There is, to me, a certain sad division in the Church that has set up in recent decades that is rooted in what I think is ultimately a false dichotomy. It makes me particularly sad because I respect and esteem people in both camps. And though I hold them both in my heart, they barely speak to one another and hold one another in deep suspicion and sometimes outright contempt.
I speak specifically of the division in the Church between those who focus especially on the moral issues related to Life, sexuality and family and those who focus on the moral issues related to the social teachings of the Church such as poverty, immigration, housing, healthcare, wages and so forth.
The issue recently resurfaced on the comment thread of this blog on Saturday. The blog post featured a video (re-posted below) that speak to the problem of being Catholic in name only.
Certain commentors opined that the video was unbalanced because it ends by highlighting the corporal works of mercy as essential to being a good Catholic. To be fair, the video also deals with issues of mass attendance, modesty, chastity, and respect for authority and is aimed at teenagers.
Despite this, some readers saw the video as only emphasizing the corporal works of mercy and were troubled that no mention was made about abortion, redefining marriage, and other issues often termed non-negotiables. Here is a sample of some of the comments:
- I think there is the danger that the “take away” here is that as long as I am freely volunteering to help the poor that is all that is needed to be a good Catholic. I know many students at the nearby Jesuit high school who have gone New Age or totally lapsed into religious non-observance and yet are service oriented.
- Strangely, there is not a single criterion mentioned in this video that would help identify this young lady as a Catholic. Generic Christian, yes, but not Catholic. The defense lawyer should have asked her whether she completely upheld the truth of the Scripture, Tradition and Magisterium; whether she unreservedly believed in the doctrine of transubstantiation; and whether the Pope was for her the visible head of the one true holy and apostolic Church (to name just a few pertinent issues). One can be an atheist and still follow Jesus’ call for charitable behavior.
- I’ll echo some of the other comments by saying the video, while clever, runs the risk of reducing Catholicism to social service work. Jenny Smith could well have claimed to be Catholic and worked in a soup kitchen and still not have been Catholic. It would have been nice to have seen the defense attorney ask her if she believed abortion to be evil (with her being pro-choice) or if she could explain transubstantiation (with her holding the Eucharist to be just a symbol) or have her recite the new translation of the Nicene Creed (which of course she wouldn’t be able to do from heart) or even ask her when the last time she went to confession was (years, no doubt).
- Interesting. The Gospel of Matthew is clear about the corporal works of mercy. But, the movie would be good for discussion with youth if there were clear Catholic teachings that were in question.
Well OK, you get the point. The comments above all think the focus was either wrong or incomplete. Though, as I point out, the movie does reference things other than the corporal works of mercy.
To be sure, there is a special priority to be had on the life issues especially today. As some have rightly observed, it is necessary to be alive in order to enjoy other things such as decent housing, healthcare, just immigration laws etc.
That said, I think the sorts of comments highlighted above do call for some concern, and show forth the need for some distinctions. I would like to highlight some of the following concerns distinctions:
I. The comment expressed concern about balance. But the comments themselves show some lack of balance. For, critical and foundational as they are, focusing in the life/sex/marriage issues cannot eclipse the fact that there are a wide range of other moral issues as well.
Both Scripture and tradition set forth a wide range of issues, certain issues ranking higher importance than others. But that some issues are more foundational and critical than others should not artificially truncate the wholistic presentation of Biblical and Catholic moral teaching tradition.
For example, the necessary discussion and emphasis on mortal sin, should not preclude any discussion of venial sin. Indeed, venial sins often contribute to mortal sin and lay the foundation for it.
So the discussion on being an authentic Catholic is not a zero-sum game, as if discussing and focusing on certain critical issues, means we cannot thereby engage other issues as well. Certain areas may need special attention, but it is not healthy to completely forsake one thing for another. The priority the urgent should not wholly eclipse the priority of the important, and the whole is often in service of the particular and the urgent.
Thus, the Catholic teachings on the sacredness of life are part of a wider teaching that respects the dignity of the human person at many levels. Demonstrating the Catholic concern for the individual involves wide and diverse issues, fosters credibility in terms of our concerns for issues of life and family.
II. The comments seem to presume an animus against certain issues or intentionally omission of them where it may not be. While it is true, but the video does not mention abortion, the marriage issue or euthanasia, it is also true it does not mention divorce, or theft. This does not thereby mean video either supports divorce or theft, or is indifferent to these issues. It may simply mean that not everything could be covered in the span of a short video.
Jesus does not cover every moral topic in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7) either. In fact, some very critical issues are left out from that sermon. Many gay activists love to emphasize that Jesus never explicitly mentioned homosexuality. (Never mind that the Apostles He commissioned to speak in his name did speak to the issue very clearly and excluded it entirely). Never mind all that, they say Jesus never mentioned it!
But an argument from silence, is one of the weakest inductive arguments. To argue a position from someone based on something they did not say is at best chancy, and at worst unjust. The video’s silence on abortion and other important moral issues does not constitute an argument or just accusation that the video makers intend thereby a selective reading of Catholic teaching, or a setting aside of pro-life priorities.
III. Many things help make the whole. The Church today faces a world and a culture that is in increasing and widespread disrepair. There are many things that need attention and it is good that we have some in the Church who specialize in many different ways.
I am mindful of a recent experience when, after I tripped over a loose pavement stone and had a bad fall, I was knocked unconscious. The rescue squad was summoned and I was taken to a nearby shock-trauma unit. As I was wheeled in, now conscious, no less than six people went immediately to work, and each had a very specific job. One took my blood pressure, another got other vitals such as EKG. Yet another had a job to remove my outside clothing, and another interviewed me in order to test my mental state. Still another collected information on my medical history from a brother priest who accompanied me to the hospital. Someone else drew true blood, and so forth. Eventually I was handed to others and got a brain scan and an x-ray of my sprained ankle. Each one had an important job to do, some things were more critical than others, but all were necessary and important.
As a pastor, and priest who walks in the wide Church, I am grateful that there is not only a diversity of gifts, but also the diversity of specialties and interests. I have parishioners who are passionate pro-life activists, and others who are wonderfully dedicated to the cause of affordable housing and youth programs in the community. I am glad that I have people passionate and concerned and committed in all these areas and more besides. Some issues are more critical than others, but all are important, all affect human beings, their dignity, and how we best and justly treat one another.
I live for the day when we will all appreciate and respect that there is some need for a division of labor, and come to appreciate that it is good thing that some work for affordable housing, so that others are free to work for pro-life, that’s some volunteer in crisis pregnancy centers run by the Church, so that others can reach out to immigrants, or provide clothing for the poor.
IV. I am aware, and share the concern that, in recent decades to some extent, the Church drifted too strongly in the direction of social action, and away from the sacramental life, prayer, and the study of the faith.
But that said, it does not follow that we should over-correct and or be suspicious of every reference to the social Gospel. The fact is, there are corporal works of mercy, as well as spiritual works of mercy.
And, the fact is, God is passionately concerned about how we treat the poor. A significant amount of Scripture is devoted to matters of justice for the poor, the widow, the resident alien, and other socially vulnerable individuals. Some of God’s greatest anger is directed toward those who would neglect obligations to the poor and needy.
Nowhere does scripture require or even envision that this should be a large role for big government. But God does speak to Israel both individually and collectively. That is to say, we all have individual obligations, and also communal obligations.
The Church cannot be the Church, and cannot credibly claim lay hold of faith without consistently and strongly advocating for the poor. And thus, whatever correction we need to do to add back the spiritual and personal moral conversion we have sometimes neglected, neither can we neglect to mention the very things which this video well articulates, namely the corporal works of mercy.
We ought to avoid either-or scenarios. It is not the spiritual works of mercy or the corporal works of mercy, it is not the moral issues or the social issues, it is all of these things in proper balance. This is necessary both for catholicity and credibility.
Let me again be clear that I am not hereby advocating large government programs, or expansive federal management of problems related to the poor.
And to be fair, neither is the video. The video speaks directly to the young lady named Jenny and to what she has or has not done. Reasonable Catholics will disagree on how best to help the poor, but we cannot disagree that we must help the poor, and that God expects, even demands it of us. Poverty is complicated, many social ills are very complicated, but this does not exempt us from entering into vigorous discussion and action regarding solutions.
I have written more on my concerns in this matter on the Blog of the US Bishops (to read CLICK HERE). In the article there I argue that the Church needs two wings and one heart to fly. Thank God for the diverse passions and actions of many in the Church on many and different fronts. In the end it is one battle to usher in the full kingdom of God and insist on the whole counsel of God. The “justice wing” is not in competition with the “life wing”. Both wings are needed and necessary. And both wings are and must be united in one Heart, the heart of the Church, the heart of Christ.
I’ll tell you what, perhaps the most discouraging thing about being a blogger and being out there is not the scorn of the secular. It is the death by a thousand cuts executed by some (thank God not most) fellow believers who nit-pick, and object that something I say is not said just they way they want it said. This is very painful and part of the cost of being out there. But think about it now, how many give way under such scorn, and fear to be “out there.”
It is very unfortunate by my estimation that some have seen fit to criticize this video for what it does not (even) say. To my mind it is an excellent video, well produced and thought-provoking. Brevity cannot permit every issue to be addressed.
If you think you can do better or add to it, raise your own money and do your own project. More is better. But the kind of particularism and the narrow-casting attitudes that set up in the blogosphere can be very discouraging and even harmful. It is a big Church and a lot issues need addressing in this dysfunctional culture of the West. Lets thank God for each other and learn to appreciate the diverse efforts that are needed today.
In case you missed it, here is the video in question.