Politics & Policy

Doing Social Justice Right

Reclaiming a loaded term in the light of faith

In his new book, Saints and Social Justice: A Guide to Changing the World, Brandon Vogt seeks to take the phrase “social justice,” which has been “co-opted to mask all sorts of nefarious projects,” and to connect it back to authentic Christian moral teachings and challenges. He points specifically to The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church as a “comprehensive summary” of something that is otherwise quite diffuse in a Catholic context, whose social teachings “branch out from Biblical principles, papal writings, concilar documents, Episcopal statements, mystical prayer, saintly wisdom, and much more.” That said, in Saints and Social Justice, Vogt, who is content director at Word on Fire (the people responsible for the Catholicism series that partially aired on PBS), doesn’t talk documents so much as lives — lives lived in Christian charity, and even very contemporary lives. Proceeds from the sales of the book, published by Our Sunday Visitor, go entirely to Catholic Charities in seeking to support the work of people hoping to change the world through Christian love.

In an interview, Vogt talks with Kathryn Jean Lopez, senior fellow at the National Review Institute, editor-at-large of National Review Online, and founding director of Catholic Voices USA, about some saints and social justice.

KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: You announce “it’s time reclaim Catholic social teaching.” Who “co-opted” it? Was it a matter of surrender, too?

BRANDON VOGT: Many groups have hijacked the phrase “social justice.” For example, proponents of liberation theology have used it as a cloak to smuggle Marxist ideas into the Christian faith. That led to warped theology and violent rebellion. Many now associate the phrase with Communist, socialist, or politically aggressive ideologies. But while it’s true that some people use the phrase this way, it’s not how the Church has used it for hundreds of years. For that reason we must clarify and redeem it.


LOPEZ: Why is the phrase “social justice” worth using and renewing outside of its political usage?

VOGT: Because that’s the language the Church uses. That phrase appears in magisterial documents no less than 120 times. We must reclaim it from its abusers.


LOPEZ: You also declare that your book is an attempt to imitate stained-glass windows, “using saints as conduits of light through which the radiance of Catholic social teaching can shine with new splendor.” Can we do that — construct stained-glass windows, say, on social media?

VOGT: We can do it anywhere. Any medium can become a conduit for grace — print, television, music, radio, architecture, and even social media. By sharing stories and quotes from the saints, for instance, we can shine beams of light, illuminating the world around us. That’s what stained glass does.


LOPEZ: You quote Pope Paul VI as noting that “modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.” I hear people talk about this a lot — it’s much easier said than done, isn’t it? If you wanted to open a door to such a life — of a witness to Jesus Christ — which among your saints would you introduce a skeptic of Catholicism to first?

VOGT: Either Mother Teresa of Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati. Why? Because of their radiant charity. They both served the poor in extraordinary ways, but with irrepressible joy.


LOPEZ: “The more we train the eyes of our hearts to spot Jesus in the Eucharist, the clearer we’ll recognize him in the poor.” However do you explain that in the world today?

VOGT: We don’t explain it; we exhibit it. Even the casual secularist would agree there was something different about Mother Teresa — she saw the world differently. How did she get that way? Well, look at how she began each day and follow the breadcrumbs — literally. They all lead back to the Eucharist. Mother’s life revolved around the Blessed Sacrament, which in turn spun her into the streets of Calcutta.

You see this rhythm with all the saints. They meet Christ at the altar and then among the poor, who in turn inspire more worship.


LOPEZ: Your write: “Mother Teresa helps us see that it’s not our job to help millions at a time. We can only help individuals, and we do that first by recognizing and reverencing the image of God marked on their souls, and by serving Jesus in them through small acts of dignifying love.” Is there a danger that that lets us off the hook? There are people a world away we need to care about too, aren’t there? Pope Francis talks about the globalization of indifference. What’s the balance to strike?

VOGT: I stand with St. Thérèse of Lisieux. She grounded her spiritual program on one question: What’s the immediate demand of love? Now, that immediacy may be temporal — how can I love in this moment, in this day, in this week? But it may also be spatial — who is in front of me, what opportunities do I have in my own neighborhood or town?

Note how most of Christ’s parables on charity are personal. Think of the Good Samaritan, the beggar Lazarus, or the hungry and sick in Matthew 25. Like St. Thérèse, they all focus on the immediate demand of love.

Does that mean we should ignore systemic injustice or global assaults on dignity? Of course not. Christ doesn’t, nor do the saints. But it does mean most global concerns shouldn’t discourage us from opportunities in front of us now.


LOPEZ: Why are the words “Me too” so special? Couldn’t they be dangerous?

VOGT: They are special because they implicitly say, “You’re not alone.” It’s an act of solidarity — another major theme of Catholic social teaching.

Solidarity becomes dangerous when it’s wrongly restricted. For example, see the Nazi, Hutu, and Islamic militants, all of whom displayed remarkable solidarity. Yet their solidarity was too narrow. It included only part of the world, and thus rejected those outside. Catholic solidarity includes all people, everywhere, because everyone was created in the same image of God.


LOPEZ: “Next time you want to uplift someone’s dignity, remind them of that wonderful truth: ‘It’s good that you exist.’” How is that not too insignificant a move?

VOGT: What could be more significant? What’s more liberating than learning your value is not grounded in beauty, skills, or output, but simply in your creation in the image of God? Our value doesn’t come from what do, or who we are, but that we are. That’s very significant, indeed.

Pope Francis lamented a society that tells people, “We don’t want you to exist.” The work of the Church is to say, “It’s good that you exist.”


LOPEZ: You were hanging out with homeless people by a lake and woods in college and after. Would you advise this?

VOGT: I did, and it changed my life. But I wouldn’t recommend that to everyone, just as St. Damien wouldn’t recommend everyone serve leper colonies. But sometimes Christ beckons us to danger. C. S. Lewis had it right: “Safe? Who said anything about safe? ’Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.”

The saints all know that Christ is present in the tabernacle and on the street. I want to meet him in both places.


LOPEZ: Why did you include St. Peter Claver, who is not the household name Mother Teresa is?

VOGT: Because like Mother Teresa, he devoted his life to uplifting the dignity of others. In particular, he became the “slave of the slaves,” serving captured Africans as they arrived in slave-ships on the coast of Colombia. I also liked that he served their spiritual needs, too. He baptized over 300,000 slaves throughout his life. He ushered more people into eternity then any Catholic outside of St. Francis Xavier. Stunning!


LOPEZ: How can St. Frances of Rome help family life? 

VOGT: She exhibits that holiness begins with the family. According to Pope John Paul II, “As the family goes, so goes the nation and so goes the whole world.” In Catholicism, the family is the basic building block of society. And it’s the first school of social life.

Frances’s early adulthood, before she joined a religious order after her husband died, shows how spouses and children can provide daily opportunities to live communally and to serve the Lord by serving others.


LOPEZ: You include people who are not canonized saints in your book. Why?

VOGT: Because not all saints are canonized. A saint is a friend of Jesus Christ — and he has many friends!

But more seriously, the 14 saints I featured are all on the path to sainthood. Even those who haven’t be canonized or beatified have been officially recognized for their imitable life of virtue.


LOPEZ: You quote Dorothy Day as having written that “worship, adoration, thanksgiving, supplication . . . [are] the noblest acts we are capable of in this life.” But isn’t she known for political activism? Have we missed the most important parts of her life?

VOGT: I think so. Dorothy was not just a busy activist. She was a vigilant woman of prayer. She attended daily mass, she prayed the divine office, she regularly said the Rosary. She was a faithful daughter of the Church, once saying, “If the Cardinal asked me to stop publishing [the Catholic Worker newspaper], I would.”

Like the other saints in my book, she knew that the corporal works of mercy were empty without a grounded spiritual life.


LOPEZ: How were Mother Teresa and Dorothy Day both “velvet bricks”?

VOGT: They were both tenacious but sensitive women, firm as bricks and soft as velvet. They lived Christ’s command to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.


LOPEZ: Pope Benedict XVI was a “green” pope? That’s another politically heated conversation. How do we take a few steps back? Why must we?

VOGT: No pope has spoken about the environment more than Pope Benedict XVI. His weekly audiences and encyclicals are loaded with commendations to care for the creation, which he recognizes as a gift from the Creator. This is what Catholic social teaching demands. How to best do that, and which threats are most pressing, are questions open to debate. But that we’re called to steward creation is non-negotiable for Catholics.


LOPEZ: “True faith always leads to public expression.” Is that something we’ve lost an appreciation of?

VOGT: Yes, especially in our culture, which assumes faith must be private and that freedom of religion is the same as freedom of worship. But faith, while intensely personal, is never private. And like true marriage, it naturally bubbles over into fruitful expression.

We need to recover what St. James knew: “Faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead. . . . For just as a body without a spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.”


LOPEZ: How is both faith without works and works without faith useless?

VOGT: Faith without works is impotent. It’s the fig tree Jesus cursed, withered and fruitless. St. James reminds us that even the demons believe and tremble. Yet they do not love. Their faith is all intellect and no will.

On the other hand, work without faith is empty activism. It’s like driving a car on fumes. Work needs fuel to persevere and to push through the bumps. Faith is the fuel.


LOPEZ: Who was Blessed Vilmos Apor and how was he a model example of a “good shepherd”?

VOGT: Blessed Vilmos Apor was the bishop of Gyor, Hungary, during World War II. As German planes soared over his land, dropping bombs on his flock, he opened his house to those whose homes had been destroyed. On Holy Saturday, 1945, Russian troops barged into his episcopal residence and demanded that 100 women be taken from there to their own barracks. He refused. A Russian officer shot him and he died three days later.

Blessed Vilmos took seriously his responsibility as a shepherd. During his beatification, Pope John Paul II summed up his character: “He was not fearful about raising his voice, in accord with evangelical principles, to denounce injustice and abuse against minorities, especially against the Jewish community.”


LOPEZ: What does rooting solidarity in the Eucharist mean, practically speaking?

VOGT: The Eucharist is the glue that holds together the Mystical Body of Christ on earth. And it’s by virtue of our brotherhood in Christ that we can find solidarity with anyone, regardless of class, ethnicity, religion, or gender.

The more often we celebrate the Eucharist, the stronger our solidarity.


LOPEZ: Why is Pier Giorgio Frassati your favorite?

VOGT: Pier Giorgio died when he was just 24 — the same age I was when I discovered him. But more than that, he’s such a magnetic saint. He was an adventurous young man who scaled mountains, skied, and went on long hikes. He was also politically active, protesting in the streets and championing social causes. He was smart, popular, active, and fun, and he drew many young people through his warmth and charisma.

He was also extremely devout. He attended Mass every day and wouldn’t go on mountain climbs unless there was a church nearby. He prayed the Rosary daily, sometimes five times per day, and often had deep, mystical experiences in prayer.

He had an intense devotion to the poor. Pier Giorgio served on the streets daily and personally, visiting poor families and giving them food, money, and even the clothes off his own back. He often gave away his bus money to the poor, forcing him to run home for dinner. When he would take the train, he always rode third class. “Why?” a friend asked. “Because there’s no fourth class,” Pier Giorgio replied.

He fuses all the elements of Catholic social teaching: 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.


LOPEZ: You write that Frassati knew that “society’s progress on courageous men and women who stand up for what they believe in, who infuse society with the virtues of faith.” Is your book a how-to guide for doing just that? 

VOGT: I hope so. By studying these saints we learn to apply these Catholic social teachings in a variety of contexts.


LOPEZ: You are not making money off this book, sending 100 percent of the royalties to Catholic Charities. Don’t you have mouths to feed?

VOGT: Well, I don’t need the money. I have a great job (thanks, Word on Fire!) and our family is doing fine. But I know many other mouths around the country need feeding, and Catholic Charities feeds them. It just made sense.

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is senior fellow at the National Review Institute, editor-at-large of National Review Online, and founding director of Catholic Voices USA


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