Some of the most satisfying experiences of my life have been in community organizing but I must admit that I was never a first-rate organizer. Nonetheless I was invited to meetings for which, by most measures, I was not qualified to attend. I eventually realized that it was because I had some grounding in Catholic Social Teaching and it was thought important to have it represented, I agree and discovered that what we as Catholics have to offer is that our teachings are based on our understanding of the Trinity. The Trinity affects every aspect of our view of society, but we will only look at two: where do human rights come from and how should they be implemented? But first let us look at why we need to start with Trinity.
The Catholic Doctrine of the Trinity tells us that all we know of God is that he exists in relationship and that those relationships are sustained by love. “To be” and “to love” are the same. (#1, see below) The Church asks us to look at our own lives, are we not formed by who we love, by our own relationships? The Catholic insight is that because of the Trinity this is not a primarily psychological or sociological insight but a theological and metaphysical one. The universe reflects its creator, and its central reality is that we exist as humans because we can form loving relationships. (#2, see below)
All mainstream Christians believe in the doctrine of the Trinity but the application of that Doctrine to practical living is a particularly although not exclusively Catholic enterprise. In presenting this to predominately non-Catholic audiences I have met with some bewilderment. It does not seem very American. The American mindset begins with the individual who is an independent sub-contractor and may form associations with others as he or she wishes for his or her needs. That is the opposite of the Catholic Christian vision, we are formed by community and the individual can only be understood in community.
This view affects our basic view of human rights.
We are made to love each other. This means to effectively will the good of those with whom we have relationships. This is what makes us truly human, an image of God. Human rights enable us to do this. The modern Western or northern view of rights is noninterference with other people. That does not reflect the universe as God made it. We must actively work together not only as individuals but as brothers and sisters to create a sustaining community,
Human rights include among others the right to life, the right to bodily integrity and the right to a good reputation. This precludes abortion, euthanasia, torture, and most of what is posted on social media. But it also includes the right to food security, decent housing, and meaningful healthcare. Even if a community provides the former and does not provide the latter it is not an image of God and no matter what other accomplishments it may have achieved it is a failure. It will not give its members peace and a way to thrive humanly. We were created to love as God loves. We cannot of course love with that intensity, nor can we give ourselves completely, but our lives will be fulfilled by loving as best we can. As we see fellow human beings thrown aside, we should not wonder why our society is marked with a lack of peace and growing dissatisfaction
How can our belief in the Trinity show us how to create a more sustaining society?
One of the pillars of Catholic Social teaching is subsidiarity. It is defined by the Oxford English dictionary as: “the idea that a central authority should have a subsidiary function, performing only those tasks which cannot be performed effectively at a more immediate or local level.”
Subsidiarity is often seen as merely a means to effectively provide services. It is certainly true that designing and delivering programs from on high is rarely a recipe for success. Many good and intelligent people created NYCHA.
Efficiency, however, is not the principal reason that the church champions subsidiarity. The more people can work together, face to face, the more firmly their relationships will be strengthened, and a true community be created.
Community organizers know this well. Many who are attracted to community organizing are highly educated people who have graduated from first rate educational institutions. They have discovered that demonstrations and most forms of political activism do not accomplish very much. They hear about community organizing and decide to check it out. One of the rights of passage is the realization that technocratic knowledge and skills are wonderful and have their place in creating the necessary supporting institutions, but communities are built primarily by relationships. Often the people most skilled in this may have little education and be without earthly prestige. Yet in their actions they reflect the way the universe was created and is maintained.
It is also important to note that this allows each person’s dignity to be enhanced. The closer the decision making is brought to the people in the community the more it is truly theirs. Whatever is done is not done for them, but with them. Often people of great goodwill but little connection with the communities they wish to help will be, however unconsciously, overbearing and condescending. I once asked a city planner who lived in a particularly tony area of Westchester if he would welcome someone from East New York telling him how to live. He thought I was joking. What would they have to give him?
This is the paradox of the Trinity. It is the most impenetrable mystery whose meaning is always out of reach, yet it is the one which demands that we touch it every day. The reality of the Trinity is not found in a book but in the world around us. Let seek to love as God loves to build as God builds.
ADDENDUM AND FOOTNOTES
This week I adapted many of the ideas found in “The Fullness of Faith” by Michael and Kenneth Himes, OFM. Michael Himes was my teacher in the Seminary. He died this Friday after a prolonged illness. Please find below two selections from this book that, as you can see, formed the heart of this homily,
- This is the central Christian insight: “To be” and “To love” are synonymous. To hold onto life is to lose it; to give it away is to see it become everlasting life. This is not an ethical idea. Rather the oft repeated statement of the synoptic gospels is a description, a corollary of the claim that being and loving are identical. This is the heart of the Trinity and the deepest claim which Christianity makes about being, including human being. (page 57)
- (The) Trinity is the summary grammar of our most fundamental experience of ourselves. Basic to that experience is that we know ourselves as social, as communal in the very structure of our being, as essentially political. The Christian claim that one exits to the degree that one enters into a relationship with others, specifically the relationship of self-gift, is both grounded in and explicated by the doctrine of the Trinity. Thus, the doctrine of the Trinity is an essentially and radically political statement: it maintains that not only is human existence social but that the ground of all being is relationship. (Page 59)
There are no simple answers to the problems raised by our persistent gun violence and many groups will play a part. Let us take from St John today that the church must be one and seen to be one to be any part of making our world whole.