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The Promise of North American Catholic Social Teaching and the Future of Political Theology

Catholic social teaching (CST hereafter) is the Catholic church’s social justice tradition that above all else seeks to defend the universal dignity of the human person, the common good of society as a whole, and political peace in a globalized world.

Beginning in the 20th century, Popes began writing universal church documents that addressed the pressing issues facing secular society, and in an attempt to discern what the church calls the “signs of the times.” These documents provided Catholics, and all people of good will, moral guidance to face these challenges. Over the past 100 plus years, the writing of these documents developed into a lesser known, yet very powerful, Catholic tradition that liberation theologians and social justice advocates revere today.

A Transnational Economy of Inclusion

It wasn’t just the Popes, however, that built up the tradition of CST. There are also regional documents, written by Episcopal conferences, and these conferences are made up of local bishops, their support staff, theologians, and researchers. For example, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) is one such Episcopal conference representing the United States, and has their foundational contributions to CST listed on their site.

It is important to consider the regional CST tradition, and not just specific Episcopal conference documents, because the regional canon expresses the suffering and the liberation of local people that migrate, thus transcending state borders. From this perspective, these documents speak to the political processes that are unjust and in need of fixing across states, but not necessarily across oceans, and they offer more specified remedies to be considered at the transnational level.

If one takes an overarching glance at the regional CST tradition for the North American Hemisphere—Canada, United States, Latin America and the Caribbean—we find a body of social justice documents that advocate for one dominant political theology: an economy of inclusion.

The God of the Market

Over the past 30 years, however, a group of “free market” and “limited government” Catholic theologians and thinkers have sought to reinterpret the church’s social justice tradition to corroborate another political theology: the theology of the god of the market.

These theologians and thinkers make the case for a political-economy of exclusion that displaces workers and the poor from the center of CST and replaces them with the wealthy and elite—whom they call “wealth creators.” Their theology is in bad faith because it believes that only the god of the market is morally capable of determining human dignity and the common good of society as a whole. As determined by the god of the market “wealth creators” are more worthy and equal than the rest of us—the rest of us whom they call “parasites.”

This bad theology provides Catholic politicians and policy makers a moral justification to proceed with bad public policies that seek to make the chasm of economic inequality between the rich and the rest of us a permanent, natural order of 21st century life.

The Bad Theology of Trickle-Down Economics

The biggest challenge facing CST today is the misappropriation of core principles. The core principles of CST advance universal economic rights and social infrastructure projects created at the transnational, national, and local levels that enforce the well-being of workers, their families, and the communities in which they live. CST argues for inclusionary economic policies that put forth a preferential option for the poor. It does not argue for the preferential option for the wealthy and elite, nor does it accept the bad theology of trickle-down ideologies that believe economically disenfranchised communities are uplifted only through wealth creation and private charity.

Jesus and his disciples went out and fed the poor when they didn’t have anything to feed them with—that’s the parable of the fish. The parable of the fish is the antithesis of what has become a religious dogma of trickle-down economics. Jesus didn’t stuff himself first and then throw his crumbs on the ground for the poor to desperately scurry for them like dogs. Even when Jesus had nothing, the poor were given everything he and his disciples had.

The Future of Political Theology: Economic Rights are Human Rights

The following posts make up a miniseries of posts that highlight the North American documents in CST that make the case to end poverty and hunger, to end class and state inequality, to end racism that denies economic opportunity, and to end intimidation tactics against workers who want to join a union. This is important because (1) the North American CST canon shares in a bold vision of a political-economy of inclusion, and (2) many American workers are migrants, and they are the most vulnerable and marginalized in our economy today. We need to raise the stateless and borderless issues affecting migrant workers and their families and put them at the center of our public policy debate if we are to achieve an economy of inclusion of the least among us, and necessarily, the well-being of those workers in between the most and least wealthy will follow.

These posts remind us that a political-economy of exclusion is not just the central challenge in the United States—is it the central challenge in the Northern Hemisphere—and as political theologians and social justice advocates we must unite in good faith and in good public policies to end exclusionary market practices and the morally bankrupt theologies that enforce them.

These regional documents defend a Catholic political theology that demands human dignity be respected in society by way of economic rights. No one should be excluded from the economy and stripped of their God-given dignity and existential well-being—and certainly not on the order of a selfish and immoral “invisible hand,” aka the god of the market.

An American political theology that defends workers and their families from the theology of the god of the market needs renewed not only in the United States, but in the North American Catholic social teaching tradition—particularly in light of immigrant communities that migrate over our North and South borders because they have no prospects to support themselves at home.

American democracy and our neighbor states need to create more than just “jobs” to secure peace and prosperity. We need public policies that put us on the road to an economy of radical inclusion, and that means inclusion without exception.

The future task of a 21st century Catholic political theology is to displace the god of the market from the center of North America’s political-economy and replace it with the Christian God of the poor, the marginalized, the unemployed and underemployed, and the God of those persons and families suffering to get by paycheck to paycheck.

North American CST and the 2016 Presidential Election

The CST documents will be attached in each post so that the theological themes of social, political, and economic justice can be found in the texts themselves. A brief reflection highlighting the documents’ arguments for a political-economy of inclusion will be placed in context of the 2016 presidential election.

What should we, as Christians, discern about the candidates’ public policies?  Considering North American CST, which candidate’s public policies best reflect a political-economy of inclusion?  Which candidate best respects workers’ dignity—and that means the dignity of workers that migrate to find work for themselves and well-being for their families? Do the candidates believes in the god of the market of the Christian God of the poor?

The gross inequality between the rich and the rest of us is the fundamental issue North American societies face today, and we must discern the next steps we need to take to remedy this disparity for the region.

Only in one, transnational unity of purpose can we start to fundamentally redirect competition in human degradation towards competition in the preferential option for the poor, social infrastructure and environmental justice.

As the prospective leader of the North American Hemisphere, does a future American president share this vision?

This should be the 21st century litmus test not just for our presidents, but for all democratically elected representatives in our Hemisphere today.

© 2019 by Public Salta