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Catholic social teaching is often referred to as “the church’s best kept secret.” However, recent research suggests that efforts to spread this teaching may be hindered by a reduction in diocesan positions dedicated to social action. The Loyola Institute for Ministry at Loyola University New Orleans conducted a report titled “Advancing the Social Mission of the Catholic Church,” which sheds light on the lack of information about Catholic social teaching among parishes, dioceses, and U.S. Catholics.
The Importance of Catholic Social Teaching
Catholic social teaching encompasses the church’s wisdom on building a just society and living lives of holiness in modern society. It is organized into seven main themes: the life and dignity of the human person, the call to family, community, and participation, rights and responsibilities, the option for the poor and vulnerable, the dignity of work and the rights of workers, solidarity, and care for God’s creation. These teachings provide guidance for Catholics on how to navigate the challenges of the world and promote social justice.
The Reduction in Diocesan Positions
The report commissioned by the Catholic Roundtable Association of Diocesan Social Action Directors and funded by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops aimed to explore the perceived diminishment of diocesan staff positions dedicated to promoting Catholic social teaching and social action. The research consisted of two surveys conducted in 2021 and 2022.
The first survey, conducted in 2021, involved 311 respondents, including Roundtable members, attendees at the Social Action Summer Institute, diocesan parish social ministry employees, and others identified by the Roundtable and Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD). The results indicated that approximately 90% of those surveyed were familiar with Catholic social teaching. However, when asked about the familiarity of other Catholics with this teaching, respondents estimated that only slightly over 20% of Catholics in their parish, less than 20% in their diocese, and less than 10% nationally were familiar with it.
Additionally, almost half of the respondents reported a perceived reduction in local social action offices within their diocese. This trend of diminishing roles in social action ministry was confirmed by Kevin Fitzpatrick, the Roundtable board chairman, who noted that many social action directors were losing their positions due to office closures, attrition, or mergers with other departments.
Familiarity with Catholic Social Teaching
The second survey, conducted in 2022 in the Archdiocese of New Orleans, aimed to gauge the level of familiarity with Catholic social teaching among laypeople, deacons, priests, vowed religious men and women, and seminarians. The survey received 812 responses, and the majority of respondents in all categories stated that they were familiar with Catholic social teaching and believed it influenced their faith and how they lived. However, the extent to which respondents fully understood the teaching was uncertain.
Interestingly, the survey revealed that Catholic social teaching was not regularly featured in the Masses attended by the respondents. When asked if Catholic social teaching was a regular feature of the Masses and parish life beyond Mass, the majority of respondents answered negatively. This lack of emphasis on the church’s social doctrine in the parish setting could result in a purely theoretical understanding of the teaching, without practical application in daily life.
Overlooked Themes and Recommendations
The surveys also highlighted the themes of Catholic social teaching that tend to be overlooked in the church today. The dignity of work and the rights of workers were identified as the most neglected themes. This emphasizes the need for greater attention to be given to these areas in order to fully embody the principles of Catholic social teaching.
The executive summary of the report included several recommendations to address these issues. Firstly, the Church should be attentive to the neglected themes of Catholic social teaching and the challenges they pose personally, ecclesially, and socially. Secondly, the faithful should avoid politically charged language and instead use more theologically informed language when discussing Catholic social teaching. Lastly, the report emphasized the need to integrate Catholic social teaching into all aspects of parish life and worship, as it is integral to the Christian faith.
The Role of Catholic Social Teaching in Young People’s Lives
Archbishop Gregory M. Aymond of New Orleans acknowledged the importance of Catholic social teaching in the lives of young people and expressed gratitude for the report’s contribution to raising awareness of this teaching. The report’s author, Thomas Ryan, believes that a stronger emphasis on Catholic social teaching could help draw nonpracticing Catholic youth and young adults back to the Church and empower them to evangelize others.
Ryan sees the report as an invitation for all Catholics to continue their journey towards understanding and living out Catholic social teaching. He believes that Catholic social teaching can contribute to the formation of all the faithful as missionary disciples, who are sent out into the world to spread the Gospel. By integrating this teaching into the sacramental life, faith formation, and communal life of the Church, Catholics can fully embrace their faith and its social implications.
Catholic social teaching is a vital aspect of the Catholic Church’s mission to build a just society and live lives of holiness. However, the lack of emphasis on this teaching in parishes and the reduction in diocesan positions dedicated to social action pose challenges to its dissemination. The report from the Loyola Institute for Ministry highlights these issues and provides recommendations for addressing them.
By recognizing the importance of Catholic social teaching and integrating it into all aspects of parish life and worship, the Church can ensure that its social doctrine is not just a theoretical concept but a lived reality. This teaching has the potential to inspire young people, draw them back to the Church, and empower them to make a positive impact on the world. With a renewed focus on Catholic social teaching, the Church can fulfill its mission to promote justice and serve those in need.