As Louisma Toussaint weighs babies and administers their vaccinations in her impoverished Caribbean Sea country of Haiti, she’s also carrying out a vital mission of Catholic social teaching.
Toussaint volunteers for Catholic Relief Services, the official international humanitarian agency of the U.S. Catholic Church. According to CRS’ website, she has been trained to provide basic health checkups and medical assistance in bare-bones community health clinics in Haiti. Her work with families fulfills one of the themes of Catholic social teaching as spelled out by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops: a call to family, community and participation.
Catholic social teaching emphasizes that the human person is sacred — but also social. We were meant to live, grow and flourish in community. Even the author of Genesis reminded us that God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone.” We are created for each other.
There are many kinds of communities, but a central social institution is marriage and the family.
So when Toussaint advises moms on keeping themselves and their little ones healthy, and refers them to the closest hospital if necessary, she is supporting families and fulfilling what Jesus asked us to do “for the least of these.” As the writer of the Letter of James tells us, “Faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”
Far from Haiti, in Omaha, Nebraska, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul works to help families during times made desperate by COVID-19.
Marty Smith, executive director of Omaha’s branch of the worldwide society, said the group’s tradition is to provide financial support to “the almost homeless, those who are one calamity from being on the street.”
In this way, St. Vincent de Paul helps children and families remain in their homes and together.
It’s been a “harrowing year,” Smith said, with over two and a half times more families coming for food — and the demand is growing. With their support largely based in parishes, St. Vincent de Paul in Omaha runs a food pantry, community gardens and thrift stores, which provide a dignified way for the poor to acquire quality, gently used clothing.
“Spirituality, friendship and service are the core values that nurture the society’s call to grow community through personal relationships,” said Smith. “Establishing everything we do in our desire to know and grow in God’s love allows us to reach out to others, our friends and neighbors of all kinds, in a spirit of mutual respect and support.”
Catholic social teaching goes beyond merely acts of charity, as important as those acts are. The U.S. bishops, in their pastoral letter, “Economic Justice for All,” remind us that “economic and social policies as well as organization of the work world should be continually evaluated in light of their impact on the strength and stability of family life.”
We all need to be aware of how workplace policies, tax structures, child care opportunities for working parents and employment rules affect the family.
Many times we refer to the family as the domestic church. Strong families are also the bedrock of a healthy civic society.
Catholics can support families in many ways. Catholic Relief Services and Jesuit Refugee Service reach out to our neighbors around the globe. Catholic Charities across the U.S. support refugee and immigrant families, shelters for the homeless and for victims of domestic violence.
Organizations that provide housing and help to homeless pregnant moms ensure that mothers can give birth with dignity and babies can get a healthy start. The Society of St. Vincent de Paul chapters can be found throughout the U.S.
Like the good Samaritan, who interrupted his journey to help a stranger, we reach beyond our own “domestic church” to those who make up our broader community, a community that is worldwide. And by doing so, we acknowledge that the Gospel of Jesus is truly a social gospel.
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(Caldarola is a freelance writer and a columnist for Catholic News Service.)