Foot graphic courtesy of the USCCB, used with permission. ©United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
One of the best ways to speak about Catholic Social Teaching is to imagine you are looking at your feet. Social Justice is one foot and Charitable Works is the other. The difference between the two is that Social Justice means working to change the systems and institutions that keep people poor by depriving them of basic needs and human rights. Charitable Works means doing good to the person in front of you. To move through the world in a balanced way, Christians and people of good will need to walk on both feet.
Think of the Blessed Oscar Romero (1917 – 1980), the Archbishop of San Salvador, who was martyred for speaking out against the government forces to stop the persecution of the poor and racial injustice in his country and St. Mother Teresa (1910 – 1997) who believed in serving the poorest of the poor, to “care for the hungry, the naked, the homeless, the blind … all those who are unloved.”
The second major theme of Catholic Social Teaching is the “Call to Family, Community, Participation.” It means that we are social beings called to live in respect for one another without distinction. The laws we make to organize society, especially those about money, are to respect the family and be fair to everyone. We are to take an active part in building a just society through advocacy and voting, for example, while addressing the daily needs of our neighbor near and far.
“Bending the Arc” is a new documentary film (opens in Los Angeles on October 19) from executive producers Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, directors Pedro Kos and Kief Davidson and writer Kori Shepherd Stern that shows how the two feet of Catholic Social Teaching can walk together for the good of humanity. It is a film that reveals darkness and the burst of light that shines when people see human suffering and work together to bring healing and hope. How to live the “Call to Family, Community and Participation” is integrated throughout.
Paul Farmer, a recent college graduate, and Ophelia Dahl (daughter of author Raold Dahl and actress Patricia Neal) a high school graduate, met while volunteering in Haiti in the 1980s. They remained friends as Dahl attended Wellesley and Farmer and another student, Jim Yong Kim, went to Harvard Medical School. Even at their young ages they wanted to do something for the health of the people of Haiti, especially in the rural areas.
Now begins an intriguing story across thirty years of seeking financial gifts to do their work, dealing with the World Health Organization, a skeptical (even cynical) international medical community for infectious diseases and years later, the World Bank and two Catholic priests who inspired and encouraged them to serve the poorest of the poor.
Drs. Farmer and Kim, along with Dahl and two others founded Partners in Health (PIH) in 1987. Their unique approach to curing first TB in Haiti and drug-resistant TB in Peru and then controlling HIV/AIDS and cervical cancer in Africa is rooted in the concept of community-based accompaniment. This means that PIH recruit local medical people or those with some knowledge of health issues to visit patients in their homes six days a week to check on them and make sure they take their medications. The results and the organization’s ongoing efforts to work with countries and build a healthcare infrastructure where none ever existed will simply astound you. 99% of the PIH team come from the local communities where they work.
Family, community, and participation along with human dignity and basic human rights, permeate this incredibly moving story. What you will learn about the pressure from the World Bank on the governments of developing countries to cut education and health care in order to pay back debt and the medical community’s attitude toward treating people sick with infectious diseases in developing countries is all very disturbing. Yet there is light at the end of the tunnel as PIH works to change the systems that keep people poor by making them healthy.
The title of the film is a quote of Theodore Parker (often attributed to Martin L. King, Jr.) “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one … But from what I can see I am sure it bends toward justice.”
As Pope Francis tells us universal health care is a human right; health care is about justice. It is a moral and spiritual matter because it is about people. PIH is bending that arc just a little more toward healing people and the earth.
Look for "Bending the Arc" in Los Angeles in October. Opens in other places later. You can stay informed about screenings by signing up for their newsletter here.