“Move on! Why can’t you just forgive and forget as the Bible teaches!” This was one of the criticisms that many Leni Robredo supporters received during last year’s heated election period when they try to bring up the issue of Martial Law. Then there is another set of objections, especially to the clergy and the religious: you should just be praying in your convents and stay away from the rallies on the streets! Finally, the young ones are told, do not get involved; just study and take care of yourself and your family. If one is a man or woman of faith, how does one respond to these criticisms? Can’t faith and politics mix?
These stereotypical objections may seem to be reasonable and yet they betray a superficial understanding of religion, specifically the Christian faith. The first objection is juxtaposing Love (Charity) versus Justice and asserts that faith should only be confined to the amorphous notion of love, forgetting, of course, that justice is part of love. The second criticism, on the other hand, is very ancient, and pits Prayer against Action, and limits religion to piety or rituals, neglecting the fact that man, as an embodied spirit is always acting out, always expressing, and even realizing oneself in action. As the philosopher Maurice Blondel says, “The substance of man is action; he is what he makes himself.” Finally, the third one is the most pernicious of all, setting the Personal against the Social, and saying that one’s faith only serves the individual’s personal sanctification and has nothing to do with society or politics. The problem with that argument though is that, unless one is a hermit, most of us are, as Aristotle said, a “social animal.” We are always in community. We are born into, live inside of, and die within a community. Sociologically, all religions or faiths are social or communal constructs. Politically, we are members of a state or a nation that are nothing but social contracts, that is, we agree to live together and constitute ourselves as a political entity. In other words, there is no escaping the social question, and religion or any Faith worth every penny must contend with that social reality.
All these though have been clear to the Catholic Church from early on, no matter how many times the oft-misunderstood argument about the separation of Church and State is raised against her. Indeed, part of her longstanding tradition is what is called the Catholic Social Teachings of the Church, which one finds in papal documents termed “social encyclicals,” or simply, letters on social issues. These teachings evolved and developed as the Church reflected on what was happening around her. That is why it is an advantage that the Church is two thousand years old; as it were, she has gained lots of wisdom over time. The official starting point of this long tradition is in 1891 when Pope Leo XIII struggled over the plight of workers during the industrial revolution and came up with his encyclical Rerum Novarum (Of New Things). It would be a mistake however to say that before this time the Church has not reflected and articulated on any social issue. Certainly, there had been piecemeal pronouncements by priests or bishops or popes, for instance, about slavery or usury or wars. It would also be a mistake to say, as some Protestant sects say, that these teachings are just the invention of the Church, a product of her wild imagination. These are all founded on the Bible.
In a recent talk to a large Charismatic organization, for example, I tried to lay out the main biblical underpinnings of the Church’s social teachings. Firstly, from the first book, Genesis: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them (Gen 1:27).” We throw this verse all the time and yet it is the foundation of human rights. We have rights because we have value or dignity. And our dignity is sacred and inviolable because it does not depend on any government but descends from God. The second foundation is the second book, Exodus: “The Lord said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering (Ex 3:7).” This underscores two important social teachings of the Church. One, that God is concerned about the poor. In fact, the whole Bible would talk about God’s love for the anawim or the poor. Mary’s Magnificat best exemplifies this “preferential option for the poor.” Two, God is against oppressive societal structures. That is why he freed the Israelites from their slavery in Egypt. Finally, there are the numerous social exhortations of the Prophets. Micah, for example, preaches, “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God (Mic 6:8).” Justice or Righteousness then becomes a central tenet in the social and moral codes of Israel. Jesus in the New Testament will echo this, saying, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled… Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven (Mt. 5:6, 10).”
Many more scripture passages form the biblical foundation or inspiration of the Church’s social teachings. But the point is hopefully made. The very Word of God tells us to commit to justice. The Gospel is not only for personal use; it has a social dimension. Or as the Bishops remind us: “Action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world fully appear to us as a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the Gospel, (Justice in the world, 1971).” And so inevitably, inescapably, the Church (clergy and faithful) must engage in social and political issues. For as beautifully expressed by the Church in Vatican II, “The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the people of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ, (Gaudium et Spes, On the church in the modern world, 1965).” In brief, we live out our faith in the midst of the gunk and grime of our messy and complex world. Unless, of course, you can get a ride with Elon Musk on his escape to Mars.