First Things First

There has been some discontent from progressives about my post on Cardinal Maradiaga’s recent speech. This re-assures me that my haphazard progress through life is somehow right on course because only a short time ago the traditionalists were baying for blood. If both sides are mad at me I’m either doing everything wrong or everything right.

The main point of the post about the Cardinal’s speech was to get first things first–to re-affirm that the primary point of the Christian religion is the salvation of souls, the transformation of the human person by being sanctified and that from this transformation emerges individuals who, because of their love of God, reach out to others in loving concern.

This, it seems to me, is not only fundamental to the Christian faith, but very easy to understand. Jesus Christ says in the gospel, “There are two commandments. The first is this: Love God. The second is like: Love your neighbor as yourself.” The first is the vertical relationship between us and God, and Our Lord says this comes first. The second is the horizontal–and the horizontal aspect which is our relationship to our neighbor–hangs on the first commandment as the horizontal beam of the cross hangs on the vertical. You cannot have the cross without having both.

The important thing to remember–and this is my grouse with many so called progressives–is that a truly Christian social ministry is completely dependent on the life changing salvation that comes through a sacramental relationship with Jesus Christ in his church. Of course good works can be done by human beings without a relationship with God or Jesus Christ and his church. The atheists are correct about that.

However, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the prisoner and so forth, can only have a supernatural and transformative dimension when it is driven by the Holy Spirit through individuals and communities who are first transformed by the Holy Spirit. I am sure that Cardinal Maradiaga and many progressive Catholics would agree with my assessment, but I have to be honest, in reading their literature, I don’t hear much about it. I also accept that different members of the church rightly emphasize different aspect of the faith and that together we build up the full and complete picture.

What we all need to do is listen to the “other side” learn from it and give the benefit of the doubt. Within this there may be some rough and tumble–some sparks may fly and some heat may be generated. Some light will also be generated if we allow.

My point is that what many people have done is mistake the actions of Christians for Christianity. Because saints like Dorothy Day, Mother Teresa, Oscar Romero, Pope Francis, St Vincent dePaul,  Maximillian Kolbe, Damien of Molokai and others have served and even died for the poor we conclude that this is what we should do in order to be saints.

It is an easy and understandable mistake to make, but it is putting the cart before the horse. The reason these remarkably radiant and radical people did what they did was because they were first transformed by the encounter with the living Christ. They were totally and utterly abandoned to the power of God and experienced divinization. They lived as they did as a consequence.

In other words, they did not do good–they were good. They were not just good men, they were God-men. To put it in St Paul’s words in his letter to the Ephesians, they had “grown up into the full stature of the humanity of Christ Jesus.” To bring individuals (and thus communities) to this transformative knowledge of Christ is the first work of the Catholic Church.

It doesn’t take a theologian to figure out that without this dimension all we are doing is social work–and while that social work is good and worthy–you don’t need to go to church to do it. People aren’t stupid. They soon figure this out and stop going to church. This idea is integral to Pope Francis’ vision. In some of his first words as Pope he reminded us that the proclamation of the gospel is done from a position of poverty and totally reliant on grace. Otherwise the church becomes a boring, dead NGO.

There is a final danger: if the saving, transformative power of the gospel is replaced by a religion of good works, it is not long before the “do gooders” move from simply ministering to the poor to adopting an ideology. As the fervor and fire of real religion dies it is replaced with political fervor, activism and the self righteous campaigning of the idealogue. Once this happens, all the dangers of following an ideology are waiting in the wings: closed mindeness, cult-like behaviors of blame and scapegoating, passive aggressive behaviors and finally self justified violence against the perceived enemy.

This is why I am totally in favor of proclaiming the gospel through an active ministry to the needy, but in favor first of being busy with the saving and sanctifying work of the risen Christ through his body the Church.

Faith without works is dead, but works without faith is also dead.