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If you want to teach justice, stress the vocation of daily life


As a parent of four sons, a grandfather and an activist for justice, I have grappled with how to communicate the social teaching of the church to my children — and to the world.

I believe the fundamental reason that the social teaching of the church remains on the margins, even in our Catholic universities and schools, is the spiritual dualism that permeates our practices and teaching. Ordinary Catholics do not see their work and family as the primary locus of their spirituality, in spite of the profound teaching to the contrary in documents such as the U.S. bishops’ 1986 economics pastoral and Pope John Paul II’s On Human Work.

Many years ago I began to offer workshops with titles such as The Vocation in the World, Spirituality in the Marketplace, and Ministry of the Laity in the World. I found that by working from the “bottom-up” with people’s experience in work, family and neighborhoods, ordinary lay people can be challenged to integrate the justice teachings of the church, not as a political program but as ordinary everyday spirituality.

In these workshops I would ask, “What church ministries are you involved in?” Consistently I would get back, “lector,” “eucharistic minister,” “social justice committee,” “parish council” and sometimes “marriage and family life.” I do not remember a time when someone said, “I am an engineer,” “I am a nurse,” “I am an accountant,” “I am a salesman,” “I am the manager of an HMO.” Daily life is just not seen among Catholics as an arena of ministry.

Our church vocabulary is part of the problem. Most “social justice ministries” call people out of their daily lives and neighborhoods into working at soup kitchens, homeless shelters, AIDS residences, nursing homes, Catholic Charities agencies, peace groups and so forth. What ordinary people conclude is that ministry is something outside of their day-to-day lives. They do not experience the struggle to transform their work, the Little League, their neighborhood, their public school and their family as ministry.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with ministries in soup kitchens or Catholic Charities agencies. But they are not the primary vocation of the people of God.

Church practices also reinforce the dualism by giving awards for people who “volunteer” their time. I have yet to see a parish or diocese give awards for being a small business leader who prices his/her products fairly and pays employees justly. What we are saying is: By leaving your everyday life and giving a few hours a week at the soup kitchen you are doing holy and good things (which they certainly are). But by living a life of justice in our work and family, we are just ordinary.

Other church practices have the same defect. Most parishes annually “bless and commission” those who participate in ministries such as religious education teachers, eucharistic ministers, the catechumenate team and so forth. I have never seen a parish bless its workers and families (maybe mothers on Mother’s Day). Why do we not have an annual blessing for the artists, builders, healers, teachers, small business owners, salespeople, lawyers, technicians, plumbers, government workers, caregivers and so on? By blessing only the internal church ministries, we subtly but clearly reinforce a sacred/mundane dualism. We call people out of the world rather than into the world to build justice and peace.

I would suggest that as the scholarship, formal teaching and rich intellectual heritage of Catholic social teaching is more integrated into our Catholic colleges and universities and now all Catholic schools, particular attention must be paid to the underlying dualisms and practices that so separate spirituality and ministry in our church settings. We are “doing that separation” and not even realizing it.

It is not a matter of just initiating another survey course on Catholic social teaching at our colleges and universities. It is not just getting more college students involved in soup kitchens or other traditional social ministries. Rather we must help students at all levels confront directly the challenge of their baptism through family and work and ministry in the marketplace. We must overcome all the dualistic practices so imbedded in our ordinary church practices that reinforce the separation of faith and life.

We must find ways to integrate the “theology” of work in a systematic way into our curricula. We must focus on work as vocation and career. We must also develop a new set of practices that name, identify and reward the integration of a spirituality of justice into everyday life. We need in all of this to make spirituality and ministry interesting and relevant to today’s young people. What better place for this creative thinking to happen than on the campuses of Catholic colleges and universities?

Most talk of “vocations” at Newman Centers and at Catholic colleges is either recruiting talks for the priesthood or internal church ministries, or soft and not very challenging. This type of talk is not about the practical aspects of sharing one’s gifts in the world as business people, doctors, lawyers, nurses, social workers, salespeople, computer experts or whatever. Our “talk” has to become better, more relevant, more demanding.

Instead of young people being called out of their daily lives into church work, such as lectoring or serving as eucharistic minister or in some type of activism, they must be challenged to make the connections to their daily work and family lives during their formative years.

Vocation discernment, to use churchy language, is the heart of Catholic colleges and universities and our schools. In the most profound sense of these words, God “uses” the great resources of our Catholic universities and colleges to prepare young people for the world — not so they can learn about social ministry, but rather so they see their whole lives as social ministry.

Overcoming the dualisms in all our practices and integrating the sacred and the ordinary will go much farther toward promoting the social ministry of the church than our past efforts. That, in my view, is the heart of infusing social teaching into the church’s colleges and universities and schools.

Timothy J. Schmaltz writes from Phoenix.

National Catholic Reporter, March 19, 1999