The Art of Catholic Social Teaching

(ART is taken in part from In the Footsteps of Jesus, Resource Manual on Catholic Social Teaching, [United States Conference of Catholic Bishops] 71).

ART is an acronym that stands for Act, Reflect, and Transform.  The process of ART moves people of faith from concern for charity to action for justice.  Let’s use ART to look at a familiar allegory.

Suppose you live in a small village next to a river.  This river provides water for drinking, daily cooking, washing clothes and bathing.  One morning you’re down at the river filling a bucket of water and you notice what looks like a woman floating face-down in the water.  You wade out and grab the edge of her skirt and pull her towards the shore.  You roll her over and attempt to resuscitate her but realize that she is already dead.   With the help of other villagers you give her a decent burial and shocked and saddened, you figure she just drowned accidentally.  That evening, while you and some neighbors are at the river to draw water for cooking, you notice two more bodies floating in the river.  Everyone gets excited and rushes out into the river to snag the bodies and drag them back to shore.  One man is already dead but the other has a faint heartbeat.  You begin artificial respiration and the man coughs up water and begins breathing. He then opens his eyes but cannot seem to speak.  A neighbor puts him in his wagon and takes him back to the village to care for him and many of the women volunteer to bring the man daily meals and gather clothing donations.  The remaining neighbors, shocked and saddened, prepare the dead man for a decent burial.

The next morning, you and a group of women are down at the river washing clothes when five bodies come floating down the river.  Like you all did the previous day, you wade out and grab them as fast as you can and pull them to shore.  Two women are alive, the other three are dead.  Some of the village men come down to prepare the bodies for burial and the two women who are barely alive are taken to the village to be fed and clothed.  This pattern repeats for the next week and each day there are more and more bodies floating down the river until the whole village is occupied with caring for the injured and burying the dead. 

The initial response of most people to issues of human concern is to act to meet the immediate need as the villagers are doing in our story by pulling people from the river.  Through this action we come in contact with the issue.  The issue takes on a face; it becomes more real to us. But this type of action alone also frustrates us.  It does address the pain of people but it does little to address its causes.  People continue to come to us hungry, homeless, in flight from war and oppression and in the case of our story, dead and dying.  This is the “A” in ART, Action.  It’s generally the first step in addressing an issue.

After the first day of pulling bodies from the river, the villagers are starting to wonder how long they can keep up the daily pace of rescuing victims and burying the dead.  The sight of so much tragedy is heartbreaking and they shudder to think what the families of these people are going through.  Eventually, a little boy asks, “Why are there so many bodies coming down the river?”  Nobody had even thought to wonder why the bodies were in the river.  The villagers talked among themselves wondering if there was something wicked or cursed in the water that was killing people.  Some were afraid to even touch the water anymore.  Many felt they might become infected if they touched the bodies and wondered if it would be better to just let them float by.  They started boiling the water before using it thinking it was harmful.  Some of the elder women in the village didn’t believe the water was bad.  After all, they had been using it when the first few bodies showed up and nobody has died or even gotten sick!  The elder women suspected something else might be going on that resulted in people floating down the river.

The next step in ART is Reflect, to ask “Why?”  “Why are people hungry, homeless, uprooted, battered, or discriminated against?”  “Why is the environment damaged?”  “Why are there wars?” “Why are these issues concerns of faith?” “What does scripture have to say about these social issues and their causes?”  Going deeper, we can ask “What factors contribute to this problem?” “Who might be gaining from this situation?” “Who has the power?” “Who is losing?” “What beliefs and values support the status quo?” “What does Catholic Social Teaching have to say?”  The Reflect phase of the ART process enables us to explore the underlying causes of poverty, violence, homelessness, racism, war, ecological devastation and other issues.  It also gives us the opportunity to reflect on the rich tradition of episcopal and scriptural teaching.

After the first week of caring for the sick and burying the many dead, the elder women remark that their time and talents might be put to better use by trying to stop whatever it is that is putting these poor people in the river.  “There must be an explanation for this.  We cannot just let an apparent slaughter of human beings continue…we owe it to our brothers and sisters of this land.” So they decide they are going to travel up the river to try and find out what is going on.  They bring some of the village men and a wagon of provisions for the journey.  After two days journey, the women and men come upon a decimated and burned out farm. Dead chickens lay on nearly every inch of ground.  When they ask some of the remaining inhabitants what happened, they are told that a large group of marauders stumbled upon their land and announced that they needed it for farming potatoes.  “We told them that our ancestors had been on this land for many generations and that we will be here for generations to come.”  The invaders started slaughtering us one by one, then two by two, until after a week, hundreds of my friends and family had been slaughtered and thrown into the river.“

The elder women and men of the village ask to speak with these potato farmers and plead the case for the chicken farmers to leave them and their land in peace.  The potato farmers threaten to kill them too, “Get off this land before we slaughter you too and throw all of you into the river!”  The elder women of the village decide to meet with the women of the chicken farmers and the potato farmers and see if they can work out a deal.  The potato farmers realize that they would like to have eggs and the chicken farmers admit that some potatoes would be nice so they decide to share the land and trade with one another.  Every morning they enjoyed a great feast of scrambled eggs and fried potatoes and they all lived happily ever after.

The final step in the Art of Catholic Social Teaching is to “Transform” the social structures that contribute to suffering and injustice.  Social transformation is a different kind of action.  Transformation gets at root causes; it does not stop at alleviating symptoms.  Our story had a “happy ending” because I wrote it that way but we know that isn't always the case.  But we can transform our communities and our world through changing social values, empowering low-income people, advocating for just public policies, buying or boycotting goods based on social values, adopting lifestyle changes, investing in socially responsible corporations, and so forth.  Action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world fully appear to us as a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the Gospel, or in other words, of the Church’s mission for the redemption of the human race and its liberation from every oppressive situation” (in Vatican Council II: More Post Conciliar Documents, ed. Austin Flannery, OP [Northport, NY: Costello Publishing Company, Inc., 1982], 696).  The End.