Life: This most precious gift is threatened in
so many ways! Violence and drugs, hunger and wars put millions
of people in danger. Sometimes we may not even be aware of these
threats to life. Rwanda, Bosnia and Afghanistan seem so far
away. Even when you are aware, you may wonder what, if anything,
you can do.
For the last hundred years, the Catholic Church
has been paying special attention to life and the many ways
it is threatened around the world. This concern has been spelled
out in a number of official letters (called "encyclicals")
and other Church documents.
We call this whole collection the "social
teachings," that is, teachings about public events in society
such as political, cultural and economic issues.
This Update will help you understand this
guidance about life in our world. It will also invite you to
think about reasons to care and ways to respond. Though the
issues discussed in the documents are global problems, the same
questions and threats are found in our daily lives.
Protecting People Who Work
In 1891 Pope Leo XIII looked at what was going
on in his world and realized that the Church had to do something
to protect life. What was going on was the Industrial Revolution,
a time when many people moved to cities to get jobs in factories.
Those workers could claim few rights. They worked long hours
in terrible conditions. Many children were also forced to work
Pope Leo realized that this abuse of the workers
was contrary to Christian belief about the value of life. Created
in God's image and redeemed by Jesus, every person has value
beyond all price. Everyone is to be respected and cherished.
So, Pope Leo wrote his letter The Condition of Labor
and suggested concrete ways to protect workers' dignity and
This letter is considered the first of the social
teachings. Since then other popes and groups of bishops have
addressed a great variety of threats to human life.
In 1931 Pope Pius XI returned to the concern
for workers in the context of the Depression. In the 1960's
Pope John XXIII, the Second Vatican Council and Pope Paul VI
all turned the focus to global issues such as human rights and
the massive differences between wealthy nations (like the U.S.)
and the developing countries in Latin America, Africa and Asia.
In 1995, Pope John Paul II tied together many concerns about
life in his letter The Gospel of Life. From womb to tomb,
he writes, we must care for life.
Who's in Your Family?
All these challenges on the international scene
and in the workplace may seem far from your life. You have other
worries, concerns and pressures. Besides, you did not cause
these problems and may feel that you cannot do much about them
anyway. Perhaps you are even tempted to say, "Who cares?"
Many messages in our American culture could
lead us to this position. While our political tradition has
emphasized human rights, it has also stressed the individual.
Looking out for #1 is a favorite theme in movies, TV, advertisements
and political campaigns.
The social teachings, however, challenge us to
develop a different view. Rooted in our Scriptures, this view
sees all persons as children of God, as family. Just as we are
concerned about what happens to our parents and brothers and
sisters, so too are we to care about what happens to our sisters
and brothers around the world.
A perfect example of this worldview is found
in Matthew's Gospel, Chapter 25. In this powerful and dramatic
scene, Jesus is describing the Last Judgment. Those who will
"inherit the kingdom" are those who feed the hungry,
care for the sick and visit prisoners. Those who are condemned
are those who do not respond to people in need. For what we
do for the "least ones," we do for Jesus.
Why care? Because this is a concrete way to
respond to our God, because our becoming truly and fully human
depends on our caring. By being born, we become part of the
human family. By being baptized, we become part of the Church,
the believing community founded on Jesus. His life and teachings
guide us, challenge us and give us life.
We are not just a collection of individuals.
Threats to others' lives are threats to oursif not in
body, certainly in spirit. We all are related, connected. Moreover,
if we neglect people's needs, society will pay later in more
school dropouts, crime, prisons, riots and wars.
This theme of interdependence, of social solidarity,
has been an important topic in the recent social teachings.
Indeed, it stands as a profound challenge to our American way
of life. We are called to choose which set of values will direct
our lives: the Gospel of Jesus or American individualism. In
the words of Pope John Paul II, this is the choice between a
"culture of life" and a "culture of death."
Global Term Papers
During the more than 100 years since 1891, several
key ideas have been developed in the Church's social teachings.
First we will look at these themes, then see how they can be
expressed at home and at school.
Value: The first key idea is the value
of every human being. You are created in God's image and redeemed
by Jesus. You are precious and unique, and your value is rooted
fundamentally in who you are and not in what you do. (Of course,
what you do influences the person you are becoming. See box
on last page.)
All the social teachings begin with and build on this foundation
of human dignity. It provides a basis for helping you judge
right from wrong. Situations which undermine or limit human
dignity cry out for change; those that truly promote such dignity
need to be fostered.
What does this emphasis on human dignity mean
for you? Certainly it can lead you to think about how you treat
other people, especially those who are different from you. Do
you make nasty remarks that are racist or sexist? What kind
of jokes do you tell? Are there cliques at school that shun
certain people? Developing a habit of thankfulnesssaying
"Thanks" to your parents, teachers, friendsexpresses
your respect for others.
Recognizing human dignity also means acknowledging
your own worth. You are precious and uniqueno matter what
abusive remarks have been made to you by other people, even
your parents. Nor is your value determined by the clothes you
wear or the things you possess.
Work: The social teachings have their
roots in the issue of work, as Pope Leo responded to the abuses
of industrialization. Since then, of course, there have been
major changes. Workers' rights, however, are still threatened,
even in our country. Often workers are stopped from joining
unions. Companies hire temporary or part-time people instead
of permanent workers in order to save on salaries and benefits.
In many other countries, workers continue to be paid extremely
low wages and are forced to work in terrible conditions.
The social teachings have also raised questions
about economic systems, both capitalism (the U.S. system) and
socialism (what the former U.S.S.R. had). Each has good and
So what does this theme mean for you? You can
listen carefully to comments at home and in school. What is
really being said about unions, welfare, downsizing of businesses?
Do Republicans and Democrats have different views? Does either
fit with the social teachings? How are your own values and convictions
being formed and shaped?
Also, as you begin to think about your future
work, consider the options you have. What kind of work would
you like to do? Is it all about making money or does it include
a sense of serving other people?
Common Good: The common good includes
all those things necessary for all peoples to live truly human
lives. If you really appreciate your solidarity with the whole
human family, then you will be concerned whether others have
enough food to eat and clothes to wear and opportunities for
education and the practice of religionall things necessary
for people to live in conditions in keeping with human dignity.
The social teachings argue that the common good
of one nation cannot be separated from the common good of the
whole human family. So, our country (or any other) cannot pile
up great wealth when other people lack necessities. Sadly, in
recent years the gap between wealthy and poor nations has gotten
Especially at this point, you may ask, "Well,
what can I do? I'm only one individual." Worldwide political
and economic issues are immense and overwhelming. The social
teachings, however, stand as a challenge, reminding you that
it is your world and, in some sense, your responsibility.
You can begin to develop a global outlook. With
your family and friends, in school and your parish, start to
get facts and discuss real issues of our day like genocide (the
killing of entire races or tribes), starvation and the environment.
Soon, you will be old enough to vote. After
learning about candidates and issues from trustworthy sources
(for example, the American bishops' letter on "Political
Responsibility"), choose wisely. Between elections, write
to your representatives in Congress about these issues.
Also, you can look to your local community to
see who is in need. Through your school or parish, you can help
others and get a sense of their experience by helping to build
a home for the homeless or working at soup kitchens. Collect
food and clothing for the needy. In other words, as the bumper
sticker says, "Think globally. Act locally."
Another way to be involved in promoting the
common good may be very hard right now. All sorts of advertising
urge you to buy more and more. But as you learn that we Americans
use up a disproportionate amount of the earth's resources perhaps
you can begin to think about doing with less, valuing persons,
Two small but important actions that you can
do now are to recycle as much as possible and to respect others'
property. What kind of vandalism goes on at your school?
Justice: By now it is evident that these
basic themes of the social teachings overlap a lot. The fourth
idea is justice, society's recognition and protection of people's
dignity and rights. In 1971, a group of bishops representing
all the bishops of the world said action for justice is a necessary
part of the Church's mission, an essential expression of Christian
love. To love God is to love your neighbor. This love of neighbor
cannot exist without justice. Hunger, refugees, prison reform,
racism, sexism and so many other issues can never be considered
merely politicsthey must also be at the heart of religion.
How can you help create a more just society?
First, develop an awareness of the issues. Listen carefully
at home and in school. Second, get involved, and do something!
Visit elderly people in nursing homes and learn how they experience
discrimination because of their age or sickness. Join school
groups working to overcome racism and to promote pro-life options.
Do you have classmates or classmates' parents who have AIDS?
How do you and others treat themfairly and with respect?
Peace: Wars have threatened life and
taken millions of lives throughout history. Only in this age,
however, do we have the power to destroy the whole human race.
Though the threat of nuclear war has lessened in recent years,
the deadly weapons still exist. Who will control them and possibly
use them is a great concern.
Naturally, the social teachings addressed this
grave topic, always urging peace. As Pope John Paul II said,
"Like a cathedral, peace must be constructed patiently
and with unshakable faith."
While you may not be able to stop foreign wars,
you can work on developing an attitude of peace. How do you
settle disagreements? With violence? Can you and your friends
find nonviolent ways to respond? Again, so much in our movies
and on TV glorifies violenceand so numbs us to this profound
disregard and denial of human dignity. Will you dare to be different
and stand for peace?
Take Social Action
We have already looked at a number of concrete
things you can do now as a teenager. Let's just summarize those
now. First, you can take seriously your baptism with its call
to care for others. This means paying attention, at home, in
school, in church.
What are the threats to life in your town? Do
drugs, sex or racism undermine the value of life in your school?
What are some of the global problems right now? Be attentive,
learn, be responsive!
Second, find real if ordinary ways to express
your care. Get involved in your school's or parish's service
programs. Help the poor. Visit the sick and elderly. Choose
life. A few of you may even have the opportunity to visit and
work in a developing countrythe best way to recognize
not only the serious injustices of our world but also the bonds
that unite our human family.
Third, pray. Express all your feelings to God.
Prayerfully read the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew's Gospel
and ask how you can be salt and light for our world. Pray for
those who have so much less than you. Pray for world leaders.
Pray for your own enemies.
Then the social teachings will not be boring
documents but helpful guidelines for your lifeand the
life of our world!
St. Bernard Parish in Burkettsville, Ohio,
provided a cool place on a warm June day for Catherine Kunkler
(16), Jon Stammen (17), John Werling (17) and Rose Werling (15)
to critique this issue of Youth Update. Chris Stammen,
Jon's brother, is parish youth minister.