Rights and Responsibilities and the Option for the Poor

This past Sunday at Sacred Heart we offered the second installment of the series on the Seven Principles of Catholic Social Teaching. The gospel we proclaimed was the second part of the scene of Jesus in the synagogue in Nazareth. Very early on his ministry, Jesus upsets those gathered in the synagogue. Why? He has preached about widows, lepers and foreigners. He has reminded his people that God and His prophets showed a preference for the marginalized and the foreigners, that in so many ways the Law declared impure. In modern terms, Jesus is calling the people in the synagogue, and the religious people of all times, to social responsibility. What a great gospel text to continue our series on Catholic Social Teaching.

As we reviewed last week, we believe that any human being is sacred, but also social. We believe the only way to achieve a society where anybody can grow and live up to his or her full human potential is if human rights are protected, realizing that we have a responsibility towards the rights of others. In other words, your rights become my responsibility. Rights meeting responsibilities is the only way to achieve the common good.

Numerous social doctrinal documents have provided lists of human rights. I would like to offer the list Saint John XXIII proposed in Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth, 1963): “Human beings have the right to live. They have the right to bodily integrity and to the means necessary for the proper development of life, particularly food, clothing, shelter, education, medical care, rest, and, finally, the necessary social services.” The emphasis on the proper development of life is mine.

The fifth principle is the (preferential) Option for the Poor and Vulnerable. We are responsible for each other, for our families, and for society at large, but we are especially responsible for the poor and the most vulnerable in society. The test of the moral goodness of our society is not how we treat the wealthy, or even the average middle-class person, but how the poor fare in it. While we have to look with optimism at the improvement of the poverty data around the world, these figures are still very somber. As depressing as this can be, we can begin to fight poverty by being aware of its dimension. Let me share some figures:

  • More than 3 billion people in the world live on less than $2.50 a day.
  • More than 1.3 billion live in extreme poverty— less than $1.25 a day.
  • One billion children worldwide are living in poverty.
  • 22,000 children die each day due to poverty around the world.

Closer to home:

  • 12.3% of Americans live in poverty—and this percentage does not change much, regardless of whether we have a Republican or a Democrat in the White House.
  • About 15 million children in the United States – 21% of all children – live in families with incomes below the federal poverty threshold (which is calculated as income depending on number of people in a household. At this point, it is an income of $25,000 for a family of four, for instance.)
  • 32.5% of Racine residents live under poverty level.

Again, learning about these figures feels like a punch in the stomach. We have to be reminded that we do not believe in “social idealism.” We Christians believe that we can really transform society. Jesus exercises prophecy in the synagogue: he denounces the present, but he also offers a vision for a better future. I believe there is a lot we can do to change many things, and we can start by acknowledging our ability to change the world.

the spirit of the lord 16.9






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