I recently had the wonderful opportunity to attend the Religious Education Congress, an annual gathering of about 40,000 Catholics who come from all over the country and descend upon Anaheim, California. The event has grown from a conference aimed at religious education instructors to one that has something for everyone: social justice, meditation, spiritual practice, theology, and dance and song.
It was at this conference last month that my commitment to Catholic Social Teaching (CST) became more than just an abstract, general notion of “respecting the dignity of all people”—something that sounds good and makes you feel good when you talk about it. I realized the values that underlie CST are meant to be lived out in practical terms: we must see the inherent goodness and inherent dignity in everyone.
That is a life-changing realization, as it now compels me to do more than I have in the past. It compels me to go beyond attending conferences, monthly diocesan social justice meetings, and Mass on Sundays; in other words, to go beyond being just a passive receptor of information and inspiration.
I am a convert to Catholicism; one of its main attractions was CST, which some adherents call the Church’s best kept secret. CST’s core teaching is that the human person, being made in the image of God, has an inherent dignity and therefore a right to life at all stages, from conception to natural death. In support of this core teaching, CST also teaches us that every person is entitled to certain basic goods that work to uphold his or her dignity and support his or her right to life. These goods include (but are not limited to) food, health care, housing, employment, fair pay, and clean water.
Therefore, providing for the common good, for the well-being of all—especially the poor and vulnerable—is also at the heart of CST. Politically this means supporting policies that ensure people have those basic goods that uphold their dignity and right to life. Further, policies that promote peace and a chance for all to participate in the community also uphold the inherent dignity of the human person and the right to life.
This all makes perfect sense, on both an intellectual and intuitive level. I did my RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults, aka the one to two years of classes and masses that adults have to go through to become Catholic) 20 years ago at that rare church in Las Vegas with a priest who lived and breathed social justice. CST was at the center of most of our weekly discussions. Last month, however, the teachings took on real substance, real meaning. Several speakers at the Anaheim conference opened my eyes to the true meaning of the truths behind the social teachings of the church.
One of these speakers was Sister Helen Prejean. I’ve heard Sister Helen speak many times; she is an incredibly human, compassionate, and dedicated person. She is a gifted storyteller, so hearing the same stories over and over ends up being a different experience each time she tells them. She also has the ability to inject humor into her talks, even while discussing horrible crimes; the horrible conditions that death row inmates and all other prisoners endure; and the horrible court procedures that condemn innocent people to death.
After recounting stories about death row inmates that she has counseled right up until their executions, including details about their crimes, Sister Helen reminded us that, despite their crimes, these were still “children of God,” and, as such, each had inherent human dignity.
She posed the question, “Where is the dignity in the death of Patrick?” (the death row inmate on whom her book Dead Man Walking is based). Even those who have “committed a horrible crime should not have their dignity taken from them.” When we concentrate on the crime of the death row defendant, we make it easier to put to death “a monster” rather than a human being. It is this defining of a person by his or her crime, the dehumanization of those incarcerated, that allows us to turn our back on the humanity of the imprisoned. Those in prison are more than their crimes, Sister Helen said, and they want to be seen as more than their crime.
Two other crucial speakers were Javier Stauring, a former gang member who is now working to create peace in areas dominated by gangs, and Father Greg Boyle, who started Homeboy Ministries in Los Angeles to provide gang members with positive alternatives to crime. Stauring spoke of seeing each person’s humanity regardless of their background. “I don’t believe that people are their worst mistakes,” Stauring said. He encouraged listeners to “be there for someone going through a challenge;” to look beyond their crime, their addiction, or their appearance, and give them “space to tell the stories of their pain.” In other words, to speak of who they really are.
Father Greg spoke on a similar theme, telling us how the young men and women he works with are so much more than their past. Quoting from South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Father Greg commented that there are “monstrous acts, not monsters.” He added, in his own words, “There are no evil doers….only human beings who carry more than the rest of us.”
The final crucial speaker was Sister Kathleen Bryant, who works with women who have lived through the experience of sex trafficking. Sister Kathleen reminded her audience that sex trafficking survivors want desperately to be seen as more than victims of this terrible trade. At the conference, two survivors told stories of how they fell victim to sex traffickers, how long it took for them to make it out, how people never saw or heard them, and how they suffered the bias and rejection commonly experienced by many sex trafficked survivors. They were unseen, and when they finally got out, they struggled—even in churches—for acceptance as someone other than a person defined by a painful past. “Survivors are more than survivors,” said one.
Walking out of that session with Sister Kathleen, I realized that over the period of a couple of days I had listened to three different presentations that had all spoken with one voice. CST focuses on the inherent dignity of the individual. Human dignity remains intact in spite of people’s decisions, actions, the tragedies they fall victim to; it transcends all these things.
To protect everyone’s human dignity, the church calls for us to advocate for the common good and especially for the poor and vulnerable. Sister Helen, Javier Stauring, Father Boyle, and Sister Kathleen and the women who spoke along with her all reminded us that the Gospel preaches care for the poor and the oppressed—a message that Pope Francis has taken up. I thought of how the “victims,” or “survivors” of incarceration, gangs, and sex trafficking all called for the same things: education, jobs, and a way out of the poverty that works to suck them back into their former situations. Those things that we are called to advocate for, as they are essential to human dignity.
The central need is to see the human person, not the crime, the action, or the victim. We can so easily assign a person an adjective, as opposed to assigning the adjective merely to their actions. This is misguided, though. People are so much more than their circumstances. If I can do the hard work of seeing this about people, then it follows that all people, no matter what they have done or where they have been, have the same right to life that human dignity dictates, from conception to natural death.
I am still trying to discern my path to living out CST in more practical terms. But whether I am called to speaking out publicly wherever and whenever the need arises, to write about the systemic problems that result in so many torn lives, or to work directly with survivors, I know the way forward is no longer as a bystander.
A version of this piece previously appeared on the blog of Consistent Life (http://www.consistent-life.org/blog).