Pier Paolo Cito
Workers check the branches of a Christmas tree that was placed in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican, Monday, Dec. 5, 2011. The Vatican said Ukraine has donated a “majestic” Christmas tree to decorate St. Peter’s Square. The 30-meter (100-foot) high tree will be lit during a ceremony on Dec. 16 attended by prelates from both the Catholic and Orthodox churches in Ukraine.
Jesus came to save the world. In commemorating his birth each Christmas, we ought to remember that the scope of his mission includes all of creation. His saving grace changes not only individuals but through them the treatment of the planet’s resources and the social use of inventions and machines. By making God’s kingdom come, Jesus impacts all created things, including human creations. As the spiritual puts it, “He’s got the whole world in his hands.” Christmas 2011 comes on the eve of an election year when Catholic America is confronted with an escalation in society’s class divisions and a concentration of wealth worse than under the Roman Empire.
The idea that the world needs to be saved – and not just individuals — is contained in the doctrine of original sin as found in the teachings of St. Paul the Apostle. How can he say that a child who has just been born is a sinner? It’s because the world’s history before Jesus made it logical for each individual to care only about him or herself. The evil person alone prospered in the Roman Empire. But Jesus changed that imbalance by substituting for selfishness Christian love of neighbor in Jesus’ name. The world’s original sin of favoring evil over good has been wiped away for those baptized into Jesus’ life and resurrection.
The concept of society’s structural sin that is suggested in Pauline teaching was crystallized in the theology of liberation when it appeared among Latin American theologians after the II Vatican Council. Based on a socio-economic secular analysis of history in secular academia, theologians like Father Gustavo Gutierrez spoke of structural sin. Upholding an unjust political and economic system would only perpetuate injustice, they argued. Good people could be trapped into a web of doing bad things because society fostered a way of acting that normalized immoral behavior.
Detractors have caricatured Liberation Theology as advocating violent revolution against White capitalists. In contrast, based on the Just War Theory, thelogy restricted violence to a response against violent attack, reasoning that self-defense is legitimate when measured by the countervailing force trying to take away human life and liberty. (The Declaration of Independence was founded on that same principle: armed revolution in defense of God-given rights is “as American as apple pie.”)
Christmas 2011 is not a call to violent revolution. But a retrospective look at the past year offers inescapable evidence that social, economic and political structures are undergoing rapid and sweeping change. Whether it is the Arab Spring abroad or the mobilization of the American middle-class at home to attack economic imbalance, such movements have exposed the instability of national and international institutions. We are being called not only to individual reform of thought and action, but concern for the structures of society that shape individuals.
This is the message of Pope Benedict XVI this year for World Peace. “We cannot ignore the fact that some currents of modern culture, built upon rationalist and individualist economic principles, have cut off the concept of justice from its transcendent roots, detaching it from charity and solidarity,” writes the pontiff, echoing an earlier Vatican Committee’s statement in support of the Occupy Wall Street movements around the world that protest laissez-faire Capitalism, the concentration of wealth and the economic philosophy of Ayn Rand. In place of these unfair social principles, the pope calls for “adequate mechanisms for the redistribution of wealth.”
If Benedict XVI were a candidate for the presidency of the United States, his call for “redistribution of wealth” would be controversial. Can it be dismissed as left-wing socialism? No doubt enemies of Catholic social justice will tar the pontiff in this way. But the ideal “from each according to his ability; to each according to his need,” doesn’t originate with Marx. It comes from the Acts of the Apostles (4:34-35; 1:44-45).
This Christmas 2011, then, presents Catholic America with a charge that comes directly from the Holy Father to transform the words “Prince of Peace” into an agenda for direct Catholic action. “Peace for all is the fruit of justice for all,” states the pope, adding poignantly, “no one can shirk this essential task of promoting justice.”