What Is Christian Social Doctrine?

by Melannie Svoboda SND on March 9, 2020

I friend loaned me Wrestling with God, a book by Father Ronald Rolheiser, OMI. I’m finding it inspiring and challenging. I guess you could say, I’m wrestling with some sections! Chapter four, for example, is on the Gospel mandate to reach out to the poor.

Rolheiser begins with a quote by James Forbes: “Nobody gets to heaven without a letter of reference from the poor.” My reaction: “Gulp!” and then, “Who’s gonna write my reference letter?” He describes how the Law of Moses legally obligated the people to give to the poor. A few examples: Every seventh year slaves were to be set free with enough of the master’s goods to live independently; every seventh year all economic debts were cancelled; at all times, landowners were forbidden to reap the corners of their fields, thus leaving these spaces to be reaped by the poor. Says Rolheiser, “We have much to learn from this society.”

Rolheiser believes we are basically generous and charitable people. But, he says, social justice goes beyond individual charitable giving (as good as charitable giving is!) He then summarizes Christian Social Doctrine in 10 points. I’m going to summarize his summary in 6 points.

  1. All people have equal dignity, equal rights, and equal access to resources and opportunity. “The riches of this world should flow equally and fairly to all.”
  2. The right to private property and accumulation of wealth is not an absolute one. It must be subordinated to the common good and to the fact that the goods of the earth are intended for all.
  3. We are obligated morally to come to the aid of those in need.
  4. The current situation in the world where some individuals and nations have excess while others lack the basic necessities is immoral, against the teachings of Christ, and must be redressed.
  5. The earth itself has inherent rights. (See Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si!)
  6. Movement toward the poor is a route to both God and spiritual health.

Lent is a good time to get back to the basics of our Christian (Catholic) faith. That’s one reason I’m reading this book–and devoting this blog to this topic of social justice. As I read this chapter, I asked myself (and I’m asking you!) questions such as these:

Are these tenets too naive and too idealistic? Do they ask too much of us? (Is Jesus asking too much of us? Matthew 25 is tough!)

Where do we see evidence of the church, specific organizations, and real individuals actually living these tenets? Is there any evidence that I am trying to live any of these tenets? What about my family, my religious congregation, and my parish?

When I look at our national and global problems, I’m tempted to throw up my hands in despair and say things like: “But I’m only one person… I’m too old for this now… These problems are too complex… I’m overwhelmed by it all.” What helps you to live your faith amid injustices, our global refugee crisis, critical climate issues, growing violence, divisiveness, the caronavirus, etc. etc.?

Does anything in this reflection stand out for you? I welcome any of your thoughts on this vital topic. Even a sentence or two would be fine.

This video is a simple reading of Mt. 25: 35-40. It is set against pictures of people reaching out to help others in all kinds of ways. I am inspired by the way these individuals are making an investment of their time and themselves in carrying out Jesus’ mandate of service.

Please respond below to the reflection, the video, or to the responses of other readers. As usual, we love hearing from you!

{ 30 comments… read them below or add one }

John E Hopkins March 9, 2020 at 4:57 am

Good morning, Sr. Melannie…
Good morning, all…

Great Lenten topic, albeit one that challenges us. There’s a man who lives on Cape Cod who raises money to buy tents for the homeless. He told an audience I was part of that the only time Jesus makes a direct mention of hell is in Matthew 25 — yikes!

One senario where we are always challenged is when we are asked for money by the homeless when we enter the city (or anywhere for that matter). Pope Francis says we should give no matter what, even if our suspicions make us think otherwise. And we should look at the person, maybe even say a word or two.

One evening my wife and I were in Boston when a woman asked us for money. We had none, only plastic. But we spoke to her, apologizing for having nothing to give. We went on, but the woman called to us again, and when we turned she thanked us for talking to her. We’ve never forgotten this moment!

Our daughter — the great Kate — has a friend who works with the homeless, and her friend told her that often the homeless feel invicible.

O Lord, teach us to see you!

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Mary Lou Pieczarka March 9, 2020 at 10:15 am

When my grndson was 4, I took him to a puppet show. After the show, we were going to buy candy.
He let go of my hand and ran to a homeless man. Sitting on the sidewalk.
My grandson, who has Autism, threw his arms around the man. That man started laughing and yelling, that is the first hug I’ve had in such a long time.
Yes, we must look st everuonr9we meet and acknowledge them. We are all Godd children.

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Kathleen Magiera March 9, 2020 at 5:40 am

Beautiful yet challenging reflection Sr. Melannie.

My husband and I regularly go into the prison to minister to the residents. These men often land up there because of lack of support on the outside. It is not only poverty but so much chaos in their lives that contribute to them being incarcerated. Many men cannot even read or speak English.

May we recognize the poor among us.

God bless!

Kathleen

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Ed Johnson March 9, 2020 at 6:45 am

Sister,
A most appropriate challenge to us during this Lenten season! Yes, I gulped a little bit while reading your words. John H’s remarks brings to mind something I was told a few years ago during a period I was volunteering with a specific homeless support organization. The woman who headed this group told several of us one day that above all else, the homeless seek recognition and dignity in their lives (and who among us doesn’t?)…..Indeed, literally being touched and engaged by others is so important to them. I try, but sometimes fail, to act upon that advice. Thank you, Sister. A Blessed Lent to All.
Ed J

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Shirley March 9, 2020 at 6:49 am

Good morning Sister, great reflection! The video was great too. We have started carrying individual homeless bags in our car when ever we go somewhere. They have things they can eat and a nice warm pair of socks.
Thank you for your blog, look so forward to it every Monday morning. Have a wonderful and blessed week.

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Linda Gray March 9, 2020 at 5:51 pm

Great idea (the bags)..I’m going to start doing this!

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Kathryne Mathews March 10, 2020 at 12:52 pm

Yes what a wonderful idea with the homeless bags. I am going to try this also. great insights, thank you

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Stephen Fratello March 9, 2020 at 7:12 am

Leave it to us Catholics to suck the Grace out of every situation. We are all poor in some way, either poor in spirit or financially. So I can write my own recommendation letter and I can write yours and vice versa.

The Methodists have a great saying:
“Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.” -John Wesley

Just do what you can when you can. If we all did that it prob be enough.

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Thomas DeFreitas March 9, 2020 at 7:17 am

“All people have equal dignity.” The movers and shakers in both major parties need to ponder this sentence more deeply.

As do I.

Thank you, Sr Melannie, and thank you, everyone else, for contributing your thoughts.

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Ida March 9, 2020 at 7:47 am

Wow….what a way to start a Monday morning! Thank you, Sister.

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Sister Julie March 9, 2020 at 7:57 am

Great reflection. Makes me say that we need real democratic socialism where no one is too rich and no one is too poor when it is truly lived by the principles. Have not been there, but I read that Norway, Denmark and Sweden have this.

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Maggie March 9, 2020 at 8:43 am

The proverb : “Give a person fish-he won’t be hungry for the day, teach him to fish – he will never be hungry.” A sense of dignity comes from work. There was a young woman in Detroit who opened a sewing business and employed homeless women. Interviewed women who worked for her felt good about themselves.
I think training homeless people is one of the keys to help them.
Maggie

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Kim March 9, 2020 at 8:57 am

Such overwhelming thoughts.

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Madonna March 9, 2020 at 9:32 am

What about those who are PSYCHOLOGICALLY OR SPIRITUALLY OR INTELLECTUALLY poor? Isn’t that also reaching out to the poor?

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Pete March 9, 2020 at 9:33 am

We service 150-175 people a day at our social services soup kitchen in our small town in Belleview, FL. My day is Thursday and I can’t wait to get there to help my team members prepare the hot meal for the day. It is gratifying to see our clients enjoying the meal. The thanks we get from them is our payment.

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Cindy Stutts March 9, 2020 at 9:34 am

Someone shared this idea with me…
Keep a backpack I your car with items such as a bottle of water, a snack bar, socks, a small bible, a gift card to McDonalds, Subway, etc…
That way if you don’t have cash on you, you have this to give when asked for help. You can fill it with other small items as well. You decide.
Thank you. St. Mother Theresa lived this out and she was one person doing much for God. Let us follow her example…

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Annie March 9, 2020 at 10:16 pm

What a great idea, Kathy! Thank you.

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Nancy Carman March 9, 2020 at 10:18 am

Sr.Melanie,As always,I am moved by your thoughts today.I do try in my small way to help the poor, but feel it’s never enough.How do we make all people aware and committed to helping our brothers and sisters in need?Do what you can,as often as you can.God bless,Nancy Carman

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Carol March 9, 2020 at 10:24 am

If a situation arises where I can be of service I hop on it but it’s so random. For example, there was a homeless man living out of his car in a grocery store parking lot with 2 small dogs…..the only family he had. My husband & I bought food & beverages & dog food to get him through the next week. Then we shared his situation with others & many others stepped up to help this man after a couple weeks, he found a job & a place to live thanks to the efforts of many. However , I really like the idea of having little care packages ready to go for when the opportunity presents itself. I’m going to start on this immediately.

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Beverly Palumbo March 9, 2020 at 10:26 am

Thank you and God bless you for the challenge.
May I suggest checking out Project Home in Philadelphia.
It systemically approaches the situation of homelessness and it works.
http://www.projecthome.org
http://www.projecthome.org/blog

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Jean Canatsey March 9, 2020 at 11:19 am

As always, Sr. Melannie, you have started our week with thoughts to chew on.
Our parish provides “Blessing Bags” for parishioners to put in their cars and hand out. They contain a bottle of water, a power bar, a scripture message and an invitation to come and join us. My husband and I are constantly replenishing our supply.
As a couple, we used to visit prisons regularly but now that we are aging, I write to many prisoners. They tell me how much they appreciate me sharing my life through these “visits”. We also have a ministry to families of the incarcerated because they are as much prisoners as their family members who are behind bars.
There is no end to the need in this world and we are never too old to do something.

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Sr.Patrice March 9, 2020 at 11:30 am

Thank you for the inspiring words and video to remind us of our duty as Christians and as human beings.

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Cathy March 9, 2020 at 12:05 pm

It has become my understanding that Jesus wants us to not only give of our resources but also to know the poor, to physically be with the poor, to listen to the perspectives of the poor because that changes my understanding of issues and widens my perception of compassion. The poor invite me to contemplate reality: what is trust, what is essential, how are we brothers and sisters, is poverty of soul more destructive . . . I am different because I taught children of poverty and immigrants. They taught me about my blind spots and prejudices. It affects how I speak my opinions, how I vote, how I value, how I pray.

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marilyn woidat March 9, 2020 at 12:06 pm

Thank you Sister Melanie, thank you to the Franciscan sisters and Holy
Cross sisters who are responsible for preparing me for 16 years to be
someone who responds to the needs of others for 81 years.
Now I see my grandchildren doing likewise, my greatest gift is witnessing
this in the 11 of them. Example, rather than words….the best teacher!

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Melanie Ebert March 9, 2020 at 12:27 pm

Good morning Sr Melannie, We all encounter some form of need by our fellow travelers daily, and sometimes I am caught off guard, so I put a few dollars in my pocket each morning. I started doing this when asked at a gas station for money by a young family trying to get home. Last week at Target I sat on the bathroom floor with a young woman sobbing her out. After we prayed, and then went our separate ways. Our hometown of Manassas, VA has an influx of Hispanic people fleeing oppression. Many can’t read let alone speak English. Our church offers English classes and a food pantry. We all help in some way and that is what the good Lord expects and the Holy Spirit nudges. Teaching the grandchildren to be aware of the needs and not be ashamed to help. Count our blessings as well.

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Barbara Erdmann March 9, 2020 at 1:01 pm

Recently I’ve been volunteering at a place called Trinity Cafe.Meals by a 4star chef are offered every day to anyone. It is a restaurant atmosphere. Each table has a host and a server All this is done in an hour. Last time I was there we served 191 patrons. This method really works. No one is made to feel rushed. I feel so Blessed to be able to help there.

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JoAnn Welch March 10, 2020 at 2:16 pm

Sr. Melanin
I sympathize with your struggle about the poor. I have a friend who is the working poor. She just needed brakes on her car (which she uses for work) and used some Christmas money which she had saved for a rainy day to pay for the repair. Since I am getting a refund on my taxes I plan on helping her. She is so careful about her money. I am not sure that this is enough but for now, I will keep helping her and respond to others who may need help. It is especially hard seeing children suffer. I have grandchildren and I just cannot imagine them being neglected. Peace!

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Melannie Svoboda SND March 11, 2020 at 4:00 pm

A BIG thank you to all who have responded so far. I am deeply inspired by your ideas–and your actions on behalf of the poor–from bags with water, food, socks, etc… You reminders that we actually engage in conversation with those in need… your work in prisons, at shelters, food banks, “Trinity Cafe”… And also the reminder that “poor” can mean many different things… And I appreciated how some of you are involving your children or grandchildren in your efforts to live Mt. 25. Thanks so much for responding. You can continue to respond below… Sr. Melannie

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Judy March 13, 2020 at 12:17 pm

Very nice Makes a person consider their life

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Stan Davisson March 14, 2020 at 7:41 am

Sister Melannie, as I read your Saturday morning treasure, I am reminded again that the resources I have are not mine to hoard but they are mine to give away. I wish I remembered that each time I am presented with the opportunity. In these early days of a life-changing coronavirus culture, maybe I can spend the freed up time focusing on how to be a better brother to all my less well equipped siblings.

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