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On the Inside: Social Teaching

This winter, Kathleen Porter-Magee wrote “Catholic on the Inside,” in which she explored the idea that charter schools who adopt “Catholic on the outside” practices, such as uniforms and old-school Catholic discipline measures, are missing something that only faith-based schools can provide. In a periodic series of Posts this summer, we’re reminding ourselves about some of the Catholic “stuff” inside–or at the heart of–our work with students, so that amid all the challenges of this fall, we remain energized by those ideas and practices that make our work worthwhile.

God loves you. Accepting this is the start of Christian faith. God also loves everyone else; this can be the start of a few headaches.

This spring and summer, challenges ranging from the personally mundane–navigating the grocery store in a pandemic–to the structural and communal–grappling with racial injustice–compel all of us to form new habits or explore new ideas. For people of faith, they also mean we grapple with new ways to turn God’s love for all from an abstraction into individual and collective action.

And as we start school, I will be stunned if our students don’t bring us more questions than ever about how to respond to the challenges our communities face–questions Catholic educators hope to answer in light of that belief. Tough questions from kids in religion classes are already one of the highlights of Catholic school days (Did Jesus have a belly button? Why do bad things happen to good people? Do pet turtles go to heaven?), and this year promises to produce a bumper crop of But what about’s and Well, what if’s.

Catholicism has a set of principles that frame our answers to many such questions, particularly those about how to treat others. The last 130 years have been rich with clarification of Catholic social teaching, which is really just a way framing our responses to the modern world in light of God’s love for all. As we enter a school year with many unfamiliar elements, it can be useful to remind ourselves of these principles that anchor not only what we say to children in Catholic schools about social issues, but how we organize the societies of our classrooms and our schools to practice what we preach.

There are seven themes that leaders like the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops generally recognize within Catholic Social Teaching:

  1. Life and dignity of the human person
  2. Call to family, community and participation
  3. Rights and responsibilities
  4. Preferential option for the poor and vulnerable
  5. The dignity of work
  6. Solidarity
  7. Care for God’s creation

Catholic high schools often spend whole semesters of religion classes elaborating on these themes. Yet younger children, particularly middle schoolers, are more than ready to begin exploring these ideas. Thankfully, groups like Catholic Relief Services have crafted handy one-page introductions for younger kids (and for those of us who missed that part of Sunday school). If today you have time to reflect on only one, perhaps solidarity is timely to consider.

“I love even the person whom I do not like or even know,” Pope Benedict XVI explains–and he clarifies that this solidarity is an act of will that can overcome emotions such as dislike (18). His predecessor, St. John Paul II spoke often of solidarity as a powerful antidote to dehumanizing movements in modern life: “This then is not a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people, both near and far. On the contrary, it is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good” (38).

The coronavirus has certainly illuminated how much we are linked with others we may not know; solidarity animates those links with the hope of positive outcomes. In educational practice, this connectedness is embedded in what scholars David W. Johnson and Roger T. Johnson have dubbed “positive interdependence” in cooperative learning–or wiring group projects so that those of us who tend to distrust our group mates can’t just do the whole project ourselves, but rather must rely on every other member of the group to complete the final project.

Apparently, according to the Catholic Church, life is group work–with a hefty dose of positive interdependence.

Yet in Catholic schools, on a good day, solidarity goes beyond ways to get more learning done. If each student–if every person–can come to see all others as brothers and sisters, then we alter not just how we treat others but own identities. After all, we are by nature social, the Church teaches. So we don’t just rely on each other to get stuff done; we become ourselves in relationship to others, for better or for worse. And each of us can only live out who God has made us to be in relationship to others (Catechism 1879). So embedding solidarity in the culture of our classrooms and playgrounds can transform our students’ sense of themselves.

Solidarity isn’t easy. As every kid who’s ever had to share a toy can attest, making sure others’ needs get met often requires sacrifice. And figuring out what form love takes for our neighbors who demonstrate different degrees of buy-in to science-supported public health measures is particularly challenging right now. Yet as my colleague Christian Dallavis elaborates, anchoring all new routines and practices of our days in core principles like solidarity, animated by root beliefs like “God loves each of us,” can turn what feels like extra work into a manifestation of our institution’s mission, and a way to find God.

“Only my readiness to encounter my neighbour and to show him love makes me sensitive to God as well.” As Pope Benedict XVI also explains, we find God through disciplined, open-hearted solidarity with others. So the hard thinking and sacrifices it takes to lift up others can be well worth the effort.

Beth Blaufuss is Vice President for Strategic Initiatives at Partnership Schools.