Last year while preparing to speak at a diocesan event on Catholic Social Teachings (henceforth CST) I came across a link on the USCCB website that offered a series of quotes from Pope Francis on the CST. Thinking I might find a pithy quote to use in my address, I opened the file only to find that it contained an overwhelming 378 pages of statements from our Holy Father on various aspects of the CST. Following in the footsteps of Pope Benedict XVI, Pope St. John Paul II, and the other Popes of the modern period, Pope Francis has tirelessly devoted himself to proclaiming the CST. When I look at the staggering amount of energy and ink that our recent Popes have spent proclaiming the CST, I am struck not only by the importance that they give to the CST but also by the way they locate the CST at the center of authentic Christian discipleship.
In this article, I recall some of the basic truths of the CST and explore their intersection with Christian discipleship in order clarify how these teachings should shape the life of every believer through the virtue of mercy. Viewing the CST in this way enables us to see how the CST can serve as a measuring stick for faithful discipleship by emphasizing specific truths that challenge us and guide us in our attempts to concretely imitate Jesus in our love for neighbor.
Dispelling Some Myths
Before exploring the central components of the CST and how they relate to our Christian discipleship, it could be helpful to dispel some common myths about the CST that can hinder people from adequately prioritizing and properly implementing the CST in their daily lives.
The CST are not the Church meddling in worldly affairs nor claiming authority over the political domain. The CST never lose sight of the proper distinction between Church and state and the respect that each sphere is owed by the other. Likewise, the CST never amount to the Church telling Catholics to vote for specific politicians or usurping the genuine citizenship of each Catholic.
The CST are not the Church acting like a know-it-all by claiming a competency in secular areas (such as economics, politics, or medicine) that are beyond the scope of the Gospel. In turn, the CST do not seek to offer concrete solutions to complex technical questions or practical problems in various human endeavors.
The CST are not peripheral teachings that align with certain political parties or other groups of people that embrace socialism and various ideologies. Dedicating oneself to these teachings never amounts to aligning oneself with a specific political party or secular ideology. Likewise, these teachings are not merely for a certain type of person, the so-called activist who feels compelled to right the wrongs of this world.
The CST do not make sense only for those people who have a certain lifestyle or advanced knowledge of political and economic theories. You do not have to be a hipster or like granola to make the CST central in your life. You do not have to be professor of political philosophy in a tweed jacket or smoke a pipe to preach and practice the CST.
The CST are not a mountain of Magisterial documents devised to confront the political and economic issues created by the shortcomings of modernity. While the problems of modernity may accentuate the value of the CST, there are no historical limitations or cultural parameters to the origins and importance of the CST.
Contrary to these myths, the CST embody how the Church offers itself as an expert in humanity and as a guardian of the Gospel call to love our neighbor. The CST demonstrate the universal value of the Gospel by showing its intersection with every sphere of human life. At the same time, the CST are decisive for every Christian disciple who hears the great command to love our neighbor as Christ has loved us. They can provide us with the keys to understanding some central aspects of Christian discipleship by fostering the virtue of mercy in our social lives.