Pope Francis and preaching the Church’s social teaching
The inseparable connection between the Church’s evangelizing mission and its work for justice
In his 2015 encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’ (“On Care for Our Common Home”), and, more recently, in Fratelli Tutti (“On Fraternity and Social Friendship”), Pope Francis makes important contributions to the rich treasury that is Catholic social teaching. To the two encyclicals, we might add his “Let Us Dream: The Path to a Better Future” (Simon and Schuster, 2020, $26), written in conversation with Austen Ivereigh. As Francis clearly points out in his 2013 apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”), Chapter 4, the Church’s social teaching is an essential dimension of the Church’s evangelizing mission.
The preaching of the Church’s social teaching is most effectively done when it relates that teaching to our preaching about Christ.
We are becoming more familiar with the idea that the Church has a mission and that it is missionary, and that by baptism we are all missionary disciples. But perhaps we are not doing as well in recognizing the inseparable bond between the evangelizing mission and our reaching out in love and working for justice for and with others. The plan of redemption includes within it the very concrete situations of injustice to be combatted and of justice to be restored. True, the Church does not assume the political responsibility to bring about the most just society possible.
At the same time, she cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice. Her part is to bring to the public arena the arguments for justice and to awaken spiritual energy to support the sacrifice that justice demands. The Church seeks to generate the openness of mind and will to the demands of the common good. Neglect of such concerns risks impoverishing or even distorting the complexity and dynamism of the evangelizing mission.
The Church’s social teaching is sourced in our understanding of Christ and his saving work, in the cosmic drama of God and humanity, extending from creation to the coming of the Kingdom. With the felicitous expression, “The Gospel of Creation,” Pope Francis introduces us to the starting point of this cosmic drama (cf. Laudato Si’, Chapter 2, Nos. 62-100). However many billions of years ago the universe came into being, and however we try to speak of its size, our faith tells us that it has come to be and is sustained in being by God’s loving power.
Science studies the “how” of the universe, but faith tells us that we cannot see the world in its most fundamental truth as other than a gift of God. This is as true of the smallest fruit fly as of the largest whale, of the six-month-old infant as of the retired coal miner suffering from black lung disease sitting on the front porch of his very modest home. And as is true of every person on earth, the latter two are created in the image and likeness of God, the source of their sacred dignity and the basis for their being children of God and members of the one human family.
There is a strong theological tradition, drawing from the Scriptures, which situates God’s creating (always creating, not just done once for all) within the very relationship of the eternal triune self-sharing of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In his beautiful poem on the prologue of the Fourth Gospel, John of the Cross has the Father telling the Son that he wishes to give him a bride who will share their company. In response to the Son’s gratitude and love, the Father creates the world as a palace for the bride.
A Gift for Future Generations
In light of this understanding, we best see Pope Francis’ call to regard the earth with reverence and to care for it as a gift to be passed on to the next generations and to be willing and ready to see that everyone deserves to have some decent share in it. In this, he recalls the often neglected Catholic social teaching of the universal destination of goods: The goods of the earth are meant for all.
Private property is a right, yes, but its use and regulation must always keep in mind the prior principle. The goods of life — land, lodging and labor — as the pope says repeatedly in “Let Us Dream,” should be available to all, a demand not of altruism or goodwill, but of love. Further, because we are all lovingly created by God, we must see ourselves as brothers and sisters in one people living in our common home that is the Earth. That relationship is the basis for the fraternity of which Francis speaks in Fratelli Tutti.
God Becomes Part of Our World
The cosmic drama entered a new stage with the incarnation of the Word, through whom all things are and through whom we exist (cf. 1 Cor 8:6). With the coming of the Word of God in the flesh — the same flesh as the infant or the retired coal miner or any of us — God becomes part of our world and God unites us to God’s very being in a new way. God becomes enmeshed in our history and makes it a story or drama in which each of us has a part — however small a part that might seem to any of us.
Beginning his public ministry of proclaiming the decisive coming of God’s reign, Jesus’ healings of the sick were at the same time his reaching out to the excluded and marginalized, therefore signs of the coming kingdom; his exorcisms were the first skirmishes in the battle with evil that is presupposed in all that he does. What the coming kingdom offers us and asks of us Jesus tells us in his preaching, his teaching and his parables.
The second chapter of Fratelli Tutti is a long meditation on the parable of the good Samaritan, a summons, the pope says, to rediscover our vocation to rebuild a social bond with our wounded world. Very basically, Jesus’ parables call us to accept God’s love and to respond by loving God and giving ourselves in love and service of others, especially the poor and the marginalized, to all people, really, even those we may regard as enemies.
In this, Jesus continues the tradition of the authors of the Pentateuch who so clearly called for a special concern for the widow, the stranger and the orphan, and of the prophets in their insistent demands for justice in our dealings with others.
The story of Christ cannot be told apart from the cross, resurrection and Pentecost. The early Church used many interlocking images and themes to unpack the meaning of these events. Their effort is set against the background of the apocalyptic idea of God’s sovereign intervention in the final deliverance of his people.
Hinted at in Jesus’ exorcisms, that idea is very much at play in Jesus’ agony in the garden. Aware of the mounting hostility against him and mindful of his call to engage in the cosmic battle with the powers that war against God’s purposes, Jesus struggles in prayer with what place his likely death would have in the unfolding of God’s plan. His death would seem to be an utter defeat, but by Jesus’ resurrection, God showed that the powers opposed to God had been overcome. The new age foretold by the later prophets dawned in the Resurrection; this is the basis of our Christian hope.
The New Testament
How to describe the victory achieved by Christ’s death and resurrection? The New Testament tells us that there were many ways of doing so.
In 2 Corinthians 5:21, Paul boldly states that for our sake God made Christ to be sin who did not know sin, so that we might become “the righteousness of God in him.” In this perplexing passage, Paul is not saying that Jesus committed sins.
In this instance, the word “sin” is not a sum of individual transgressions, as Paul sees it, but the power, which had a death grip on the whole human race. Jesus knew that his mission involved overcoming the power of sin, and by his death and resurrection he did just that. The Greek word translated here as “righteousness” is often also translated as “justification.”
Fleming Rutledge, in her masterful work, “The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ” (Eerdmans, $30), makes the argument that a better translation of that keyword would be “rectification.” God, in Christ, sets things right.
The righteousness of God, in both the Old and New Testaments, is not simply an attribute of God. It is, rather, God’s powerful activity making right what is wrong in our individual lives and what is wrong in the world. The fullness of God’s victory over the power of evil awaits the final judgment.
In the meantime, as Rutledge puts it, “He [God] is overcoming evil, delivering the oppressed, raising the poor from the dust, vindicating the voiceless victims who have had no one to defend them.” And, we are urged to believe, God wants to do that with our help.
The Gift of the Spirit
Divine power alone brings God’s kingdom and our salvation. Through baptism, we put our faith and hope in that power ultimately to set things right not only for ourselves but for the world. By the gift of the Spirit, that power is present and can be operative in us. A passage from the Letter to the Ephesians unambiguously expresses the giftedness of what God has done; it also tells us that we are “created in Christ Jesus for the good works that God has prepared in advance” (2:10).
With God, and always dependent on God, we not only can but are called to help put things right. Any steps now on our part — always by the prompting of God’s grace and however apparently small — derive their force and effectiveness from God’s future. That future, when all things will be set right, is brought into the present through the Spirit of the risen Lord so that it might work in us.
Through baptism and the gift of Christ’s Spirit, we become part of the cosmic drama extending from creation to the Kingdom. As that Spirit is nurtured in us through prayer and Eucharist, Christ activates the possibility of his divine action, of his eternal moving out in divine love toward all humankind and all creation itself, taking place in us.
Our Brothers and Sisters in Need
Fratelli Tutti reminds us that we are, in God, brothers and sisters, most especially to the poor, the marginalized, to those who are left out economically, socially, politically. As baptized, we need to know and, pray God, act on the grace that God gives us and wants to give us so that we do what Jesus did: give ourselves in loving obedience to the Father and in loving service to others.
With the love that Christ renews in us at every Eucharist, Pope Francis urges us to reach out in social friendship to our sisters and brothers in need. If one looked only at the needs of others — and they are many — one could easily feel overwhelmed. But faith urges us to keep before us the victory over the evil forces of our world that Christ has achieved, as well as the realization that we are invited to take part in the drama revealed to us by God’s Son.
“Sincere and humble worship of God,” Francis reminds us in the encyclical’s final chapter on religion at the service of fraternity in our world, “‘bears fruit not in discrimination, hatred and violence, but in respect for the sacredness of life, respect for the dignity and freedom of others, and loving commitment to the welfare of all’” (Fratelli Tutti, No. 283). In this, we take part in envisioning and engendering a better future, open to the whole world.
FATHER FREDERICK J. CWIEKOWSKI is a priest of the Archdiocese of Hartford and a member of the Society of St. Sulpice. Retired now, he is the author of “The Beginnings of the Church” (Paulist Press, 1988) and “The Church: Theology in History” (Liturgical Press, 2018).
Words of Wisdom from Fratelli Tutti
The following are notable quotes from Pope Francis’ Fratelli Tutti (“On Fraternity and Social Friendship”).
“In his simple and direct way, Saint Francis expressed the essence of a fraternal openness that allows us to acknowledge, appreciate and love each person, regardless of physical proximity, regardless of where he or she was born or live” (No.1).
“Today we have a great opportunity to express our innate sense of fraternity, to be Good Samaritans who bear the pain of other people’s troubles rather than fomenting greater hatred and resentment. Like the chance traveler in the parable, we need only have a pure and simple desire to be a people, a community, constant and tireless in the effort to include, integrate and lift up the fallen” (No. 77).
“Love, then, is more than just a series of benevolent actions. Those actions have their source in a union increasingly directed towards others, considering them of value, worthy, pleasing and beautiful apart from their physical or moral appearances. Our love for others, for who they are, moves us to seek the best for their lives. Only by cultivating this way of relating to one another will we make possible a social friendship that excludes no one and a fraternity that is open to all” (No. 94).
“Social friendship and universal fraternity necessarily call for an acknowledgment of the worth of every human person, always and everywhere” (No. 106)