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A Social Gospel

As I noted in my last blog entry, chapter four of the apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium focuses our attention on the social dimension of the Gospel. Before he takes on two particular social issues, the Pope lays the groundwork for the discussion by recalling that the central message of Jesus' preaching was the fact that God's reign is among us. Because the Gospel is concerned about God's reign or kingdom, it is clear that the Gospel has a social dimension. In paragraph 183, the Pope makes it very clear: No one can demand that religion should be relegated to the inner sanctum of personal life, without influence on societal and national life, without concern for the soundness of civil institutions, without a right to offer an opinion on events affecting society. This statement stands in direct contradiction with the opinions of those who maintain that the clergy should not concern themselves with social concerns.

There are some who think that the Church's involvement with social issues is new, that it is part of an activist clergys' response to modern issues. Nothing could be further from the truth. As a Franciscan, I know our own history better than the history of other figures. Two stand out for me because the next section of the apostolic exhortation which discusses the inclusion of the poor and the quest for peace and justice.

St. Anthony of Padua is a popular saint in the ranks of the Church triumphant. He is invoked by the faithful for a variety of reasons, finding lost objects among them. However, what most people don't realize is that this Portuguese saint's early claim to fame and the reason he is identified with the Italian city of Padua is the fact that he is remembered for preaching about and effecting a change in the way that Padua's bankers dealt with the poor. For decades after his death, the bankers of Padua charged the lowest interest rates of any city in Italy as a direct result of St. Anthony's preaching.

St. Francis of Assisi founded three different Orders: the First an Order of men, the Second, an Order of contemplative nuns, and the Third, an Order of laymen and laywomen. It is the Third Order, now known as the Secular Franciscan Order which effected perhaps the most social change. St. Francis demanded that his followers, both cleric and lay, forsake the use of arms or weapons of war. The thirteenth century was fraught with armed struggles between the various noble households. Each nobleman had his own standing army made up of the male serfs who worked on his estate. When these men chose to follow in the footsteps of St. Francis, his demand to lay down their arms brought about the end of the feudal system and the never-ending armed conflicts that characterized it.

Many more examples could be cited. There is no question that the Church has always been involved in the development of social policy. The documents that come out of our episcopal conferences on economic issues, on the use of nuclear weapons, on civil rights, on the death penalty all stand in the tradition of the Church's attempts to bring the Gospel to bear on social issues.

Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator

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