As we approach Labor Day, we only need to read the signs of the times all around us. The past and the present are a prologue to the future. We all affect history for good or for ill. The spirit of justice and peace must begin in our own hearts before it can penetrate the world.
This once huge world has now become a tiny planet. The miracles of transportation and communication have brought people together as never before. We live in the midst of the greatest movement of people in all of history.
The arrival of newcomers into wealthy areas of the world will continue. However, immigration brings with it the human needs of housing, education, healthcare and social services. To meet these needs in this country is a struggle, but just as America needed workers in the 19th and 20th centuries, so she needs them now.
The call of Jesus to feed the hungry, care for the sick, clothe the naked and house the homeless has been heard over the years. The social teachings of our own Catholic Church have permeated U.S. society. The Church, in the 1930s, established over 100 "labor schools" throughout the country. Great priests in the Archdiocese of Newark had a strong hand in fostering the Trade Union movement. This movement in the United States continues to fight for the rights of workers, both documented and undocumented.
What we as Catholics have done in the past, we must continue to do in the future-only in bigger, better are more creative ways. Today's immigrants will be the mainstays in economic and social fabric of the America of the future. We must regard immigrants as a benefit and an opportunity, not as a liability or a burden.
The Malthusian academics-named after the influential British political economist Robert Malthus (1766-1834)- have been utterly wrong about the populations of the world. They have been predicting an overpopulated, starving world. The reality is that many regional populations are shrinking.
It is estimated that, thanks to abortion and birth control, Europe will lose 88 million people by 2020. Russia has a birth rate that will cut its population almost in half in 50 years. Africa is wasted by AIDS, famine, disease and war. The South American birth rate is plummeting even though the majority of the people are Catholic.
The world is facing a huge problem of vast, aging populations. The United States- because of a recent "baby boomlet" and immigration-remains demographically strong, vibrant and productive. We must continue to fight for life and absolutely oppose abortion, birth control and euthanasia. They spell death for any nation.
When it comes to war and regional conflicts, we are terrified by the thought of what a nuclear holocaust could do. In the 1960s, this dread was referred to as "mutually assured destruction" (MAD). Today some talk about a "clash of cultures," but the vast number of Muslims, Jews, Christians and people of other faiths want a peaceful society. As Catholics, our role is to keep faith and pray for peace. We are called to be peacemakers even as we protect and defend our nation against extremist who would destroy us.
The Church has had an uncanny knack of reading the signs of the times. The popes in the 20th century spoke out about the issues of social justice-war, adequate pay for workers, healthcare, safe working conditions, immigrants, the evil of slavery, right-to-life and civil rights.
Much has been accomplished, but much more needs to be done.
Here are four issues that will be paramount for Catholic social justice concerns in the coming years.
In many corners of the world women are treated shamefully. Mutilation, slavery, forced marriage, murder, prostitution, lack of education and idiosyncratic divorces tragically are common.
Women's rights are the number-one issue today in our world because they affect the singlelargest number of humans. Even in Europe and America, vestiges of the misuse of women continues in many ways. We must all be proponents of a proper feminism.
In the Third World and even in developed parts of the planet, children are routinely exploited as slave labor. They harvest cocoa in Africa. They work as slaves in the Asian textile industry. They are used as pawns in the international pornography industry.
Last June a hearing was held in Congress on human trafficking of children and others. The exploitation of children cries to heaven for vengeance-but the world remains silent. Catholics must never cease to press for the care of children worldwide.
Inequality of Wealth
Many American chief executive officers of Fortune 500 companies make 400 times the wages of the average worker. The world must not split into two separate societies of the rich and the poor. We must never be content with a two-tiered society.
Americans are, in fact, extremely generous when it comes to helping the world's poor. Consider these statistics: in the year 2005 the people of the United States sent $95 billion in cash, goods and services to people overseas. In addition, the U.S. government gave nearly $28 billion dollars to developing countries. A huge part of this aid went for healthcare in developing countries. (Source: Hudson Institute, Washington, D.C.; Web site: www.hudson.org).
Exploitation of Undocumented Workers
Because the are forced to live in the shadows, undocumented workers are easily exploited. They will endure almost anything for a paycheck. In many places they are being reduced to a beggarly status. They are easily cheated and utilized for cheap labor. Human beings are not commodities to be used and thrown away. We must help them and protect their dignity.
These are just four of the social justice issues of the 21st century-issues that will shape ethical questions for American in the near term.
The Church still has a clear vision of the future Kingdom of God. The Church will help to guide her children into the future-if we only will listen. It is for each Catholic to understand that we have the power to change the world, to act for righteousness.
People often say they feel helpless or overwhelmed. The problems are large, but there are small, practical steps we can consider. We all can vote. We can write letters to newspapers and governments. We all belong to social and religious organizations that influence communities.
We all have voices that can be heard. It is our job to raise our voices collectively and individually for those on God's earth who live in destitution and oppression. This is how each generation defines social justice. Blessed are those who seek righteousness, for the Kingdom of Heaven shall be theirs.
(Editor's note: Msgr. John Gilchrist, pastor emeritus of Holy Cross Parish, Harrison, recently celebrated 50 years in the priesthood. Throughout those five decades he has been a leading voice on the front lines of social justice and interfaith dialogue issues. He also has served for many years as a columnist of The Catholic Advocate.)