Pope Paul VI issued a call for Catholics to let our values lead us in shaping and reforming society
“It belongs to the laity, without waiting passively for orders and directives, to take the initiative freely and to infuse a Christian spirit into the mentality, customs, laws, and structures of the community in which they live” (48).
In his 1971 apostolic letter “A Call to Action,” Pope Paul VI issued a call for Catholics to let our values lead us in shaping and reforming society. He called on us to be more active in politics, to let our faith guide our public actions, to make a difference.
In every decade since that apostolic letter became a part of Catholic social teaching, we Catholics have had countless opportunities to make such a difference, to witness publicly to our faith.
Today is no different. One such opportunity now might be for us to challenge the false statements that are proclaimed as facts in election campaigns, false statements that demean the integrity and dignity of individuals and groups within our society.
Getting the facts
An example of this is the claim that Mexicans coming across our southern border are criminals. It is a statement that feeds the anti-immigrant sentiment present both in Europe and in the United States. More to the point, it is a lie!
Recent studies by scholars at the University of California and at Harvard University confirm that the vast majority of immigrants in the U.S. have no connection to criminal behavior. Using census and FBI data, these scholars make it clear that immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than people born in the United States.
From 1990 to 2013 the foreign born share of the U.S. population nearly doubled, and the number of undocumented arrivals more than tripled. During this time, violent crime declined by 48 percent and property crime by 41 percent. The studies also show that incarceration rates of immigrants are far lower than those of Americans born in this country.
So why are certain politicians making false statements about immigrants? Why are they allowed to get away with it? And, why do we Catholics remain silent on this issue, especially when so many recent immigrants are members of our parishes?
“A Call to Action” also warned that it is not enough to recall principles and point to crying injustices. These words must be accompanied by a “livelier awareness of personal responsibility and by effective action” (48).
Recently the St. Cloud Times published a letter signed by 99 returned Peace Corps volunteers from Minnesota. The purpose of their letter? To counter the “recent increase in anti-Muslim, anti-Islam, and anti-immigrant rhetoric” sweeping our nation and state. The returned volunteers called on all Americans to condemn the “hateful speech that permeates our society.”
This is the kind of action — the kind of witness — to which Pope Paul VI’s apostolic letter calls us. Would it be so difficult for one or more parish social ministry committees to take a public stand like this, especially in the secular press, and to provide the public witness that our baptism empowers us to give?
Not just on Sundays
Our witness need not wait for permission from church leaders, as the Holy Father’s letter reminds us. Still, it might be helpful if a few more homilies touched on moral issues like this one. That can be done — carefully — with any Sunday’s Scripture readings, and it can be done without violating the purpose of a homily.
All of us need to be reminded that what happens when we come together to worship on a weekend has everything to do with what happens throughout the week in every aspect of our lives.
That said, the responsibility to correct wrongs within our society, the responsibility to change our world rests firmly — if uncomfortably — on the shoulders of those of us who occupy the pews. “It belongs to the laity, without waiting passively for orders and directives, to take the initiative freely. …”
What are we waiting for?
Bernie Evans holds the Virgil Michel Ecumenical Chair in Rural Social Ministries at St. John’s University School of Theology/Seminary in Collegeville. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.