Corporal and spiritual works: From mechanical provisioning to acts of love

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Oct 26, 2016

The Pope’s renewed emphasis on the corporal and spiritual works of mercy could not be more timely. One of the points I hope Francis will make is that the two categories—corporal and spiritual—are inseparable. There are two reasons for this:

  1. Those in a position to perform the corporal works of mercy will seldom do them frequently or do them well unless they have, at some point, been interiorly transformed by the spiritual works.
  2. Those constantly receiving the corporal works of mercy cannot learn to deal with their incapacities in a positive way, whatever they may be, unless they are also transformed interiorly by the spiritual works.

Without the spiritual works, the corporal works are dead. It is never enough simply to provide basic material needs to another without taking a personal interest. There is no human warmth in that exchange. The fullest dimension of a work of mercy is realized only when we enter into a relationship of love with the whole person, coming to know that person’s dreams and fears, strengths and weaknesses, joys and sufferings. This is perhaps the most important point made by Pope Benedict XVI in his encyclical Deus Caritas Est, in the second part, where he describes the practice of charity in the Church.

I do not mean to say that every charitable act can be performed with thorough attention to the whole person. Sometimes large numbers of people suffer a catastrophe which puts them in need of extraordinary and rapid material relief. At other times, we are performing the corporal works of mercy at one remove, perhaps donating to an organization that can serve “on the ground”. But especially in chronic situations, we need to recognize that it is not handouts that transform those we serve; it is our love. In exactly the same way, it is love that transforms those who serve, not the handouts they provide.

The politicization of charity

This fundamental reality is nowhere more evident than in the modern politicization of “charity”. Hopefully, those in government will be motivated by love, including a strong sense of justice, to serve the common good. This is eminently desirable, but laws and regulations cannot substitute for the transformative power of love in person. Moreover, human governments are notorious for using dependency to ensure the continuation of those in power. The classic instance is the use of bread and circuses to keep the masses happy in ancient Rome.

But this is far more than an ancient practice. In our own day, the regulatory state typically uses “benefits” to create dependent classes. The predictable result is that the poor will vote not for those who are most given to charity, but for those who are most willing to use the political system (typically mortgaging the future) to ensure the flow of these benefits. The American system is the only one I know well, but I take it to be more or less paradigmatic. In the United States, study after study has shown that dependent classes vote overwhelmingly for Democrats, guaranteeing State largesse, rather than for Republicans, who personally donate about forty percent more to charity than their counterparts across the aisle.

What is most damning about this separation of the material from the spiritual is that there is relatively little movement out of dependent classes over time. Some basic human needs are met, but the whole person is rarely engaged in a way that breaks the cycle of poverty and dependency. These more or less permanent underclasses play an enormous role in shoring up the secular liberal power structures which characterize our world. This should not surprise us. People often shoot themselves in the foot, owing to short-sightedness, when they are not loved.

Sadly, the Catholic Church has been complicit in what is essentially an abusive pattern. The institutional charities that should be most active in offering both the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, engaging the whole person in a context of love and self-giving, have increasingly given themselves over to the distribution of aid provided by public grants. These are too often administered bureaucratically, without seeking to transform both the recipient and the giver through a mutually enriching relationship of love that can engage not only at the material but at the spiritual level.

Some conscience-stricken Catholic agencies are at long last choosing to withdraw from the administration of publicly-funded benefits, for the simple reason that our increasingly secular governments do not permit the kind of spiritual and moral engagement which alone can effect long-term good. However, some Catholic agencies have redefined themselves so that Catholic moral and spiritual commitments do not bar their access to the public trough. This is a significant scandal. Somewhere along the line, material benefits began to be viewed even by many in the Church as more significant than the spiritual essence of charitable work.

In a similar vein, Catholic agencies have repeatedly hired their staff from the secular-liberal labor pool, making it easy to engage in “charitable” works which explicitly contradict Catholic moral teaching. Interestingly, there is now a watchdog organization which exists solely for the purpose of exposing multiple moral betrayals by Catholic Relief Services. It is indicative of the depth of the problem that a spectacularly high percentage of CRS employees contribute to pro-abortion political candidates.

Authentic works of mercy

Instead, all of us need to develop a renewed conception of what it means to serve those in need, a conception which has already been presented in Pope Benedict’s encyclical:

[H]uman beings always need something more than technically proper care…. Those who work for the Church’s charitable organizations must be distinguished by the fact that they do not merely meet the needs of the moment, but they dedicate themselves to others with heartfelt concern, enabling them to experience the richness of their humanity….
Christian charitable activity must be independent of parties and ideologies. It is not a means of changing the world ideologically, and it is not at the service of worldly stratagems, but it is a way of making present here and now the love which man always needs….
Love is free; it is not practiced as a way of achieving other ends. But this does not mean that charitable activity must somehow leave God and Christ aside. For it is always concerned with the whole man. Often the deepest cause of suffering is the very absence of God. [Deus Caritas Est, 31]

A constant awareness of the relevance of the spiritual works of mercy to the corporal works (and vice versa) enables us to forego treating symptoms in favor of engaging the whole person. It is impossible to meditate on counseling the doubtful, instructing the ignorant, admonishing the sinner and comforting the afflicted without seeing human situations in a new way. A spiritual perspective reminds us of the full identity of those we serve, even as it enables us to recognize our own full identity as servants.

This spiritual perspective makes it impossible to perform any work of mercy ideologically or statistically. If we keep this spiritual perspective in our minds and hearts, what may begin as a mechanical process of provisioning will end as something greater than a “process”. It will end in a mutually transformative experience of love.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: brenda22890 - Oct. 29, 2016 12:04 PM ET USA

    Jeff - your comments are exactly right. "Higher" education is often the worst thing our youth should be exposed to. They often end by being "confident", even arrogant, but with little in the way of authentic knowledge, and at the same time good little politically liberal soldiers.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Oct. 27, 2016 2:26 PM ET USA

    The absolute dependence of the corporal on the spiritual works of mercy is what has traditionally distinguished Catholic from secular charitable organizations. I once volunteered to be a Catholic representative at a Billy Graham Crusade. When speaking with the priest-organizer of the Catholic contribution to the Crusade, he informed me that I was not to mention anything Catholic to those who were not raised Catholic as children. I asked, "May I tell the truth about Catholicism?" He said, "no."

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Oct. 27, 2016 2:00 PM ET USA

    Garedawg raises an interesting question, but I suspect it is ultimately not relevant to the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, or to charity. The higher educational model in the United States is broken. What you have, in the main, is people paying huge sums of money for a frighteningly bad product, for the simple reason that it is expected, and still generally financially advantageous, for people to have a college degree. And because "education" is uncritically valued in our society, this has become a self-perpetuating system. It is not clear how or when this will collapse but, as it is essentially untenable, it will eventually do so. But again, this is a topic all its own. In most cases, tuition assistance is neither charity nor a work of mercy. The vast majority of recipients are far from poor. Higher education today is far closer to social engineering; or at least it simply reflects the priorities of the secular State and our secular culture. In reality, there are many other--and far less expensive--ways to learn which could be used far more effectively. I suspect that, in the main, higher education today is simply how our culture, our social order, chooses to deal with young adults whom the work force is not ready to absorb. It is a convention, not a need. In our time, it may well degrade mental acuity because it degrades values, increasing some intellectual skills, but darkening minds.

  • Posted by: garedawg - Oct. 27, 2016 10:39 AM ET USA

    So what's the answer to the question between private and state-administered charity? My kids depend on financial aide for college, and I sure am happy that I don't have to go around, cup in hand, to various religious orders in order to keep my kids in school. It's a lot easier to spend an evening filling out a form.