United to the Way

United to the Way March 1, 2010

In an amazing turn of events, many so-called “conservatives”[1] are calling into question the social doctrine of the Catholic Church. They act like it is a new idea, and riddled with errors. A common tactic is to say the Church should not be like the United Way; it should be looking for the salvation of souls.

To any Catholic with a traditional sense of Church doctrine, this appeal strikes as very Protestant and quietist. We have found ourselves once again in the midst of a debate between faith and works, where some people are trying to separate the two and make works insignificant and only doctrinal propositions as important. This, however, is far from what the Church expects of us when it comes to the matter of faith. Faith is not just mere belief, but fidelity — fidelity to Christ and his expectations. Indeed, since the Church is the Body of Christ, the Church is expected to follow the work of Christ, a work which is for the salvation of whole persons, both soul and body, with the realization that the two work together and are united as one.[2] This is exactly what Jesus reveals when he began his ministry and said he had in his persons fulfilled prophecy:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord (Lk 4:18-19 RSV).

In the Epistle of James, we find out that faith without works is dead. Our salvation is a thing of grace, yes, but we need to cooperate with that grace and to do the work of Christ if we want to receive its benefits. And if one reads the Epistle of James, St James makes it clear what he means by the works of faith. It is working for the wellbeing of our neighbor as a person; if they are in need, we supply that need. When the poor are before us, and we turn them away and yet could have helped them, we have shown how dead our faith actually is:

What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith but has not works? Can his faith save him?  If a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead  (James 2:14 – 17 RSV) .

The Church, as the Body of Christ, has throughout history been doing the work of Christ, which is the work of social justice. This is not a new thing. This is the traditional work of the Church. Indeed, anyone who knows how the Church converted Rome knows that it was through its social work that it was able to converted Rome and turned it to Christ. Julian the Apostate realized this, and tried to have the pagans imitate the work of the Church, but without the grace of Christ, his imitation of the Church’s social doctrine ended up dead and without any success. To realize this is to understand that the social doctrine is indeed about the salvation of souls. It is not, however, just about the salvation of those souls who are outside of the confines of the Church (though it is about that), it is also about the salvation of the people who are in the Church as well. Christ expects us to follow his example and to continue his work; indeed, in his discussion of the Last Judgment, he points out it is this which will determine our salvation!

When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left. Then the King will say to those at his right hand, `Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me’ (Matt 25:31 -36 RSV).

This is ever before us as Christians. We are to put on Christ and to follow him in his work. The preferential option for the poor is our demand because we are expected to work for them once we have put on the mantle of Christ. It is not an easy thing. I am as guilty as the next person, when I reflect upon the expectations of Christ on myself. We are all expected to give our whole selves to others, to show them love. When we neglect that love because it is not convenient, we risk judgment upon ourselves. The saints again and again and again tell us this. Saint Basil puts it very succinctly:

Care for the needy requires the expenditure of wealth: when all share alike, disbursing their possessions among themselves, they each receive a small portion for their individual needs. Thus, those who love their neighbor as themselves possess nothing more than their neighbor; yet, surely, you seem to have great possessions! How else can this be, but that you have preferred your own enjoyment to the consolation of the many? For the more you abound in wealth, the more you lack in love.[3]

St. Basil took this seriously, and thought that individual and corporate sins could not only cause damnation, but temporal disaster as well. He believed that sins could cause nature to turn against us, and indeed, when we see it going violent, it is indicative of social sin. Thus, the deadly drought he lived through was seen as God’s judgment upon the people for their sin. “Let us examine our lives, both individually and corporately, let us regard the drought as a guide leading us to remembrance of our sins.”[4] In his description of the drought, St Basil saw what we could only describe as climate change. When God’s good grace was taken away from the land, causing such unnatural weather, it was because of the neglect of the people for the poor and needy:

See, now, how the multitude of our sins have altered the course of the year and changed the character of the seasons, producing these unusual temperatures. [….] Scorching heat and biting frost, exceeding their boundaries in an unprecedented way, considered to wreck severe damage upon human beings, even depriving them of life itself.[5]

We are called to love our neighbor as ourselves. As Christians, if we do not do so, we show we do not know love, and if we do not know love, we do not know God. But if we wish for our own prosperity, we must wish for the prosperity of others, and work so that they might have it. “The state of love may be recognized in the giving of money, and still more in the giving of spiritual counsel and in looking after people in their physical needs.”[6] If we do not know this love and do not know how to love our brethren, we really do not know God. “Therefore, whoever loves his brother according to charity, which God is, loves charity itself in him as much as possible.”[7] How can we be saved if we do not know God? We are called to move beyond our greed and desire for self-possession and instead to look for our brothers and sisters and their needs: “… alms increases trust in God and produces spiritual fruit. For although every good work bears this fruit, yet it fits almsgiving especially, since through it we offer a service pleasing to both God and neighbor and it is a work that is clearly and obviously recognized as good.”[8]

The Church’s call for works of mercy is a call for us to work out our own salvation with much fear and trembling. Those who say such work undermines the Church’s work for the salvation of souls undermine their own salvation. The more works of charity we do, the more charity grows in our hearts and souls, the more we cooperate with grace, and the more we are capable of overcoming temptation which would lead us to sin:

A man who ministers with knowledge ministers because he is moved by sympathy [for the sufferer], because his heart is moved with pity. If anything happens externally that troubles him, or if the sick man is cantankerous with him, a man who aims at expressing this pity will bear it without being put out, because he sticks to his own intention and knows that the sick man is doing him more good than he is the sick man. You must believe that a man who ministers to the sick with knowledge is relieved of many evil tendencies and the battles they cause.[9]

We stand accused when we do not give what we can to the poor. We are called to share and give, because the world and all that is within it is God’s:

Consider yourself, who you are, what resources have been entrusted to you, from whom you received them, and why you received them more than others. You have been made a minister of God’s goodness, a steward of your fellow servants. Do not suppose that all of this was furnished for your own gullet! Resolve to treat the things in your possession as belong to others. After all, they bring pleasure only for a little while, then fade away and disappear, but afterwards a strict accounting of their disbursement will be demanded from you.[10]

We do not own what is in the world. Though we might claim it, we really do not possess it. When we assume we do, we become thieves. We claim possession over that which was put in our hands instead of realizing that it was placed in our hands so we can hand it out in stewardship:

You should think the same about those who are rich and greedy. They are a kind of robbers lying in wait on the roads, stealing form passers-by, and burying others’ goods in their own houses as if in caves and holes. Let us not therefore call them fortunate because of what they have, but miserable because of what will come, because of that dreadful courtroom, because of the inexorable judgment, because of the outer darkness which awaits them.[11]

If one is concerned about the salvation of souls, one would be concerned when our brothers and sisters in Christ becomes thieves and take what is not rightfully theirs as if it is their own. That is why the social doctrine of the Church is important and is not just a secondary concern. It is intimately related to the putting on Christ and becoming one of his. The world looks at possessions in one way. Christians, however, are to see possessions in the light of God’s truth. And when we try to possess what is not ours, the condemnation is clear. Greed, the love of money, is the root of evil, and those who work to protect systems of greed are risking damnation, not just of themselves, but for those who they encourage to keep on with the path of greed.[12] Such an attempt at theft of God’s resources will not go unnoticed by God:

Who are the greedy. Those who are not satisfied with what suffices for their own needs. Who are the robbers? Those who take for themselves what rightfully belong to everyone. And you, are you not greedy? Are you not a robber? The things you received in trust as stewardship, have you not appropriated them for yourself? Is not the person who strips another of clothing called a thief? And those who do not clothe the naked when they have the power to do so, should they not be called the same? The bread you are holding back is for the hungry, the clothes you keep put away are for the naked, the shoes that are rotting away with disuse are for those who have none, the silver you keep buried in the earth is for the needy. You are thus guilty of injustice toward as man as you might have aided, and did not. [13]

If we are moved by love we are moved by the option for the poor. If we love our neighbor we see their needs and want to have them met. If we can not do it individually, we want to work to have them met communally. If we follow Christ, we cannot excuse ourselves by popular culture. Our culture suggests we should accumulate wealth for ourselves. God tells us no wealth is our own. Popular culture tells us to love ourselves, God tells us to love others as ourselves. The culture of death which is around us comes from such egoism: “Death comes not from God, but from people hating their neighbors, ‘for God did not make death, nor does he delight in the destruction of the living’ [Wis 1.13].”[14] This culture of death is founded upon the continued accumulation of wealth, of appropriating to ourselves that which is meant for others. It is not just that we neglect the needs of others, but as St Gregory Palamas points out, we do something worse: we use our abundance as a means to take from those who have little so as to add to our greatness: “I wanted to say that there was no greater proof of hatred than preferring excess money to our brother. But I see that evil has found a greater proof of hatred for our fellow man. For some people not only do not give alms out of their abundance, but even appropriate what belongs to others.”[15] And, as, he further points out, we will be shown mercy and grace if we have shown others mercy and grace in acts of compassion: “Let us be merciful to ourselves by being merciful to others, gain compassion by showing compassion, and do good that good may be done to us. For we receive the like in return: good works, benevolence, love, mercy, and compassion, but not merely to the same value and measure of excellence.”[16] The only richness we should seek is that of good works: “But let us, brethren, be rich in good works. Let us fill the stomachs of the poor with what we have, that we may be deemed worthy to hear the promised voice and blessing, and inherit the heavenly kingdom.”[17]

Those who say they seek the salvation of souls and use that as an excuse to neglect the work of social justice prove to be wolves in sheep’s clothing, for they are encouraging us to act contrary to our own welfare. Yes, works alone do not save; we need grace for salvation, and grace is given to us in and through faith. But how can we say we have faith in Jesus if we ignore his commands? How can we say we love him if we show we do not know love? It is for this reason the Church wisely repudiates such wolves as faithless, because their fruit is the rotten fruit of self-love; if left unchecked, it can lead us to hell. If we want treasures in heaven, we must overcome the false riches of the earth- we must reject mammon! What will we tell Christ in the Last Judgment? Will we tell him we had faith in him, so he must save us? That is good, but how did we show that faith? Did we follow him and his path of love? If we did not, will he not say, “if you had faith, you would have believed me?” What will our answer be? “What then will you answer the Judge? Your gorgeously array your walls, but do not clothe your fellow human being; you adorn horses, but turn away from the shameful plight of your brother or sister; you allow grain to rot in your barns, but do not feed those who are starving; you hide gold in the earth, but ignore the oppressed.”[18] It is not too late. We still can turn to the path of love. “But let us change direction, repent and agree together to supply the needs of the poor brethren among us by whatever means we have.”[19] Repent now, for, as we know, the Kingdom of God is at hand!


[1] I call them so-called conservatives, because I would not say they are conservative, and this denial is to their claims at being conservatives in a political or religious sense; those who are conservative politically would follow the classical right in affirmation of a strong central government and reject libertarian values, and those who follow conservatism in a religious sense would show a far greater respect to ecclesial authority.

[2] “At the beginning of his ministry, in the synagogue at Nazareth, Jesus announces that the Spirit has consecrated him to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to captives, to give sight back to the blind, to set the oppressed free, to declare a year of favour from the Lord (cf. LC 4,16-19). Taking up the Lord’s mission as her own, the Church proclaims the Gospel to every man and woman, committing herself to their integral salvation. But with special attention, in a true “preferential option”, she turns to those who are in situations of greater weakness, and therefore in greater need. “The poor”, in varied states of affliction, are the oppressed, those on the margin of society, the elderly, the sick, the young, any and all who are considered and treated as ‘the least,'” Pope John Paul II, Vita consecrata. Vatican Translation. ¶ 82.

[3] St. Basil the Great, “To the Rich” in On Social Justice. Trans, C. Paul Schroeder (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2009),43.

[4] St. Basil the Great, “In Time of Famine and Drought” in On Social Justice. Trans, C. Paul Schroeder (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2009),80.

[5] ibid., 75. He then goes to describe what exactly is the problem: “Rather, the reason why our needs are not provided for as usual is plain and obvious: we do not share what we receive with others. We praise beneficence, while we deprive the needy of it. […] This is why God does not open his hand: because we have closed up our hearts towards our brothers and sisters. This is why the fields are arid: because love has dried up” ibid., 76.

[6] St Maximus the Confessor, “First Century on Love 26” in in The Philokalia: The Complete Text. Volume Two. Trans. G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard and Kallistos Ware (London: Faber and Faber, 1983), 55.

[7] St. Fulgenitus, “To the Abbot Eugippius 8” in Flugentius: Selected Works. Trans. Robert. B. Eno, S.S. (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1997), 345.

[8] St Robert Bellarmine, “The Art of Dying Well” in St. Robert Bellarmine: Spiritual Writings. Trans. John Patrick Donnelly, S.J. and Roland J. Teske, S.J. (New York: Paulist Press, 1989), 275.

[9] St. Dorotheos of Gaza, “On Building Up Virtues” in Dorotheos of Gaza: Discourses & Sayings. Trans. Eric P. Wheeler (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1977), 205

[10] St. Basil the Great, “I will Tear Down my Barns” in On Social Justice. Trans, C. Paul Schroeder (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2009),61.

[11] St John Chrysostom, On Wealth and Poverty. Trans. Catharine P. Roth (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1984), 36-7.

[12] Hence, the Church works to overcome systems of sin and not just individual sins.

[13] St. Basil the Great, “I will Tear Down my Barns,” 69-70.

[14] Mark the Monk, “The Mind’s Advicr to its Own Soul” in Counsels on the Spiritual Life. Trans. Tim Vivian and Augustine Casiday (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2009), 179.

[15] St Gregory Palamas, The Homilies. Trans. Christopher Veniamin (Waymart, PA: Mount Thabor Publishing, 2009), 32.

[16] ibid., 32-3.

[17] ibid., 517.

[18] St Basil, “To the Rich,” 47.

[19] St. Gregory Palamas, The Homilies, 31.

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