Research suggests that, on average, we make well more than 200 decisions every day about what we eat and drink. And yet, most people are aware of making only 15 to 20 daily nutrition-related decisions. These findings could easily be extrapolated to other areas of decision-making throughout a typical day. Not only do many of our choices lack intentionality, but often we aren’t even aware we’re making decisions at all.
We humans are an adaptive bunch. Arguably, there are thousands of micro-decisions to be made each day, and it would be overwhelming to deliberate over each one. (Chidi from The Good Place, anyone?) Part of the problem is that our commercialized culture presents us with a dizzying array of choices about things that don’t really matter, as author Thomas Merton famously diagnosed one day while shopping for toothpaste after spending the previous months “off the grid.”
The trick is to identify which decisions are worth weighing carefully and which aren’t. It might help to relearn the art of asking what might be termed “foundational questions.” Foundational questions come packaged in the rawest, most basic language and demand an answer not just from the information in our heads but from the very fabric of how we understand the mysteries of life.
Asking foundational questions is built into the very DNA of toddlers and college students, but somewhere along the way we mistakenly “outgrow” the habit. During our young professional years, many of us are busy developing the expertise and specialization necessary to analyze profit margins, decipher CT scans, or diffuse temper tantrums. Incidentally, the young professional years — when there is the least amount of mental and emotional space for asking foundational questions — are when many of us begin making for ourselves what might equally be called foundational decisions that shape the course of our lives and the type of people we’re becoming: deciding what neighborhood we live in, what kind of work we will do, and what and how much we consume.
For more than two millennia, folks in the Church have been asking foundational questions about life in this beautiful, broken, and messy world in light of three beliefs central to the Catholic Christian faith: 1) God lovingly created a good world; 2) the goodness of creation has been damaged by sin; and 3) God became human and invites us to participate in His saving work here and now toward our final good in the life to come.
Guided by these three tenets, people of faith and goodwill throughout the Church’s history have accumulated questions, time-tested good ideas, and real-life examples in building up what is known as the Catholic social tradition, or CST. In short, CST poses a single question to people of every nationality, race, creed, and social standing: How ought we live our daily lives in a way that moves the world as it is closer to the world as God in His love meant it to be?
The insights of CST are timeless but perhaps have never been more timely. In a world that feels simultaneously hyperconnected yet disquietingly isolated, CST holds onto the unflinching conviction that absolutely every aspect of our lives is rich in meaning and is imbued with sacred and eternal significance. CST is not a straightjacket prescribing our every movement. Instead, it is an invitation to ask truly foundational questions as part of a faith community that transcends our own limited historical and geographical corner of space and time.
Here are a few examples of how the Catholic social tradition can be used as a lens for asking foundational questions in the face of pressing issues of our day.
Dignity of life and option for the poor
Madelyn Linsenmeir died in October 2018 after a battle with opioid addiction, and her sister wrote a heart-wrenching obituary that captured the nation’s attention, including a feature in People magazine. Her town’s police chief, Brandon del Pozo, wondered:
“Did readers think this was the first time a beautiful, young, beloved mother from a pastoral state got addicted to Oxy and died from the descent it wrought? And what about the rest of the victims, who weren’t as beautiful and lived in downtrodden cities or the rust belt? They too had mothers who cried for them and blamed themselves. [I]f Maddie was a black guy from the Bronx found dead in his bathroom of an overdose, it wouldn’t matter if the guy’s obituary writer had won the [Man] Booker Prize, there wouldn’t be a weepy article in People about it.”
With the anguish and fatigue of someone who deals daily with the ravaging effects of the opioid epidemic, del Pozo in effect raises the foundational question: “Whose lives and deaths are worth our attention?” In the language of the Catholic social tradition, del Pozo articulates a belief in the unshakable dignity of each human person made equally in God’s image, no matter how “beautiful, young, [or] beloved” that person may be.
A consistent ethic of the dignity of each human life upends the implicit hierarchy of whose stories matter. Del Pozo’s passing suggestion to employ a person of exceptional skill (aka, the winner of a Man Booker prize) to eulogize someone whose death might otherwise go unnoticed illustrates the logic of CST’s preferential option for the poor — those whose dignity is most in jeopardy deserve the greatest attention and choicest resources. The Old and New Testaments alike are replete with examples of God’s particular care for the lowly and marginalized.
Common good and solidarity
In the wake of the horrific mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, local Jewish community activists penned an open letter to President Trump regarding his plans to visit Pittsburgh to offer condolences. In the letter, the authors refuse to accept a display of presidential sympathy for their tragedy until greater sensitivity is shown to other groups the authors say have experienced exclusion as a result of the executive office’s policies and rhetoric. Whether or not we each agree with the group’s argumentation or tactic, we can take note of the ethical gauntlet they throw down by essentially asking: “Do I deserve the good that someone else is denied?”
Their foundational question arises out of the bedrock belief that their own well-being as a Jewish community is intimately connected to the well-being of other marginalized groups. In the parlance of CST, a commitment to the common good — the flourishing of each and every person since each person possesses the same inalienable human dignity — is born out of a deep-seated sense of solidarity, the willingness to share in the struggles and well-being of others. In the Christian tradition, Jesus stands as the ultimate example and teacher of solidarity who lived what he preached: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13).
Rights and responsibilities, care for creation
At age 15, Nick Venner became a plaintiff as one of the so-called “climate kids” suing the United States federal government over global warming. He reflected: “I chose to join the case because it sounded like something I could actually do….It’s hard for legal experts to deny the rights of young people. We are the future. They will be long gone before the long-term effects (of climate change) ever hit them.”
Venner and his peers essentially asked themselves this question: “What must I do to make the world a better place for myself and others?” The Catholic social tradition speaks of the correlation of rights and responsibilities, or the inherent relationship between what we believe we are entitled to (in this case, a healthy, safe planet) and what we are obligated to do (namely, work to reverse the effects of climate change). The “climate kids” recognize their responsibility to care for creation and to participate as members, not masters, of a delicate global ecosystem.
Dignity of work
Familiarity with the Catholic social tradition doesn’t mean having all the answers. In fact, the reverse is true: CST helps us to question the easy answers that pass as conventional wisdom. No matter what stage of life or place in the world we find ourselves in, it is always good timing to grow more attentive of the decisions we are making, the questions we need to ask, and the resources near and far that can assist us in the most dignified work of all: nudging this world with our every word and deed closer to the world God created it to be.
A truly good life is the fruit of cultivating the discipline to continue doing what we did instinctively as kids and curious college students: asking real questions that demand answers not just from the head, but from our very hearts and with our bodies. We can take real comfort in the knowledge that we are not alone. Indeed, a whole community of saints and sinners and everyone in between has traveled this road through the living Catholic social tradition — they’ve found it worth doing and left us a record of what they accomplished and what remains yet to do.
Hope to see you on the road. We all need you.