More “programs” or Divine fire? The Catholic choice
Unlike a great many other societies throughout history, our society still seems to place considerable value on helping the poor, particularly in terms of social justice. This arose as a direct result of Christianization, but we are now in an interim stage of spiritual decline in which our concern for the poor is mostly a convenient vestige of what it used to be. Modern pundits, who take pride in whatever “virtues” they still find congenial, have no trouble arguing that—See? See!—religion is not necessary for obvious good to be done.
Unfortunately, a genuine commitment to the good of others requires beliefs far beyond those which are common currency in contemporary culture. For any good work to endure, we must be convinced that other people are more than random collections of molecules propelled by material forces to ruin our view. Increasingly in the modern West, the poor and disenfranchised are viewed as a problem to be solved, as statistics rather than real people whom we must befriend personally and serve in mutually transformative ways.
In fact, one of the worst things that can happen to any marginalized group is to identify them as an endemic problem which can be solved only by the State. This is very useful to those in power; it is how dependent underclasses are formed. In such circumstances, the rich interact with the poor only by government proxy. There is, we like to think, a “program” to deal with that! And in the absence of anything better, underclasses will cling to their programs—quickly learning how to vote for bread and circuses.
Solidarity dissolves on all sides, and virtue wanes.
Contemporary Catholic complicity
One of the many ways our contemporary Church collaborates with these unfortunate tendencies is by similarly placing her trust in programs rather than in her essential mission. Perhaps the most obvious and egregious case in point is the proliferation of “safe touch” programs to minimize sexual abuse in Catholic institutions. It seems that too many priests and bishops fell into vice (and the protection of vice) when it came to priestly interaction with young boys. So, quicker than you can say “it’s not my fault”, every lay volunteer in every Church setting is required to go through a “safe touch” program!
The Church, more than any other institution, should lead the way in opening people to grace and forming them in virtue. The worst thing about the adoption by churches of a program to minimize sexual abuse is the implicit refusal of the contemporary Church to form the faithful spiritually and morally in all the ways that distinguish the followers of Christ from the followers of the dominant secular culture. But this is just an egregious example of a far larger problem.
The social emphasis of most of the episcopate in the West has been placed on the promotion of State programs, instead of on forming Catholics who—through their direct engagement with those in need—can transform all things in Christ, including ourselves. Far too often, one still gets the impression that too many ecclesiastical leaders, in the absence of intense apostolic mission, are willing to settle for the programs, targets and action heroes which are more or less automatically produced by contemporary secular power. In the United States, we call them “Democrats”, but they are present in large numbers in all parties throughout the West.
Solidarity dissolves on all sides, and virtue wanes.
Our Lord said nothing about programs, let alone entrenched programs. What He said instead was, “I came to cast fire upon the earth; and would that it were already kindled!” (Lk 12:49). And what was His point? It was just this: “You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky; but why do you not know how to interpret the present time? And why do you not judge for yourselves what is right?” (Lk 12:56-7).
The Catholic mission is not passively to support one program or another but to transform both the rich and the poor in Christ. I have written in the past that the direct service of Catholics to the poor in the name of Christ is an important key to the New Evangelization. This is not because it gives the poor material benefits the way a government program does, but because it invites those in need to become participants in a genuinely interactive community of love. By those in need, I mean both the rich and the poor. For both have gifts to exchange, gifts which enormously enrich the Body of Christ.
But to do this, we must make more progress within the Church on several fronts. The hierarchy must become genuinely counter-cultural, far more rapidly than is happening now even under increasing government pressure. Bishops remain in the best position to promote the interaction, among those with different gifts, which is supposed to lie at the heart of the Church. Moreover, Catholics in the pews need to accept a new status as second-class citizens throughout much of the West. They need to accept the reality that they must pay twice to accomplish anything, once in taxes, and again through their involvement and support of initiatives that actually accomplish what Our Lord sees as good.
Finally, the entire Church needs to become convinced that it is not mere participation in material outreach that makes the difference. Rather, it is the burning commitment to the true and the good which fuels a specific kind of universal outreach in the name of Jesus Christ. In other words, it is the willingness to cast fire on the earth that makes the crucial difference. We must care deeply about changing the default spiritual and material values which make it impossible for people, both rich and poor, to get out of their own way.
Unless we embrace the Way, the Truth and the Life (like the Trinity, these three are one), we can do nothing. There is no substitute for a Church which is built on Jesus Christ not only in her constitution but in the burning hearts and illuminated minds of her members.
We say that we are Catholics. So why do we not judge for ourselves what is right?
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