The Catholic social tradition: a larger call to a pluralist community

By Brandon Desiderio
February 13, 2013

The big story about the Catholic Church this week was the surprising retirement of the pope. Who even knew a pope could retire? But Cabrini’s own campus experienced something big in Catholicism, not on the scale of the pope, but important nevertheless.

Catholic Relief Services logo (
Catholic Relief Services logo (

We’ll cut to the chase – it’s about Catholic Relief Services. But how much exactly do you even know about this international, non-governmental organization?

It’s easy for anyone to come to the conclusion that what CRS stands for is textbook Catholicism. In the strictest of definitions, this means it’s all about the Catholic faith itself, that it’s about one billion people looking towards Rome for the go-ahead before they even make a move. (Though if that were the case, this next month without a pope would be a real purgatory for them.)

CRS acts contrary to this stereotype of Catholicism. It presents itself in less restrictive terms and tells a different story – a story of interfaith cooperation, one which calls us to participate in a pluralist society and set aside our differences in order to advance the common good. They frequently work alongside organizations like Oxfam, which was founded by Quakers, and CARE, founded by a mixture of both religious and secular organizations.

Cabrini is hosting its second CRS staff member in residence this academic year, Chandreyee Banerjee. Ms. Banerjee embodies exactly what CRS’s mission stands for, in particular a commitment to social justice and the upholding of the “sacredness and dignity of all human life.”

As she enters her 18th year with CRS, serving from as far away as her homeland of India, to places like Sudan, Zimbabwe, Myanmar, Indonesia and, most recently, Lesotho, Ms. Banerjee has dealt with responsibilities including critical decision-making in the face of natural disasters.

But what makes Ms. Banerjee stand out, we believe, is her non-Catholic faith background. Ms. Banerjee is Hindu; although she works for an organization that upholds Catholic values, her involvement portrays the more universally catholic values at play.

It’s important to mention that, as an international non-governmental organization,

CRS lays its groundwork mostly in communities that aren’t Catholic. CRS doesn’t simply transplant its Catholic employees into non-Catholic areas so, for example, the majority of its employees in Muslim countries are Muslim. CRS truly believes in aiding those in need and includes community members in the process, whether by hiring them on or listening to the overall community’s needs.

The meaning of catholic – “little C” catholic, versus “big C” Catholic – is “universal” or “worldwide.” Without boundary. This is what CRS’s work is most grounded in.

And so it comes as no surprise that Ms. Banerjee will soon enter year 18 with CRS.

Yet, what can be learned from Ms. Banerjee’s involvement with this organization?

Ms. Banerjee is only one cog in the machine of interfaith work, of human rights work. She, like CRS, is committed to those at the margins of society, whether it’s the poor, single mothers, orphans or other minorities. She, like CRS, embodies Catholic social teaching – but at the end of the day, what she embodies is human compassion and ethical wellbeing.

What CRS stands for transcends its own faith tradition: directly in its mission is the assertion that its work is based on “need, not creed.” CRS utilizes its mission as a means of more than faith expression; it’s a means to the end of suffering – of all.

As college students about to embark on careers of our own in just a number of years (or months), we must answer the call to greater justice. We must, like Ms. Banerjee and CRS, commit ourselves to the larger framework of the common good.

Our education here at Cabrini, our education of the heart, should inform our worldview and shape our career prospects; we should strive for better, for excellence – particularly for the marginalized, for those who cannot strive for the same for themselves.

Brandon Desiderio

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