Roots Of Catholic Social Teaching

Peter Buck is a Senior Representative of the Interfaith & Community Sales program at Equal Exchange. This blog post is part of an ongoing series of reflections on the relationship between Fair Trade and Catholic teachings.

Bishop Samuel Ruiz of San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, who aided the founding of CIRSA

Pope Francis’ trip to Mexico, and particularly his visit to the state of Chiapas, reminded me of one of my visits there, when I saw how God transmits social teaching to His people.

Formal Catholic Social Teaching is defined by a set of Papal documents, starting with Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical on the condition of the working class, Rerum Novarum. Ultimately, however, it originates in how God speaks to us in scripture. On a trip to Mexico, I saw how God transmits social teaching to a group of His people there.

In 2008, I led a delegation of our church customers to visit coffee farmers in the Mexican state of Chiapas. We were guests in the village of La Ceiba, and on our first night we were surprised to be greeted with a brass band, speeches of welcome, and a Catholic liturgy led by a local deacon.

The reading was from the book of the prophet Amos. In the eighth chapter Amos delivers God’s warning to those who act unjustly toward the poor, in this case unscrupulous grain merchants in ancient Palestine:

  • 4 Listen to this, you who crush the needy
    and reduce the oppressed to nothing,
  • 5 you who say, “When will the New Moon be over,”
    so that we can sell our corn,
    and Sabbath, so that we can market our wheat?“
  • Then, we can make the bushel-measure smaller
    and the shekel-weight bigger,
    by fraudulently tampering with the scales!
  • 6 “We can buy up the weak for silver,
    and the poor for a pair of sandals;
    and even get a price for the sweepings of the wheat.”

For the farmers of La Ceiba this reading isn’t symbolic, it’s a precise description of how they have been cheated for generations.

EE’s Phyllis Robinson with Padre Joel Padron, a priest of the Diocese of San Cristobal, who helped the farmers of CIRSA found their cooperative

Before they formed a cooperative, the farmers had only one buyer for their coffee beans—the same plantation owner whose land they used to till as debt peons. At harvest, if they took a 60 kilogram bag of coffee to the buyer, it would only weigh 55 kilograms on the buyer’s “fraudulently-tampered” scale; on top of that, the buyer would offer a low price, “buying up the weak for silver.”

With the help of their Bishop these farmers formed the CIRSA cooperative and ultimately found Fair Trade buyers like Equal Exchange who would weigh their coffee honestly and pay an adequate, stable price. The farmers of La Ceiba were happy to welcome us with a brass band, speeches and some instruction in Catholic Social Teaching.

About The Author

Peter Buck

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