Why Do Catholics Bother?

Reflecting on Russel Shaw’s new book about reclaiming our Catholic identity, especially in light of the controversy caused by Bishop Vasa’s attempts to assert the Catholic identity of his diocesan schools, I thought it might be good to look at all the good things the Church tries to do and ask, “Why?”

Why do Catholics run schools, hospitals, charity organizations and the like?  Are we just terminal do-gooder busy-bodies who can’t just leave well-enough alone?

Well, of course the answer to that is “no.” But I wonder how many Catholics ever ask themselves why we do all these things.   The answer is important and it may not be what most people think.


The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church begins in a curious place.  It doesn’t start, as you might expect, with talk about the preferential option for the poor or even a fundamental right to life.  It begins with a reflection on the Trinity and how we are made in God’s image and likeness.  Why?  Because the entire point of the social doctrine of the Church is to stand up for the God-given dignity of the person as it is revealed to and understood by the Catholic Church.   So what?  Well, that statement really highlights a profound difference between social work and Catholic social justice work.

For instance, a secular social worker is interested in solving a person’s problems in the most efficient, legal way.  Is it legal?  Does it get the job done?  Good.  Problem solved.    But Catholic social justice work is not primarily concerned with solving the problem.  It is concerned, first and foremost, with upholding the dignity of the person as it has been revealed to and is understood by the Catholic Church.  We solve temporal problems like ignorance and illness and hunger and loneliness as a means of standing up for the dignity of the person as we understand it, not because we see these things as ends in themselves.


As a  Catholic social justice worker (as every Catholic is a “Catholic social justice worker” whether or not you are an “official, degreed helping professional (TM)”  ) I must do what I can to meet your needs, but I cannot meet your needs in a way that undermines my dignity as a person– or yours.  If I do, the entire point is lost.  Everything I do for you, and the way I do it, has to be mindful of our mutual dignity as persons made in the image and likeness of God.  If my actions communicate any other message, I am doing you, me, and the Kingdom of God a disservice.

Everyone gets their wimple in a knot when a bishop or pastor tries to “crack the whip” about the personal morality of his teachers or makes a fuss about how closely his hospitals and charitble organizations keep to the mission and doctrine of the Church.  “Why all this fuss about morality and doctrine?!?  There are poor people out there, children , the sick and hungry.  Aren’t we about meeting their needs?”

Well, not really.  We’re about saving their souls, and because we are embodied souls, we also attend to their needs as a way of saving their souls and witnessing to their dignity as sons and daughters of God.  But if we neglect our mission and become merely secular social workers, or doctors, or teachers, or whatever, then the gospel goes unheard in the charitable work we do.  We become clanging gongs.  Indeed, what does it profit us to meet their needs but lose their souls.  What does it profit us to do good works and lose ours?

By all means, dedicate yourself to living out all the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.  Be a fully-engaged Catholic social justice worker in every aspect of your life regardless of your state in life, but never forget that the point is not meeting needs, but meeting needs as a means of standing for the dignity of the person and proclaiming the gospel with our actions.  No matter what superficial good we might be doing, it counts for nothing if our life, mission, or methods are at odds with with the gospel our actions are called to proclaim.



(“Phew! The Coast is Clear!”) Er, I mean, “Yeah! Pope Francis!”

Amy Welborn is spot on in identifying what she calls the weird sense of “relief” expressed by many on the election of Pope Francis.    To be honest, I’ve been getting the impression that in certain quarters, people aren’t so much rejoicing that Pope Francis was elected as much as they are rejoicing at what they imagine to be the end of the papal era of JPII and BXVI with their shared focus on personal responsibility, the authentic nature of love, and the importance of the Church’s moral teaching.  Maybe I’m just looking for trouble, but it seems to me that some folks are genuinely relieved that we’re “finally” going to get off that old “love and responsibility” grind and get back to doing what the Church is “supposed” to be about–tending to the poor and downtrodden–as if we’ve been ignoring this work for the last 33-odd years under JPII and Benedict.  This, of course, is utter nonsense.

My fear is that a lot of what, superficially,  looks like joy at Pope Francis’ humility and message of compassion for the least is really a potentially serious case of what I like to call, “White, Middle-Class Suburban Parish Syndrome”  (WMCSPSP)>  WMCSPS is the condition that affects Catholics who believe, “WE’RE just fine the way we are, thank you very much.  LOOK at US.  After all, WE’RE the UPSTANDING people.  WE are at mass EVERY SUNDAY.   WE DONATE MONEY to the poor.  WE READ at Mass.  WE VOLUNTEER once a year at the soup kitchen.    WE don’t need CONVERSION.   OUR job is to make THOSE PEOPLE (i.e., the poor, the less fortunate, etc.) look more like US.”

WMCSPS is a very common spiritual disease and without proper treatment–ongoing, internal conversion–the condition is, sadly, terminal.

I’ve always felt that Pope JPII and Pope Benedict were especially good at reminding everyone that poverty is not just a economic condition that applies to certain people who struggle to have even their most basic needs met.  There is also a spiritual poverty that exists and is, in some cases, even more dangerous.  Spiritual poverty  is the tendency to ignore the call to ongoing personal conversation and conforming one’s life to the Gospel regardless of one’s circumstances.

Pope JPII and Benedict were terrific at forcing all people–rich and poor alike–to confront their personal selfishness and turn to God.  They were true social justice Catholics because they understood that social justice isn’t an economic project or a day of volunteering at the soup kitchen,  it is a means of converting the hearts of all men by empowering us to conquer both selfishness and the use of others wherever these negative traits are found–whether in our bedrooms, our homes, our communities, our institutions, our governments, or our world.

I, frankly, believe that Pope Francis has a similar gift. I think he could challenge all of us even more if we let him. But I am concerned that it will be very tempting to feel that as long as we are attending to the needs of “those people” over there, that we will finally all get a pass on all the more personal sins that go on inside of us right here.  Pope Francis’ personal example of humility and service is, it seems to me, rooted in a very deep, authentic, ongoing process of personal conversion.  We would do well to follow not just his external external example of caring for the poor, but his internal example of addressing our own sickness and poverty–especially when it comes to our struggle with the very personal sins of contraception, abortion, divorce, and the like, that cause us to objectify the people we encounter.  The corporal and spiritual works of mercy, to be authentic, must be the fruit of our efforts to love God more and live his truth more authentically in our hearts and with the people who are our closest neighbors–our spouse and children.  Focusing on the corporal and spiritual works of mercy without converting our own hearts is the equivalent of making ourselves into those “whited sepulchres” Jesus was, ahem, so fond of.

Granted, keeping up the hard work of personal conversion in our hearts and home isn’t as romantic as just being able to think of Pope Francis as a light that makes us all look better in his glow, but it is how we stop merely looking at Christ and start looking like Christ.

Just sayin’


What is the Mission of the Church?

A commenter (“Midwest Lady”) in my post entitled, “Catholics and Mental Illness:  Are We Doing Enough?” asked an interesting question that, frankly, we Catholics don’t spend nearly enough time thinking about (IMHO).  She wrote, “What is the basic mission of the Catholic Church?”

I thought the question was worth its own post.  What is the basic mission of the Church?  Is it to give people something to do on Sundays?  To solve social problems (as “social justice” Catholics assert)?  To tell people what to do (as many social conservatives imply)?  To give people another world to think about so they don’t have to worry so much about this one (as Marx suggested).  To “affirm people in their okayness” (as Mark Shea likes to put it)?  To attempt to appease an angry God that probably doesn’t exist anyway (as Hitchens argued)?

Because I’ve had the privelege of teaching a sociology class at Franciscan University called, Christianity and Society, I’ve spent a fair amount of time researching and discussing  that exact question with my students.   That said, it really doesn’t take that much thinking and researching to discover the mission of the Church.

In my response to “Midwest Lady,”  I originally wrote, “The mission of the Church is to win souls for Jesus Christ and to work to build God’s Kingdom on Earth.”

To which she reasonably asked, “What does it mean to ‘build God’s Kingdom on Earth?'”

That is a great question.  Here’s how I’d summarize what I think that phrase means, again, based on my reading and class discussion especially of the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church

 “to build God’s Kingdom” means “to work to create a world that reflects the innate, God-given, dignity and worth of every human being.” 

Each person is created in the image and likeness of God.  It is the Church’s responsibility to remind everyone–believer or not–through its works and words, that each human being is a unique and unrepeatable person who has a God-given right to be treated only with love and can only become who they truly are by dedicating themselves to loving others. In light of this, it is the Church’s mission to proclaim and model an authentic vision of love that springs from God’s own heart; a vision of love the protects the inherent dignity of each person, promotes the life and health of each person, encourages relationships rooted in mutual self-giving, and strives to create a civilization that supports the fulfillment of each person.  By doing so, ultimately, the Church helps each individual fulfill his or her destiny, which is a total, loving union with God and each other.

What do you think?   How would you describe the “Basic mission of the Catholic Church” if someone asked you?  Likewise, considering the definition above, where do you think the Church does a good job of living up to its mission, and where do you think it needs to do better?  I’ll be interested to read your comments.