My friend Claire and I (Megan) come from two different sides of the Catholic political world, and anytime we’re together, we almost certainly talk about Catholic social teaching (I promise, we’re not as lame as that sounds). With Claire’s background as a Catholic religious education teacher and my proclivity to get excited about subsidiarity and supporting local communities, we’d like to present this series as a way to gently dive into all seven themes of CST, no matter where you find yourself on the political spectrum. For each theme, Claire will give an intro and I will give a reflection on how to live out that theme in the little moments of everyday life. (For ease of reading, we’ll use first person pronouns for the rest of the article, instead switching back and forth between speakers.)
Before I get into the first theme, you might be wondering: What exactly is Catholic social teaching? In her wisdom, the Church has given us language for what it looks like to love like Jesus as members of community and society. Because God is a relationship in the three persons of the Trinity, we can understand that we, made in that image, are also made to live in relationship in a particular way. The seven themes outlined by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops show us how to take our understanding of being made in the image of God and practically live it out in the world.
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These ideals transcend political camps, popular opinion and hot button topics, and they should cut straight to the heart of every person in their day to day lives. In recent years, the USCCB, seeing a dramatic loss of the themes of Catholic social teaching in society, has doubled down on its efforts to make sure these truths are being taught in their entirety.
Dignity of every life
The first of these seven themes is the life and dignity of the human person. It is no surprise that the Church places this theme first because it is the foundation upon which the teaching itself is built. God, who is love, created us to share in that love. He is a Trinity of persons, a relationship, and our living in relationship is essential to our humanity and our sanctity. We are one body of Christ, and every member of the body affects the whole body. Because of this, understanding our dignity and the dignity of every human soul is essential to living the life Christ is inviting us to and building the kingdom of God on earth and in heaven.
We live in a time where the norm is to impose our desires onto our identities. We want to place our fears, our passions and our own constructed beliefs onto ourselves and others so that we can create the utopia we have decided will make us happiest.
However, living out this first theme requires humility, receptivity and wonder. We must know and believe that we are not God and that we don’t always truly know what is best. We must receive what is true, both from God and from the natural law, and put those truths into practice in our lives. And we must continue to ask, to seek, to know who God is and allow that knowledge to inform our present experience.
Many hot button topics are covered in this category: the Church’s stance on abortion, the death penalty, euthanasia and genetic engineering, for example. And while the language on that is available for anyone seeking (take, for example, the Catholic Bioethics hotline where anyone can call to seek advice on their personal ethical dilemmas), I’d like to focus in on how this theme affects most of us in our day to day lives and what we can practically do to live it out.
Love the person in front of you
Many of us have experienced, first-hand, the above-mentioned ethical dilemmas. Whether it’s navigating end-of-life care for an aging or chronically-ill loved one or walking with friends through an unplanned pregnancy or maybe even bucking healthcare “norms” to fight for medical care that upholds human dignity. For many, these experiences are all too common, but they still don’t play out in every single day of our lives. It’s a lot easier to keep these themes in nice political boxes so that we feel like we’re living them out if we made the “right” vote on election day or shared the right social media post from our favorite internet sensations. The truth is, though, that living out these truths is a constant work in every decision every day with those closest to us — our families, our neighbors, the vendors we buy from, who we share an office with, and more. In fact, more often than not, our respect for the dignity of the human person comes down to the little, every-day moments with the people God has placed around us.
Let me give you a practical example that gets to the heart of this issue. A few weeks back, someone broke into my backyard and stole two bikes. My family uses bikes on a daily basis, so I was beyond frustrated to find them missing. Not only because the bikes were worth a lot to our family, but also because now I had to deal with the inconvenience of replacing everything, many of which took months of Craigslist searching to find. It was, and is, so easy to lay all of that anger and frustration at the feet of the person who broke into my backyard. But at this moment, as a Catholic who claims to uphold the dignity of human life, I need to pause and take a moment to honor my own very valid reactions without marring the dignity of someone else.
The reality is, God created that person in his image and likeness, just like me. He is lovingly gazing at both of us. And that choice to steal my bike, it’s actually pretty similar to the choices I make every day, especially in the moments where I forget about the humanity of the person in front of me. I may not be stealing bikes, but I am certainly not upholding the humanity of others when I lose my temper with my children and harbor anger with my spouse. And these are people who I have vowed to love and serve. That is why this theme is so important: because upholding the dignity of the human person is about everyone, not just the unborn or the aging, not just those who look and think and vote like me, but everyone, even the people who live in my home and even the person who stole my bike.
Imaging the Trinity
The USCCB says, in explaining this very theme, “We believe that every person is precious, that people are more important than things, and that the measure of every institution is whether it threatens or enhances the life and dignity of the human person.”
So, what is the measure of my home? Do we love until we get hurt and then berate and drag other people through the mud? Do we hastily judge those who have wronged us? And what about the measure of my vocation as a spouse and mother? Do I fail to see Christ in my children when they fall short of my unrealistic expectations? Or do I actually honor and uphold the dignity of every person? I don’t know about you, but when I examine my life from that viewpoint, I’m a lot less prone to judging someone else’s voting record and a lot more open to honest self-reflection. This foundational theme is pivotal, not just because it’s how the Church wants us to relate to each other, but because this is how Jesus approaches us: with tenderness and dignity, mirroring the love the Father has for him. This theme helps us, no matter where we find ourselves politically, to understand the depths of Jesus’ merciful heart so that we can slowly become more like him.