A Spirituality of Social Justice and Peacemaking:
Elements from within the Roman Catholic Tradition
Thomas Massaro, S.J.
The word spirituality is often misunderstood and even off-putting, conjuring up images of wispy New Age-y practices and a general flakiness. I would like to make the case that spirituality is not only a positive thing, but a necessary thing for anyone who values social responsibility and harmony with all. While I will draw primarily from my own Roman Catholic tradition, the insights I offer apply equally to adherents of any faith tradition or none at all.
Whether we acknowledge it or not, we all have a spirituality — a personalized way of relating to the larger whole of the world we inhabit. In the course of our lives, we cobble together our own systems of meanings and aspirations that express the depth dimension of our very inner selves, beyond the mere material level. Even if it remains unconscious and barely explicit, we all conduct a lifelong quest for a developed relationality to self, others, and the wider world. For some of us, this is guided by an explicit acknowledgment of a supernatural Creator. But many anthropologists emphasize a universal human capacity for self-transcendence, through rational knowledge as well as emotions such as love, marked by a distinctive openness to meanings that are ultimate in nature. In short, to be human is to be in relationships in ways that go beyond what meets the eye.
Once we acknowledge this common spiritual dimension, it is easy to recognize that part of the human condition is a longing for meaning and moral order in the world. We yearn for reality to make sense, and we are dismayed, frustrated, and even horrified by affronts to our sense of justice — for example, when some of our neighbors are unfairly discriminated against and denied their just deserts. While the perennial temptation to be narrowly self-absorbed might sometimes blind us to the suffering of others, any morally serious person genuinely seeking integration of the widest set of human concerns will overcome indifference and be energized to contribute to the task of building a better world — one characterized by peace and social justice.
If all that sounds like an overly daunting task for any one person to figure out, the good news is that much of the homework and legwork is already accomplished and readily available to all. None of us needs to start from scratch in discerning the content of our social obligations or even the procedures by which we might identify and act upon them. We are born into a society with numerous traditions of reflection on these very questions, and we are free to “follow our own lights” as well as to rely on the insights of inherited systems of thought regarding social justice — including various approaches that may be either secular or religious in nature. Indeed, most people I know pick and choose elements of many traditions of reflection to customize their own approach to social issues that will guide their public behavior — as citizens, voters, workers, consumers, etc.
The greatest influence on my own spirituality of justice and peace is exerted by the rich social teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, which are proposed as guidelines available to all people of good will, regardless of religious affiliation. Like many religious traditions, Catholicism offers moral guidance to adherents that is based on a narrative (God’s saving love for all, revealed through the history of the people Israel and effected by Jesus Christ) and a set of sacred writings (the books of the Bible) that record and witness to that history of salvation. For the past 130 years, Catholics have looked to an additional source of wisdom to guide their understanding of social justice issues: authoritative teaching letters from the Vatican. Since the publication of the first social encyclical by Pope Leo XIII in 1891, Catholic leaders have spoken out boldly against gross economic and political injustices and in favor of peaceful resolution of conflicts worldwide. The social encyclicals and related church documents cover a range of important values, including human dignity, the common good, solidarity, peacemaking, care for the environment, the importance of healthy family life and worker justice — all of which supply crucial value orientations for anyone discerning a spiritual approach to social justice adequate to today’s complex world.
Some observers have expressed frustration that such major papal statements on worldly affairs remain too vague and diffuse to support ready application to pressing problems in politics or the economy. As someone who has taught these long and complex documents to students at several levels for over a quarter-century, I sometimes hear (and occasionally share!) the complaint that the papal writers have a knack for filling dozens of pages of text with splendidly elegant words, but without offering much in the way of practical take-aways or specific policy recommendations. The frustration often felt by impatient problem-solvers like me is palpable. But obviously, no set of documents published in Rome with such infrequency (roughly once per decade) could imaginably supply detailed guidance for the specific public issues of import in every national context around the globe. At best, papal social teachings provide principles and value orientations that require interpretation and application by prudent people in every local and regional setting.
Ultimately, the most important accomplishment of the social encyclical tradition is furnishing readers with useful and reliable insights to construct their own spirituality of justice. Allow me to describe below three elements provided within this Catholic tradition that I have found especially helpful. While the above paragraphs treated some of the “why” questions (What motivates us to seek the path of social justice?) and the “what” questions (Which courses of action best fulfill our human responsibilities?), each of the following three points addresses an important “how” question (With what style does a spirituality of justice best proceed?). While a wide variety of responses and conclusions are possible in each area, these general considerations emerge as crucial to any adequate spirituality of justice congruent with the main lines of Catholic traditions.
First, it is crucial to strike an appropriate balance between the inner-worldly and other-worldly dimensions of any spirituality. On one hand, an excessively inner-worldly approach reduces a religious community to just another humanitarian agency or NGO supporting social reform. A spirituality that forgets the ultimate horizon of our being forfeits its sense of transcendence and the divine mandates undergirding the human impetus for social responsibility in the first place. We must not confuse human progress with the full flowering of the Kingdom of God, which is an intrinsically divine initiative. On the other hand, an excessively other-worldly approach may soon lapse into an irresponsible escapism, devaluing the temporal order of secular experience and turning the world into “a mere waiting room for the afterlife.” Sure, believers will certainly desire to keep their eyes fixed on God above, but ours must be “a mysticism of open eyes,” always vigilant to recognize and respond to earthly realities as well as heavenly priorities. We should of course strive to be holy, but holiness has a social dimension (never just “me and Jesus, all alone”) and it makes practical demands upon us.
In short, the agenda of social justice must not be reduced to either of these extremes. The Catholic social teaching documents frequently remind their readers to maintain a healthy balance so that our favored agendas for earthly reform become neither idols (if we accord any specific agenda excessive significance) nor devalued (if our focus on the next world comes to eclipse the seriousness with which we take the present world and its urgent need for greater justice). Achieving a well-balanced spirituality of social involvements absolutely depends on maintaining that sense of perspective.
Second, a responsible spirituality of justice guided by Catholic social teaching will refrain from becoming narrowly partisan in nature. It is beholden to no abstract ideology or rigid political dogma but rather to broad ethical values, such as the advancement of human dignity through respect for the equal human rights of all. The overriding temporal loyalty is to humanity itself, in its universal quest for integral development and flourishing in conditions of prosperity and peace. Along the way, responsible practitioners of a spirituality of social justice will discern the benefits and shortcomings of various specific political programs with a commitment to making evaluative judgments based on fair-minded deliberation. Certain policies and measures may of course emerge as worthy of our support because they prove to be prudent means to the achievement of laudable goals. Yet we flirt with danger when we allow specific political programs to become, in an unqualified way, ends in themselves which command our unconditional loyalty for reasons other than how they actually promote justice and human dignity.
Catholic social teaching documents often include explanatory paragraphs reminding their readers of the wisdom of these particular distinctions and caveats, especially as they impact the right and the necessity for leaders of a faith community to speak out on social issues. Besides Vatican documents, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops offers regular pastoral statements that treat moral dimensions of public affairs. Popes and bishops rightly recognize both their prerogative to address public issues with moral import as well as the limits of their own expertise. Controversies are inevitable regarding any faith-based intervention to “speak truth to power,” so such disclaimers regarding the limited technical expertise of any faith community’s intervention in political or economic affairs are certainly in order. A stance of modesty is certainly called for when any religious leader ventures into the world of foreign policy or economic matters. But neither should we sell short the ability of leaders of faith communities to, as Pope John Paul II put it in his 1987 encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (“On Social Concern”), serve as legitimate teachers and even “experts in humanity” possessing a unique capacity to offer ethical evaluations of developments that unfold even in the public sphere. It was also Saint John Paul who repeatedly hastened to add the qualification that the church speaks out regarding the social order only “to propose, never to impose solutions” based on the moral expertise it possesses as a community of memory and moral discernment.
Third, a spirituality of social justice that bears the marks of the Christian tradition will invariably be attuned to the priority of serving the poorest and most vulnerable members of society. Long before Latin American liberation theologians coined the term “preferential option for the poor,” the Christian community had identified an agenda of alleviating poverty as a central feature of its ethical orientation. Inspired by the words and deeds of the Old Testament prophets and of Jesus himself (see, for example, the parable of the Last Judgment in Matthew 25 or the Good Samaritan in Luke 10), people of faith have consistently labored mightily on behalf of the poor. Indeed, a recurring motif in Christian spiritualities of justice is identifying the sufferings of oppressed people with the suffering of Christ, who was unjustly accused and executed. Concern for how every beloved child of God should be treated motivates both acts of generous charity on the personal level and more systematic efforts aimed at long-term structural reform. Motivating these social involvements are portrayals of God’s special love for the poor and oppressed, found throughout the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. Although the nonpartisanship mentioned above is still a genuine value, this is one sense in which a spirituality of justice does indeed compel people of biblical faith “to take sides,” namely to place themselves on the side of (and work with and on behalf of) the marginalized in the weighty justice struggles of our age.
Spirituality of justice and peace surely possesses a past, present and future. There is no dearth of heroes of social justice from past ages: there are numerous prophets, saints, and admirable secular leaders who have displayed and enacted a spirituality of justice and peacemaking in their own times and places. The world continues to benefit from public figures who today witness to these same values. To single out just one exemplar of such a spirituality, consider the moral leadership of Pope Francis, whose words and deeds on behalf of peacemaking and social justice are so obviously connected to an underlying spirituality. Sometimes his appeals to spiritual values that support his globe-spanning campaigns for peace and justice are especially direct. For example, by frequently referring to Jesus Christ with the titles “Prince of Peace” and “the Carpenter from Nazareth,” the pope is inviting all who revere Jesus to “connect the dots” and journey with him from belief to action. Such an appeal is never a matter of compelling his listeners to swallow an entire fully developed spirituality, but rather a gentle invitation to all people of good will to cobble together their own personalized understanding of such values as peace and worker justice by making constructive use of these venerable symbols of faith.
Who will serve the world as exceptional practitioners and architects of a spirituality of justice and peacemaking in the future? Members of the next generation, especially those strongly versed in the inheritance of valuable spiritual traditions, are well-positioned to carry the torch of social justice forward and renew those traditions in creative ways suited to future challenges. There are already many encouraging signs of hope that today’s youth will muster the spiritual resources to overcome indifference, engage in deep discernment, and forge a more constructive social order, inspired by familiar yet energetically renewed spiritual values. The stakes are extremely high, but so are the reasons for hope. ♦
Thomas Massaro, S.J., is Professor of Moral Theology at Fordham University in New York City. A Jesuit priest with a PhD in Christian social ethics from Emory University, he teaches and writes on many ethical issues from the perspective of Catholic social thought. His most recent book is Mercy in Action: The Social Teachings of Pope Francis (Rowman & Littlefield, 2018).