This post attempts to explain the sociological and theological meaning of social action as well as clarify why Christians must engage in social action as part of their Christian faith.
What is the Social Action?
The term “social action” is important in Church teaching and Catholic Theology. It denotes a very essential aspect in every Christian’s spiritual life vis-à-vis the social world. Within sociology, the term social action is connected with the work of the German sociologist Max Weber. For Max Weber, an action is social insofar as, by virtue of the subjective meaning attached to it by the acting individual (or individuals), it takes account of the behavior of the others and is thereby oriented in its course. The concern of Weber in this definition is to explore an important shift within western societies guided by tradition, values and emotions, toward “rational action”. Social action is a rational action where the means to attain a particular goal are chosen through systematic reasoning. Within educational and welfare arenas “social action” is often used to simply mean efforts to improve social conditions, or to address the needs of a particular group deemed to constitute a social problem. In short, “social action is an endeavour seeking to improve human welfare, deepen civic culture and develop group life and commitment to others” (http://www.infed.org). In the Catholic Church, social action is part of the social mission of the Church of liberating society from social and structural sins. It is an action rooted in faith that is related to the social doctrines of the Church and thus specifically called as Christian Social Action.
What is Christian Social Action?
The Second Plenary council in the Philippines ( PCP II) views Christian social action as any action carried out by the Church and its members to promote human development, justice in society, and peace. Citing the 1971 Synod of Bishops, it is an action in behalf of justice and participation in the transformation for the world which is a constitutive dimension in the preaching of the Gospel (PCP II #165).
In short, a Christian social action is any personal or collective action of an individual Christian believer or groups of believers or of the institutional Church which aims to transform society by promoting human development, justice and peace in accordance with the demands of the Gospel. This type of action belongs to the Church’s social apostolate. Guided by the social doctrines of the Church, Christian social action may take different forms. It can be a community organizing work, lobbying against an unjust bill in Congress, joining mass action or prayer rally, writing pastoral letters, providing livelihood to the poor, lawyering for the poor, participating a seminar on responsible voting, organizing labor union or cooperatives, so on and so forth. What is essential in this action is its motivation—the Christian who does Christian social action is motivated by faith. S/he does it for the sake of the Gospel of Christ and for the Church. Without the element of faith and worship, social action can easily become a form of activism devoid of Christian meaning.
The Nature of the Christian Faith
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One must remember that the Christian faith is neither all about social activism nor all about piety and religious rituals nor all about saving the individual’s soul, but a fine blend of spiritual and social struggle for the total liberation of the individual as well as of the entire society from all forms of sin and social injustices for the sake of the Gospel. The Second Vatican Council (Vatican II) indicated that the mission of the Church in contemporary world is helping human being to discover God as the ultimate meaning of his/her existence (CSDC #576).
Doing Social Action is Integral to the Church’s Mission
The Church’s mission is the total salvation of the individual and society from spiritual and material slavery. Echoing the words of Pope Paul VI, the Philippine Bishops clarifies the holistic nature of the mission of the Church:
“This is EVANGELIZATION: the proclamation, above all, of SALVATION from sin; the LIBERATION from everything oppressive to man; the DEVELOPMENT of man in all his dimensions, personal and communitarian; and, ultimately, the RENEWAL OF SOCIETY in all its strata through the interplay of the GOSPEL TRUTHS and man’s concrete TOTAL LIFE (Pope Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi, n.9,29). THIS IS OUR TASK. THIS IS OUR MISSION “(PCP II #166).
Christians would have a distorted Christian faith if is just focused on purely spiritual matters of the soul, without doing social action for the total liberation of society from social sins. Christian social action for the total salvation of society is necessary for every Christian who professes to be a true disciple of Christ. The Christian faith would become mere pietism without the Christians’ genuine participation in the social apostolate of the Church. The Bible says that faith without action is dead. Therefore, true Christians do social action to reform society according to God’s will.
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