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President's Office | Remarks: D.C. Council of Catholic Women, 2002

Servant Leadership: Moving from Words to Deeds

As I was preparing my remarks for today, reflecting on the theme of “Servant Leadership – from Words to Deeds,” I found myself thinking about the crises of the past year, and how in the popular culture, especially in media, the words “servant” and “leadership” have almost never been seen together in, say, Time magazine or the Washington Post. We’ve had strong leadership, visionary leadership, military leadership, political leadership, corrupt leadership, even evil leadership. But servant leadership? I doubt that many of the people who claim primacy of place in those other forms of leadership have ever even heard of servant leadership, or they might recoil from the very idea.

Yet, fundamentally, if the world could embrace the ideal of servant leadership, perhaps the other kinds of leadership would not only not be necessary, we might also be able to defeat more readily the corrupt and evil forms of leadership that have pitched this weary globe into such an abyss of horror and despair.

But what is this thing we call servant leadership? I went to the source, Robert Greenleaf, who is widely credited with inventing the term, and he says (quote)…

“The servant leader is servant first…It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead…The best test, and the most difficult to administer is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And what is the effect on the least privileged in society; will they benefit or, at least, not be further deprived?”

How do we put this concept into action in our work as Catholics? The whole idea of servant leadership is essential to living the Gospel well, and to implementing the principles of Catholic social teaching that are truly transformative for our society. In short, to move from words about leadership into action as servant leaders, we have to know and live by the principles of social justice.

And so, in reflecting on how servant leadership becomes action, I thought we should spend some time today talking about the values that undergird servant leadership in our Catholic tradition, which are the values inherent in Catholic social teachings.

The leaders of our Church have made social justice the bedrock of action for more than a century. Pope Leo XIII first articulated the principles in Rerum Novarum, the great encyclical in 1891 that first set out the Church’s position on the rights of workers and the dignity of human life.

Pope John Paul II has made the justice message central to his encyclicals and teachings. In the encyclical Centesimus Annus (100 years after Rerum Novarum) in 1991: “Love for others, and especially for the poor, is made concrete by promoting justice….As far as the church is concerned, the social message of the Gospel must not be considered a theory, but above all a basis and a motivation for action.”

The U.S. Bishops stated the imperative forcefully in their 1986 pastoral on Economic Justice for All: “The pursuit of economic justice takes believers into the public arena, testing the policies of government by the principles of our teaching. We ask you to[use]… your voices and votes to speak for the voiceless, to defend the poor and the vulnerable and to advance the common good. We are called to shape a constituency of conscience, measuring every policy by how it touches the least, the lost, and the left?out among us….[we are called]… to conversion and common action, to new forms of stewardship, service, and citizenship.”

In 1995, the American Catholic Bishops organized the Task Force on Catholic Social Teaching and Catholic Education, chaired by Archbishop John Roach, and I was privileged to be appointed a member of this group. We were educators, parish leaders, theologians, DRE’s and pastors from many corners of the life of the Church in this nation. We spent a good deal of time reflecting on this problem: why does it seem that so many Catholics were absent from class on the day that the social justice teachings were the lesson of the day? Why do so many Catholics dismiss the idea of social and economic justice as some kind of “politically correct” ideology, rather than a central tenet of the Catholic faith? We recommended a number of educational initiatives to counter this problem, including, most importantly, a more widespread effort to educate the laity about social justice.

Over the years, seven integrated themes have emerged in the social justice teachings of the Church. I’d like to reflect briefly on each of these themes and the ways in which we can be true servant leaders by taking the kinds of action the principles suggest.

The bedrock principle:

The Life and Dignity of the Human Person

Perhaps no tenet of our faith has been more distorted in the popular mind than the Church’s teachings on human life. The media have distorted this issue to portray Catholics as some kind of right?wing reactionary sect with a single-issue focus. In fact, the Church’s teachings are seamless and complete across the spectrum of life, from conception to death. No individual human being can make a choice to terminate the life of another or herself, and each human person must be secure in her right to life at all times. As true servant leaders, we must champion civil rights as human rights, and the right to life as a right that the state cannot abridge even in administering criminal penalties. We must insist upon the moral conduct of science and research, accepting the good that technology can create while safeguarding human dignity against the degrading spectacle that technology improperly used can become. We must bear witness against the violence and oppression that torture the human body and soul in too many parts of our nation and world.

Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes calls us to stand against ….”…whatever insults human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children; as well as disgraceful working conditions, where men are treated as mere tools for profit, rather than as free and responsible persons; all these things and others of their like are infamies indeed. They poison human society…”

Women who aspire to be great servant leaders must hear this call to transformation inherent in the Gospel of Life. This is a call to become radically countercultural, confronting the destructive behaviors all around us, building an entirely new social system whose business and entertainment and economic power and educational enterprises and research and development arise from a view of the human being as sacred, not a tool to be exploited, not an obstacle to be eliminated, not a hostage to ideologies of hate or oppression, not a piece of property to be bought and sold at will.

The next three principles of Catholic social teaching touch our families and communities deeply:

Call of Family, Community and Participation
Rights and Responsibilities
Option for the Poor and Vulnerable

Heroic women throughout Catholic and Christian history have given life and meaning to these ideals. We think of the obvious examples of powerful servant leadership, the model of a Mother Theresa or a Sister Katharine Drexel, or Sister Julia McGroarty who founded my own Trinity College. But we also must be mindful of the countless unsung role models, the mothers and teachers and religious women who worked in utter anonymity to create strong families and communities, to teach children from the youngest age about our obligations, rights and responsibilities in the larger community; women who lived this idea of the option for the poor and the vulnerable. This is great servant leadership.

Among all of their examples, we need to embrace most fully that part of the Church’s social teaching that recognizes that human life is social, and community is central to our existence. Because of this, an essential part of the protection of human dignity is ensuring that every human being can enjoy the fullness of life in community, which includes the right to participate in the development of the community. The U.S. bishops framed the issue this way in Economic Justice for All (1986):
“Every economic decision and institution must be judged in light of whether it protects or undermines the dignity of the human person. … We judge any economic system by what it does for and to people and by how it permits all to participate in it. The economy should serve people, not the other way around……..All people have a right to participate in the economic life of society. Basic justice demands that people be assured a minimum level of participation in the economy.”

The religious orders of women who built great systems and institutions of education from early childhood through graduate level higher education knew that the ability to participate in the economy was directly a result of effective education at all levels. Their schools, colleges and universities were created and continue to exist today as monuments to the principles of economic and social justice; for generations of students, they were truly transformative. One of the ways in which new generations of laypeople in the Church can be servant leaders for the future is to take up the work of the religious orders of women in education, to ensure that high quality Catholic education can continue at all levels for many generations to come. Teaching and administering in Catholic schools is one of the high art forms of servant leaders.

Closely linked to the option for the poor and the vulnerable is the next social justice principle:

The Dignity of Work and the Rights of Workers

One of the great women of the 20th Century was Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker and a lifelong advocate for peace and justice. She aptly described the task before us:

“What we would like to do is change the world — make it a little simpler for people to feed, clothe, and shelter themselves as God intended them to do. And to a certain extent, by fighting for better conditions, by crying out unceasingly for the rights of the workers, of the poor, of the destitute — the rights of the worthy and the unworthy poor, in other words — we can to a certain extent change the world; we can work for the oasis, the little cell of joy and peace in a harried world.”

Dorothy Day was born just several years after Leo XIII wrote Rerum Novarum in 1891, the encyclical largely credited with framing the Church’s social teachings; Rerum Novarum still stands out a century later as one of the most riveting statements on the rights of workers. The sad fact remains that around the world and in many places in the United States, labor is still exploited, and the phrase “working poor” is an institutionalized acceptance of the simple fact that corporations profit from unjust wages and working conditions. Human labor is still treated unequally and unfairly based on the worker’s sex, race and national origin. Consider gender equity: according to statistics released just a few weeks ago by the Census bureau, women in the United States still earn only 73 cents on ever dollar earned by men; black women earn only 64 cents on the dollar compared to what white men earn, and hispanic women fare even worse, earning only 52 cents on the dollar compared to white men.

This data is not some feminist rant; this data reveals the chronic, pervasive, institutionalized discrimination against women and people of color that contributes directly to chronic and pervasive poverty, the diminishment of human potential, violence, and the concomitant cheapening of the respect for life in highly stressed populations. Pay equity is a justice issue because it speaks directly to the rights of workers and the option for the poor.

Our concern for the rights of workers also expresses that other great principle of Catholic social teaching, solidarity.

Care for God’s Creation

This final theme in the social justice teachings sometimes surprises people because they are not accustomed to thinking of the Pope and our bishops as environmentally aware. In fact, the Church teachings on the environment are quite profound, and they are consistent with the ethic of life and solidarity with all creation, because the earth does not belong to us, but rather, it is God’s manifestation of his love for us.

If we live by these principles of social justice, we will truly be action-oriented servant leaders. We will be implementing an agenda that, in the words of the US Bishops, is transformative: “We are called .. to conversion and common action, to new forms of stewardship, service, and citizenship…”

We change the world by accepting the need, first, for our own conversion, to leave behind our preconceived notions of what it might mean to love, to give, to share the good news, and to accept the truth that all that we have done already must be done again, and even more fully and completely.

But we are not alone on this journey, and as our bishops also remind us, “….conversion is a lifelong process. And, it is not undertaken alone. It occurs with the support of the whole believing community, through baptism, common prayer, and our daily efforts, large and small, on behalf of justice. As a Church, we must be people after God’s own heart, bonded by the Spirit, sustaining one another in love, setting our hearts on God’s kingdom, committing ourselves to solidarity with those who suffer, working for peace and justice, acting as a sign of Christ’s love and justice in the world.” (Economic Justice for All)

Thanks for listening.

Patricia A. McGuire, President, Trinity, 125 Michigan Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20017
Phone: 202.884.9050   Email:



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