By: Dr. Greg Popcak
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.
DEFENDING THE DIGNITY OF THE PERSON
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 Christian preference for serving the poor or even a fundamental and equal right to life for all people. It begins instead with a reflection on the Trinity (the central mystery of the Catholic faith) 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 us 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.
WITNESS MUST NOT UNDERMINE ACTION
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 charitable 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?
Living out Catholic Social Justice
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 the gospel our actions are called to proclaim.