(The following is Msgr. John Enzler’s April 30, 2020 “Faith in Action” column for the Catholic Standard and El Pregonero newspapers and websites of the Archdiocese of Washington.)
A pandemic that was unimaginable just three or four months ago has quickly changed much about how we live. These are difficult days, especially if we or someone we know has been directly touched by COVID-19. It’s a scary and anxious time for so many as we try our best to navigate the circumstances we find ourselves in.
It’s also a difficult time for government leaders and health officials as they try to balance the needs and rights of individuals with the needs and rights of society in search of the best possible health outcome with the least amount of economic and social damage.
There are no easy answers, but may I suggest that Catholic social teaching provides a valuable framework to guide our thinking. We have an opportunity to reacquaint ourselves with these seven principles, think about them, and pray about them as we make decisions that impact our own lives and our communities.
I’d like today to offer a quick reminder of these principles and a few thoughts as we reflect upon how we are following them as people of God. Here are the seven principles:
Life and Dignity of the Human Person: We are created in God’s own image, and every human life is sacred. We are called to see God in each other and treat our brothers and sisters with respect and dignity. Whether our decisions and actions threaten or promote the dignity of the human person is the foundational principle of Catholic social teaching and should always be the first consideration. Is it at the forefront of our thinking as we consider whether to reopen business in this current climate and set guideposts for doing so?
Call to Family, Community, and Participation: Living as a community is tough right now because we are all separated by social distancing. Even so, I see many the community responding in many ways.
I think about all those in New York City who gather at 7 p.m. each night on front porches, balconies and in windows to cheer for health workers, first responders, and those doing charity work. At Catholic Charities, we’ve received many calls about volunteering, as people want to help. We’ve also received many wonderful donations, over half a million dollars in just the last few weeks, as the community steps forward to take care of those in need.
Rights and Responsibilities: We are all born with rights given to us by God. The most basic right is the right to life and decency, including food, clothing, shelter, and medical care. We as a community are responsible for ensuring those rights and taking care of those needs.
Preferential Option for the Poor and Vulnerable: This is always my toughest one. We naturally want to take care of ourselves and our families first, but the Church would say that when it comes down to a choice between those who have and those who have not, we should give preference as often as possible to those who have not. I find living that to be difficult, but we’re all called to make sure those who have little are given what they need to survive and sustain themselves.
The Dignity of Work and Rights of Workers: There is dignity in work, which the Church views as participating in God’s creation. To preserve that, we also need to protect the rights of workers, including fair wages, safe working conditions, the ability to organize, and more. These rights were articulated in Rerum Novarum, an encyclical written by Pope Leo XIII in 1891. This is especially challenging right now with so many people who want to work and have the skills to work but are out of a job or on furlough because of the coronavirus shutdown.
Solidarity: We are one human family, called by God to love our neighbor next door and across the world. We are focused on ourselves right now, our own health and our own localities. What about the call of solidarity with those who live in the Amazon, poorer countries in South America, and all those throughout our world who lack the basic health systems and medical care that we so readily enjoy? In this global pandemic, we look at the whole world – nearly eight billion people – who need the help, care, and concern of a community that watches out for them.
Care for God’s Creation: God created our air, land, and seas. Are we taking care of these gifts God has given us? This was brought to mind again last week when we celebrated Earth Day.
These seven principles help us live a full Christian life. We should apply them honestly, completely, and as best as we are able in every situation. These are guidelines, so we often need our own individual efforts and prayers in our own situations to decide what is best. Here are a few things I’ve been reflecting on relating to these principles and the pandemic that has disrupted our lives.
First and foremost, does the human person always come first in our decisions? We’ve seen in the past how war, violence, corporal punishment, and abortion have affected the basic gift of and right to life and dignity. What about now? Are we making sure to maintain the dignity of life in these difficult circumstances?
I think about all the healthcare workers who risk their lives every day on behalf of those suffering from COVID-19. Do we support them, recognize their sacrifice, and lift them up as the heroes they are? I think the same of first responders, grocery workers, and social service workers like those we are blessed to have at Catholic Charities. They take care of some 1,800 people every night in shelters and hundreds more in food programs that are growing exponentially in these difficult times. These are heroic efforts to treat the suffering and the needy with dignity.
In this time of economic turmoil, what about the preference for the poor? I’m uplifted by the many examples I’ve seen of people saying, “I’ve been blessed, and now it’s time for me to bless those who are most in need.” I’ve seen it in parishioners, friends, and the many supporters of Catholic Charities. I’m so grateful for the gifts that allow us to help more people at this difficult time.
The right to work is particularly challenging, and I wonder how we are going to handle that as a country when unemployment is growing faster than we can keep up with. We are seeing initial steps in some places to reopen parts of the economy, and I’m hopeful that those in position to do so will create jobs and make sure that as many people as possible have a place to work.
The coronavirus pandemic has caused much disruption and pain, but I think it has also caused us to reflect on all we’ve been given by God and how we can respond as people of God and as a community. Let us do so in a way that serves everyone, stretching beyond our families and friends to include all those in need of help.
May we be Good Samaritans in today’s crisis, “moved with compassion at the sight” (Luke 10:33) and make the effort to take care of even those we don’t know. That’s the Gospel. That’s the challenge. That’s the call we all have.
Let us do our best to reflect on these principles of Catholic social teaching and apply them in our own lives to make a difference for those who come our way.
(Msgr. Enzler serves as the president and CEO of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington.)
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