I recently wrote that there can be no true social justice until our laws uphold the sanctity of all human life, beginning with the most innocent, most vulnerable—unborn children.
That is not, however, to dismiss the very real human sufferings all around us that cry out for just and humane responses—as befit the culture of life we seek to build.
Children who are neglected, abused, abandoned, need laws and public policies that protect them, and social outreach to place them with loving families. Those struggling against poverty, hunger, homelessness, need services that meet their immediate needs, and long-term economic policies that help them escape such poverty. People suffering serious illness and disease must have access to the healthcare they need.
Children and adults with mental illness, or physical or developmental disabilities, need adequate treatment and care, educational and employment opportunities, assistance when they run afoul of the law. Law enforcement systems must protect innocent people from crime, while ensuring fair treatment for criminal suspects, justice for those wrongly accused, and humane treatment for those incarcerated. Restorative justice initiatives should help crime victims cope with their injuries, trauma, and loss, and perpetrators prepare to rejoin society as law-abiding, productive citizens once they have paid for their crimes.
War, even when fought for a just cause, is fraught with unintended consequences and inflicts untold sufferings on innocent people. We must therefore never stop striving for peaceful resolution of international conflicts, and assurance that every non-violent alternative is exhausted before arms are ever resorted to.
The problem, in all these areas, comes when we must make political choices.
First is the issue alluded to above. Many Catholic social justice activists believe progressive policies generally espoused by the Democratic Party best address these issues of human suffering. Yet that party, and virtually all its candidates, support laws allowing the unrestricted killing of children in the womb. Can/should we still vote for them?
Some say yes, because they “check more of the boxes” on our social justice agenda, and are “wrong” on “only one issue.” And to be fair, some see in this broader agenda the potential for saving some unborn lives by alleviating some of the social conditions that can lead to abortion.
Others—myself included—say no, because, as even the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, originator of the “seamless garment,” said, “a society which destroys human life by abortion under mantle of law unavoidably undermines respect for life in all other contexts”—and thus undermines all efforts toward social justice.
Another issue of politics involves our prudential judgment as to which public policy approaches actually hold better potential for alleviating human suffering.
Consider the experience of the late Michael Novak, distinguished Catholic theologian, philosopher, and political and social commentator whose memoir I was privileged to review in 2014 for the Catholic League’s journal, Catalyst.
Novak, whose blue-collar upbringing in a Pennsylvania mining town led to a lifelong advocacy for poor and working people, was, in his own words, “a man of the anti-capitalist left.”
But, driven to learn “how to break the chains of poverty throughout the world,” he opened himself to exploring different approaches. Ultimately, he concluded that capitalism, rather than socialism or other government-centered economic systems, offered the best pathway out of poverty. He also came to understand that various cultural factors also contribute to impoverishing people, and that those must be addressed as well.
My purpose here is not to posit the rightness of Novak’s conclusions. In coming months I will offer my own thoughts, and welcome comments, on how we might best address some of these issues of human suffering. For now, I simply want to commend, to each of us, Novak’s open-minded, principled search for solutions to human suffering; and to lament, as he did—even eight years ago, well before we reached our current level of polarization—the growing unwillingness, on all sides of our nation’s partisan divide, to engage in the kind of respectful dialogue, mutual charity, and openness to new ideas that can best advance the common good.
Novak refused to be limited by the narrow “anti-capitalist” ideology he had previously espoused. He wanted to hear what others had to say, avail himself of their research and expertise; because his goal, ultimately, was not to win an argument, but to identify the most promising approaches to lifting people out of poverty.
We should likewise open our minds and hearts to the experience, research, and especially the sincerity of those who offer different approaches to alleviating human suffering; rather than clinging tenaciously to pre-conceived ideas and ideologies, and labeling as “uncaring” any whose views differ from ours.
Some thirty years ago, speaking at our diocesan seminary on Long Island, Michael Novak offered this paraphrase of Scripture:
“It is not those who cry, ‘the poor, the poor’ who will enter the Kingdom, but those who truly help the poor.”
Good intentions alone will not alleviate human suffering. It takes all of us, with open minds and hearts, learning together and then working together—with God’s help and guidance—to apply what we have learned, in service to others and with reverence for all human life.