[The following is the first part of a five-part series, “Seeds in Good Soil,” examining some of the challenges of making Catholic Social Teaching a constituent part of parish life in the United States. These reflections are a product of and limited by my own social location as a white, middle-aged, middle-class male layman working in an upper middle class suburban parish.]
[Jesus] told them many things in parables, saying: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. Whoever has ears, let them hear.” (Matt. 13:3-9)
PART ONE: Best Kept Secret?
It has often been said that Catholic Social Teaching is the best kept secret in the Catholic Church. I hear it mostly from Catholic peace and justice activists when expressing their frustration over the perceived lack of interest and involvement in peace and justice work in their parish.
It certainly is the case that the vast majority of Catholics in the pew are ignorant of what the Church teaches about social justice and peace. But there is an assumption underlying this observation that I think needs to be examined more carefully. The assumption is that if we could just fill parishioners’ heads with information about Catholic Social Teaching and give them some hands-on experience of those who suffer social injustice or violence, we could create socially-conscious, politically-active Catholic parishes. If we could just get priests to preach on Catholic Social Teaching, we could energize our parishioners and enlist them in the struggle to transform the world. If we could just get parishioners to attend this class or that seminar, or register for this book study series, or join this peace and justice group, we could create a parish dedicated to the cause of social justice and peace.
I am coming to the conclusion that the challenge is much deeper and more profound than a lack of exposure to Catholic Social Teaching or human suffering. We have spent a great deal of time and energy trying to plant the good seed of Catholic Social Teaching in soil that is incapable of bearing “a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.”
Of course engaging in all or even some of the activities described above can produce some positive results. All of these strategies can help increase the base of support for social justice and peace in a parish. Over time, one might even increase the number of parishioners who join our parish peace and justice groups or who become politically and socially engaged activists in our community. But even this optimistic outcome would only impact a very small number of parishioners and most likely only for a short period of time.
As someone who has tried all of the strategies listed above, I can speak from personal experience to the limitations of this approach. (On the other hand I do recognize the possibility that the real limitations could be my own lack of skills in doing parish-based peace and justice work. That said, I think there is ample evidence that I am not alone in my experience.)
In this series of blog posts, I will be describing some of these deeper and more fundamental challenges to the social mission of the parish described by the U.S. Catholic Bishops: “to build local communities of faith where our social teaching is central, not fringe; where social ministry is integral not optional; where it is the work of every believer, not just the mission of a few committed people” (Communities of Salt & Light: Reflections on the Social Mission of the Parish, 1993). I will also attempt to prescribe some possible strategies for addressing these challenges.