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Church’s social teaching provides foundation for pastoral priorities in archdiocesan vision

In various settings during the past few months, I have had the joy of speaking about our archdiocesan pastoral vision: One church, encountering Jesus, equipping disciples and living mercy. I hope this vision will both shape and characterize our experience of Catholic life here in the coming years.

Contained within the vision are three pastoral priorities: to create a culture of encountering Jesus and equipping disciples; to create a culture that enables God’s mercy to be received and lived; and create a culture of unity. Each of these priorities supports and enriches the others. At the same time, the heart of the vision is the call of Jesus to have life in him and the commission of Jesus to go out into the world to have a good effect.

We do not respond as disciples in a vacuum. We live in a particular moment, in a particular place. Current political and cultural trends can seem unsettling. Many experience a certain amount of fear and there is a fair amount of fear-mongering for political advantage. It is hard to have a thoughtful, principled discussion of anything.

As disciples of Jesus, we are meant not only to put our heads down and survive all of this but, rather, to have an influence. Which means that we have to be intentional (not emotional) about how we speak and act.

In his encyclical "Deus Caritas Est," Pope Benedict XVI reminds us that the experience of encountering Jesus "gives new horizon and decisive direction to life." When we have an authentic relationship with Jesus, we see a bigger picture, designed by God. Our words and choices are shaped by the desire to serve God’s plan for the human community in freedom. This "new horizon" is in contrast to the small view that we too easily accept when we are motivated by fear or an inordinate desire for self-determination.

Since the time of the apostles, the church’s pastors have given guidance about how to remain faithful to Jesus Christ in a variety of social and cultural circumstances. For more than a century, relying in particular on papal teaching, the church has given emphasis to what has come to be called her social doctrine. This social teaching, rooted in the gospel of Jesus Christ, guides us to understand what it means to be truly human in a world weakened by original and actual sin but redeemed by the death and resurrection of Christ.

We plan to highlight the church’s social teachings during the coming months to help us begin to realize our three pastoral priorities. I want to summarize these teachings briefly, according to seven major themes. The themes build on each other and complement each other. There is a coherence to these teachings that breaks down when we dismiss one or the other of them. In some areas, we each have immediate responsibility. In others, we have to work together, with prudent judgment, to find a way forward. Each theme helps us to see the hopeful horizon that God’s plan sets for all of his children.

As a foundational principle, the church proclaims that human life is sacred and that the dignity of the human person forms the basis for a moral society. In our country, human life remains under attack by abortion, and increasingly, by assisted suicide. Other less institutionalized forms of violence leave victims suffering in our communities every day. Disciples of Jesus must witness to human life and dignity, and we must support institutions and policies that protect and enhance that dignity. This is not first a political position; it is a moral imperative. If we don’t get this one right, then the other aspects of Catholic social teaching cannot carry much weight in the long run.

As each individual person is sacred, so are we social beings. The family is the central social institution, and so it rightly receives the church’s attention and support. People have a right to participate in human communities and to seek the common good of society. The structures of society – government in particular – should serve human dignity and the welfare of the family, not the other way around.

Healthy communities result when human rights are protected and each one meets his or her legitimate responsibilities. Every person has a right to life and to the things required for human decency. We have corresponding responsibilities to one another (especially to the weak and vulnerable), to our families and to society at large.

Jesus has been clear about the central importance of attending to the needs of the poor and vulnerable. This is at the heart of Christian discipleship. We see a growing division in our country between those who have a secure living and those who are poor. This is most often the result of the breakdown of the family, which is why family should rank so high in our Christian responsibilities.

The economy must be at the service of people and not the other way around. There was much talk about the importance of jobs during the recent election. While jobs are important for the economy, they are first important for people, for their human dignity, and for the families and communities that are strengthened by dignified work.

The sixth theme of Catholic social teaching is summed up in the term solidarity. We are one human family, whatever our national, racial, ethnic or economic differences. Love of neighbor has global dimensions. The plight of the millions of refugees living in camps far from home must be our concern, as well as the children closer to home who are not getting a basic education.

Finally, we show our respect for God’s creative plan by our careful stewardship of creation. Care for the environment is a requirement of discipleship. Pope Francis has pointed out that a "throw-away" culture can tolerate a lack of respect for persons as well as the goods of the earth. Which brings us back to our first principle…

Much more needs to be said about these themes found in Catholic social teaching. I offer this much now for your reflection as you respond to the daily demands of discipleship. God bless you.

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