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Roots of Catholic Social Teaching Found in the Old Testament Prophets

 

By Stephen M. Colecchi, D.Min.

Catholic Social Teaching is like an ancient oak tree, whose roots are the Scriptures.  Its trunk has grown in girth throughout the centuries, especially in response to dramatic developments in society. 

Catholic Social Teaching is rooted in the soil of human communities.  Just as the growth of a tree responds to soil and climate conditions, Catholic Social Teaching responds to cultural and societal conditions and draws nutrients from the Word of God. 

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “The Church’s social teaching comprises a body of doctrine, which is articulated as the Church interprets events in the course of history, with the assistance of the Holy Spirit…” (#2422).  The rich tradition of Catholic Social Teaching is “always living and active” (#2421).

The ancient Israelites were inspired by God’s Spirit to build a society that ever more clearly protected human life and dignity.  And like us, they were not always successful.
In their day the prophets raised their voices to defend the poor and call for greater social justice.  The prophet Isaiah proclaimed: 

Ah! Those who enact unjust statutes,
who write oppressive decrees,
Depriving the needy of judgment,
robbing my people’s poor of justice,
Making widows their plunder,
and orphans their prey! (10:1-2).

Time and again the prophets of the Old Testament defended the poor and powerless.  Ezekiel scolded the leaders of Israel:  “You did not strengthen the weak nor heal the sick nor bind up the injured. … but ruled them harshly and brutally” (34:4). In the name of God, Zechariah admonished: “Judge with true justice, and show kindness and compassion toward each other. Do not oppress the widow or the orphan, the resident alien or the poor” (7: 9-10).

The prophets also railed against the injustices inflicted on laborers.  Jeremiah declared: 

Woe to him who builds his house on wrongdoing,
his roof-chambers on injustice;
Who works his neighbors without pay,
and gives them no wages (22:13).

Isaiah warned that God would not recognize ritual fasting because “on your fast day you carry out your own pursuits,/ and drive all your laborers.”  He argued that the fasting God wished consisted in:

releasing those bound unjustly,
untying the thongs of the yoke;
Setting free the oppressed,
breaking off every yoke…
sharing your bread with the hungry,
bringing the afflicted and the homeless into your house (58: 3, 6-7).

The prophets also championed God’s desire for peace.  The prophet Micah echoed the vision of Isaiah:

They shall beat their swords into plowshares,…
One nation shall not raise the sword against another,
nor shall they train for war again. (4:3; cf. Isaiah 2:4).

Jesus himself stood firmly within the tradition of the prophets.  In the Gospel of Luke he describes his mission in the world-transforming words of the Prophet Isaiah:

“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” (4:18; cf. Isaiah 61:1).

Through their powerful witness the prophets nourish and inspire Catholic Social Teaching on the preferential option for the poor, workers’ rights, and justice and peace.
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Stephen M. Colecchi is the director of the Office of International Justice and Peace of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and author of a Leader’s Guide to Sharing Catholic Social Teaching and In the Footsteps of Jesus Parish Resource Manual, both published by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.



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