A Quest for Peace and Justice
For a long time, many Catholic thinkers called for greater Catholic involvement in issues of peace, justice, and human rights. Jacques Maritain, a French theologist exiled to the United States during World War II, urged the Church to play a larger role in the political world. He saw God as a prime source of natural law and saw working for human rights as part of the natural order for man. Emmanuel Mounier, an influential Catholic thinker of the first half of the twentieth century, criticized the capitalist system, particularly American interests, and called on priests to ally themselves with workers.
Vatican II set the Church's path to creating the conditions for Christ's reign on earth. It would seek salvation for its members, not only through their faith, but through their human development. Many of the papal encyclicals of the last thirty years have emphasized this course of action — urging Catholics to temper their drive for material gain and work toward justice for all.
Since the late 1970s, when U.S. Supreme Court decisions led to the resumption of executions in many U.S. states, the nation's Catholic bishops have shown strong opposition to the death penalty. The bishops' position is that, “in the conditions of contemporary American society, the legitimate purposes of punishment do not justify the imposition of the death penalty.”
A group of clerics from Peru, Uruguay, and Brazil, Latin American countries with a dramatic gap between rich and poor, developed liberation theology in the 1970s. Liberation theology sees the Word of God mediated through the poor and oppressed. Only by participating in the struggles of these people can Christians truly understand the message of the Gospels. This theology was embraced by many priests in Latin America and led to their support of trade union movements, political struggles, and protests that aided the poor.
Not all priests of Latin America embraced liberation theology; some retained their traditional ties to the power elite of these countries. They confined themselves to the more usual charity work: serving in soup kitchens, educating the young, and working with poor families. However, others took the more radical approach, despite the threats and the danger. Many of the clergy who were active in the fight to improve the conditions of the poor became victims of right-wing death squads, including Oscar Romero, archbishop of El Salvador. These courageous people did not die in vain; their deaths helped galvanize support among Catholics interested in human rights all over the world.
There are charities devoted to peacemaking, both internationally and within specific communities. Development and Peace, an international Catholic organization, works in war-ravaged areas such as Afghanistan, East Timor, and the Congo. The U.S. bishops issued a Call to Solidarity with Africa to focus attention on the problems of the continent and have also made statements on Israeli-Palestinian violence. The Catholic Campaign for Human Development is conducting an awareness campaign about poverty in America.A Whole People of God
The role of the individual Catholic is to devote time and money to these causes. A portion of church tithes is offered to some charities, while others fund-raise separately. Good works are part of the requirement of Catholic life, and a route to unity with Jesus. For the most motivated, there is the opportunity to work for justice and equality on a political stage.
This obligation to give comes back to message of the Gospels. Jesus tells us to treat our neighbors as we ourselves would like to be treated. The Church holds this message in mind as it lobbies in political forums, publishes encyclicals, and sends its charities out to work in the world. The Church recognizes that this is a time of crisis, when there is rapid change in every area. It seeks the unity of humankind through both a union of the spirit and the cultivation of equality for all people.