& religious responses
Our Western world has become increasingly secular since the 1960s. The new empires of Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Twitter, the mass media, and consumerism shape our daily lives. At the same time religion has increasingly become marginalized. In the pre-Vatican II days, Christians wanted to save their souls; today they must help save the soul of society. Here are some basic issues that need to be addressed.
Our political divisions hide deep wounds. The culture wars of the past have infested the whole fabric of society. How can we reconcile CNN and Fox News, the Republicans and the Democrats? The basic attitude of partisanship is, "I am right and you're wrong. I have a rebuttal to whatever you may say, and I do not need to listen to you." This attitude needs deep healing. We need to be able to watch both CNN and Fox News for 5 or 10 minutes without thinking of a rebuttal. We must learn to summarize the positions of CNN or Fox News objectively, and explain them to a third party without taking sides. This is very hard. I am not good at it. It requires daily practice. "Listen and repeat" is a basic principle of communication. It is ecumenism in daily life. If churches cannot reconcile ecumenically, how can Christians be messengers of peace in a divided world?
Poverty and inequality
We are aware of the increasing inequality. The social safety nets to help escape poverty are being withdrawn, and the new tax law is likely to increase the income of the wealthy few. The 10% increase of military spending to over $630 billion requires deep cuts in social programs. Homelessness and food insecurity have become a permanent state for millions. Technological innovation and climate change are likely to increase the gap between rich and poor nations.
What can be done? I do not work in a soup kitchen and do not engage in social activism. But all of us can help financially. Americans gave an estimated $390 billion to charities in 2016, more than half the amount of the military budget. Catholics supposedly put $8 billion in the Sunday collection plate, but if they were to give $16 billion, they would only equal the percent given by Protestants (2% vs. 1%). And if they were to tithe like evangelicals, they would offer the church about $80 billion. These 80 billion would probably eradicate most poverty in the US. This is the way to go; this is what I do. What about you?
Nutrition and health
About two thirds of American adults are overweight. It is a national problem. It is linked to health issues such as diabetes and heart attack. There is an obvious moral dimension: our food is our primary medication and we get to chose it. Until recently, the nutritional value of food was not well known. Diet drinks and foods may be low in calories but poor in nutritional value. There is an enormous need for nutritional knowledge first, and food control second.
Most religions encourage food control, but Christianity seems to have given up on it. The Reformation rejected the ascetic practices of fast and abstinence. Millions of Americans fast to lose weight but very few fast for religious reasons. In the past, food overindulgence was considered a sin (gluttony), but now it may even be considered a sign of health. Nutritionists recommend eating fish once or twice a week for health reasons, but the Catholic Church has given up on it as an ascetic practice. It is time to reconsider food control for spiritual reasons. A vegetarian diet is a good practice during advent and lent, at least a few times. I am no fan of physical exercise, but going to the gym can also be an ascetic practice of self control. And setting aside some time every day for silence and recollection is good for both physical and spiritual health.
The narcotic addiction is probably the most deadly, alcohol and drug addictions may be as deadly but they are individual cases, but the cellphone addiction will have more serious consequences because so many people are involved in it. Cell phone addiction began with texting. According to Pew research, in 2011 addiction was prevalent among young adults: the 18 to 24 year olds averaged 109.5 text messages per day and 12% of them more than 200. In 2015 on average, people of all ages checked their phones 46 times per day and 74 times among those aged 18 to 24. For all consumers, this amounted to 195 minutes per day. A recent Baylor University study found that students in their sample spent on average 94.6 minutes on texting, 48.5 minutes on emails, 38.6 minutes checking Facebook, 34.4 minutes surfing the Internet, and 26.9 minutes listening to music. 60 percent of them admitted being addicted to their cell phone.
The most powerful healing tool of the 20th century was the 12 steps of Alcoholic Anonymous which read: 1) admit that you are addicted; 2-3) seek the help of a Greater Power; 4) make a fearless moral inventory of yourself; 11) Seek to improve through prayer and meditation; and at all times, apply the serenity prayer. Only spiritually religious people could have crated such a tool and they will continue to promote it. Others may use drugs to combat drugs.
Individual vs. institutional solutions
Most people believe that it is the institutions of government, education, the police, religion, etc. that should address and solve today's social problems. A good example of this attitude is found in Economic Justice for All of the American bishops. The basic policy issues they addressed were employment, poverty, food and agriculture, and the economic development of nations. On all these issues, their proposals could only be implemented by the executive and legislative branches of government, and to a lesser degree by business. There was no concrete invitation for individual participation. Their letter read like a platform for the democratic party at the time of Reaganomics and a Republic Congress.
Institutional solutions are indeed most effective but I believe that we must begin with our part, e.g. on partisan politics through listening; combatting poverty through contributions of time, talent, and money; self-control in food and health through ascetic practices, and addiction through the 12 steps. These solutions are within everyone's reach.