Teach me about Catholic social justice
June 5, 2009 7:25 PM   Subscribe

I want to learn about the Catholic social justice movement. What are some good books or other sources?

I work with people who come from this background/perspective, and I want to get inside their heads a bit. Me: lefty (and generally into social justice sorts of issues), atheist (grew up Protestant, knowledge of Catholicism in general is pretty basic), huge fan of Paul Farmer.
posted by naoko to Religion & Philosophy (19 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Check out (or even contact) the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University.
posted by mrmojoflying at 7:29 PM on June 5, 2009

Learn up on Dorothy Day and her writings.
posted by jquinby at 7:34 PM on June 5, 2009

I'd start by reading anything by or about Dorothy Day or Father Berrigan. You might also enjoy a short memoir called A Year At The Catholic Worker which chronicles the experience of living in a CW house in New York in the early 1970s, and covers the philosophy of the movement.
posted by moxiedoll at 7:41 PM on June 5, 2009

Do you already get the National Catholic Reporter?
posted by small_ruminant at 7:44 PM on June 5, 2009

Find some Vincentians to chat up. Let me plug my alma mater, DePaul University. I bet their website has some excellent sources. I know they're very big on Dorothy Day etc. They also have a service learning requirement (or at least they did when I attended) so they probably have literature (or someone you could talk to) about the philosophy behind that and how it works for their students, and for Chicago in general.
posted by Neofelis at 7:49 PM on June 5, 2009

The Berrigan brothers, like Daniel and maybe Philip too, wrote books. Then there is the whole Liberation Theology thing. I actually share a little bit of your perspective and I worked in a house in the catholic worker movement style. Totally changed my relationship to religious people (for the better). There's also an okay Wikipedia page on it: Catholic Worker Movement
posted by history is a weapon at 8:04 PM on June 5, 2009

You might also be interested in the writings and sermons of Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador. Some of his writings have been translated into English (if you don't read Spanish) and there are many English-language books (and a movie) about his life.
posted by bbq_ribs at 9:04 PM on June 5, 2009

The principles of Catholic social thought are covered well at this site by the Diocese of St. Paul. Depending on the context of your workplace, the best primary document to start with in terms of modern readability is the US bishops' Economic Justice for All.

Your local library may have a copy of the Catholic Worker newspaper, either from a CW house in your area or from Maryhouse in NYC. Read it if you can. Many CW houses sponsor monthly discussions on the first Friday evening of every month, which will generally include a guest speaker on some social justice issue, and a lot of the people you'd like to meet.

For the most part, US Catholic universities are rather poor on their coverage of Catholic social thought, with none of them (and no seminaries, to my knowledge) requiring a class in Catholic social justice to get a theology degree. As a result, ideas about what constitutes Catholic social justice are often very disparate. Be aware that traditional political labels do not attach well here: you will find people in this movement who protest outside executions, military bases and abortion clinics as part of the same understanding of, for example, the dignity of the human person.

In the modern political arena, organizations worth your attention include Pax Christi USA (non-violence), Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good (economic justice), and Catholics United (politics).

Could you clarify a little what field you work in, and what specific issues you want to "get in the heads" of your coworkers on? While many people in the movement subscribe to all these principles, its likely a focus on one or two for the time being will help you better understand.
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 9:29 PM on June 5, 2009

I'd suggest taking the time to read through Gustavo Gutierrez's A Theology of Liberation. It's a good primer on the impetus for Catholic social justice in Latin America.

I'd also second the suggestion to read Dorothy Day's memoir and the Daily Worker.
posted by Kevorama at 3:55 AM on June 6, 2009

Thanks for the answers so far, everybody. To respond to a couple things: I work in politics/government, at a low level where I'm expected to be something of a generalist, so I didn't have specific issues I was thinking about when asking this question. I just find my coworkers inspiring to be around and I wanted a better understanding of what it is that inspires them. I find that we generally see eye to eye on issues, although abortion seems like the exception, and I've been treading pretty lightly around that one.
I have seen the movie Romero - it's been awhile, but I remember enjoying it. Definitely someone I would like to learn more about.
If I can add to the question a bit, what, exactly, is the relationship between social justice teaching and liberation theology? Is LT just social justice taken to its logical extreme? Or is it also inherently more political in nature?
posted by naoko at 6:50 AM on June 6, 2009

...what, exactly, is the relationship between social justice teaching and liberation theology? Is LT just social justice taken to its logical extreme? Or is it also inherently more political in nature?

The answer to this, I think, is going to depend greatly on who you ask. The wikipedia article on LT states:

Official Vatican pronouncements, including the Pope's, say that Liberation Theology is minimally compatible with official Catholic social teaching, and that much of it must be rejected.[citation needed] The orthodox Catholic criticism is the integration of Marxism to Catholic theology, specifically dialectical materialism, and aligning with revolutionaries (Camilo Torres, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Ernesto Cardenal) and revolutionary socio-political movements.

...but goes on to say:

As liberation theology strengthened in Latin America, Pope John Paul II was conciliatory in his opening speech at the CELAM conference in Puebla in January 1979. He criticized radical liberation theology, saying, "this conception of Christ, as a political figure, a revolutionary, as the subversive of Nazareth, does not tally with the Church's catechisms"; however, he did speak of "the ever increasing wealth of the rich at the expense of the ever increasing poverty of the poor", and affirmed that the principle of private property "must lead to a more just and equitable distribution of goods . . . and, if the common good demands it, there is no need to hesitate at expropriation, itself, done in the right way"; on balance, the Pope offered neither praise nor condemnation.

For recent encyclicals on social justice, take a look at Rerum Novarum and Centesimus Annus. A compendium of social teachings of the Church was also recently published.
posted by jquinby at 7:01 AM on June 6, 2009

LT, it's worth noting, is also for the most part, regionally developed in central / south America and, while it certainly has followers the world over, is represented at the grassroots level in that part of the world. The Vatican's feathers get ruffled around in, IMHO, because it is more political in nature. A quick perusal of the encyclicals and you'll notice their language is slightly more restrained, but still has a lot of interesting things to say at the intersection of socialism and capitalism.
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 7:41 AM on June 6, 2009

For a general Catholic perspective, try the writings of John Paul II, such as Crossing the Threshold of Hope.
This is a good place to start because it's a collection of his relatively brief answers to big questions and issues. (Why so many religions? If God exists, why is he hiding? Human Rights, Buddha, Women, Islam, more.)

2nding Thomas Merton. Seeds of Destruction is a collection of essays and letters, primarily on race relations in the 60's (one essay: "Letters to a White Liberal" ha!). I don't know if this is the best of his books, but it's what I have. Merton is just easy to like. His conversion story, Seven Storey Mountain, is a good way to get insight into Catholicism from the outsider-becomes-insider pov. Plus he's cool/brainy.

Henri Nouwen worked with the needs of the mentally handicapped, and wrote on one such person in Adam. While the book is not about a movement necessarily, it covers one person's experience of the spiritual meaning of human dignity and the value of life.

Consider meeting some nuns who endeavor for human rights. If your experience of nuns is limited to what you've seen on TV, you just might be blown away by how amazing these women can be. You can just google them near you and send them an email or call. "Um... can I talk to you...?" They've certainly been approached to discuss their motivations before, so feel free to be bold.
posted by degrees_of_freedom at 8:32 AM on June 6, 2009

Check out this 2007 AskMe thread about the American Catholic left.

The original NYC Catholic Worker newspaper isn't online, but the LA Worker publishes its Catholic Agigator here. It'll give you a good feel for the Catholic Worker movement, motivations, and goals.

I'm not really qualified to do this, but I'll offer an amateur explanation for the difference between social jusice and liberation theology. I think, simply, liberation theology is religiously motivated, while social justice can be a banner for religious AND secular folks. Liberation theology is, obviously, a theology, and requires faith in God to work. Both ideologies push in the same direction, but one is a political/economic idea while the other is a religious idea. Other folks, feel free to correct me!
posted by Sfving at 8:51 AM on June 6, 2009

Flip through some issues of Commonweal. It's a Catholic journal of opinion with a generally progressive editorial board.
posted by HotPatatta at 9:06 AM on June 6, 2009

Commonweal Magazine
posted by HotPatatta at 9:07 AM on June 6, 2009

The book The Life You Save May Be Your Own is literary criticism/biography .. great read IMHO, covers Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton..
posted by citron at 12:33 PM on June 6, 2009

I think there was a period in the sixties where the U.S. supported a number of pretty terrible regimes in Latin America and was bombing Indochina for no moral reason. The Catholic Church, of the Vatican, responded terribly: from indecent silence to outright complicity. But the best line I ever heard about the catholic church was that it's a bunch of denominations pretending its homogeneous. And so, at the same time that priests and nuns in the US were contributing to and working hard within the draft resistance movement (e.g., forming an underground railroad to Canada), priests and nuns in Latin America simply couldn't remain silent in the face of barbaric crimes committed by the local regimes. Archbishop Romero, who was eventually assassinated during church by an SOA grad, initially resisted the more radical impulses of some of his priests and nuns (who were themselves responding to the local atrocities) and finally acted only when he was brought to the mangled priest, someone he knew personally to be a decent good man, who had been killed by the death squads.
So you had a independent theologies, independent of both each other and the vatican approved hierarchy, that either came out of local injustice (in Latin America) or who went under a new resurgence (the Catholic Worker movement that had initially started thirty years before). There are ties, intellectually and later on organizationally with the sanctuary movement in the eighties (American Catholics hiding out people from like El Salvador who, again, were ducking US-trained death squads), but they were sort of independent of each other. The interesting thing is that apparently Ratzinger was responsible for rooting these people out. But that has nothing to do with your question.
posted by history is a weapon at 5:34 PM on June 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

Villanova has this list of resources.
posted by vincele at 12:34 AM on June 7, 2009

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