User’s Guide to Catholic Social Education: Author Q&A

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BY ISN STAFF | September 21, 2021

Editor’s Note: ISN recently spoke with Fr. William O’Neill, SJ, author of a new book, Catholic Social Education: A User’s Guide. Bro. O’Neill is Emeritus Professor of Social Ethics at the Jesuit School of Theology at the University of Santa Clara. He is currently working with the Jesuit Refugee Service in Nairobi, Kenya.

Catholic Social Education: A User’s Guide, by Fr. William O’Neill, SJ

ISN: Share with us the foundations of this book: how was it developed? Why did you feel called to create this resource?

Bro. O’Neill: This little book began as an introduction to the social teaching of the Catholic Church for the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS). While Catholic Social Education (CST) is at the heart of our JRS mission to accompany, serve and defend the rights of refugees and forcibly displaced persons, many of our employees are not Catholics. Not only members of other Christian denominations and religious traditions, but agnostics also contribute to our common mission, so we needed a general introduction for “users” of CST.

ISN: Can you summarize what Catholic social teaching is and how it relates to the Gospel?

Bro. O’Neill: Catholic social education is the Church’s modern response to an age-old question. When Jesus begins his public ministry in Nazareth, he quotes the prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me to preach the good news to the poor. In fidelity to the covenant, the Lord God reveals himself by freeing the captives and giving sight to the blind, by freeing the oppressed and by establishing a year of favor (Lk 4: 16-21). Jesus tells us that “Today this scripture was fulfilled listening to you. But in Luke’s Greek, the fulfillment lasts in history, as an invitation and a command. Each generation must ask itself how the prophetic message becomes Gospel, Good News, “today, listening to us”.

CST begins with the letter or encyclical of Pope Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum (1891), in response to the grave injustices suffered by workers in the modern era. Taking up the prophetic mandate, other encyclicals, decrees of the Church (for example, of the Vatican Council) and letters from bishops like those of the martyrs Saint Oscar Romero expose the social sins of poverty, violence and systemic racial, ethnic and gender prejudices.

The announcement of the “Good News” follows such a denunciation, as the Church seeks to translate the biblical demands of justice and peace into a modern and secular idiom. Catholic social education is therefore also “Catholic” – in the Greek sense of being universal or intended for all: the CST defends the dignity of each person and the inalienable human rights implied by respect for dignity. Dignity and rights bind us together as we seek justice for the most vulnerable. CST defends the rights of workers, migrants and refugees, knowing that women and children are invariably among the marginalized in society. In the same spirit, the Church pursues a “ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:18) in the face of war and ethnic conflict, seeking true peace (shalom) which can only be founded on justice. And as Pope Francis reminded us in his encyclical, Laudato Si ‘, the “cry” of the poor ” is the “cry of the earth”. An “integral humanism” supposes an “integral ecology”.

CST thus offers an integral and comprehensive (intersectional) answer to the question of the Gospel: how should Jesus’ prophetic words be fulfilled “as we hear”? But CST is not a rule book! The rules apply “from top to bottom, but we live” from bottom to top. Like learning a game, soccer or chess, the principles of the CST must be embodied in a way of life, a prophetic commitment to what Pope Francis calls our “common struggle for justice, love and peace”. And teaching is always learning, inspired by the lives of prophetic witnesses like Dorothy Day, Dom Helder Camara, Saint Romero and Mother Teresa.

The author (left) at Kakuma refugee camp in northwest Kenya, where he works with the Jesuit Refugee Service.

ISN: Tell us a bit about your background and your current work: how has Catholic Social Education been an integral part of your ministry?

Bro. O’Neill: For 30 years, I have had the privilege of teaching social ethics at the Jesuit School of Theology at the University of Santa Clara. With students from many countries, we explored the history and development of the CST and its implications for the challenges we face today: genocide, systemic racism, forced migration, gender bias, ethnic conflicts, homophobia, poverty, etc. for many years as a Catholic chaplain for women, especially migrant minority women incarcerated at the Federal Corrections Institute in Dublin, California. Before my own studies I worked with young refugee children in Tanzania and after leaving JST in 2019 I resumed my work with refugees, serving with JRS in Kakuma refugee camp in the north. western Kenya. This little book was finished there.

ISN: What are your hopes for this resource? How do you hope it will transform individuals and communities?

Bro. O’Neill: Tradition, as one of my professors said, is the “living faith of the dead”, while traditionalism is the “dead faith of the living”. So often the moral teaching of the Church seems like a litany of “no” when it is ultimately an “Amen,” a yes to the divine Amen embodied in Jesus. CST is a way of life, to incarnate the Gospel in our generation, “today listening to us”. Of course, Ignatian solidarity is inspired by the CST, and even more by those who live it, the great saints like Romero and Day, but also our companions on the journey, in the movement of Ignatian solidarity.

Yet, unfortunately, CST often remains “our best kept secret”. This little book, along with others, like Thomas Massaro, SJ’s Living justice, is an attempt to spread the good news. At the request of Cardinal Michael Czerny, we used it in a workshop for the Migrants and Refugees Section of the Vatican Dicastery for the Promotion of Integral Human Development. And we’ve incorporated it into our orientation programs for JRS national staff. The first part of the book offers a brief overview of the history, development and key themes of the tradition; while the second part tackles a range of issues, including the priority of work over capital, poverty, racial and gender bias, the ethics of war and peace, forced migration and social reconciliation. I hope it will be a useful guide for all of us engaged in the “struggle for justice, love and peace”.


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