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.

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About Dr. Greg

Dr. Gregory Popcak directs the Pastoral Solutions Institute, an organization dedicated to helping Catholics find faith-filled solutions to marriage, family, and personal problems. Together with his wife, Lisa, he hosts More2Life Radio. He is the author of over a dozen books integrating psychological insights with our Catholic faith. For more info about books, tele-counseling and other resources, visit www.CatholicCounselors.com.

  • http://www.catholicap.com Kim Cameron-Smith

    Wow, that’s an awesome answer to a giant question, Dr. Greg. I would add to your eloquent response that the Church’s mission, in affirming the dignity of persons, is to extend mercy to those who are suffering. This is different from general social justice concerns: The Church seeks to respond to the suffering and needs of individual, unique persons with unique pain and their own histories. We respond to Bill as Bill, Mary as Mary, Fred as Fred; not those 3 folks as a general group of people needing justice. This missions requires a kind of wisdom and discernment that can only be found in prayer and surrender to the Holy Spirit.

  • Noreen

    Remember when the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”
    He called a little child and had him stand among them.
    My belief is that Mother church has abandoned her children and left them orphans because she’s very busy trying to get civilizations to value the dignity of every human being. It’s a huge and worthy mission, but they might do well to remember the theology of littleness (I’m thinking St. Therese and Mother Theresa).
    I like your definition, but I would change it in the light of families and the need for parents to see each child as a gift. Every place where you said “human being” or “person”, I would replace it with “child”. I believe that civilizations can be changed (to value the dignity of every human person) if parents learned how to truly give themselves as gifts to one another and to their children. It would be nice to see an encyclical titled “the dignity of children”. Unaffirmed children grow up to be unaffirmed adults who have difficulty uniting with themselves and each other, let alone Jesus, and the perpetual cycle of broken people living in broken societies grows exponentially.
    I’m not in full agreement with your words “can only become who they truly are by dedicating themselves to loving others”. I believe that children (adults) can only become who they truly are by being freely given the gift of themselves by a loving parent (or grandparent, aunt, uncle or any affirmed adult/therapist). It is only then that they can freely dedicate themselves to loving others.
    Thank you so much for starting this blog. My husband and I first heard about you through our catholic therapist. She recommended your book on raising children. My husband read it cover to cover. Which says a lot because he is not a big reader. It helped us to be better, more understanding parents.

  • Theodore Seeber

    I too would add mercy to what we are supposed to extend to other Imago Dei- other instances of the Image of God in our fellow human beings. But I’d like to add something more from my incredibly musical childhood learning about the faith- and sorry for those of you who really hate this hymn, and find it trite. But we are called and chosen to show the mercy of God, and especially the mercy of Christ to others. In other words, as members of the Body of Christ that is the Church Militant- we are called to do the work of Christ here on Earth for other people.

    The hard part is doing that while realizing we’re sinners ourselves.

    Ok, now to try to get Anthem out of my head so that I can concentrate on programming this afternoon. I love the theology, but the tune is a musical virus for the human brain.

  • http://www.catholiccounselors.com Dr. Greg

    I appreciate everyone’s comments, especially the points about the importance of mercy. I actually considered mentioning mercy in my original response, but here’s why I chose not to. In order to be truly merciful, mercy must be, first and foremost, in the service of the dignity of the person. I think this is where so many “social justice Catholics” go astray. They focus on mercy as an end in itself and end up doing things, consenting to things, or refrain from objecting to things, that do not serve the dignity of the person. To my mind, misguided mercy and compassion (i.e, mercy and compassion that fails to uphold the dignity of the person) are at the heart of most of the problems I mentioned above. Without a mindset that focuses primarily on upholding the dignity of the “service provider” and the one being provided for, mercy quickly devolves into sentimentality which then slips too easily into permitting or even promoting evil so that good may result. What do you all think?

  • midwestlady

    18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Matt 28:18-20, NRSV-Catholic Edition.

  • Sarah M.

    I think that is an excellent response. I would suggest an even more basic mission (necessary for the response above and perhaps too obvious but IMHO still worth mentioning explicitly) is to preserve the teaching God has given us. A fundamental claim of the Church is that it holds the authentic teaching of Christ. Without that Truth, there would be nothing else.

  • http://www.forhewas.blogspot.dk Matthew

    Agree with almost all of it, and most of the comments….. We are to LOVE the kingdom of man, not the kingdom of self…. We are to find the will, and not impose our own…. The idea of true love is where they west is losing its grip…. Many hold love to an emotion or feeling, and not as living dedication and affirmation towards others…. The message is there in the Church… but how does the Church win this open field of words… I don’t know if just living it really works these days… peope move on to something new sooo quickly…. Hard to Answer

  • Elsa Sabath

    Thank you for the opportunity to think again about the mission of the Church. As a convert (since 1984) it is dear to my heart.

    I love what Benedict says about mission:
    Benedict XVI
    “In a world which often feels that God is superfluous or extraneous, we confess with Peter that he alone has ‘the words of eternal life’ (Jn 6:68). There is no greater priority than this: to enable the people of our time once more to encounter God, the God who speaks to us and shares his love so that we might have life in abundance (cf. Jn 10:10).”— Benedict XVI, Verbum Domini: Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation on the Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church, Sept 30, 2010, (no. 2)

    A lot of other good, related stuff in this document, too.
    “What the Church proclaims to the world is the Logos of Hope (cf. 1 Pet 3:15); in order to be able to live fully each moment, men and women need “the great hope” which is “the God who possesses a human face and who ‘has loved us to the end’ (Jn 13:1)”.[311] This is why the Church is missionary by her very nature. We cannot keep to ourselves the words of eternal life given to us in our encounter with Jesus Christ: they are meant for everyone, for every man and woman. Everyone today, whether he or she knows it or not, needs this message. May the Lord himself, as in the time of the prophet Amos, raise up in our midst a new hunger and thirst for the word of God (cf. Am 8:11). It is our responsibility to pass on what, by God’s grace, we ourselves have received.” (no. 91)

    Of course we human beings have tried many methods of passing on the message, some that lift Christ up to draw all people, and some that devastatingly backfire. It helps me to distinguish between mission and the methods of practicing it.

    John Paul II clearly places the Church’s social teaching at the service of evangelization:
    “The Church’s social teaching is (an) instrument of evangelization.…only in this light, does it concern itself with everything else.”
    “T)he Church’s social teaching is itself a valid instrument of evangelization. As such, it proclaims God and his mystery of salvation in Christ to every human being, and for that very reason reveals man to himself. In this light, and only in this light, does it concern itself with everything else: the human rights of the individual, and in particular of the “working class”, the family and education, the duties of the State, the ordering of national and international society, economic life, culture, war and peace, and respect for life from the moment of conception until death.” (Centesimus Annus (encyclical) no. 54.2).

    And a lovely discussion of mission is in this 2008 text online. Here is an excerpt from What Is the Mission of the Church? A Guide for Catholics, by Roger P. Schroeder
    …How do we understand and define mission today? Some twenty-
    five years after the council, Pope John Paul II in a key document
    on mission described mission in this way: “Proclamation is the
    permanent priority of mission. The Church cannot elude Christ’s
    explicit mandate, nor deprive men and women of the ‘Good News’
    about their being loved and saved by God” (RM 44). The pope
    wrote about mission as “a single but complex reality, and it devel-
    ops in a variety of ways” (41). “The witness of a Christian life is
    the first and irreplaceable form of mission” (42), and such wit-
    ness includes a “commitment to peace, justice, human rights and
    human promotion” (42). Other elements of mission involve form-
    ing local churches (48–50), incarnating the gospel in all cultures
    (52–54), dialoguing with brothers and sisters of other religions
    (55–57), and promoting development by forming consciences
    (58–59). Earlier, Pope Paul VI drew the definition of mission from
    the central message and explicit purpose of Jesus to preach the
    good news of the kingdom/reign of God (EN 6) and also pointed
    out that mission has many elements (17–18), must respect cul-
    ture and the context (20), and does not always require words
    (21). This last idea is captured nicely by the phrase associated
    with Francis of Assisi: “Preach always, and if necessary use words.”
    Popes Paul VI and John Paul II and other Catholic writers of-
    ten use the term evangelization instead of mission.
    In a broad sense evangelization is intended to sum up the church’s entire mission. While there is a tendency at times to restrict the meaning
    of evangelization to explicit verbal proclamation, a 2007 Vatican
    document stresses the broad intention of this term: “In any case,
    to evangelize does not mean simply to teach a doctrine, but to
    proclaim Jesus Christ by one’s words and actions, that is, to make
    oneself an instrument of his presence and action in the world”
    (Doctrinal Note on Some Aspects of Evangelization, 2). The term
    evangelization in this book is understood as another word for mission
    in this broad sense. In an attempt to capture the all-embracing dynamic of mission in a one-line definition, one can say that
    mission is proclaiming, serving, and witnessing to God’s reign of love, salvation, and jus-tice.
    This working definition will be filled out as we proceed, but
    this gives us a starting point. Now, back to the Second Vatican
    Council and how it affected the practice of mission.…