Catholic social teaching is a rich treasure of wisdom for navigating past the treacherous partisan shoals that make constructive dialog so difficult these days. Yes, dialog – a blast from the past. This word was very popular in the aftermath of Vatican II and signified a sense of hope that people could find common ground in shared values even as they discussed – debated or disagreed over – different strategies.
Our social teaching allows for just such freedom of dialog. Case in point. The Gospel calls us to share with the poor. Last Sunday’s readings issued a very personal call to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless. Why? Because this is what God does: comes to the aid of the poor and oppressed. The glory of God is seen in the extent to which mercy is shown to those who are at the margins of society, the outcasts, anyone who is left out. God is a great includer!
How this gets done – what strategies to use – is where the best of intentions sometimes crash on those shoals. Those on the left side of the fence will argue that there is so much social disorder that personal acts of charity are not enough. You need organization, a more centralized approach. Legislation must be enacted to create programs to take care of school children who need nutritious lunches; seniors and physically disabled who need to get around; and homeless who need shelter. We have such programs and for the most part, they are quite effective. Yet so many social problems persist. Unemployment, especially among our youth, pernicious addictions, battered and abused women (and sometimes men!) and children! How can we address such inhumanities?
Those on the right are suspicious of state-centered programs. Examples of waste and corruption are easy to cite. The sense of entitlement that grows as people learn to milk the system may lead to the creation of a permanent class of people dependent on such services – a whole new group of politically exploitable constituents for any demagogue who knows how to appeal to an identifiable urgency.
Each side of the political spectrum wants to do good but has radically different views on how to achieve it. But what exactly is the good that is sought? To make the problems go away? To feel good about making them going away? To render “justice” to the have-nots by taking it from the haves? To induce people to take care of themselves? None of these is the object of Catholic social action.
Jesus did not come to “fix” what was wrong with the world. He came to pour Himself out – God’s love – for sinners. For Christ, healing is always up front and personal. He invests himself in our salvation, to the point of dying on the Cross. What is lacking in so many of the strategies proposed on both sides of the political divide – as it must be acknowledged to be these days – is any truly personal engagement.
Catholic relief efforts rarely receive the attention of the media but are typically characterized by an extraordinary degree of personal involvement. From soup kitchens and lunch programs to food pantries – and, traditionally, orphanages and hospitals – even our schools that, historically, were founded for poor immigrants.
The connection between the giver and the receiver needs to be close and personal. That is the Christian way. Institutional efforts are certainly necessary for the things that cannot be accomplished alone, but every Christian is challenged to share sacrificially of his or her personal resources with the poor and needy in our midst.
As Lent approaches, we should consider praying for a way to commit ourselves more personally to our needy neighbor, for they may be closer than we think.