Perusing a social media feed the other day, I discovered a rather disturbing thread. Someone posted that the Catechism of the Catholic Church explicitly mentions social justice several times as something we strive to achieve, including pictorial proof. What followed this statement of our teaching was a string of commentaries dissecting it from the perspectives of the political left and right and, of course, trying to undermine the other side.
This thread sent me to the Catechism, where I could find no mention of Republican or Democratic parties, or even left or right in a political sense. The Catechism of the Catholic Church does reference politics and government, saying several times that “it is the role of political communities to defend and promote the common good of civil society, its citizens, and intermediate bodies” (1911).
And then it hit me: The Catholic Church was not made in America. In fact, it immigrated to America and, like most immigrants, wasn’t originally welcome in this country. Our search for meaning in the Catechism through the skewed lens of American politics is pure folly. Our Catechism, like our Church, is universal and focused on a far bigger picture than one country. It guides all Catholics, regardless of their political leanings, geographic location, preferred gender or economic status. It’s not about the United States, it’s about us, human beings seeking to live out the Gospel and build God’s kingdom on earth.
Take, for example, the Catechism’s clear delineation of the sanctity of every life, from the innocent (2322) to the undoubtedly guilty (2267). Staunch Democrats and Republicans will disagree with one end of that timeline or the other. Similarly, it establishes the right to own private property obtained in a “just way,” but also the responsibility of using this property in ways that promote the” common good” (2403) – two words that regularly raise up cries of socialism in our political realm.
As a universal rule should, the Catechism does speak to us as Americans. It establishes standards of good citizenship: “Submission to authority and co-responsibility for the common good make it morally obligatory to pay taxes, to exercise the right to vote, and to defend one's country” (2240). It applauds widespread access to voting: “One must pay tribute to those nations whose systems permit the largest possible number of the citizens to take part in public life in a climate of genuine freedom” (1915). It provides guidance for our international relations: “In place of abusive if not usurious financial systems, iniquitous commercial relations among nations, and the arms race, there must be substituted a common effort to mobilize resources toward objectives of moral, cultural, and economic development, ‘redefining the priorities and hierarchies of values’” (2438).
It also asks more of us. We believe, for instance, that “the goods of creation are destined for the entire human race. The right to private property does not abolish the universal destination of goods,” (2452) yet as a nation, we use more than our fair share of the world’s resources. We know “the unity and true dignity of all men: everyone is made in the image and likeness of God” (225), yet we continue to enable systemic racism across our political, economic and social structures. And of course, we continue to practice the evils of both abortion and capital punishment.
In short, the Catechism is not American-made, and it is not designed to further the arguments of our particular – or any – political party. It is a guide for every Catholic, no matter their geographic location, to use as we navigate around our respective governments, through our varied economies, within our diverse communities and families, and toward a shared eternal life with God who, the Bible suggests, will not ask which party we belonged to but simply how we cared for the poor and vulnerable.
Jean Hill is director of the Diocese of Salt Lake City’s Office of Life, Justice and Peace. Contact her at email@example.com.