Social Justice Is a Full-Time Job

By Droel, William | U.S. Catholic, December 1999 | Go to article overview

Social Justice Is a Full-Time Job


Droel, William, U.S. Catholic


Social-ministry advocates are barking up the wrong tree when they push after-hours, volunteer activism over on-the-job justice work.

The Catholic social tradition is "a central and essential element of our faith," said the U.S. Catholic bishops last year in their statement on Sharing Catholic Social Teaching. "A commitment to social justice is," according to the bishops, "at the heart of who we are and what we believe."

If this is true, it is critical that the whole church become more adept at sharing its social-justice teachings. Too many Catholics--young adults come quickly to mind--know too little about the church's social tradition. Better communicating Catholic social teaching involves three tasks:

1) To promote understanding of social teaching in the liturgy;

2) To focus on the workplace as the main site where social justice is to be lived and carried out; and

3) To create institutions that support lay people as they struggle to apply principles of social justice in their jobs, families, and neighborhoods.

The work of human hands

After the family, the primary school for social justice is the liturgy because ritual is how we profoundly enter into the significant things in life. Liturgy has an integral connection to daily work.

The Eucharist is an action par excellence of peace and justice. For what is it that is brought to the table and becomes the Body and Blood of Christ? Not wheat and grapes but the fabrication of wheat and grapes: the work of human hands. The bread and wine on the altar are nothing less than our Monday-to-Friday work--broken and flawed though that work may be.

The expectation is that each Christian go forth and be a member of the Body of Christ in his or her everyday life. So connected is the Sunday Eucharist with the Body of Christ at work in the world that scripture enjoins us to leave the bread and wine at the table until we have made peace and justice with all sisters and brothers. But how, Sunday to Sunday, can the liturgy better connect with worshipers' workday aspirations for justice?

First, preachers can enrich their knowledge of the workplace.

"One Sunday I tried preaching about God in the workplace," says Father Dominic Grassi of St. Josaphat Parish in Chicago. "I realized how precious little I had to say because I am not in the workplace. Subsequently I invited some parishioners to discuss the topic over pizza and beer. The group now meets regularly."

Grassi notices an improvement in his preaching. "Last week," he reports, "after attending Mass, a banker approached me to register in the parish. He had never before heard in church that his banking experience pertained to scripture."

Second, the worship space can be used to remind the assembly that their real work is in the world, not in the sanctuary. For example, the signs over the exits at Pilgrim Baptist Church in Chicago read: "Exit to serve." And at United Methodist Church in Worth, Illinois the signs remind worshipers: "You are entering the mission field; return when you need reinforcement."

The 9-to-5 work for justice

The Chicago archdiocese's lay-ministry training program includes classes in theology, interpersonal skills, and group dynamics as well as sessions on social justice. Some time ago a vice president of a large Chicago bank taught the social-justice component, using a hypothetical case study of a parish's effort to close a pornographic movie theater. He concluded by urging the lay ministers to start social concerns committees in their parishes to tackle similar situations. Participants were left with the distinct impression that social justice is about starting another parish committee and doing something on weekends.

Wouldn't the training have been much more effective if the banker had spent the session discussing the possibilities of and difficulties in promoting social justice in the banking and real estate industries?

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