“The Church's social teaching finds its source in Sacred Scripture, beginning with the Book of Genesis and especially in the Gospel and the writings of the Apostles” (Saint John Paul II, Laborem exercens # 3) .
Today more and more Catholics show interest in studying the Bible. The Social Doctrine of the Church (SDC) relies strongly on the Bible.
Not so long ago, before the Vatican II council papal texts on the Social Doctrine mentioned a lot the notion of “natural law”. Biblical texts were used to supplement. It is true that in the Catholic tradition we rely on many sources, like philosophy and sciences. But lately the Bible has become a very central reference. In using the Bible more and more theologians take into account the different approaches to interpreting scriptural passages. The historical dimension of texts and the “meaning authors give” are no longer neglected.
We also belong to the Jewish tradition and we are also rooted in the Hebrew Bible--which we call the Old Testament. So when we read Old Testament texts we also feel implicated.
Of course when we read about Jesus we reel we are participants. So for example when we read about Jesus calling his disciples we feel that we too are called to discipleship. When we read about the struggles of St. Paul to make the resurrection understood to Gentiles, we feel that we participate in that effort.
The experiences and efforts of those we read in the Bible are also our experiences and efforts. This is because the Bible is not a “museum” of antiquities. The Bible is an entry point for us to understand our very own lives. Of course the ancient world of the people of Israel is, precisely, ancient. A distance of many centuries separate us from the ancient times. But still as we read the Bible we build on that tradition. We see in the Bible areas that will open our eyes to understanding our very own conditions here and now. We do not reproduce the ancient but we are led to see ourselves and our lives thanks to the ancient insights of the Bible.
The Social Doctrine of the Church (SDC) does not say that the Bible has the solutions to our present social problems. The Bible is not a textbook on modern politics and economics. It is not a textbook in sociology. When we approach the Bible as we look at our social lives we appropriate from it. In other words we see how the Bible can make us discern our present conditions; we see how it can guide and inspire our attitudes and behaviour. We see how the Bible can be formative. So we appropriate certain virtues and attitudes to help us build our social lives. The Bible reveals something deep about who we are. Of course it reveals who is our God; who is this God to whom we affirm our discipleship.
Let us take some examples. In Ex 22/21-22 we read about the foreigner, the widow and the orphan. They categorize ancient types of people who were marginalized in the tribal society of Israel. Today we know that the marginalization is more complex. In fact this passage of Exodus cannot help us formulate legal policies in our modern complex societies. But note what the passage can offer us. It tells us about God and about God’s deep concern for the marginalized. To love God is, at the same time, to also have the same concern for the marginalized. This is what the Bible passage can do to form us in our present social conditions.
Let us take another example. Jesus washed the feet of his disciples as we read in Jn13. Clearly we cannot derive precise political-economic policies out of this. But the story tells us the sense of service to others. It tells us about humble service. I tells us about our communion with others.
The Bible transmits to us ideals, virtues, dispositions which can inspire our social living. This is a major influence of the Bible for us and for our understanding of the SDC. Still, we can also see that some Bible passages have direct relevance for the SDC.
What are some of the Old Testament themes inspiring the SDC?
The SDC emphasizes the sacredness of the human person. The human person has dignity. The SDC takes inspiration from Genesis where we read: “Then God said: Let us make human beings in our image, after our likeness” (Gen 1/26). This is so basic in the tradition of the SDC. Each human person is worthy of respect and honor no matter what is the social status. So a person may belong to an ethnic group, a class in the labor world, a gender group, etc. No matter who or what the person is dignity is accorded to that person. It is a dignity that is not given by any social group, it is not given by any social law. Dignity is from God, it is God who says that the human is his image.
As an extension of this dignity, the human lives with others who are also image of God. Social and inter-human relationships are marked with human dignity because everyone is image of God.
The SDC gives emphasis on human rights based on human dignity--that is, based on the fact that every human is image of God. So every member of society has right to proper and dignified living which includes right to education, to work, etc. Note how the Bible inspires the social doctrine here.
The goodness of creation
The Bible tells us, as we read in Genesis, that creation is good. This goodness is not because of it usefulness to humans. Goodness is proclaimed by God, not by humans. Consequently humans are to give due respect to the created world. To dominate over the world does not mean to do anything we want. Domination means stewardship, respect, ecology.
The King, in the society of the people of Israel, is to “dominate”over the nation. But this domination is also to care for and not to oppress. The King is to care for the nation. The King is to seek for the welfare of his people.
So when it comes to both relating with the physical world and the social world the human is called to recognize the goodness that God has accorded to nature and people. The human relates responsibly with earth and with society. The human is to care for the world that God has created. This is what we learn from the Bible.
In the SDC we see the emphasis on “common good” and the equal sharing of the goods of the earth. This is definitely inspired by the Biblical notion of the goodness of creation and the place of the human in creation.
Liberation and Covenant
We know that the Hebrew people were enslaved in Egypt. The Exodus story illustrates how the people have been liberated by God. We see here not just a battle against oppression but also God himself who is involved in the battle against oppression. God has heard the cry of the miserable and has decided to liberate them. God is reminded of his own fidelity. “The LORD said: I have witnessed the affliction of my people in Egypt and have heard their cry against their taskmasters, so I know well what they are suffering. Therefore I have come down to rescue them from the power of the Egyptians and lead them up from that land into a good and spacious land….Now indeed the outcry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have seen how the Egyptians are oppressing them.” (Ex3/7-9). In other words, “God heard their moaning and God was mindful of his covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” (Ex2/24).
God is a God who keeps his word--his covenant. The people of Israel have had this experience of liberation and they have understood who God is.
The SDC makes it clear that even if social political success is not completely in this world, we cannot be indifferent to the cry of the suffering. Our God is a God concerned for the oppressed, so too we.
Liberation then is not just to be free from oppression--like the power of the Pharaoh. Liberation is also to enter in covenant with God. The people of Israel was established as a nation living under the directives of God rather than that of an oppressor.
For the SDC to be free from oppressive yoke is one task, to live responsibly and reinstate justice is also a task. Accent is also given to the task of building an authentic social community. Again this is Biblically inspired.
Option for the poor
The history of the people of Israel was not very consistent. The people have regularly violated the Covenant. The Covenant gave laws that were designed to keep the people from repeating slavery in society. The laws were given to assure that the people continued liberated.
But the people allowed injustice (and idolatry) in their midst. Inside the social world of the Israelites were the poor, the just who were badly treated.
Thus arose the prophets. They were speaking on behalf of God to remind the people of the Covenant. That there should be no poor in the land. The people were reminded that God has preferential option for the widows, the foreigners, the orphans--the marginalized.
This basic option for the poor is a very strong theme in the SDC. It is so Biblically inspired, especially by prophetic literature. Hence we see that the social doctrine prophetically denounces practices that crush people.
Justice and Peace
Biblical justice is universal. It is seen in the light of the Covenant. Justice is about relationships. Justice implies building a community and putting in there institutions that make social members able to develop fully. Biblical justice is not a sophisticated as modern discussions of justice like “commutative justice”or “distributive justice”. Biblical justice is simple and direct: live fraternally with God and with one another.
The SDC is quite expressive in the same Biblical way. It emphasizes that a society functions properly when its institutions--like education, legal system, etc.--are designed to allow persons to develop their full humanity. Peace is realized when a society is healthy and supportive of all its social members.
When there is justice there is peace. This is very Biblical. “The work of justice will be peace; the effect of justice, calm and security forever” (Is 32/17). For the SDC peace is not just the absence of war and violence. Peace is a condition people are in: the condition of justice, fraternity, forgiveness, compassion. Peace is constructed inside society. Again we see how Biblically inspired this is.
We may have been formed to think that in the Bible work has become a curse for the human person. A closer reading of Genesis, for example, will show that work is given such an important value. “By the sweat of your brow you shall eat bread” (Gen3/19). Work is given such a dignity in the Bible that the SDC continues to follow.
For the SDC work is considered central. Pope (Saint) John Paul II expressed this when he wrote: “human work is a key, probably the essential key,to the whole social question” (Laborem exercens 3). Work is a blessing and not a curse. Work is oriented for contributing to the common good of all members of society.
The positive aspects of human work in the SDC is in this Biblical line of the dignity of work.
What are some of the New Testament themes inspiring the SDC?
Kingdom of God
Jesus came and preached the Kingdom of God. For Jesus each social practice must be placed in the context of the Kingdom. The requirements of the Kingdom have priority over other social requirements.
The future designed by God as revealed in the Kingdom makes us realize how we are to live in the here and now. The Kingdom of God is already an active presence in our history, thanks to the presence of Jesus. We are then called to re-organize our lives so that what we do and how we live represent the ultimate plan of God and not human ambition. God’s plan is that we all be one, that we all live in fullness, that we live as brothers and sisters to each other. The Kingdom is reflected in how we live.
The SDC is strong in this. It gives emphasis on the orientation and direction that our social world takes: the eschatology, the fulfillment of God’s Kingdom. The ultimate destiny of each person and of all society is transcendent: communion with the Trinity. Social life is thus called to shape itself in view of the Kingdom. This is so Biblical.
Love of neighbor
Remember that for Jesus the most important commandment is to “love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself” (Lk10/27). But who is this neighbor? Jesus gave the parable of the Good Samaritan. The neighbor is not someone to look for but a moral condition: that I be a neighbor to others, especially those in need. (See Lc 10, 29-37).
The SDC emphasizes that the neighbor is not just the person next to me. The idea of “neighbor”is universal: it is concern for everyone, especially those in need. This is why the SDC mentions themes like “solidarity” and “subsidiarity” and the üniversal destination of goods”. The resources of society must be made accessible to all. Make sure that those who have difficulty in access be given attention. This is so influenced by the message of Jesus.
Attitudes and motivations
Jesus used parables to make his point clearly understood. For example he spoke of Lazarus and the rich man. Such a parable invites us to reflection our own attitudes and motivations in front of the poor and oppressed. We are invited to be critical of how we treat others.
We remember also the parable of the sheep and goat in Matt 25; it is a parable about the eschatology. In that parable Jesus makes it clear that what we do to the little ones we do it to Jesus himself. Jesus identifies himself with the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the prisoner. He identifies himself with the voiceless in society. Again we see here an invitation to check our own treatment of others, especially the least. The SDC i so influenced by this.
Jesus himself showed, in his actions, his own solidarity with the least. In Palestinian society there were those rejected--such as the prostitutes and the publicans. We see how Jesus treated them. Jesus ate with them. He allowed himself to be invited in their meals. To have meals with them meant solidarity--sharing life with them. Again it meant identification with them. We read over and over again that Jesus ate with persons considered “sinners”in that society (see Mt 9/10-12, Lk 19/7-10). Jesus mixed with tax collectors, prostitutes, lepers, handicapped, those severely marginalized. Jesus was attracted to them. He showed that even if society excluded them they were beloved in God’s heart.
Clearly the concern of the SDC is precisely those who are so marginalized in society.
A Church of sharing
In the New Testament we also read about the early Church sharing properties (see Ac 2/44-46, ; 4/32-37), giving alms (see Ac 10/2 ; 104 ; 10/ 31). They symbolize a “new creation” in Christ (see 2Co 5, 16-17). The disciples of Christ are called to be “doers of the word and not hearers only” (Jm1/22).
Servicing others for the early Church was not optional. It was a duty that showed how one is really in Christ--a member of the Body of Christ. In other words, solidarity with the needy was a duty! If we are to share the Eucharistic meal together, we must also live ethically correct with solidarity (see 1Co 11/18-27).
The attitude of solidarity, concern for the neighbor and marginalized, attention to the weak are all so emphasized in the New Testament. They are themes that are found in all documents of the SDC.