Catholic social teaching ultimately emerges from the Hebrew and Christian Scripture. CST tends to focus on contemporary problems and the modern sources that shed light on how we might address them, yet the wisdom contained in the Bible, from the Pentateuch to the Prophetic Books, from the Gospels to Revelation continues to inform contemporary practice.
As told in the Gospels, Jesus frequently sought out deserted places to pray. He would retire from the crowds’ incessant demands that he heal and teach. There, too, he would confront temptation. After a time, he would return and resume his ministry among the crowds of people.
Jesus was in close contact with the Scripture of his people. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus’ public ministry began with his reading of a scroll from the prophet Isaiah. He recited,
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord (Lk 4:18-19; see Is 61:1-2).
Later in the same chapter, Jesus went off to pray, where he remained until the crowds came looking for him. He announced to them that he must fulfill his mission “to proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God” (Lk 4:41).
A similar rhythm—from action to reflection/contemplation and back again–is required of anyone who seeks to pursue a vocation that involves Catholic social teaching in practice. Yet such retreating is fraught with risk.
Twentieth-century monastic mystic and social activist Thomas Merton observed in Thoughts in Solitude, “So the man who wanders into the desert to be himself must take care that he does not go mad and become the servant of the one who dwells there in a sterile paradise of emptiness and rage” (6). Merton warned that deserts–real deserts–had become “brilliant and sordid smiles of the devil upon the face of the wilderness, cities of secrecy where each man spies on his brother, cities through whose veins money runs like artificial blood, and from whose womb will come the last and greatest instrument of destruction,” namely the atomic bomb
For better or for worse, the desert is everywhere now, according to Merton. He explained that, rather than “fighting the devil as Christ did,” contemporary people believe in the devil’s “promises of power and wealth, and adoring angelic wisdom” (7). Since there is no other place to go, the desert having been conquered, interiority must be sought here and now. He wrote, “Everywhere is solitude in which man must do penance and fight the adversary and purify his own heart in the grace of God.” Following the model of Christ, the turn inward must be followed by an outward turn. Accordingly, we ever return to the daily round in service and advocacy on behalf of others.
See Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude. New York: Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 1958.
Submitted by: N. Rademacher, Associate Professor, Religious Studies