This is the second of a seven-part series on Catholic social teaching. This package focuses on the the call to family, community and participation.
For so many reasons, 2020 has been a rough year. The COVID-19 pandemic has many asking how much longer we can endure the physical isolation from family, friends, schoolmates and colleagues. An especially tense campaign season has left open wounds in relationships between people of different political perspectives. Fragile uncertainty has enveloped so many aspects of our ordinary lives and our larger world.
How might the church’s social teaching illuminate these challenges? How might it help us to find meaning and in turn bring insight and healing to the world around us?
In my mind’s eyes, I often return to the 1993 World Youth Day in Denver, when the enormous crowd gathered with Pope John Paul II chanted together the theme song: “We are one body, one body in Christ, and we do not stand alone. We are one body, one body in Christ, and he came that we might have life.”
At the heart of the church’s teaching on family, community and participation is the conviction and the experience of being part of this one body, the mystical body of Christ.
“We do not stand alone”: This captures an important critical truth for our society today. We greatly value individual initiative and freedom to realize creative dreams, and this can be a wonderful drive to participate as co-creators in God’s plans for humanity.
At the same time, when we overemphasize this dimension, we run the risk of becoming callous — or even blind — to those with fewer resources, who hope to realize their equally valid dreams.
Why should people with resources care about those who don’t have health insurance or sick leave, or protection when unemployed? Why should they care about those on the margins because they are undocumented?
The pandemic has brought into focus that we truly are one body, deeply connected — throughout the world. If we do not find a way to reframe our political and social life to care for each other’s basic needs — concretely — then no one can flourish.
“We do not stand alone”: This also expresses an extraordinarily comforting and hopeful reality. We stand together precisely because the risen Lord is in our midst. Like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, we feel our hearts burning as the life that is nourished by our contact with the word and the Eucharist courses through our veins. He came that we might have life (see Jn 10:10).
What are the spaces where we are called to witness to the truth that “we do not stand alone”? The first is the family, what the Second Vatican Council in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (“Lumen Gentium”) described as the “domestic church” (No. 11).
The health of society is closely linked with this most basic form of human community. For this reason, as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops reminds us in the pastoral letter “Economic Justice for All,” a core touchstone to evaluate economic, social and labor policies should be their impact on the strength and stability of family life (No. 93).
The family can also be a first “school” for attention to the wider community. When I was growing up, my own family designated one night a week as “family night,” that included three dimensions: 1) time together, talking or playing a game; 2) a concrete activity to “reach out” to others in need; 3) a festive “surprise dessert.” I now see how much this practice helped us open our hearts and minds to building community in the world around us.
As Pope Francis challenged in the apostolic exhortation “Amoris Laetitia,” families can widen their horizons to embrace “solidarity with the poor, openness to a diversity of people, the protection of creation, moral and material solidarity with other families, including those most in need,” and so on (No. 290).
In the school for building true community, perhaps the most subtle and delicate lesson we need to learn is how to cultivate pathways to fully engaged participation. It is important that the desire to help does not itself become an obstacle to people bringing their own unique contributions to society and culture.
The Catholic social thought principle of subsidiarity helps us to discern when government policies or programs risk crushing the initiative of individuals or local communities. Instead, larger entities should step in only when their activities contribute to capacity for engaged participation in social life.
As Pope Benedict XVI explained so beautifully in the encyclical “Caritas in Veritate”: “Subsidiarity respects personal dignity by recognizing in the person a subject who is always capable of giving something to others” (No. 57).
As we continue to journey through the challenges of this season, we can draw strength and healing not only from the awareness of being “one body in Christ” but also from the commitment to witness to the world that “we do not stand alone.”
As members of families and communities who are attentive to others who are part of this one body, we can also celebrate the gifts they bring. With hearts and minds open to this horizon, we can truly affirm, he came that we might have life.
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(Uelmen is a lecturer in religion and professional Life at Georgetown Law School. She holds a bachelor’s, juris doctor and juridical science research doctorate from Georgetown, and a master’s in theology from Fordham University.)