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Monday, September 10, 2007

An Alternate Route To Social Justice

Victoria Marie

And they must rejoice when they live among people [who are considered to be] of little worth and who are looked down upon, among the poor and the powerless, the sick and the lepers, and the beggars by the wayside (Francis of Assisi in Lynch OFM, 1998).

Feminist theory encourages the researcher to situate herself. In adherence to feminist principles, I wish to situate myself by showing how I arrive at my passion for social justice. I am an African-American (Canadian) Catholic woman and a member of the Franciscan Sisters of Joy, an ecumenical religious community of women. This social position contains several points of marginality within society and the Catholic Church. The Church as a whole is admittedly patriarchal and in North America is a predominately white institution. The community of sisters to which I belong is marginal within the church because of our stance on living without property as individuals and as a community.

The concept of social justice has a long but uncelebrated history within the Roman Catholic Church. Along with those who accept the status quo of the wider society, there have been individuals and movements whose works went counter to the prevailing attitudes in the church and in society. In recent history, liberation theologians and practitioners are one but not the only example. In this paper, I will discuss two theological traditions which influence my research interests: The Franciscan Movement initiated by Francis of Assisi and the Catholic Worker Movement founded by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin. These movements share philosophical egalitarian perspectives concretely expressed in that each practiced, as much as possible for their time, equality between the sexes and an absence of race-based exclusion. There is an example of Franciscan inclusivity as early as the sixteenth century. Saint Benedict the Black, born 1526 and died in 1589, was appointed superior of his friary in Palermo. In North America, St. Benedict is almost a secret except among Black Catholics. However, he is celebrated in Italy, Spain, Portugal and Latin American. Although I have only recently become familiar with Franciscan history, I have always been deeply influenced by the spiritual tradition of Saints Francis and Clare of Assisi, succinctly called, Franciscan spirituality.

Spirituality, according to Perrin & McDermott (1997) is “an individual’s philosophy, value, and meaning of life” (p. 1). Of significance here is the concept of spirituality as the basic value around which all other values are focused, the central philosophy of life, which guides a person’s conduct (Perrin & McDermott, 1997, p. 7). One tenet of Franciscan spirituality is that even when marginalized, we are all challenged to become the person God has called us to be and to help others to do the same. I live and work in the Vancouver’s inner city. I see and have come to know people with addictions as people, not statistics or problems. As a recovering alcoholic, I know the difficulty involved in trying to stop the slow suicide of addiction.

When we think of the addict as morally bankrupt it allows us to forget that we are a society that bankrupts its citizens through the bottom-line thinking that has mesmerized us. We have no respect, room or tolerance for our visionaries, dreamers, artists and healers unless we can put a price on their visions, dreams, art and healing strategies. We start killing them as soon as they start school. We let corporate money and business decide what our society’s educational and social needs are. Instead of letting people become who God intended them to be, we dictate what they should become according to Market forces. Thea Bowman, an African American Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration, said,

Some people are taught that they are superior, some that they are inferior. Many of us have internalized racist, materialistic and elitist values and assumptions. But I think we have within ourselves the power to reevaluate those assumptions.. . . .It is important to say to your child every day "You're somebody special because you're God's child." And say to your wife or husband, "You're God's gift to me and I really, really, really love you." . . . [Thea] encourages teachers to have their students display their baby pictures on the bulletin board as "heroes and she-roes of the future." Whatever will boost the children’s self-image will go a long way toward equipping them to be leaders in the community (Bowman in Jones, 1988, p. 4).

It was in this context of theology and spirituality that I became aware of issues of social justice. Hence, my motivation in working for social justice is theologically based.

I am no stranger to oppression and marginalization. Like Lange (2000) who sought to find a way to bring the ideas of liberation theology to middle-class Canadians and Zarowny (1992), I recognize the need for a homemade theology of liberation. Zarowny writes:

To borrow Megan McKenna’s analogy of liberation theology as “theology done from the perspective of Job’s dung-heap,” we had tried to borrow the dung-heap of Central America’s majority rather than use our own Canadian dung-heap as the perspective through which to gain guidance and sustenance from Jesus’ teachings (Zarowny, 1992, p. 391).

Similarly, feminist standpoint theory advises that feminist theorizing cannot and should not be done as if coming from one location. These two streams of thought, feminist standpoint theory and theology of liberation, advocate that the work one does should contribute to a change in society by the identification, acknowledgement, and an effort to reduce power differences and by working in solidarity with rather than doing research on those relegated to the periphery of mainstream society. In this context, I see no contradiction between feminist thought and a theology of liberation. I situate myself as being influenced by both perspectives in my research project choices. For me, a theology of liberation occurs at the confluence of the Catholic Worker Movement and Franciscan spirituality. My position may be clarified by the following brief description of the Catholic Worker Movement and my participation in it.

The Catholic Worker Movement was founded in 1933 by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin. Dorothy Day was a journalist involved in the women’s suffrage movement. She was influenced by the Communist philosophy. Day was a pacifist and a supporter of workers’ rights. Day’s common law husband abandoned her when she had their daughter baptized. Soon after, she converted to Roman Catholicism. In 1933, she met Peter Maurin, who introduced her to Catholic social teachings. Maurin advocated “roundtable discussions for the clarification of thought”, “houses of hospitality” an idea based on early and medieval Christian hospices; and “agronomic universities” or farming communes where workers could learn and professors could work (Ellis, 1988). These three ideals became the foundation of the Catholic Worker Movement. At the same time, the Catholic Worker Movement is dedicated to the social justice interpretation of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures and the social teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. The Catholic Worker tradition emphasizes orthopraxy (right practice or right actions) as the expression of orthodoxy (right belief). The members of this movement are not necessarily Catholic or Christian. Hence orthodoxy here means respecting everyone because of the imprint of the Creator on all of creation. For Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, the reason to get involved and the solution to social problems is love and must therefore be rooted in love.

I am a founding and resident member of the Vancouver Catholic Worker. The Vancouver Catholic Worker, in keeping with Catholic Worker tradition offers hospitality —in the form of food, clothing, shelter and friendship —to those who need it; holds roundtable discussions; and has an urban communal “farm” in lieu of an agronomic university.

Smith (2001) compares the Catholic Worker movement and liberation theology stating, “Liberation theology speaks of freedom for the oppressed; the Catholic Worker calls us to voluntary poverty, service and work” (Smith, 2001, p. 163). Smith’s comparison needs modification in that not all adherents of liberation theology are oppressed nor are all Catholic Workers poor voluntarily. Smith advises that those in the first world who appreciate liberation theology and would like to become involved, need look no further than their local Catholic Worker community (Smith, 2001, p. 164).

Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin were greatly influenced by Saint Francis of Assisi. Before his conversion, Francis found lepers abhorrent and went out of his way to avoid them. Shortly after his conversion, Francis encountered a leper who was begging for alms. He braced himself, determined to treat the leper as the suffering Christ personified, and gave the leper the kiss of peace. Francis describes the experience in these words: “that which seemed bitter to me was changed into sweetness of soul and body” (Assisi & Assisi, 1982, p. 154). I relate this story because it illustrates the fundamental aim of the Catholic Worker Movement and Franciscan spirituality which is to learn how to sincerely embrace the leper.

Those with a history of substance abuse, who participate in the sex trade, or are otherwise marginalized by extreme poverty and homelessness, are the “lepers” of modern, mainstream society. Analogously, the marginalized of today are treated as outcasts of society just as actual lepers were in former times. As one who has a history of substance abuse, in addition to being a woman of African descent, marginalization is not foreign territory. Franciscan spirituality, the Catholic Worker Movement, and liberation theology build on and reinforce each other, resulting in a radical theological perspective that challenges the comfortable in the Church, and society in general.


Assisi, Saint Francis of, & Assisi, Saint Clare of. (1982). Francis and Clare: The Complete Works (R. J. Armstrong OFM Cap & I. C. Brady OFM, Trans.). Toronto: Paulist Press.

Ellis, M. (1988). Peter Maurin: To Bring the Social Order to Christ - Part 1. In P. G. Coy (Ed.), A Revolution of the Heart: Essays on the Catholic Worker (pp. 15-46). Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Jones, A. (1988). She Sings a Ululu Story That Began in Africa. National Catholic Reporter, pp. 4.

Lynch OFM, C. J. (1998). Earlier Rule of St. Francis of Assisi. In O. Cyprian J. Lynch (Ed.), An Anthology of Franciscan Poverty. St. Bonaventure: The Franciscan Institute.

Perrin, K. M., & McDermott, R. J. (1997). The spiritual dimension of health: A review. American Journal of Health Studies, 13(2), 90. 9710272768.

Smith, M. R. (2001). The Catholic Worker Movement: Toward a Theology of Liberation for First World Disciples. In W. Thorn & P. Runkel & S. Mountin (Eds.), Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement: Centenary essays (Vol. 32). Milwaukee: Marquette University Press.

Zarowny, Y. (1992). Liberation Theology in a Canadian Context: A Case Study, Liberation Theology and Sociopolitical Transformation: A reader. Burnaby: Institute for the Humanities Simon Fraser University.

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