the majority who participate.” We are called to participate in our communities by promoting the common good. In the 1986 letter, Economic Justice for All, the US Bishops explained the importance of allowing all to take part in the forming of our communities: “Basic justice demands the establishment of minimum levels of participation in the life of the human community for all persons. The ultimate injustice is for a person or group to be treated actively or abandoned passively as if they were non-members of the human race. To treat people this way is effectively to say they simply do not count as human beings.” And in Faithful Citizenship, the US Bishops explain that participation in public life is both a moral and ethical obligation. Government plays a major role in ensuring the participation of all. Excluding large groups of people from participating in our republic effectively eliminates their voice from the debate about the common good. How common can something be if enough voices are not raised? The poor and the vulnerable are often excluded from participation, as are minorities. Not only are we called to participate, but we are also called to make sure that others do as well.