Column #045. First published in the St. Cloud Times Apr. 26, 2011
In 1985 John F. Kinney, then Bishop of Bismarck, did something that I believe no bishop had ever done before in the two millennia of Christian history. He wrote a pastoral letter addressed to the young people of his diocese: “Come and See/You Have a Place.” Church leaders often talk about the young. Kinney decided to speak to them, and, even better, to listen to them.
Now, a quarter-century later, and in St. Cloud where he has been bishop since 1995, he has issued a more traditional pastoral letter, “So you also should do,” following on one he wrote in 1998, “As I have done for you” (the titles from what Jesus says in John 13:15 after he has washed the disciples’ feet).
This new document again shows Bishop Kinney alert to changing social realities and how Catholic teaching relates to them. He listens before he pronounces. The letter has many references to activities and persons in the diocese’s parishes, and because the bishop wants to build a better world informed by spiritual principles, his letter is a source of wisdom for us all.
Catholic social teaching has seven foundational themes: 1) Life and dignity of the human person; 2) the call to family, community and participation; 3) rights and responsibilities; 4) dignity of work and the rights of workers; 5) option for the poor and vulnerable; 6) solidarity; and 7) care for God’s creation. Bishop Kinney shows how these themes are intimately linked to one another.
Right now, numbers 4 and 5 relate to issues that are convulsing our society.
Introducing theme 4, Bishop Kinney says that “struggles of workers in the late 19th century led to the articulation of modern Catholic social teaching.” Among the rights of workers is “a wage sufficient to permit the worker and his or her family to live a dignified life—to be able to afford adequate food, housing, health care, and education among other basic necessities.” He notes that the current minimum wage does not provide a livable income.
And “one of the means available to workers for securing just wages and other rights related to employment is the labor union.” Indeed, Pope John Paul II referred to unions as an “indispensable element of social life.” Current legislative attacks in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and elsewhere on the right to collective bargaining are directly counter to this papal teaching.
The poor and vulnerable among us are in the crosshairs of legislation in both Minnesota and the nation. Theme 5, the option for such people, means we need to be charitable, of course, but Catholic social teaching does not stop there. “It also requires that we bring about changes in our society—in social and economic institutions, laws, public policies—that will make it easier for people to move out of poverty.”
The bishop declares forthrightly the political implications of the option for the poor: “It means that we support legislation, as well as programs and public policy changes, that is of particular benefit to those who are most in need, even when these changes might not benefit ourselves.” The totally autonomous individual is ruled out: “Ownership of private property must never be regarded as an absolute right.”
In a section entitled “What parishes can do,” Bishop Kinney does not slip into abstractions. Instead, he issues a challenge—to his flock, to be sure, but everyone should pay heed. “Unjust wages, lack of health care, inaccessible child care, unjust immigration laws, discrimination, unfair farm prices and policies, unaffordable housing, policies that disrupt family life and security—these and many other wrongs must be confronted on a policy level.” Earlier in the letter he had referred to “the political process and our own responsibility to be active, informed voters.”
Echoing his pastoral letter to youth in Bismarck, Bishop Kinney in the conclusion addresses young people: “Your Church is not focused only on rules, obligations, and warnings against various behaviors. Your Church is especially concerned about building a better world.”
The whole St. Cloud area will be well served if this “special concern” moves front and center. Bishop Kinney’s brilliant pastoral letter is true to the whole sweep of Catholic insight into the renewal of human community.