Discovering that they are loved by God, people come to understand their own transcendent dignity, they learn not to be satisfied with only themselves but to encounter their neighbour in a network of relationships that are ever more authentically human.
Any doctrine of social justice must see each human person for what he is; a reflection of the image and likeness of God. Most often when we hear of humanism, we assume what is called a secular humanism or an atheist humanism. The fact i, however, there can really be no such thing as an atheist humanism, apart from our imagination. For any humanism must take into account what a human first and foremost is. We are created by God, as we do not explain our own being. We are created for God, as no mere temporal good is sufficient to be our end and goal. That said, we are placed by God into a world where we have material and spiritual needs, and we live in communities where others like us exist and likewise have material and spiritual needs.
Love God with all your heart, but also love your neighbor. These are the great commandments. We must, then, not be like the man rebuked by Saint James: “Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” Christian social doctrine, then, is not to be separated from its spiritual life. Indeed, its spiritual life cannot be separated from its moral and dogmatic life. The truth about how we should treat our fellow man can only be known from the truth about man himself, and the truth about man himself can only be known by pondering the perfect instance of humanity, Jesus Christ, who is “the Truth.”
And behold one came and said to him: “Good master, what good shall I do that I may have life everlasting?” Who said to him: “Why asketh thou me concerning good? One is good, God. But if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments.” He said to him: Which? And Jesus said: “Thou shalt do no murder, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness.Honour thy father and thy mother: and, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.”
So Truth Himself says, first, that God alone is good. This is the primary thing the be established, the principle that underlies all others. Only then does he move onto to what the man (all men) must do. But although the good has its source in God, Jesus certainly answers the young man in saying that he, indeed, must do good. Jesus lists several of the commandments towards neighbors, and sums it up in saying “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” In speaking of Goodness having its source only in God and yet affirming the necessity of the moral and social action of His follower, Christ affirms the twofold commandment of the love of God and neighbor.
Only love is capable of radically transforming the relationships that men maintain among themselves. This is the perspective that allows every person of good will to perceive the broad horizons of justice and human development in truth and goodness.
It is significant, therefore, that in the Church’s Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, more than half of the document addresses man as made in the image and likeness of God, and the fact that all temporal goods and actions are means towards the one end of all men, that “this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent.” Indeed, the purpose of the polity, of the community, of the state, of the family, is to allow man the freedom to seek his destiny with God. Part of the seeking and even attaining of this destiny, however, depends on how man treats his neighbor, and how he aids his fellow man so that his neighbor can seek God as well.
This is, of course, the underlying principle in the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy. The traditional enumeration of the corporal works of mercy is as follows:
- To feed the hungry;
- To give drink to the thirsty;
- To clothe the naked;
- To harbour the harbourless;
- To visit the sick;
- To ransom the captive;
- To bury the dead.
The spiritual works of mercy are:
- To instruct the ignorant;
- To counsel the doubtful;
- To admonish sinners;
- To bear wrongs patiently;
- To forgive offences willingly;
- To comfort the afflicted;
- To pray for the living and the dead.
The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church starts thus:
Every authentic religious experience, in all cultural traditions, leads to an intuition of the Mystery that, not infrequently, is able to recognize some aspect of God’s face. On the one hand, God is seen as the origin of what exists, as the presence that guarantees to men and women organized in a society the basic conditions of life, placing at their disposal the goods that are necessary. On the other hand, he appears as the measure of what should be, as the presence that challenges human action — both at the personal and at the social levels — regarding the use of those very goods in relation to other people. In every religious experience, therefore, importance attaches to the dimension of gift and gratuitousness, which is seen as an underlying element of the experience that the human beings have of their existence together with others in the world, as well as to the repercussions of this dimension on the human conscience, which senses that it is called to manage responsibly and together with others the gift received. Proof of this is found in the universal recognition of the golden rule, which expresses on the level of human relations the injunction addressed by the Mystery to men and women: “Whatever you wish that men should do to you, do so to them” (Mt 7:12)
I intend, God willing, to begin this series of reflections on the Church’s social doctrine, which is today, sadly, so misunderstood. Certainly, we help the poor, but what is the final purpose. Are the temporal goods the ultimate end? By no means. We do not only help those who accept our teachings, but we do need to remember the One who sent us to feed the poor and care for the sick. We must remember that all people need not only physical nourishment but spiritual as well. As it is with us, “What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?” should we treat the neighbor any differently? While taking nothing away from the corporeal works of mercy, it must be addressed that many have forgotten the spiritual. Many have, misreading and even distorting the meaning of Vatican II, forgotten its opening and primary premise:
“It is of the essence of the Church that she be both human and divine, visible and yet invisibly equipped, eager to act and yet intent on contemplation, present in this world and yet not at home in it; and she is all these things in such wise that in her the human is directed and subordinated to the divine, the visible likewise to the invisible, action to contemplation, and this present world to that city yet to come, which we seek.”
We will never have a true humanism until we first have a true understanding of God, our source and goal.