Newman Center speaker explores social justice, Catholic identity


Pope Francis is prone to speeding up the tempo of the metered prose known as Catholic social teaching.

He refers to those who put that teaching into practice with their work and action as “social action poets.”

“You are social poets, because you have the ability and the courage to create hope where there appears to be only waste and exclusion,” the pope said last October at a gathering of Catholics committed to putting their faith into practice.

“Poetry means creativity, and you create hope,” he said. “With your hands you know how to shape the dignity of each person, of families and of society as a whole, with land, housing, work, care and community.”

Marie Kenyon, director of the Office of Peace and Justice of the St. Louis archdiocese, used the pope’s metaphor as a springboard into an explanation of Catholic social teaching Sept. 15 in the St. Thomas More Newman Center Chapel in Columbia.

Her topic was: “Forming ‘Social Poets’ in Your Parish: Living Catholic Social Teaching in Meter and Meaning.”

“The main reason we do these things is because we are Catholic,” she stated. “We do it because Jesus made it very clear that it’s what He expects us to do.”

“Matthew 25 scares the heck out of me,” said Ms. Kenyon, referring to Jesus’s warning that the Last Judgement will be based on what people did and did not do for the least among them.

She noted that conversations about Catholics’ incumbent obligations to the poor and marginalized are difficult and uncomfortable.

“People want to come to church and hear, ‘Baby Jesus wants to love you,’ not, ‘Adult Jesus has requirements of you,’” she said.

“Follow Me”

Ms. Kenyon was the inaugural speaker for the Martha Trauth Social Justice Education Endowment’s annual speaker series on Catholic social teaching.

The seed money for the endowment is a gift from the family on behalf of their beloved mother and St. Thomas More Newman Center parishioner Martha Trauth, who died in 2020 at age 103.

Catholic social teaching refers to the body of Church instruction, including Sacred Scripture, the natural law and centuries of insights from learned people, focused on applying God’s revelation to everyday life and modern reality.

As St. Thomas More Newman Center parishioner Ruth O’Neill stated in her introductory remarks: “When Jesus said, ‘Follow Me,’ He was saying, ‘Do what I do while you’re following Me.’”

Father Daniel Merz, pastor of St. Thomas More Newman Center Parish, opened the discussion with a prayer:

“We thank You for this great gift, this great teaching. We know that You are a God of justice. ... Open our minds and warm our hearts so that the teaching that You have given may be diffused a little more clearly and beautifully and strongly in our lives, in our parish and in our Church.”

“Who we are”

Ms. Kenyon served in the Peace Corps before studying law and completing a juris doctorate at the Saint Louis University School of Law in St. Louis.

She served as founding attorney for the Catholic Legal Assistance Ministry in St. Louis until 2015, when Archbishop Robert J. Carlson, now retired, appointed her to lead the archdiocese’s newly-reconvened Peace and Justice Commission.

The commission later became an archdiocesan office, along with the Office of Racial Harmony.

The purpose for both is to help parishes find useful ways to apply Church teaching to the challenges facing society, especially families and people who are routinely forgotten.

“So the question that I’m here to talk about tonight is: ‘Why is social justice so important? Why do we as Catholics, need to be involved in this?’” she said.

Her answer: “It’s who we are. It defines who we are as Catholics.”

She cited Jesus’s parable of the rich man and the leper at his door (Luke 16:19-31).

Jesus speaks of a rich man living in luxury while Lazarus, a beggar with leprosy living outside the rich man’s home, is starving and longs to eat the scraps from the rich man’s table.

When both men die, the beggar is taken up into the bosom of Abraham, and the rich man is banished to the fiery netherworld, where he carries on a conversation with Abraham across an impassable void.

“What upsets Abraham the most is, the rich man knew who Lazarus was,” said Ms. Kenyon. “He knew him by name. He recognized him at his door. And he ignored him.”

“My take on this is this: We are not allowed to ignore the poor and call ourselves Catholics,” she stated.

“And that applies to everybody on the margins — people who are being discriminated against, those who are incarcerated, people who we have just forgotten about.”

“A thorn in my heart”

Ms. Kenyon noted that Pope Francis has been making this abundantly clear since accepting the papacy nine years ago.

“He’s had more of an impact on the Church’s social mission than any other modern pope,” she stated, “beginning with his first pastoral visit.”

That visit was to an island called Lampedusa, located off the coast of Sicily and about 70 miles off the coast of North Africa.

“It’s the doorway to Europe,” said Ms. Kenyon. “Anyone trying to leave North Africa gets in one of these little boats and goes to Lampedusa.”

Shortly before Pope Francis’s papacy began, about 200 people were attempting to cross that stretch in a rickety boat that got shipwrecked.

All but eight people drowned. They clawed onto a net from a nearby fishing boat, hoping the fishermen would reel them in and take them to the shore.

The fishermen cut the nets, and all eight of the migrants drowned.

“He said, ‘It’s a thorn in my heart’ when he saw the pictures of their lifeless bodies washing up onto the shore,” said Ms. Kenyon.

The pope has not stopped challenging indifference to human suffering, whether by visiting the barrios of Rio de Janeiro in his homeland or offering Mass in a Philadelphia prison during his first visit to the United States.

“And when he got the chance to talk to (the U.S.) Congress, what did he talk about? He talked about the death penalty, racism, immigration,” she said.

In doing so, Pope Francis is drawing upon and building on the teachings proclaimed by patriarchs, prophets, apostles, Church fathers, saints, mystics, his papal predecessors and Jesus Christ Himself.

“So when we talk about Catholic social teaching,” said Ms. Kenyon, “it really comes down to how we treat each other, and what we take from Scripture and doctrine and apply them to the issues of modern life.”

“In God’s likeness”

Ms. Kenyon spoke of the Seven Principles of Catholic Social Teaching as articulated by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB).

They are: the Life and Dignity of the Human Person; the Call to Family, Community and Participation; Rights and Responsibilities; the Option for the Poor and Vulnerable; the Dignity of Work and the Rights of Workers; Solidarity; and Care for God’s Creation.

“The dignity of the human person is the foundation for how we view the world,” she said. “Why? Because we’re all made in the image and likeness of God.”

So the Church takes clear positions on such issues as abortion, euthanasia and capital punishment.

Pope Francis takes that teaching to its next logical step, addressing the consequences of excluding fellow human beings.

“Just as the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say ‘thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality,” the pope states in his apostolic exhortation, “Joy of the Gospel” (#53).

“Such an economy kills,” he continues. “We have created a ‘throw away’ culture which is now spreading. ... Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded.”

Regarding the second principle, Ms. Kenyon noted that the family — the nuclear family as well as people from multiple generations living under one roof — is the center of society.

“We as Catholics take it that the family is the center of society,” she said. “Everything starts and ends with the family. Because without the family, society is nothing.”

From that, people have the right to order themselves into a society that looks out primarily for everyone’s wellbeing, especially the poor and vulnerable.

“Not only do we organize ourselves as a society but we also have to make sure that everybody is allowed to participate,” she said.

“Because we’re Catholic”

Regarding the third principle, she noted that with each person’s fundamental right to life and to those things required for human decency, comes a corresponding duty and responsibility “to one another, to our families, and to the larger society.”

“We as Catholics are taught that everyone has a right to live a basic, decent life, to have a home, to have food, to have medical care,” she said.

So when the Missouri Catholic Conference took a position in favor of expanding eligibility for Medicaid health coverage for low-income people in this state, “the reason was because that’s who we are as Catholics,” she said.

The next principle, the preferential option for the poor and vulnerable, is probably the most familiar.

“For us, it’s not an option. When we think about actions, policies, what should we do about this, the poor and vulnerable have to come first,” said Ms. Kenyon.

“The basic moral test of our time is how the most vulnerable members of our human family treated,” she stated, referring back to Matthew 25.

This mentality comes naturally in families, where care for the very young and the very old takes precedence.

“That’s how families work,” Ms. Kenyon stated. “That’s how society needs to work, too.”

She further noted that taking care of the people who are the helpless and vulnerable makes all of society stronger.

Whether near or far

The fifth principle is the dignity of work and the rights of workers.

“People have the right to productive work, to fair and decent wages, the right to organize and join a union,” Ms. Kenyon stated.

She asked people who help with food pantries for people in need, if they’re amazed how many people who work 40 days a week still need that kind of assistance.

“What is going on if people are working full-time and still can’t afford to feed their family?” she said.

She pointed out that especially in the 1930s and ’40s, the labor movement in this country was fueled by Catholic priests helping immigrants organize into unions so their employers would treat them fairly.

She said the sixth principle, solidarity, basically means that all people are members of one family.

“We really are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers,” she stated. “What happens to one, happens to all of us.”

That said, the center of solidarity is the work for justice.

“No one’s life is more important than anyone else’s,” she noted. “If someone is suffering, we have to do something about it. Whether they’re next door to us or 10,000 miles away.”

“That’s what we’re supposed to do,” she said. “Because we’re Catholic.”

The seventh principle is Care for God’s Creation.

“Care for our world is a requirement for our faith,” Ms. Kenyon explained. “We show respect for God by respecting what He created for us.”

“Pope Francis couldn’t have made it any more clear in ‘Laudato Sí,’ (his encyclical on care for creation): The earth is our common home. We have an obligation to take care of the earth, our world,” she noted.

Giving witness

Ms. Kenyon said an important part of engaging in the social mission of the Church is helping people understand what it means.

“You have to start with education,” she said. “We learned that the hard way. You cannot go out to your parish or ladies sociality and high schools and say now we’re going to do it.

“People need to understand why — that we do this because we’re Catholic, that it’s part of our long and rich Catholic tradition,” she stated.

She spoke of giving public witness to the sanctity and dignity of human life — holding prayer vigils outside abortion clinics as well as the prisons in which state-sanctioned executions are carried out.

“Anytime there is a loss of life, we have to publicly witness that we know it’s wrong,” she said.

Regarding human dignity, she pointed to the good work Catholic Charities of Central and Northern Missouri has been doing to help resettle refugees here who are fleeing danger and oppression in their homelands.

“And I hear some people at the parish have sponsored families,” she said. “Keep up the good work.”

She talked about the federal Deferred Action for Child Arrivals (DACA) policy, which allows people who entered this country as children without documentation to petition for temporary immigration status.

“If you were brought over to this country before you were 16 years old without papers, there is a provision that if you were 16 before you came, you haven’t been in trouble, you’re in school, or are in the military — there’s a list of things — you have the ability to apply for a deferred action,” she said.

She noted how in parts of the St. Louis archdiocese where gun violence has been rampant, parishes are distributing gun locks to parents in order to keep children from using them.

“Archbishop Rozanski is also leading prayer services for victims of gun violence,” she said.

All of this is part of the prose of social justice, which is lived out daily in the teachings of the Church, she stated.