Preaching on Catholic Social Teaching

Let’s start with a premise.

“The New Evangelization, which the modern world urgently needs and which I have emphasized many times, must include among its essential elements a proclamation of the Church’s social doctrine.”

That’s Pope St. John Paul II writing in Centesimus Annus (“The Hundredth Year”), one of five social encyclicals that make up a crucial piece of his historic teaching ministry.

If Catholic social teaching is an important part of the Church’s evangelizing mission, then surely it has a place in the preaching ministry of priests and deacons today. To ignore or avoid it means falling short in that ministry, missing an opportunity to build up a culture of life and dignity and, yes, endangering souls.

In fact, the U.S. bishops have insisted on this very thing. In their 1993 document “Communities of Salt and Light: Reflections on the Social Mission of the Parish” the bishops address priests on the topic of preaching:

“Preaching that reflects the social dimensions of the Gospel is indispensable. Priests should not and need not impose an agenda on the liturgy to preach about justice. Rather, we urge those who preach not to ignore the regular opportunities provided by the liturgy to connect our faith and our everyday lives, to share biblical values on justice and peace. Week after week, day after day, the Lectionary calls the community to reflect on the scriptural message of justice and peace. The pulpit is not a partisan rostrum and to try to make it one would be a mistake, but preaching that ignores the social dimensions of our faith does not truly reflect the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

While important, preaching about social justice often can make priests and parishioners uncomfortable. OSV file photo/Jim Olvera

But preaching Catholic social teaching is also fraught with potential problems. Because it makes claims about what it means to construct a just society, Catholic social teaching has more political and legal implications than other parts of Catholic doctrine. How, for example, could one possibly speak in defense of the right to life that all humans possess in a nation that enshrines a legal right to abortion without being, to some degree, political? In current circumstances and under current U.S. law, the same might be said about attempts to uphold a preferential option for the poor, the right to religious freedom or the right to affordable health care.

So addressing such topics publicly always brings the potential for controversy. And in an atmosphere as highly polarized and politicized as ours today, the risk of conflict is all the more potent.

So how does a priest, in preaching the Sunday homily, deal with all of this? The path of least resistance — ignoring Catholic social teaching altogether — obviously won’t do. But neither will sowing division and frustration among the parish community one leads. And if preaching on Catholic social teaching is a good idea, how does one discern the difference between a homily and a soapbox? Let’s consider these important questions.

What Is a Homily?

It is important, first of all, to be clear on the purpose of a homily. It’s not to teach doctrine, not to offer academic scriptural exegesis and certainly not to offer political commentary. In a highly regarded 1982 document, “Fulfilled in Your Hearing: The Homily in the Sunday Assembly,” the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Priestly Life and Ministry explains that “the preacher does not so much attempt to explain the Scriptures as to interpret the human situation through the Scriptures. In other words, the goal of the liturgical preacher is not to interpret a text of the Bible (as would be the case in teaching a Scripture class) as much as to draw on the texts of the Bible as they are presented in the Lectionary to interpret people’s lives.”

The Major Documents of Catholic Social Teaching
1891   Leo XIII   Rerum Novarum    On the Condition of the Working Class
1931   Pius XI   Quadragesimo Anno   On the Reconstruction of the Social Order
1961   John XXIII   Mater et Magistra   On Christianity and Social Progress
1963   John XXIII   Pacem in Terris   On Establishing Universal Peace
1965   Vatican II  Gaudium et Spes    Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern
1965   Vatican II  Dignitatis Humanae   Declaration on Religious Freedom
1967   Paul VI  Populorum Progressio   On the Development of Peoples
1971   Paul VI  Octogesima Adveniens   On the Eightieth Anniversary of Rerum Novarum
1981   John Paul II  Laborem Exercens   On Human Work
1981    John Paul II   Familaris Consortio   On the Role of the Christian Family in the Modern
1987   John Paul II  Sollicitudo Rei Socialis   On Social Concerns
1991   John Paul II  Centesimus Annus   On the Hundredth Anniversary of Rerum Novarum
1995   John Paul II  Evangelium Vitae   On the Value and Inviolability of Human Life
 2004  Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace   Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church
2009   Benedict XVI  Caritas in Veritate   On Integral Human Development in Charity and Truth
2015   Francis  Laudato Si’   On Care for Our Common Home
2016   Francis  Amoris Laetitia    On Love in the Family

If offering a scriptural interpretation of life is what the homilist is trying to do, that makes Catholic social teaching highly relevant to liturgical preaching, said Father Michael E. Connors, CSC, director of the John S. Marten Program in Homiletics and Liturgics at the University of Notre Dame. Catholic social teaching “is an interpretation of the Scriptures that can be a great help to us in our homiletic task. It’s very scripturally based.”

Like Catholic social teaching, the Bible is rooted in the social, communal dimension of Christian faith. “Americans tend to lean toward an individualistic interpretation of Scripture. It’s the way we are wired. These texts are communal before they are individual. The individual meaning comes by way of the community. [Catholic social teaching] helps us get reacquainted with that,” Father Connors said.

Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin of Indianapolis (now the cardinal-archbishop of Newark, N.J.) gives Communion to Rhonda Morrison in the chapel at the Indiana Women’s Prison in Indianapolis in this 2014 photo. CNS photo/John Shaugnessy, The Criterion

When to Do It

Choosing the right moments to talk about Catholic social teaching can go a long way toward avoiding problems and misunderstandings. Father Charles Bouchard, OP, speaks of “the text-or-topic dilemma” as a key issue that will inevitably appear. That is, a preacher might wait for Scripture readings to come up in the ordinary Lectionary cycle that express ideas related to Catholic social teaching, or he might preach on them because they are particularly relevant in a given week to something happening in society, such as a war or a major legal issue.

Father Bouchard, a senior director of theology and ethics for the Catholic Health Association, has expertise in both Catholic social teaching and homiletics. Prior to his current role, he served for almost two decades as president of the Aquinas Institute of Theology in St. Louis, which includes a major homiletics degree program. In an interview with The Priest, he noted that either approach can be valid and effective.

Social Teaching and the Lectionary
The standard Lectionary cycle presents many opportunities through the year for a Sunday homilist to preach on themes related to Catholic social teaching. Here is a sampling of such opportunities, though others certainly exist.

On one hand, the Lectionary is full of Scripture passages that connect easily with themes of Catholic social teaching (see sidebar). Passages that refer to human dignity, God’s justice, the reign of God or care for the poor all come up regularly in the Lectionary cycle. “That’s especially true in Advent, where we get lots of reference to the coming reign of God,” Father Bouchard added.

On the other hand, helping Massgoers understand major world events or current moral issues in a Catholic context can be a valuable part of the ministry of preaching at Sunday Mass.

Father Bouchard recalled that another preaching instructor once told him that any set of Lectionary readings could be engaged in a way that makes a point about any moral issue or current event. He said he was skeptical until he built an assignment around that claim during a homiletics course he taught at the Aquinas Institute.

“I gave each student the same set of readings but different moral contexts or social issues on which to preach. I was amazed by what they came up with. Without doing violence to the readings, they consistently were able to address the topic I gave them,” he said.

It is important for the faithful to understand the significance of caring for God’s creation. Shutterstock

How to Do It

One effective way of both reducing the likelihood of conflict and staying true to the nature of a homily is to keep in mind that most of the principles of Catholic social teaching can be understood as virtues and to preach on them that way. This, Father Bouchard said, means approaching them as principles of Christian life, not policy proposals, which goes a long way toward “depoliticizing” the issue.

“Present it not as a law that must be followed but as a virtue that each Christian needs to develop and to live. That’s a more adult way of looking at it anyway. And who can object to preaching about virtue? I don’t underestimate the difficulty of that, but that’s what we have to do,” Father Bouchard said.

He acknowledged this also means the preacher is less specific and directive about the legal or political consequences of enacting Catholic social teaching principles:

“Rather than provide all the answers, we can simply ask relevant questions. Explain, ‘This is how we understand a certain principle,’ then ask questions. ‘What would it feel like to be a person of solidarity?’ ‘How would the people of Ferguson, Missouri, think about this?’ The result is that the homily is not overpowering or demeaning. We allow the people to make the connections. We lead them toward it.”

Father Connors echoed this thinking.

“We should lift up the vision that helps people to think about these issues, rather than telling them exactly what to think. It’s like turning a light on in a dark room so someone can find their own way, rather than telling them the specific path to walk,” he said.

At the same time, it is also important to keep in mind that the homily is not, in the end, all about “us.” It is, rather, about what God is doing in us and for us.

“We have too much moralistic preaching, offering challenge without the good news that God actually empowers us to take up that challenge. That’s true on the right (for example, in some criticisms of sexual sin) and on the left (for example, in some criticisms of consumerism). It ends up ineffective, and it’s also fundamentally untrue to what the Church is asking for,” Father Connors said.

“I’m all for moral challenge, including on social issues. But what’s the Good News? What is God offering us, and what is God doing in us?” he added.

Priests process at the beginning of Mass during a pro-life youth rally at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C., ahead of the annual March for Life in 2015. CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz

Political, Not Partisan

Even if homilists can never fully avoid politics in their preaching, there is a related temptation of which to beware. Given a political system that offers a basically binary choice of political parties, and especially in a society as polarized as ours, priests and deacons are no less prone than the people they serve to be inclined to back a favorite team.

“Being political is part of living and breathing as a part of society. And so the Church takes positions, based on the Gospel, that line up from time to time with one political party or the other. That’s the way it is. But that’s different than being partisan. That’s something we certainly need to avoid,” Father Connors said.

No party platform, after all, consistently supports human dignity and all of the rights and responsibilities that comes with it in a social context. No party, in short, speaks for God. To suggest that one in particular does would do a disservice to the community a homilist serves.

BARRY HUDOCK is the author of “Struggle, Condemnation, Vindication: John Courtney Murray’s Journey Toward Vatican II” (Michael Glazier, $19.95).

A group works to build a house for Habitat for Humanity. Lightstock
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