Showing Respect Through Catholic Social Teaching

Many or most of us were taught to respect other people.  Give an elder your seat on the bus.  Open the door for the mother with the stroller.  I know I was taught these things.  And I don’t remember being taught that Black elders didn’t deserve respect.  But that was many, many years ago and I was a child so I might have missed those times when my relatives disrespected Blacks.  My grandmother, whom I loved dearly, was born around 1898 on the Eastern Shore of Maryland – farmland.  I know she had prejudices that she passed on to me, but I never saw her disrespect the Blacks that worked for her in her florist shop or home.  Maybe because I had the eyes of a child’s love for a grandparent, I couldn’t see the times that Blacks were considered less than.  Exploited for being Black.  Not seeing her white privilege in the neighborhood we lived in versus the projects her workers lived in.  Catholic Social Teaching was just being expressed near when my Grandmother was born.  That, coupled with the fact that she was not Catholic meant that she did not have access to this way of viewing the world.  She did what she thought was right.  But, we Catholics in 21st Century America DO have the benefit of this teaching.  So, let’s look at Catholic Social Teaching and its relationship to respecting Black lives.

What does Catholic Social Teaching have to do with respecting others, especially minorities?  Well, if you take the teachings seriously, you will see that the Church teaches that all peoples are created in God’s image and likeness.  It doesn’t differentiate non-white people as less than imago Dei.  So, as you would treat Jesus, you should also treat others.

Nearly one hundred years after my Grandmother was born, the US Catholic Bishops published Communities of Salt and Light.  In it they boldly state  “The Church teaches that social justice is an integral part of evangelization, a constitutive dimension of preaching the Gospel, and an essential part of the Church’s mission” (U.S. bishops, Communities of Salt and Light, 1993). [i]  Many argue that CST is still a very well kept secret, and many more today say it is socialist but what it is, is humane.

In the US, the USCCB articulated 7 principles of Catholic Social Teaching [ii] from their study of the body of teaching that began in the late 19th century (other conferences may have 10 principles).  Today we’re concerned with two of them:  The life and dignity of the human person and the rights and responsibilities of humans and society.

Human Dignity
In a world warped by materialism and declining respect for human life, the Catholic Church proclaims that human life is sacred and that the dignity of the person is the foundation of a moral vision for society. Our belief in the sanctity of human life and the inherent dignity of the human person is the foundation of all the principles of our social teaching.  

Rights and Responsibilities
Catholic tradition teaches that human dignity can be protected and a healthy community can be achieved only if human rights are protected, and responsibilities are met. Therefore, every person has a fundamental right to life and a right to those things required for human decency (italics mine). Corresponding to these rights are duties and responsibilities — to one another, to our families, and to the larger society. 

“Catholic social teaching is based on and inseparable from our understanding of human life and human dignity.  Every human being is created in the image of God and redeemed by Jesus Christ and therefore is invaluable and worthy of respect as a member of the human family.” [iii]

Note that Catholic Social Teaching does not distinguish between human beings or race or hair color or ethnicity or country.  This is what God intends for all God’s people, ALL God’s people.

The rights, and therefore the respect guaranteed to white Americans by both government and culture were denied Blacks.  They were denied the very right to life by lynching, denied the dignity of work through slavery, denied their very humanity by being treated as property.  Generations of handing down “proper” behaviors to exist in a white ruled world has resulted in what Dr. Joy Degruy terms Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome.  PTSS is a “condition that exists when a population has experienced multigenerational trauma resulting from centuries of slavery and continues to experience oppression and institutionalized racism today.  Add to this condition is the belief (real or imagined) that the benefits of the society in which they live are not accessible to them.” [iv]  

My Grandmother must have thought she was showing respect to her Black employees.  I don’t know.  But living these principles concretely IS showing respect…grounded in God’s view of His beloved creation, humankind.  My Grandmother didn’t know what she didn’t know. We DO.  And that means now that we know, we must confront our sin, repent, and then determine what gives evidence to that repentance:  restitution, reparations, changes in laws, systems and structures, doing the work to be “woke”, not expecting PTSS to be suddenly gone because we white folks are awakening.  That’s showing respect.  And the question for the American Catholic Church, overwhelmingly white, is can we do it?  Who will lead us?


[i]  Communities of Salt and Light: Reflections on the Social Mission of the Parish | USCCB  2015
[ii]  Seven Themes of Catholic Social Teaching | USCCB  1993
[iii]  Sharing Catholic Social Teaching: Challenges and Directions | USCCB  2011
[iv]  Degruy, Dr. Joy.  Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome.  Joy Degruy Publications, Inc. 2017.  Page 105.


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As I write this, it’s just under a month until the first phase of the Church’s Synod on the process of synodality is to begin.