Posted by: Barry | February 17, 2010

The B Is for Believing: Is Literacy a Catholic Issue?

I recently came across a few unfortunate sentences in an otherwise good book.  It’s too bad, because this book, published recently, is a collection of fine essays from a well-respected Catholic publisher.  I won’t identify the book or the author, because neither deserves to be trashed.  The sentences come in the midst of a good chapter on how the surrounding culture impacts the church and how the church is called to impact the culture.  The author writes,

The church has (or should have) no particular stake in encouraging literacy: the vast majority of Catholics have always been illiterate, and this is not a problem.  It may even make the practice of Christianity easier.

Um, no. 

First of all, the author needs to review his Catholic social teaching.  No less than Popes Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI have been clear about the church’s committment to human development, incuding in the realm of literacy. 

Here’s Pope Paul VI in his 1967 encyclical Populorum Progressio:

We can even say that economic growth is dependent on social progress, the goal to which it aspires; and that basic education is the first objective for any nation seeking to develop itself. Lack of education is as serious as lack of food; the illiterate is a starved spirit. When someone learns how to read and write, he is equipped to do a job and to shoulder a profession, to develop selfconfidence and realize that he can progress along with others…. Literacy is the first and most basic tool for personal enrichment and social integration; and it is society’s most valuable tool for furthering development and economic progress. (n. 35)

Pope John Paul II, in the encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialis in 1987:

However, the picture just given would be incomplete if one failed to add to the “economic and social indices” of underdevelopment other indices which are equally negative and indeed even more disturbing, beginning with the cultural level. These are illiteracy, the difficulty or impossibility of obtaining higher education….  If some of these scourges are noted with regret in areas of the more developed North, they are undoubtedly more frequent, more lasting and more difficult to root out in the developing and less advanced countries.

The obligation to commit oneself to the development of peoples is not just an individual duty, and still less an individualistic one, as if it were possible to achieve this development through the isolated efforts of each individual. It is an imperative which obliges each and every man and woman, as well as societies and nations. In particular, it obliges the Catholic Church and the other Churches and Ecclesial Communities, with which we are completely willing to collaborate in this field.   (nn. 15, 32)

And recently, Pope Benedict XVI, in his encyclical Caritas in Veritate (2009), echoing and reaffirming Paul VI:

Paul VI had an articulated vision of development. He understood the term to indicate the goal of rescuing peoples, first and foremost, from hunger, deprivation, endemic diseases and illiteracy.  (n. 21)

And frankly, even without the easy research it takes to dig up these passages (took me about 20 minutes with a basic reference book), common sense tells us the same thing.  Care for the poor is an indispensible aspect of Christian living, and in the modern world, it’s almost impossible to avoid or step out of poverty while illiterate.  If caring for the poor has anything to do with a desire that they not be poor, it will necessarily mean, in today’s world, promotion of literacy. 

As to whether illiteracy “makes  the practice of Christianity easier,” the names of many great heroes of Christian living leap to mind whose ability to read, write, and study enabled them to live their faith more fully, delve into it more deeply, and share it with others more effectively.  Just to scratch the surface, I’d mention Paul and John, Augustine and Jerome, Thomas Aquinas and Teresa of Avila, Martin Luther and Robert Bellermine, Deitrich Bonhoeffer and Dorothy Day, John Paul II and Benedict XVI. 

All this to say that ABLE Families is a Catholic organization whose mission — to confront the systemic causes of poverty by supportiing low-income families as they make positive changes in their lives — is rooted in the principles mentioned above.  It was founded by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Wheeling (now the Congregation of St. Joseph).  I have come to know quite a few of these sisters since arriving here, and I have no doubt that each of them would insist on this: their Catholic Christian faith has everything to do with the reason they began this work of justice and development here in Mingo County.  I know that it remains at the foundation of that work, 15 years later.

In the modern world, being on the side of the poor will always mean promoting literacy, education, nutrition, and social and economic development in general.  That’s why it’s one aspect of Catholic social teaching.  Belief in that teaching, and in the scriptural principles that undergird it, is why we do it here.

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