Rowing Together for Social Justice

Last Friday the students enjoyed a day off while all of the Saint Ignatius faculty, staff, and administration participated in a day focused on the papal document Laudato Sí. This encyclical, or letter to the world, focuses on – as its subtitle states – the care for our common home. Our featured speaker for the day was Dan Misleh, the founding Executive Director of the Catholic Climate Covenant, and someone who has worked for a number of years to show both the importance of placing care for the environment under the umbrella of Catholic social justice teaching as well as the link between the environment and the lives of our most vulnerable sisters and brothers around the world.

Near the conclusion of his talk Dan put a photo of a crew shell up on the big screen in the Breen Center. He spoke briefly of the inspirational best-seller The Boys in the Boat, and quoted from one of the athletes featured in the book who described how he got through the gold medal race despite the almost unbearable pain that wracked his body. He knew that his oar was one of eight in the boat and that victory was in their grasp if and only if each rower continued to do his job. His trust in the other seven rowers and his desire to never let them down enabled him to continue to the finish line and earn the gold medal.

Dan used this image to point out that on this issue of care for the environment and for the poor we need to row together if we are going to be able to live up to our charge, given by God from the very beginning of time, to be stewards of our common home and faithful sisters and brothers to the most vulnerable members of our human family.

While Dan spoke I was hit by the appropriateness of this image to represent not just this issue, but all social justice concerns about which the Church is required to speak. Just as there is inter-relatedness between the environment and the poor, so is there a link between every one of the world’s ills, and the Church is in the unique position of being able to both see that inter-relatedness and propose a plan of action to help solve those ills.

As I imagined it, the rowing shell represents the social justice vision of the Catholic Church and each of the oars is one of the pillars upon with the Church’s teaching is built. There are those who will row with the ‘Life and Dignity of the Human Person’ oar while someone else will row with the ‘Care for God’s Creation’ oar while still another will row with the ‘Option for the Poor and Vulnerable’ oar. Someone who is interested in rowing with the ‘Rights and Responsibilities’ oar would sit alongside a person using the ‘Dignity of Work and the Rights of Workers’ oar. The ‘Solidarity’ oar would move in the same cadence as the ‘Call to Family, Community, and Participation’ oar.

Not everyone cares for each social justice issue equally: some focus on the environment while others fight for the rights of the unborn or the poor or displaced peoples or workers. It seems better to focus on one oar rather than be discouraged by so many oars and never get in the boat.

As in an actual race, the ultimate key to success is rowing together. This means that everyone understands that it is never acceptable to help one social justice cause at the expense of another. It also means never aligning with those who are willing to sacrifice one group of people in favor of another, especially if that group, like the unborn or the marginalized, has no voice of its own.

The Church has a responsibility to be clear in Her social justice message – we are not a one or two issue Church. But the other side of that coin is our responsibility – we need to work for the issue or the issues that are closest to our hearts, but always in concert with those who work for issues about which we might have less concern or even might be totally indifferent.

The rowing metaphor would not be complete without including the person in charge – the coxswain. We are most fortunate to be led by a man who understands the inter-relatedness of the oars and who has no patience for those who want to row as if they were the coxswain. Francis courageously leads us, knowing full well that if all the oars aren’t moving together, then the Catholic vision of social justice can never cross the finish line.

Addendum: As with all metaphors, they break down if pushed too hard. Mine has issues with the number of oars – the careful reader would have noticed only seven oars and would have deduced that a seven-oared boat would simply travel in a circle, never reaching the finish line. Well…my boat’s eighth oar is rowed by Connor Walters ’09: Wildcat Crew Coach, Communications Coordinator, and the man who faithfully edits and posts this blog. So there.