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Building a
Culture of Life

by Kenneth R. Overberg, S.J.

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 this way.

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 rights.

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 ours—if 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 thankfulness—saying "Thanks" to your parents, teachers, friends—expresses your respect for others.

Recognizing human dignity also means acknowledging your own worth. You are precious and unique—no 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 bad points.

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 religion—all 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 even wider.

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, not things.

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 politics—they 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 them—fairly 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 violence—and 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 country—the 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 life—and the life of our world!

Kenneth R. Overberg, S.J., teaches Christian ethics at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio. He has written a number of articles and books on topics such as the death penalty, euthanasia, AIDS, conscience and contraception.


Looking Out for Number One

You may ask: "Doesn't God want me to take care of myself? Of course, that's what creation and salvation are all about: God sharing life and love with us. God desires human flourishing. The crucial question then becomes: Just what is human flourishing and taking good care of oneself? We hear two very different answers. Here are some major characteristics of each:

money   concern for the poor
power   service
good looks   intimacy
retaliation   compassion
success   faithfulness

So, what does it mean—really mean—for you to take care of yourself and to flourish? In what image are you creating yourself by your choices and activities? Which set of values will you choose?

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.


How can the popes defend unions? They just hurt the growth of business by making unreasonable demands, don't they?


It's hard for us to imagine how unbalanced—and so often oppressive—the power structures of business would be without unions. But that's what Pope Leo XIII was facing; that's what many people still face today. Sometimes, unions may make unreasonable demands. They too must remember to act justly. Most important, for both business and unions, is the protection of human dignity. Persons are more important than maximizing profits.


All the time, we hear that the U.S. budget is in the red. How can we help other countries when we are having trouble helping ourselves?


The paradox of the gospel must be true for countries as well as for individual people: To save your life, give it away lovingly. Of course, at some point, that would not be financially possible for the United States. But we are not even close to that point. In fact, only one percent of the federal budget is devoted to foreign aid—and less than half of that goes to the programs that save lives by alleviating hunger and combating deadly diseases. Since these people in desperate need are our brothers and sisters, how can we not help? Moreover, since we Americans use up more than our share of the earth's resources, many say we have a moral responsibility to simplify our life-style.


How can you have an economic system that is free and fair for everyone?


As long as sin is embodied in political and economic structures and policies and in personal choices, never! But that doesn't mean we should not work to make the economic system better, to move toward a just society. In their pastoral letter Economic Justice for All, the U.S. bishops provide guidance for this effort: 1) every economic decision and institution must be judged according to whether it protects or undermines the dignity of the human person. 2) All people have a right to participate in the economic life of society. 3) All members of society have a special obligation to the poor and vulnerable. 4) Society as a whole, acting through public and private institutions, has the moral responsibility to enhance human dignity and protect human rights.



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