The Church’s social doctrines aren’t just ideas to be discussed. They’re truths to be lived. And, as new media evangelist Brandon Vogt demonstrates in his new book, “Saints and Social Justice: A Guide to Changing the World” (Our Sunday Visitor, $12.95), nobody has lived those truths better than the saints.
Recently Our Sunday Visitor spoke with Vogt about the book and about what holy men and women such as St. Peter Claver, Blessed Teresa of Calcutta and more have to teach us about putting Catholic social teaching into action.
Our Sunday Visitor: As you note in the book’s introduction, there’s much confusion in the Church today over the nature of Catholic social teaching. Why do you think that is?
Vogt: I think it’s partly because certain words and phrases associated with Catholic social teaching — social justice, economic justice, equality — have been hijacked by different groups and misused. They’ve left a sour taste in people’s mouths.
A second reason is that Catholic social teaching is not taught all that often, and when it is, it comes across as abstract. That makes the teachings seem less accessible.
OSV: How does telling the stories of the saints, as you do in your book, help clear up that confusion?
Vogt: I always hearken back to Pope Paul VI, who said in Evangelii Nuntiandi (“On Evangelization in the Modern World”) that “modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they’re witnesses.” That point was and is spot on.
What modern man is impressed by is a life tangibly transformed by Christ. The saints don’t just show us why Catholic social teaching is true. They show us how, when it’s lived appropriately, it can change the world.
OSV: When talking about Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, you point out that she worked for someone, not for something. Why does that matter?
Vogt: She never served an institution, charity or organization. She served Christ, whom she met in the poor and sick. This is what distinguishes Catholic social charity from secular social services. Catholic works of mercy don’t just meet practical needs. They’re about building a “culture of encounter,” which dignifies those on the margins.
Mother Teresa’s careful and compassionate attention, more than any practical help, gave people joy. She fed their starving bellies and their hungry souls. That’s Catholic social charity in a nutshell: offering practical help bathed in divine, dignifying love.
OSV: If that understanding isn’t there, what happens?
Vogt: When we pull the divine rug out from underneath our works of mercy, it’s easy to become cynical and burnt out — we lose our fire. We also typically become utilitarian, striving to help the most people in the most efficient way, but failing to serve people as individuals with dignity.
Some people criticized Mother Teresa for her inefficiency. For example, she would go and visit the same man every day to clean up his house, even though she could have sent her sisters instead. But what others called inefficiency she called “love.”
Her personal attention honored the man’s dignity and thus changed his life.
OSV: What other common threads did you discover running through the lives and work of the saints you covered in the book?
Vogt: I was amazed how deeply interconnected each of these saints understood the corporal and spiritual works of mercy to be. Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati really stood out. He was a young Italian activist, who died when he was only 24, but lived a remarkable life of service. He supported families financially and would give people the clothes off his back.
He had an incredible devotion to the poor, yet that devotion, in turn, was fueled by his devotion to the Eucharist and Rosary. He would say that Christ meets him in the Eucharist, so in return he met Christ in the poor. You see this in every saint. Their love for the poor, marginalized and oppressed parallels their love for Jesus.
OSV: The needs in our world are so great and so many. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed and not sure where to begin or what kind of difference we can make as individuals.
When we feel like that, what comfort or direction can we take from these saints?
Vogt: People complained the same way all the time to Mother Teresa. They would say, “You’re barely making a dent in Calcutta. People are still hungry! People are still dying of disease! How are you making a difference?” She usually responded by gesturing toward the person she was helping that moment, and saying, “I’m making a difference to him.”
That’s the attitude we learn from the saints. Do what you can do — small acts, but with great love.
We won’t solve every problem this side of heaven, and that’s a liberating truth. Once you recognize that, you can finally get on with the important works of love to which God calls you. Don’t worry about changing the whole world — just change yours.
Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor.
Start with these resources.
◗ Rerum Novarum
(“On the Condition of Labor”) — Pope Leo XIII, 1891
◗ Quas Primas
(“On the Social Reign of Christ the King”) — Pius XI, 1925
◗ Gaudium et Spes
(“On the Church in the Modern World”)— Vatican Council II, 1965
◗ Justicia in Mundo (“Justice in the World”) — Synod of Bishops, 1971