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Christ Among Us is the Heart of Social Doctrine

By Christopher Dodson
Executive Director
North Dakota Catholic Conference
December 2021

Christians know the temptations of Christmas. Every Advent season, our priests remind us to focus on the coming of Christ as an infant and not to get distracted by gifts, parties, lights, decorations, concerts, and travel.

Yet even well-intentioned and well-disciplined Christians can miss the deeper significance of Christmas, which is the incarnation of God. Christmas is more than the observance of a birthday on the calendar. It is the celebration of the visible manifestation that God entered this world and became flesh.  

We often forget that for much of the ancient world and still for many religions today, the idea that God would touch the earth, much less become human, was and is scandalous. If God was truly God, it was thought, he would not or could not lower himself to become material and human, like us. Human existence was considered not just imperfect, but too much marked by pain, misery, fear, violence, unknowns, and, of course, death. A true god, it was thought, could not demean himself by touching such a lowly existence.

Yet that is what happened. God not only walked on this earth, he assumed human nature from the moment of his conception within the Virgin Mary.

Christmas, therefore, is not just a birthday celebration. It is a recognition of the most significant event in human history and a fundamental principle of our faith and life.

In the document of the Second Vatican Council, Gaudium et Spes, the council fathers stated: “For by His incarnation the Son of God has united Himself in some fashion with every man. He worked with human hands, He thought with a human mind, acted by human choice and loved with a human heart. Born of the Virgin Mary, He has truly been made one of us, like us in all things except sin.” (no. 22)

Because of this, the church puts the incarnation at the center of her social doctrine. The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church states “for this reason [the incarnation] the Church recognizes as her fundamental duty the task of seeing that this union is continuously brought about and renewed. In Christ the Lord, the Church indicates and strives to be the first to embark upon the path of the human person, and she invites all people to recognize in everyone — near and far, known and unknown, and above all in the poor and the suffering — a brother or sister ‘for whom Christ died’ (1 Cor 8:11; Rom 14:15).” (no. 105)

Put more simply, because God became human, humans matter. And because we are created in God’s image, all humans have a dignity that is not earned and cannot be taken away.  

Political and economic ideologies tend to reduce humans to mere pawns that fit their agenda. The church, remembering the incarnation, rejects these attempts to reduce humans to mere instruments or pawns in a class, national, or racial struggle.

Instead, the church puts the human person at the center of social life. All economic, business, political, and social matters must put first the human person, especially the least of among us. The Compendium states: “Human society is therefore the object of the social teaching of the Church since she is neither outside nor over and above socially united men, but exists exclusively in them and, therefore, for them” (no. 106).

It states further: “Men and women, in the concrete circumstances of history, represent the heart and soul of Catholic social thought” Moreover, that the church must “defend human dignity in the face of every attempt to redimension or distort its image” and denounce “the many violations of human dignity.” (no. 107)

The Church teaches that we must do this not just because it is a good thing to do or that respecting others is good for society. Those things are true. But if we do good toward others just because it is good for us, we are missing the point. “Do not the pagans do the same?” (Mt. 5:47)

We put the human person at the center of social life because we put Christ at the center of our life. The human person is the clearest reflection of God’s presence in the world. (US Bishops The Challenge of Peace, #15).  

This brings us back to Christmas. That baby lying in the manger is our savior, but human, like us. Jesus was an unborn baby. Jesus was conceived and born in what was considered a scandalous situation. Jesus was a refugee. Jesus was poor. Jesus lived in an occupied land. Jesus came from a marginalized, dismissed town. Jesus was at times ignored. Jesus suffered. Jesus was put to death by the state.  

Everywhere we look in society, there he is. In the unborn, the scandalized, the refugee, the poor, the marginalized, the ignored, the suffering, and the condemned, there is Jesus. Christmas means Emmanuel — he walks among us. He, the child whose birth we celebrate, is the heart of Catholic social doctrine.

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The North Dakota Catholic Conference acts on behalf of the Roman Catholic bishops of North Dakota to respond to public policy issues of concern to the Catholic Church and to educate Catholics and the general public about Catholic social doctrine.
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