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Complacency, Virtue, and Catholic Social Services

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Feb 22, 2011

The forthcoming replacement of Lesley Anne Knight as head of Caritas raises questions about the identity of Catholic social services. It has become commonplace for official and semi-official Catholic social agencies at a variety of levels to accept secular moral standards of service, either out of complacency or as a craven means of obtaining ideologically-restricted government subsidies.

For example, one agency or another around the world has been featured in news reports concerning the placement of adoptive children with gay couples, the distribution of condoms as a means of reducing the incidence of AIDS, and the facilitation of abortions in difficult circumstances. Or a Catholic agency’s services may be indistinguishable from its secular counterparts in terms of personalized care, engagement with the whole person, and witness to spiritual goods or to the Faith itself. Too often, a “professional” attitude is adopted, as if providing assistance is simply a matter of allocating scarce resources rather than heartfelt care for the person in need.

In his encyclical Deus Caritas Est, Pope Benedict XVI outlined the qualities which must be possessed by Church aid workers. Under the very first heading, he argued that professional competence, though necessary, is insufficient:

Consequently, in addition to their necessary professional training, these charity workers need a “formation of the heart”: they need to be led to that encounter with God in Christ which awakens their love and opens their spirits to others. As a result, love of neighbor will no longer be for them a commandment imposed, so to speak, from without, but a consequence deriving from their faith, a faith which becomes active through love (cf. Gal 5:6). [31]

What happens very frequently in the Christian life is that we take pride in the good that comes easily to us and ignore our deeper need for continual transformation in Christ. This is a particular danger for any who are privileged to work full time in some sort of nominally Christian service. In my own case, for example, I might be led to think I am an outstanding Christian because I run a Catholic web site and write about Catholic topics. Yet clearly I find such writing pleasurable; it is exactly what I am inclined to do. So too can an aid worker believe himself to be an exemplary disciple by virtue of professional involvement in the distribution of social services. In exactly this way, “Christian workers” learn to take pride in their spiritual depth when they are really simply satisfied with their jobs.

In the same fashion, a man might think himself a fine Christian if he is sober, provides well for his family, and is rarely moved to harsh words. But all of this might arise from his natural temperament and accidental circumstances; none of this may be difficult, and he may not be otherwise inclined at all. Or a woman might find “holy satisfaction” in the fact that she checks in frequently with her friends and is always ready with an encouraging word or a helping hand, when really she does these things largely because she enjoys the resulting company. In all these ways we too often evaluate ourselves like priggish children or spoiled teachers' pets, satisfied because we are always “good”—in the self-satisfying ways we are naturally inclined to be good!

It was not so with Jesus Christ, Who tested His goodness through the Cross and advised all of us to do the same. The question we must ask is how we are doing in the things we find difficult, and especially in those aspects of a good life which the world does not approve and encourage. Even here the danger of complacency creeps in. Many are the naturally combative and highly dogmatic souls who delight in tweaking the world’s nose, but can spare no tender energy for the bruised wick or the smoldering reed! No, in the end we must test our own virtue in that which runs counter to our natural inclinations. We must prove it in whatever we find difficult.

In one of his sermons, Blessed John Henry Newman put this very well:

Now let every one consider what his weak point is; in that is his trial. His trial is not in those things which are easy to him, but in that one thing, in those several things, whatever they are, in which to do his duty is against his nature. Never think yourself safe because you do your duty in ninety-nine points; it is the hundredth which is to be the ground of your self-denial, which must evidence, or rather instance and realize your faith. It is in reference to this you must watch and pray; pray continually for God’s grace to help you, and watch with fear and trembling lest you fall. [From “Self-Denial the Test of Religious Earnestness”]

We must all struggle constantly to escape the complacency to which our many naturally good qualities lead (too often combined with the good opinion of others). Indeed, Church professionals must struggle the most constantly of all—bishops, and priests, and religious, and deacons, and lay professionals in Catholic service. Moreover, there is a special need for this struggle in those services which have grown large and well-endowed; recognized and funded by Church and State alike; admired and sought after; devoted for long years now to the noblest aims.

Surely in our time this description suits what we might call mainstream Catholic social services, the same social services which have too often become merely professional, and in which there is an endemic danger of substituting the counterfeit for the real: For heartfelt care, the quest for funding; and for virtue, dread complacency. Of such things, I believe, all professional Catholics must especially beware. It is precisely here that the basics of holiness must be once again vigorously applied.

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Show 2 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: Geno190 - Mar. 07, 2011 6:21 PM ET USA

    When the unique gifts our Creator poured into us before being 'knit in our mother's womb," work together fulfilling our God-given mission of building the Kingdom, we experience "joy." Our work/ministry/commitments flow from love and bear the fruits of the Holy Spirit. We are revealing the face of Christ. "Christ has no body now but our's ..." The "cross" we bear is the arms flung out saying to all, "Abba and I love you this much..." No limits. Joyless loving is not Gospel spirituality.

  • Posted by: colrose18194 - Feb. 24, 2011 12:22 PM ET USA

    You surely know how to shake up a guy...

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