Conservative commentator Glenn Beck once told his listeners: “Look for the words ‘social justice’ or ‘economic justice’ on your church website. If you find it, run as fast as you can.”
But as Brandon Vogt notes in his new book Saints and Social Justice: A Guide to Changing the World, the Vatican’s website uses these terms "no less than 115 times" — and he’s not running anywhere.
Using the lives of the saints as models, Saints and Social Justice is a timely unveiling and unleashing of the Catholic Church’s treasure trove of social teaching. Vogt gives us accessible, tangible examples of lives spent helping the poor and vulnerable, defending workers and families, and caring for the environment, all grounded in a deeper, more coherent, and more radical conception of justice than that offered by any one political platform today.
I recently spoke with Vogt to learn more about this important book, and about what we all can do to help change the world.
BECKLO: “Depending on who you talk with,” you write, “Catholic social teaching is either too liberal, too conservative, too outdated, too modern, too idealistic, too political, or in some cases all of the above.” What is Catholic teaching on social justice, and why is it so hard to box-in politically?
VOGT: I prefer the pithy definition given by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin: Catholic social teaching outlines a society in which it is “easier to be good.” It doesn’t neatly align with any political party or ideology because Christ doesn’t. This means the political left recoils when Catholic social teaching promotes the dignity of life, and in turn denounces abortion, euthanasia, and redefining marriage. But it generates flak on the right when it advocates care for creation, a special concern for the poor, and the right to strike and form labor unions. The Church’s social teaching rankles every political party because while political, it’s decidedly non-partisan. In short, it’s Catholic.
BECKLO: Another “either/or” this book obliterates is the division of body and soul, something the modern world has wrestled with since Descartes. All of these saints practice a more holistic approach to the human person, embodying what the Church calls both “corporal” and “spiritual” acts of mercy. Why are the needs of both body and soul important to social justice? Why not just one or the other?
VOGT: To encourage justice means “to put into right relationship”, so social justice entails bringing groups of people into right relationship. But people are composed of both body and soul, as you note. They don’t just have physical needs. They also need spiritual aid. You can’t do justice without a concern for the whole person, body and soul. St. James picked up on this: “If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,’ but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it?” (Js 2:15-16). And he was only building on the words of Christ: “Man does not live on bread alone” (Mt 4:4). During my research I discovered that every saint got this, without exception. They knew it wasn’t enough to offer prayers without tangible help, or food without spiritual nourishment. People need both.
BECKLO: You recently created Strange Notions, possibly the largest forum for dialogue between Catholics and atheists in recorded history. When you show how prayer life, the Gospel, and the Eucharist formed the “beating heart” of these extraordinary lives, I can hear many atheists at Strange Notions jumping ship. “Faith without works is dead” — that they may agree with — by why is the reverse true too? Why can’t someone be, as Camus termed it, a “saint without God”?
VOGT: I’d say that’s like demanding a car without fuel or an oven without heat. That’s what faith is for these saints. It’s the fire of their charity. Without it, their works would become cold and lifeless over time. And that’s what we see in many of our secular social services.
A Hindu gentleman once approached Mother Teresa and pointed out that while both he and Mother were doing social work, the difference was that he and his coworkers were doing it for something while Mother Teresa was doing it for someone. The compassionate nun didn’t help people simply because “it was the right thing to do.” She helped them because she knew, deep in her bones, that by serving others she was serving Jesus himself. She identified Jesus with the poor, and that was the key to everything she did.
Now, where’s the atheist Mother Teresa? Where’s the agnostic Damien of Molokai? It’s no accident that our most luminous examples of charity have been deeply religious. Faith compels saints to serve in extraordinary ways.
BECKLO: This book is as much about saints as it is about social justice. With the recent canonization of John Paul II (featured in the section on Solidarity) and John XXIII, many non-Catholics might be wondering: what exactly is a saint anyways? Why do Catholics focus so much on saints when they could just focus on God Himself?
VOGT: A saint is a friend of Jesus Christ. And the saints matter because, as Fr. Charles Fell observed, “The lives of the saints are nothing less than the law of God reduced to practice.” They show us, tangibly, what it looks like to follow Christ in this world, to “put work clothes” on the demands of love. Focusing on the saints is to focus on God, just like focusing on the moon is to bask in the sun. The saints reflect God’s splendid light, refracting it at many colorful angles. It’s that light we focus on, not the mirror. Yet, the mirror helps us see the light more vividly. When we see the saints pursue justice and charity, we glimpse how God so loves the world.
BECKLO: In your chapter on Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati, you note that he is your favorite saint and the inspiration for the book. “If it only had one chapter,” you write, “it would be about him.” What drew you to Frassati, and why does he so uniquely embody the whole of Catholic social teaching?
VOGT: I first became attracted to him because of his age. Pier Giorgio died early at age twenty-four, the same age I was at the time. Yet the more I read, the more I found to like. Pier Giorgio was extremely active and charismatic. He regularly climbed mountains around Turin and went on long hikes. He protested in the streets and became very politically involved. He also partied with friends. Years after his death, townspeople remember him and his friends dancing through the streets, laughing and reciting Dante. He was smart, popular, fun, and caused many young friends to gravitate toward him.
Yet Pier Giorgio was also extremely devout. His devotion to the Eucharist and the Rosary is legendary (see the book for some stories). And he served the poor daily and personally, visiting poor families and giving them food, money, and even the clothes off his own back.
The reason he embodies Catholic social teaching is because he fuses all its elements: faith with charity, contemplation with activism, personal care with institutional reform, and boundless joy with the grit of service. That’s why John Paul II named him “a Man of the Beatitudes.” Pier Giorgio sums up the blessed life of the Gospel.
BECKLO: You write something similar about Pope Francis in the acknowledgements: “You embody the themes in this book…this book easily could have been about you.” How does Pope Francis, like Frassati, embody the Church’s social teaching?
VOGT: We all see how Pope Francis cares for the poor and the outcast. Early in his papacy he yearned for a “poor Church for the poor.” Since then he’s demonstrated solidarity with the marginalized, defended the dignity of the vulnerable, and has called everyone to care for creation.
At the same time, he understands that the so-called “social Gospel” is dead if not suffused with the Holy Spirit. Catholic social teaching is not just “good works.” Christ must be the center, the inspiration, and the energy behind our service if we’re to usher in God’s Kingdom on earth as in Heaven.
BECKLO: “We are challenged to make a fundamental option for the poor,” writes the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in Economic Justice for All. “To speak for the voiceless, to defend the defenseless, to assess life styles, policies, and social institutions in terms of their impact on the poor…” Is Catholic social teaching only about ministering to individuals? Or is it also about reforming institutions?
VOGT: When asking any either/or question about Catholic social teaching — or Catholicism in general — the proper response is almost always “Both/and.” While some political parties promote institutional reform over personal charity, or vice versa, the Church boldly proclaims: “We need both!”
We might use the image of a four-legged stool to represent Catholic social teaching. The four legs represent individuals; local communities and organizations; the Church; and the government. We need all four legs. If you cut one off, or extend one too long, the stool begins to wobble and then fall.
BECKLO: I think anyone who reads this book will discover a new hero. For me, it was St. Peter Claver, the “slave of the slaves,” especially after seeing 12 Years a Slave. Did one particular saint jump out at you in writing this book, one that maybe you weren’t as familiar with before writing it?
VOGT: It was Peter Claver for me, too, and for many of the same reasons. What Schindler’s List did for the Holocaust, 12 Years a Slave did for North American slavery. It put flesh on one of the most deplorable episodes in our nation’s history. Watching that film magnifies the heroism of Peter Claver, who marches right into these hellish slave holds and to the dejected slaves, announces, “I’m here to set you free in Christ.” You can’t help but be moved. His courage and resiliency, especially in the face of aggressive racism — stemming from not a few priests — continues to inspire me.
There’s also the fact that Claver baptized over 300,000 African slaves during his ministry, more baptisms than any saint in Church history (except maybe St. Francis Xavier, depending on the account). Nobody else ushered more people to heaven, through Christ, a testament to his concern for both the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. He eased the slaves’ earthly bondage and liberated their souls.
BECKLO: In the chapter on Bl. Anne Marie Javouhey, you again quote the U.S. Bishops, who express a need for structures of “widely distributed power.” Anne Marie exemplified this principle when she “arranged a home and plot of land” for newly emancipated slaves in French colonies “so they could personally affect their own flourishing.” This might overlap with the economic theory of distributism, a sort of middle way between capitalism and communism embraced by G.K. Chesterton and others. The theory is often dismissed as vague and impractical. Do you think there is a place for distributism in modern America?
VOGT: I do. By advocating distributism, Chesterton and his good friend, Hilaire Belloc, were prophets of Catholic social teaching (and the twentieth-century Catholic land movement, which was driven by distributist precepts). Capitalism centers on individuals. Communism stands on the society. Yet distributism roots itself in the basic cell of Catholic social teaching: the family. One of Catholic social teaching’s major themes is the “call to family.” This means every political, economic, and even personal decision should be gauged, in part, by its effect on the family. Does this decision help or harm the family? Does this decision make it harder or easier for fathers and mothers to stay intact, to raise their children together? Those are the questions we’re encouraged to ask.
Bl. Anne Marie Javouhey fulfilled the distributist ideal of placing property and the means of production into the hands of families, not individuals or societies, and in that way anticipated the great vision of Chesterton, Belloc, Leo XIII, Pius XI, and others.
BECKLO: This book will definitely get people interested in Catholic social teaching; but as you note in the introduction, there is no formal, magisterial document on the subject. Where can people go to learn more about these teachings in detail?
VOGT: I like to point people to two books. The first is the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. Don’t be deterred by the long and stuffy title. It’s essentially a summary of the Church’s social teaching, drawn from Scripture, the saints, and conciliar and papal documents. It’s a fairly challenging read, but all serious-minded Catholics should be familiar with it. In fact, it’s a natural next step after finishing the Catechism.
The second book is titled Catholic Social Thought: The Documentary Heritage. It’s thick — over 800 pages — but it collects the most important primary documents on Catholic social teaching spanning from Pope Leo XIII's Rerum Novarum to John Paul II's Centesimus Annus. Each text contains a helpful introduction and several annotations, making it a one-stop tour through Catholic social teaching.
BECKLO: The subtitle of the book is “A Guide for Changing the World.” When people turn the last page and set off to do just that, what do you hope is the major takeaway they carry with them?
VOGT: My goal is the same as Jesus’s, and the same as these great heroes: to make more saints. That should be the goal after finishing, to be a saint. St. Josemaria Escriva once remarked that all world crises are crises of saints. We need more saints, more people who become captured by the love of Christ and then set the world ablaze with his fiery grace. This is what saints do — it’s their nature. You want to make the world more just, more compassionate, more peaceful, more dignified? Cultivate more saints.
I also hope the book helps readers to rediscover Catholic social teaching as invigorating and transformative, moving past the tired political categories. We can’t squeeze Catholic social teaching, or the saints, into these neat grids because they transcend them. They’re Catholic, not partisan.
Ultimately, I’m convinced Catholic social teaching is a ticking time bomb of love and justice. I hope this book lights the fuse.
Matthew Becklo is a husband and father-to-be, amateur philosopher, and cultural commentator.