Many of us, including many non-Catholics, remember Pope John XXIII as “good Pope John” — a man who committed himself to world peace and international justice.
But in talking about peace, John always began with the dignity and rights of the individual human person, and the importance of the common good.
Peace in the world begins in our own personal actions. It begins in public forums like the Pennsylvania state legislature. We can’t build justice in foreign countries if we ignore it here at home. And we can’t protect our personal dignity and rights unless we defend the dignity and rights of the weakest in our own society.
Pope John reminded us that “the whole reason for the existence of civil authorities” is to serve the common good, with a special preference for the poor. He taught us that the common good includes the needs of the whole human person — both body and soul.
The common good means the right to food and shelter, rest, medical care and the necessary social services, especially for the poor. It means the right to decent working conditions, and decent pay for work done.
It means the right to basic economic security for widows, the disabled, the elderly and the unemployed. It means special protection for marriage, children and the family, with real equality for men and women.
It also means the right to life of the sick, the dying, the unwanted and the unborn child — because the right to life is the foundation of every other human right. Without a right to life, every other right is contingent and inevitably begins to erode.
These are the goals of every Catholic social ministry. When the Church tells us to have a “preferential option for the poor,” Catholics need to live it — and we do live it here in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia though our inner-city schools, our work with the homeless and developmentally disabled, and our immigration, youth and family services.
No one, anywhere, anytime, is more committed to the common good than Christians who believe sincerely in the Gospel and then let their faith guide their actions.
Churches obviously can’t build a just society alone. Neither can synagogues or volunteers or private charities. We need government to cooperate by doing its rightful job with laws that defend the weak, and with the money, personnel and other resources to ensure a life of basic dignity for all people.
We also need government to do this with a spirit of humility and mutual respect — in other words, without trying to bully Catholic ministries and social services into betraying their moral principles, or coercing them out of the public square.
Anyone who knows the Epistle of James knows that faith without works is dead. Words without deeds are empty. As Catholics, we need to prove our good intentions by the actions we take, both personally and through our public institutions. That means we need public policies that defend human dignity from conception, through childhood and adulthood, to natural death.
Here’s my point: 2012 is another election year. Our home is heaven, but to get there we need to live our daily lives, including our citizenship, in a way that witnesses our love for Jesus Christ and serves the needs of God’s people.
We need to take an active role in the public conversation about our country’s direction, especially when some of our current national leaders seem so indifferent — or even hostile — to real religious liberty.
Our religious faith is a part of real pluralism. Our faith serves the common good not just through Catholic charitable works and all of our social ministries, but also by morally informing how we vote for public officials and the demands for justice that we place on them.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said that, “I’m always puzzled about which Bible people are reading when they say that religion and politics don’t mix.”
People who believe in Jesus Christ need to demand of both political parties a real commitment to human dignity — always starting with the unborn child but never ending there; always starting with the unborn child, but always including the poor, the hungry, the jobless and the immigrant.
That’s the nature of authentic Christian witness. That’s our Catholic service to the common good.
And when our public institutions begin to support that vision of the common good with the money, personnel and resources to make it real — that’s when our state, our nation and the world will begin to understand what “good Pope John” meant by peace.