In 1971, the bishops sounded a call for justice

This story appears in the Take and Read feature series. View the full series.
Pope Paul VI addresses the 1971 Synod of Bishops at the Vatican. (RNS photo)

Pope Paul VI addresses the 1971 Synod of Bishops at the Vatican. (RNS photo)

by Michael Crosby

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Editor's note: "Take and Read" is a weekly blog that features a different contributor's reflections on a specific book that changed their lives. Good books, as blog co-editors Congregation of St. Agnes Sr. Dianne Bergant and Michael Daley say, "can inspire, affirm, challenge, change, even disturb."

"Justice in the World"
by the 1971 Synod of Bishops, Second General Assembly
(in The Gospel of Peace and Justice: Catholic Social Teaching Since Pope John, edited by Joseph Gremillion, Orbis, 1976)

To answer the question of why the Synod of Bishops' document "Justice in the World" comes first to my mind as the most formative text in my experience and work, let me paraphrase a previous contributor, Sandra Schneiders: "I refined the question by asking myself what book (besides the Bible) is related most significantly to the most -- quantitatively and qualitatively -- significant aspects of my life?"

Most of my professional ministry has involved two main areas: one-quarter has been devoted to socially responsible investing and the other three-fourths have been my work in writing and speaking on contemporary biblical discipleship. It is perhaps not surprising that, not a book but, in fact, a Catholic church document has been most influential for me. The coordinators of this NCR project thought it could be included, even if it is not a book.

My first assignment as a Capuchin Franciscan priest was to a "changing parish" in Milwaukee. Having experienced the upheaval that took place after Milwaukee's civil disturbances in 1967, I volunteered to work in the "inner city." St. Elizabeth Parish in Milwaukee was in the midst of transition from white to black. I was sent there "to reconcile" the parish. I arrived in 1968 and left, considering myself a failure, in 1973. My seminary training had not prepared me to deal with economic injustice, classism and racism as they impacted Catholic parochial life.

After three years into my time there, I remained befuddled by the question: "How can [white] Catholics have so much hatred toward others [blacks]?" It had become clear to me that the "bottom line" for most of our parishioners was not the Gospel of Matthew, Mark, Luke or John, but the "bottom line" of economics -- more concretely, their rapidly declining property values.

The consequence: We lost 3,000 families those first three years. As African-Americans moved in, many, if not most, of the large population of ethnic Germans and Poles left.

At the same time, some real enlightenment came with the 1971 Synod of Bishops. In my studies, I had read all the various encyclicals and other documents in the area of what was called "Catholic social teaching." Of them all, only "Justice in the World" summarized so clearly and succinctly what we were facing in our parish.

These insights, written for the first time (I believe) with strong input from the perspective of those bishops who were victimized by globalized injustice, echoed my own experience. The world they described was the world I had experienced but couldn't name.

They declared: "Even though it is not for us to elaborate a very profound analysis of the situation of the world, we have nevertheless been able to perceive the serious injustices which are building around the world of men a network of domination, oppression and abuses which stifle freedom and which keep the greater part of humanity from sharing in the building up of a more just and more fraternal world."

I don't think, in all the books I have written since that document, that I have not quoted from the above statement, or from the equally compelling challenge that began the section on "The Gospel Message and the Mission of the Church," which offered a new understanding of sin not just as individual but as social as well: "In the face of the present-day situation of the world, marked as it is by the grave sin of injustice, we recognize both our responsibility and our inability to overcome it by our own strength. Such a situation urges us to listen with a humble and open heart to the word of God, as he shows us new paths toward action in the cause of justice in the world."

True to the humility it invoked, a subsequent passage of the text acknowledged that the "sin of the world" also could be found in the church itself. This emerged in one of the few admissions I have ever seen in an official "church teaching" of two things: sin in the church and the need for conversion (especially among its leaders).

The bishops stated: "While the Church is bound to give witness to justice, she recognizes that anyone who ventures to speak to people about justice must first be just in their eyes. Hence we must undertake an examination of the modes of acting and of the possessions and the life style found within the Church herself."

Whether this examination has yet been done, I'll leave to the bishops. But to someone like me, who is concerned about justice in our political economy as well as in the church, it gives great consolation to know that the bishops themselves have admitted, at least in this document, their own need for conversion. This is even clearer early in the document, when they stated that as they analyzed the world and listened to the Gospel, they recognized their own need to "be converted to the fulfilling of the divine plan for the salvation of the world."

Another thing I learned during my time at St. Elizabeth, from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was the connection between racism and militarism. I saw this again at the local level, when young black men were coming home in caskets while so many young white men were able to get to deferments.

That led me to protests, including one in 1969 when I got arrested in the Pentagon for praying for an end to the war. Why would a priest working in a parish be concerned about the Vietnam War? I just had to look at the grave sin of racism and militarism in our neighborhood to know the answer.

Since 1971, members of my province have realized the need to address issues of social injustice within our province (especially vis-à-vis our non-clerical, non-white and non-heterosexual brothers) as well as in our far-flung ministries (from the inner-city areas in the Midwest, to native American reservations in Montana, to our "mission" in Nicaragua under the regime of Anastasio Somoza).

Some of the friars who spent time in Washington, D.C., became convinced that they needed to be based within the province's territory to help us in what Paul Freire called conscientization: the need to do social analysis of our own situation, to recognize the injustice involved and, for us as Franciscans, to bring the mission of Jesus to bear upon this reality in a way that would bring "good news to the poor."

The result was the creation of our province's "World Justice and Peace Office." Although I was still in the parish, I was on its board of directors.

In 1973, as part of an ongoing effort of the Catholic bishops of "the North" and "the South" of the Americas, an organization called the Catholic Inter-American Cooperation Program had a meeting in Dallas. As a member of the World Justice and Peace Office’s board, I attended that meeting. The keynote speaker was Radomiro Tomic, the Chilean ambassador to the United States (under Salvador Allende, who later that year was killed in a U.S.-supported coup).

The more Tomic analyzed what the Synod of Bishops called the "situation of the world marked by the grave sin of injustice" as it directly impacted countries like his Chile, the more I saw the parallels within our own parish boundaries. He spoke of outside ownership, deficit balance of payments, and control of the economy by elites, with resulting social consequences (poor housing, poor health care, less healthy foods).

The reality of Chile, I realized, was a macro version of what was going on economically and politically in St. Elizabeth Parish.

That realization was bad enough. It brought home very clearly what the bishops had said in their document about listening "with a humble and open heart to the word of God." After doing his social analysis, Tomic turned to the word of God to see how it applied to the situation of the people of his country. The gist was: "When we now go to the Gospel to see what the Scriptures say about this, the only passage that seems to be honest is the one that says: 'To those who have, more will be given in abundance but from those who do not have, even that will be taken away' " (Matthew 13:12; Mark 4:25; Luke 8:18).

Sitting there at that meeting, hearing that Scripture passage used in that way, I was led to make a commitment: "From now on you have to spend your life to change that abuse of the Scriptures. You have to bring good news to those who are poor. This means solidarity with those who are poor because they struggle for justice."

My life since then has been an effort to realize that promise I made to myself. After giving myself five years to "reconcile" whites and blacks at St. Elizabeth in Milwaukee and going into depression at my sense of failure, I asked to be relieved of this ministry. Still, I knew what I felt called to do: work in the area of social (in)justice.

What first began as an effort to bring good news to those people who are poor as the result of economic and political policies and/or practices in my local community became a new challenge. Businesspeople in corporate meetings and shareholders at annual meetings urged me to "go back" and try to make my own church more just. So, if I was to deal with racial apartheid in South Africa, I had to overcome sexual apartheid in my church. If I was to talk about human rights and greater equality in the workplace and the boardrooms, I had to work to bring about equal access in the sanctuary among those called to priesthood.

Why? Because the bishops themselves have said so: "While the Church is bound to give witness to justice, she recognizes that anyone who ventures to speak to people about justice must first be just in their eyes." The call to conversion is an equal opportunity challenger.

I have discovered that this call for justice in my own church is usually much harder to proclaim (and even harder to see accepted by its leaders) than any work I have done to bring about greater justice in the corporate and political worlds.

Toward the end of their document on justice, the bishops refer to their reflections as an "examination of conscience which we have made together." This examination has a contemporary echo in another examination that Pope Francis says must be memorized and memorialized (i.e., "do this") by every Catholic: the examination of the entire world as announced by the Matthean Jesus in the Beatitudes ("Blessed are ...") and in Chapter 25 ("Lord, when did we see you ... ?").

[Michael Crosby is a Capuchin Franciscan based in Milwaukee. His latest book is Fruit of the Holy Spirit: Pauline Mysticism for the Church Today. His website is]

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