I was different from many of my law school classmates in the early 1980s. I had no desire to become rich, nor was I interested in the power and prestige that accompanies a successful law practice. Rather, in my own naïve way, I wanted to help people. Issues such as poverty, injustice, racism, and nuclear arms were what motivated me. I even volunteered one summer with the Los Angeles County Public Defender’s office.
In retrospect, I truly believe that the Lord blessed my sincere desire to defend the “underdog” and used this as the means to draw me back to Himself and His Church.
After graduating from law school, I was still searching for a way to channel my desire to help other people. I was becoming increasingly disillusioned with secular approaches to societal ills, but I was still ambivalent, at best, about the Church.
Then one Sunday I went to Mass and heard a sermon on the Church’s social teaching by a deacon who also happened to be a lawyer. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the Church had something to say about these issues. Even more, I then realized that the Church not only took seriously my questions, but also offered satisfying answers–answers rooted in the Truth.
For myself and many others who were raised after Vatican II, the burning issue was not liturgical abuse or some intramural Church dispute, but rather, where is God in my life, and what does He have to say, if anything, to the contemporary world? When I was engaged on that level by the deacon, I profoundly realized that I was yearning for the Peace of Jerusalem, not the peace of this world, and that the Gospel of Jesus Christ has the power to transform every aspect of our world. Although my understanding has deepened over the years, the fundamental lessons I learned then have remained with me.
Priority of Persons
The first lesson I learned was that I was approaching issues from the wrong direction. I tended to think abstractly (e.g., poverty or criminal justice) or collectively (e.g., poor people or criminal defendants). I needed to learn that just as Christ dealt with me as an irreplaceable person, I needed to approach social issues with the mindset that each member of the human family is an irreplaceable person with God-given dignity. There’s something to be said for the slogan “Think Globally, Act Locally”–if it’s understood in the sense that authentic human development must be interpersonal. Mother Teresa was one of the greatest social reformers of our time, but her brand of reform was accomplished one person, one precious soul, at a time.
Yet, I discovered I had to back the bus up even further. I cannot provide enduring assistance to others if I’m not continually being renewed in Christ myself (cf. Rom. 12:2). Life in Christ changes everything. I realized that I needed–with God’s grace–to eradicate sin from my life and strive, however imperfectly, for holiness. To love another person with Christ-like love, I had to become more like Christ. That, in a nutshell, is the lesson of the saints.
As faithful Catholics we understand the centrality of the Mass as the source and summit of the Christian life. We know the strength that comes from the Eucharist, and we eagerly receive Our Lord every Sunday and perhaps even daily. We also know we are called to “live the Mass,” that our participation in the sacrifice of the Mass should affect everything we do. In fact, we receive the “bread from heaven” precisely to lead lives worthy of our calling as children of God and heirs of heaven. Mass simply can’t be compartmentalized or separated from the rest of our lives.
Similarly, the Church has repeatedly emphasized in recent years that ecumenism or the pursuit of Christian unity is not simply a compartment or appendix of the Christian life–some sort of “extra”–but rather an integral part of her identity and mission.
I think this principle also holds true with social justice issues. It’s great when Catholics dedicate some time each week to help the poor or visit the sick or minister to the imprisoned. But that’s not enough. Our compassion cannot be compartmentalized either, but rather must inform the way we live even when we’re not at the soup kitchen, the hospital, or the jail. Fr. Groeschel is right on the mark when he says that something is amiss if our Eucharistic adoration doesn’t commit us to the poor. Just as we must not be “cafeteria Catholics” in picking and choosing which Church teachings we’re going to intellectually accept, we also must not be cafeteria Catholics in picking and choosing which teachings we’re going to allow to transform us.
We are living during a crisis of faith. Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes, which reflects the thought and input of the man who would eventually become Pope John Paul II, notes the unprecedented acceptance of systematic atheism and secularism in today’s world. Many people are looking for solutions “right here, right now,” without reference to the divine or to our supernatural end.
Such secularist and materialistic models have in some places corrupted the Church’s social outreach. When this happens, social justice degenerates into myopic political activism. The authentic quest for human development then becomes co-opted by agendas that are completely opposed to Church teaching and the good of the human person, most notably the pro-abortion forces.
Accordingly, we frequently encounter “peace and justice” Catholics who outright dissent from Church teaching on abortion and other “conservative issues,” or who relativize such teachings to an intolerable degree. Our rejection of such distortions of Church teaching can, unfortunately, lead to our not paying sufficient attention to the social teachings of the Church.
The “big picture,” which Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI have seen and brilliantly proclaimed on behalf of the Church, transcends the artificial separation of “pro-life” and “peace and justice” issues that we find in the Church in America. The contemporary loss of the sense of God has led to a culture of death that is fundamentally violent and unjust. The remedy is found when we turn our gaze upon Christ, the Bread of Life and Prince of Peace.
Least, But Not Last
One Church teaching that has deeply affected me is her “preferential option for the poor” (cf. Catechism, nos. 2443-49). This teaching is not pious altruism. It is a challenging reminder to apply the Gospel, especially Matthew 25:31-46 (“whatsoever you do to the least of my brethren . . .”), in practical, concrete ways. This applies both to our one-on-one relationships and our societal response to issues such as the rights of workers, immigration, health care, and a host of other issues that call us to affirm and uphold the dignity and fundamental rights of all human persons.
The drama of salvation history is played out in individual lives. God’s “family plan” encompasses every human person. When we reach out to someone in need, we’re not only serving Christ (cf. Mt. 25:40), but in ways largely unknown to us, we are also bringing the light of Christ to someone who is just as precious to God as we are. In contemporary parlance, that’s a “good thing.” God’s saving plan encompasses the entire human family, thus transcending race, social standing, and all other categories that tend to divide rather than unite us in the Family of God.
No Comfort Zone
None of the beatitudes begin “Blessed are the comfortable and secure . . .” Rather, Jesus says, “[W]oe to you that are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you that are full now, for you shall hunger” (Lk. 6:24-25). St. James builds on that theme in the fifth chapter of his Epistle in even stronger terms. I don’t know about you, but passages such as these strike me to the heart. How should we respond?
It seems to me that material and spiritual sacrifices for others should be part and parcel of our Christian pilgrimage. We also need to expand our awareness of others’ needs–not only around the world but especially in our own backyard. Who is the poor, oppressed, or forgotten in our midst?
The bottom line is that the totality of our lives must give credible evidence that the kingdom of God indeed is at hand. May the peace and joy of Christ be with you this Easter season, and may our lives of Christian charity radiate and extend that peace.