Do orthodoxy and social justice have to be mutually exclusive? St. James wrote that “pure religion is this, to care for the widow and the orphan in their distress and to keep ourselves unstained from the world.”
Here is a piece I wrote on the first anniversary of Pope Francis’ election to the papacy: Pope Francis, Social Justice, and Pure Religion.
During a homily the other day the priest issued a convicting call for Christians to be engaged in feeding the hungry, caring for the homeless, visiting those in prison. He finished by saying that we shouldn’t get bogged down with our sins and a focus on sex, but rather engage in what’s most important to Jesus—care for the poor and promoting social justice. I had heard this priest many times before, and knew that he didn’t really mean that sin doesn’t matter. So I find myself asking why would he feel the need to make his strange distinction between loving the poor and avoiding sin. In the Christian life, must we really choose one or other?
His homily was a classic example of the pervasive, false dichotomy between theological doctrine and social justice that has dominated much of Catholic thought and preaching since the 1960s.
This type of thinking has caused division and suspicion among different “strands” of Catholics. A friend once remarked to me that whenever he hears a Catholic use the words “social justice,” he assumes based on experience that the person will support abortion.
The chasm between justice and orthodoxy also has had negative effects on the faithful and church attendance by hollowing out the redeeming message of Catholicism. According to some estimates, up to one third of American Catholics have left the Church since the 1960s, with a large number of them becoming conservative evangelicals. I can’t tell you the number of evangelicals I have met who were raised Catholic, attended Catholic schools, and ended up leaving the Church. The main reason I hear is that they rarely heard about friendship with Jesus or the basic tenets of Christian faith—until they encountered evangelical Protestants.
This exodus isn’t limited to the United States. As the saying goes in Latin America: the Church opted for the poor, and the poor opted for Pentecostalism and Evangelicalism.
One of the interesting developments to watch over the next few years will be to see how Pope Francis helps to break down this misleading doctrine/justice opposition.