Saintly Social Activists

Book Pick: Saints and Social Justice


A Guide to Changing

the World

By Brandon Vogt

Our Sunday Visitor, 2014

160 pages, $12.95

To order:


In his new book, Brandon Vogt takes a new focus in presenting Catholic social teaching: He uses the lives of 14 saints to explain seven themes in Catholic social teaching.

The saints lived in the fifth to 20th centuries: Sts. Benedict, Giles, Isidore, Frances of Rome, Thomas More, Roque González, Peter Claver, Vincent de Paul, Damien of Molokai and John Paul II — as well as Blesseds Anne Marie Javouhey, Pier Giorgio Frassati and Teresa of Calcutta, plus Servant of God Dorothy Day.

In addition to the saints he treats in detail, Vogt also intersperses examples of others’ lives to reinforce his point. Thus, Blessed Frédéric Ozanam expands St. Vincent de Paul’s charitable work; St. Maximilian Kolbe’s death illustrates the solidarity St. John Paul II preached; and “Cowboy Priest” Blessed José Brochero exemplifies a ministry to lepers in 19th-century Argentina just like St. Damien was performing almost simultaneously in Hawaii.

Vogt addresses Catholic teaching through these saints’ lives because he is convinced lived testimony is the best teaching: “I don’t spend much time on abstract theory. I want to show, rather than teach, Catholic social teaching, for I agree with Pope Paul VI’s observation: ‘Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers.’”

Each biography is capped with a “lessons learned” for the saint, with many practical suggestions. Like Mother Teresa, readers can find the poor and abandoned in their own Calcuttas — such as down the street, in the elderly woman nobody visits; like Peter Claver, they can help people escape contemporary slavery, be it human trafficking or addictions to alcohol, sex or drugs; like Anne-Marie Javouhey, they can enable others to pursue their futures by supporting micro-finance projects such as those Catholic Relief Services promotes. The key point is: Reach out to the poor as individuals, as persons.

Although this is a good introduction to the social-justice concept, I do have some reservations about it. It contains some factual errors: Karol Wojtyła-John Paul II’s nickname, “Lolek,” does not mean “goalkeeper,” nor did he become a cardinal in 1964.

My main hesitation is a certain underlying tone to the book one might call anti-capitalist. Yes, capitalism has its moral defects. But it has also been the vehicle for moving the most people up the economic ladder out of poverty. Authentic Catholic stewardship doesn’t reside in any one economic system, and while some are better than others, the author should have explained this point in greater detail.

However, throughout his book, Vogt never forgets the centrality of faith to effective Catholic social witness: “Mother [Teresa] and her sisters celebrated Mass every morning. ... Mother Teresa knew how crucial this was. Seeing Christ in the Eucharist enabled her to see him in the streets. ‘If we recognize [Jesus] under the appearance of bread ... we will have no difficulty recognizing him in the disguise of the suffering poor.’”

John M. Grondelski writes from Shanghai, China.

Pope Francis waves to pilgrims during his Angelus address August 30, 2020.

Pope Francis: The Path to Holiness Requires Spiritual Combat

Reflecting on Sunday’s Gospel, the pope said that “living a Christian life is not made up of dreams or beautiful aspirations, but of concrete commitments, in order to open ourselves ever more to God's will and to love for our brothers and sisters.”