Professional Articles

The Catechist as Witness for Justice
by Donna Grimes

One of the greatest gifts of my Catholic upbringing is a firm awareness of belonging to the human family. My “Key Characteristics of Catholics” list includes the idea that we strive to love others as God loves us. No matter how tantalizing other messages may appear, we cannot live our lives blithely and selfishly unmoved by the needs of our brothers and sisters in the world.

This awareness is as much a part of me as my love of the sacraments and appreciation for the Mass. Loving others as God loves us is imperative. Indeed, having compassion for others, especially for the “least of these,” and responding to their suffering in love, through faith and with hope, is the mantra of Old Testament prophets and the very heart of Jesus’ earthly mission.

The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church issued by the Vatican in 2005 guides our understanding and practice of Catholic social teaching. The Compendium cites four permanent principles at the heart of Catholic social teaching: The dignity of the human person created in the image of God, is the “foundation of all the other principles and content of the Church’s social doctrine.” The common good concerns our responsibility for the good of all people and of the whole person. Subsidiarity relates to sharing social responsibility and enabling all members of the community to participate; and Solidarity speaks of the interrelatedness of brothers and sisters in the human family that glorifies God. (Compendium, 160)

Historically, the Catholic Church responded to the cries of the poor and vulnerable by establishing schools, hospitals, social service agencies, benevolent societies, and similar institutions. Today, she continues to build upon this long tradition through national and international organizations, parish collections, outreach programs, and peace and justice activities. The Church recognizes that working to change the structures of unjust institutions is equally as important as the charitable outreach to people in need. This Christ-like compassion is the net cast wide and deep to engage individuals and Catholic faith communities such as parishes, schools, and religious orders as loving partners in the building of God’s Kingdom. As Catholic Christians all of us are called to share in this mission.

1. As catechists, are we witnesses for justice?
Are we advocates for the poor and vulnerable? Do we join with and support the efforts of those who are marginalized in society to speak for and help themselves? Do we do our part to correct injustices that individuals and communities experience directly and through institutional structures such as harmful laws, policies and social practices? When the risk is high for us personally, among our peers, family, friends and associates, do we speak up for truth and justice in our words and deeds?

2. What is the quality of our response?
In the words of Pope Benedict XVI: “The one who serves does not consider himself superior to the one served, however miserable his situation at the moment may be…This duty is a grace.” (Deus Caritas Est, 35) Are our actions motivated by love? Do they emanate not from vain ideology but from our faith? Do we give from the heart in ways that respect and uplift the dignity of our sisters and brothers? Have we prayed about our feelings on the matter and asked for guidance in my actions?

3. What can we do to nurture effectively the development of other witnesses for justice?

  • We can work to make Catholic social doctrine alive and relevant to learners by offering them many experiences of direct service (charity) and social change (justice). Charity helps individuals meet their present needs. Justice corrects long-term problems especially as they affect groups and communities. Both virtues are necessary and interrelated.
  • We can help our learners journey into relationship with those for whom they are concerned. Justice in the Biblical sense is about being in right relationship with God and one another. Thus, our primary focus must be on people, not ideological positions.
  • Our learning opportunities should include prayer, reflection on Catholic social teaching, and some degree of social analysis regarding unjust conditions, along with action. All of these components are essential to the formation of witnesses for justice and contribute to our own continuous transformation as well.

Catholic social doctrine is more like a compass than a map, so becoming a witness for justice is a life-long, grace-filled journey of love. The United States Catholic Bishops in their 1998 reflection Sharing Catholic Social Teaching: Challenges and Directions reminded us, “In our relationship with God we experience the conversion of heart that is necessary to truly love one another as God has loved us”(2).

For Reflection
1. In what ways have I participated in charitable activities or in work to change unjust structures?
2. What practical steps can I take to help my learners increase their commitment to the poor and marginalized in our society?

Donna Toliver Grimes is an Education Specialist on the national staff of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. She is a resource for diocesan staff who implement local CCHD transformative education efforts. Ms. Grimes develops resources and facilitates learning processes for adults and youth aimed at promoting Catholic social teaching and action, especially concerning poverty in the U.S. Formerly a parish director of religious education, she currently is a catechist and coordinator for the Confirmation program at her parish.