The basis of Catholic social doctrine is quite straightforward. Speaking to Caritas International earlier this year, Raniero Cantalamessa said that “Christianity doesn’t begin by telling people what they must do, but what God has done for them. Gift comes before duty.” In other words, our love for God and our love for neighbor begin as responses to love we’ve already received.
Christian charity flows from having first experienced the love of God ourselves. The ultimate purpose of every human being is fulfilled by knowing God’s love and being with him for eternity. All Christian charity is practiced with this goal in mind. Therefore, to be authentic, Christian charity must be free and must be motivated to share God’s love with others, in addition to offering material aid. Christian charity is always both a material and a religious act.
At root, all acts of Christian charity are a means of communicating to other people the highest form of charity: the knowledge of Jesus Christ and his love for them. From this basic understanding we can draw some important ideals for Catholic social ministry in general, and Catholic Charities organizations in particular. The following list is not exhaustive, but it establishes some foundational principles for Catholic charitable work.
First, every act of Catholic social work should function faithfully within the mission and structures of the local diocese, with special respect for the role of the bishop. All such social work should be true to Scripture, Church teaching and the Code of Canon Law.
Second, every Catholic social ministry, along with providing material aid, should allow for the possibility of verbally professing the Gospel, as prudence permits.
Third—and this should be obvious—a Catholic charitable worker should never engage in coercive proselytization. He or she should always embody respect for an individual’s freedom, and be governed by humility and common sense.
Fourth, every Catholic social ministry should insist on the best professional skills from its staff, and should use the best professional means at its disposal in serving others—so long as those skills and means reflect the truth of Catholic moral teaching.
Fifth, Catholic Charities and similar Catholic organizations should always provide opportunities for prayer for their employees and volunteers. Prayer is integral to Christian charity both as the means of experiencing the love of God ourselves and of seeking God’s help, without which none of our works can prosper.
Sixth, every Catholic social ministry—guided by charity and prudence, but also by courage—should bear witness to the truth of Jesus Christ in the wider community. This includes giving a public voice to the rights of the poor, the homeless, the disabled, the immigrant and the unborn child, consistent with the particular nature of its work.
Seventh, every Catholic Charities organization, both through action and instruction, should seek to deepen an awareness of Catholic social teaching within the Christian community.
Eighth, Catholic social work always should involve both an effective outreach to individuals struggling with poverty, and a frank critique of the structural causes of poverty through the lens of Catholic social teaching.
Ninth and finally, Catholic social ministries should welcome opportunities to work with other individuals, groups, and social agencies in ways that are compatible with Catholic teaching. But we need to stay alert to the fact that cooperation can easily turn Catholic organizations into sub-contractors of large donors—donors with a very different anthropology and thus very different notions of authentic human development. And that can undermine the very purpose of Catholic social work.
Given the state of Catholic charitable organizations, pursuing these ideals will involve serious cultural change within many Catholic agencies. That will take time. It will also demand people who believe in real human development, as understood in the light of Jesus Christ and the Catholic faith, and who have the courage to speak the truth and act on it confidently.
In their attitudes, employees, and methodologies, Catholic charities must learn to reject the “humanism without God” that shapes so much modern social service thinking. There is no such thing as “humanism without God.” It never endures, and it ends by debasing the humanity it claims to serve. The record of the last century proves it again and again in bitterly painful ways.
In the end, the kind of people we hire and the training we provide will determine whether the ideals I’ve just listed have any effect. With this in mind, Catholic social ministries should always use their training and hiring processes to advance a faithful understanding of Catholic social teaching within their institutional culture—and especially among their employees.
We can’t give what we don’t have. Christian charity is not generic “do-goodism.” Catholic social work exists to serve others, but not in any random way. It is very specifically an expression of Christ’s love for us, our love for Christ, and our fidelity to the Church that Jesus founded. If we don’t have these things in our hearts, we have very little worthwhile to share.
Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M., is the Archbishop of Denver. This essay has been adapted from a talk he gave to the Catholic Social Workers National Association in June.
Charles J. Chaput, A Charitable Endeavor
Matthew J. Franck, Religion, Reason and Same-Sex Marriage
Matthew Hanley, Should Catholic Charities Settle for Harm Reduction?
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