Social Justice and the Witness of the Saints

An interview with Brandon Vogt, whose new book examines Catholic social teaching through the lives and witness of fourteen Blesseds and Saints

“Catholic social teaching has explosive power for changing not just individuals, but whole societies. And it’s the saints who light the fuse,” writes Brandon Vogt, author of Saints and Social Justice (Our Sunday Visitor, 2014). In this newly released book, Vogt introduces us to saints both familiar and unfamiliar and demonstrates how their lives offer a living model to putting the Church’s social teaching in action. He spoke with Catholic World Report recently about the true meaning of “social justice” and how it can be better learned and lived today.

CWR: The phrase “social justice” is often lambasted by those on the political right and misused by those on the left. How might Catholic Social Teaching and the lives of the saints help us rescue the phrase in a way that gives it new life and applicability rather than just contributing to polarization?

Brandon Vogt: The saints perennially revive Catholic social teaching because they embody it. As Charles Fell noted, “The lives of the saints are nothing less than the law of God reduced to practice.” We can argue all day about definitions, motivations, and political intentions, but we can’t argue with the saints. Their witness silences our disputes and lifts us from disputation to imitation.

CWR: How does Blessed Mother Teresa’s understanding of the Eucharist provide a concrete way to understand the often-abstract principles of Catholic Social Teaching?

Vogt: For Blessed Teresa, as for other saints, Catholic social teaching flows from the Eucharist. That’s because in the Eucharist we encounter Christ. Mother Teresa’s favorite Scripture passage was Matthew 25, where Jesus identifies himself with the poor, the hungry, and the marginalized. In that passage, Christ doesn’t say, “When you help people in need you make me happy because they’re my friends.” Instead, he reveals, “When you help the least of my brothers and sisters, you help me.”

Mother knew that to serve Christ in the poor was to meet Christ in the poor. But we have to develop that capacity; our eyes are not naturally prepared to detect Jesus in the streets. And that’s where the Eucharist helps. “If we recognize Jesus under the appearance of bread,” she explained, “we will have no difficulty recognizing him in the disguise of the suffering poor.” This is what enabled her to say, “I have an opportunity to be with Jesus 24 hours a day.” Whether in the chapel or the slums, the pew or the hospital, she recognized the Lord everywhere because she trained her vision each morning at the altar.

CWR: “Behind almost every saint is a holy family,” you note. What role does the family play in contributing to early Christian formation and the practice of social justice?

Vogt: The Catechism answers this beautifully: “The home is the first school of Christian life and ‘a school for human enrichment.’ Here one learns endurance and the joy of work, fraternal love, generous—even repeated—forgiveness.” It later adds, “The family is the community in which, from childhood, one can learn moral values, begin to honor God, and make good use of freedom. Family life is an initiation into life in society.”

The family is the basic cell of social life. That’s why John Paul II boldly proclaimed, “As the family goes, so goes the nation, and so goes the whole world in which we live.”

Catholic social teaching begins with, and depends on, the family.

CWR: You introduce us to individuals such as Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati and St. Frances of Rome whose lives exemplify the need for a public witness of our personal faith. What are some practical ways in which we can follow their example today?

Vogt: Perhaps their most imitable example is being laypeople who profoundly impacted the world. It’s easy to think, “Well, yeah, if I was Mother Teresa and I could afford to devote all my time and energy to serving people in the street, I would make a big impact, too. But I can’t! I have a job, a family, bills to pay, commitments to meet. How can I make a difference?” 

These lay saints provide an answer. They show that anyone, in any state of life, can apply these social principles and institute lasting change, both in society and in their souls.

CWR: The legacy of St. Roque Gonzalez from Paraguay is particularly helpful in evidencing what it means to love our oppressors—but also to win them over to the right side of truth and justice. How might we benefit from this witness at a time of increased religious persecution for Christians around the globe? 

Vogt: The more I meditate on Jesus’ command to “love our neighbors,” the more I’m struck by its brilliance. This command of course engenders virtue within our own souls. But it’s also a practical strategy to win people to the truth. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said (and exemplified): “Love has within it a redemptive power. And there is a power there that eventually transforms individuals.”

Look at Christ crucified. His words of forgiveness on the Cross (“Father, forgive them for they know not what they do…”) impressed and converted the Good Thief, and possibly others, including the centurion. Look at martyrs like St. Stephen, St. Thomas More, and St. Maria Goretti whose dying forgiveness helped convert their persecutors.

The proper and most powerful response to persecution is always love and forgiveness. Martin Luther King, Jr. articulated this better than almost anyone in his famous sermon, “Loving Your Enemies”:

“You just keep loving people, even though they’re mistreating you…Just keep being friendly to that person. Keep loving them. Don’t do anything to embarrass them. Just keep loving them, and they can’t stand it too long. Oh, they react in many ways in the beginning. They react with bitterness because they’re mad because you love them like that. They react with guilt feelings, and sometimes they’ll hate you a little more at that transition period, but just keep loving them. And by the power of your love they will break down under the load. That’s love, you see. It is redemptive, and this is why Jesus says love. There’s something about love that builds up and is creative. There is something about hate that tears down and is destructive. So love your enemies.”

CWR: You offer some humorous anecdotes that reveal St. Thomas More to be a man of good cheer and wit, even in the fact of persecution. How are we to be happy warriors today? And who are some other examples of happy warriors whose own lives and Christian witness embody this ideal? 

Vogt: G. K. Chesterton once said the reason angels can fly is because they take themselves lightly. That applies to saints, too. The reason they sail to heroic virtue is because they’re not weighed down by excessive solemnity.

We have several examples here, including Teresa of Avila, Dorothy Day, Chesterton, Fulton Sheen, John XXIII, John Paul II, and even Pope Francis, all of whom lived the faith as “happy warriors.” One particular story from Mother Teresa comes to mind. She once found a starving boy on the street and carried him into a bakery. However, when she asked the baker for a piece of bread to feed the boy, he spat right in her face. Wiping the saliva aside, she said with a sly smile, “Thank you for that gift for me, now perhaps something for the child?”

That subversive wit, which creatively exposes cruelty and injustice, is characteristic of all “happy saints.”

CWR: How does the life of St. Vincent de Paul help us to not only care about the poor, but to know them, as well?

Vogt: Shane Claiborne, an Evangelical activist, recently observed, “The great tragedy in the church is not that rich Christians do not care about the poor but that rich Christians do not know the poor.” St. Vincent de Paul knew this in his bones. That’s why in 1617, as a parish priest, he started the “Servants of the Poor” (later the “Ladies of Charity”.) This all-women group adopted poor families in the parish and regularly checked in on them personally, ensuring that their needs were met. They didn’t just hand out food or money. They visited the families, listened to them, and inquired about their spiritual needs.

Later, this model was adopted by Bl. Frédéric Ozanam, who co-founded the St. Vincent de Paul Society. Present now in thousands of Catholic parishes around the world, the society serves poor people through hands-on charity, requiring its members to visit the poor in person. Ozanam favored this model because it established reciprocity in which each side can help the other.

CWR: Cardinal Timothy Dolan has called Dorothy Day a “saint for our time.” Within and outside the Church she seems to be loved by those of all political stripes. How might her life be a means of helping us get past the divide between so-called “life-issues” Catholics and “peace and justice” Catholics?

Vogt: I agree with Cardinal Dolan, and also with his observation that, “Dorothy Day exemplifies what’s best in Catholic life, that ability we have to be ‘both-and’ not ‘either-or.’” Dorothy keenly understood that to be Catholic means embracing all of the Church’s teaching. It means promoting the dignity of life (which explains why she vociferously denounced abortion and contraception) as well as peace, work, and concern for the poor (which explains her Catholic Worker newspaper and houses of hospitality.)

For Day, the so-called “life issues” were “peace and justice” issues, and vice versa. She stood with Mother Teresa who once said, “Abortion is the greatest threat to peace in the world.” You want peace and justice? Honor the dignity of life, from womb to tomb. You want to curb abortion and euthanasia? Fight against poverty and social injustice.

All threats to a just and flourishing society are interconnected and Day stood against them all. She followed God’s categories of justice, not the world’s. She remains a bridge between the left and right because her focus was upwards, not sideways.

CWR: In this age of mass consumption, what can we learn from St. Giles about stewardship?

Vogt: This little-known seventh century saint, who was new to me before the book, lived an idyllic—in some ways, Edenic—sort of life. He eschewed riches, castles, and property in order to live in the forest, caring for animals and protecting the land.

Perhaps his greatest lesson is that the environment is a gift from God meant to be shared and cultivated. Most people in his day saw property as a means to an end, something to be owned, exploited, and left as an inheritance—in other words, a vehicle for wealth. And they also saw animals as sources of labor or as menu items for their next feast.

But Giles undermined this view through his radical witness. He suggested that while humans have dominion over the earth, and while animals can provide sustenance and support, neither should be exploited excessively. We’re to respect creation and steward it.

CWR: Finally, Pope Francis has done a tremendous job of publicly proclaiming our obligation to participate in social justice efforts in the world around us? What are some practical ways that local families and parishes can take his words and put them into action in our local communities?  

Vogt: I think the Pope’s key lesson, and it’s one we see again and again through the saints, is to comply with the immediate demand of love. In other words, look at the person or opportunity in front of you now, in this moment, and ask, “What is the demand of love? How can I inculcate more peace or justice in this encounter?” For Pope Francis, that sometimes means reaching out to hug a disabled child or phoning a distressed mother who lost her son. Other times it means calling out injustice or standing for unpopular principles.

For us, that might mean conversing with the homeless man outside the gas station instead of passing him by, unnoticed. It might mean donating a few dollars to a friend in need, or volunteering as a family once a month at a local food kitchen. Or it might mean addressing institutional problems by becoming politically active.

Whatever the case, we should never become crushed under the overwhelming burden of “fixing the whole world.” We should instead follow Mother Teresa’s advice, and focus on the small, immediate opportunities God has put in front of us:

“I never look at the masses as my responsibility; I look at the individual. I can only love one person at a time—just one, one, one. So you begin. I began—I picked up one person. Maybe if I didn’t pick up that one person, I wouldn’t have picked up forty-two thousand….The same thing goes for you, the same thing in your family, the same thing in your church, your community. Just begin—one, one, one.”

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About Christopher White 0 Articles
Christopher White is director of Catholic Voices USA.