The Central Mission of our Faith

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In this Sunday’s gospel reading (Mk 7:31-37), Jesus heals a man who is deaf and has a speech impediment.  Christ touches the man’s ears and tongue, prays to heaven, and the man is cured.  He can hear and speak clearly.

This is but one of the many healing miracles that Jesus performs.   Wherever He goes, Jesus exhibits great concern for those who suffer.  Not only does Christ heal the deaf and mute, but also the blind, the lame and the leper.  The Church continues to this day to carry on Christ’s healing ministry, operating countless hospitals and clinics, homeless shelters, orphanages, food pantries and relief organizations.

Perhaps all this is what Joe Biden had in mind this past week when he made the comment that “Catholic social doctrine” is “the central mission of our faith.”  Biden, a Catholic, was being interviewed about Pope Francis’ upcoming visit to the United States, and the emphasis that this particular pope has put on the social teachings of the Church.  But is Biden correct?  Is Catholic social doctrine the central mission of our faith?

Catholic social doctrine is one aspect of the Church’s moral teachings.  Catholic moral theology helps us determine what human behaviors are right and wrong.  Given that human beings are social creatures, moral behaviors are not simply private matters.  Catholic social teaching brings to bear the moral teachings of the Church on the broader societal level.

The term “Catholic social doctrine” is relatively new in the Church’s lexicon.  When discussing the social teachings of the Church, many look back to the late nineteenth century papal encyclical Rerum Novarum, written by Pope Leo XIII in 1891 to address the many concerns of the working class at the time, including just wages and the right of free association.  These and other social themes were taken up by subsequent popes (especially Pope St. John Paul II), up to and including Pope Francis.  The social doctrines of the Church concern not only the rights of workers, but also our societal obligations toward the poor, the sick and the oppressed.

But the concept of social doctrine goes back to the early Church Fathers, the Apostles, and Christ Himself.  As we have seen in the gospels, Jesus heals the sick and feeds the hungry.  In the Acts of the Apostles, we see the early Church caring for orphans and widows.  St. Augustine wrote in City of God in the early 5th century of the need for society to promote the common good.

Today the Church operates a world-wide network of hospitals, orphanages, schools, shelters, clinics and food pantries.  It has been observed that the Catholic Church is the single largest charitable organization on the planet. Of course the word “charity” comes from the Latin caritas, meaning “love.”  All of the charitable endeavors of the Church are driven by and serve the Church’s primary mission of love — and not just a generic love, but a deep and abiding love of neighbor that is fueled by an even higher love for God.  Without this love, charity looses its soul.

It can be argued that the Catholic Church invented the concept of charitable ministry.  In the 360s, the Roman Emperor Julian the Apostate noticed something strange about Christians.  They were taking care of the poor and sick — not just their own, but even the poor and sick among the pagans.  This was unheard of at the time and it led many to support the Church, even though it was officially illegal.  Julian made a vain attempt to replicate (and replace) the Church’s charitable efforts with government-sponsored charity, but those efforts ultimately failed because they were not rooted in the love of God and neighbor.

So let’s go back to Joe Biden’s statement.  Is Catholic social doctrine the “central mission of our Faith?”  I would answer no, for one very simple reason.  Helping people on this earth is not enough.  If this were Jesus’ central mission, then His mission was a failure.  The ears which Christ opened in today’s gospel ceased to hear when the man died.  Likewise his tongue was no longer able to speak.  The blind man’s eyes, healed by the touch of Christ, would grow dark once again.  Even Lazarus’s miraculous resurrection was temporary.  Poor Lazarus had to suffer death twice.

In City of God, St. Augustine envisions a just society as one organized in such a way as to promote virtue and discourage vice.  He took a long view of justice and charity.  To him, the “common good” was primarily about care for man’s soul, and secondarily for his body.  Social justice was a means to an end; that end being heaven.  By identifying social doctrine as the “central mission” of the Church, Joe Biden confuses the means with the end.

Jesus’ healing miracles are likewise a means to an end.  When people see Christ healing the deaf and mute man, they proclaim, “He has done all things well. He makes the deaf hear and the mute speak” (Mk 7:37).  This alludes to our first reading today from Isaiah, which says in part, “Here is your God… he comes to save you.  Then the eyes of the blind will be opened, the ears of the deaf be cleared; then will the lame leap like a stag, then the tongue of the mute will sing” (Is 35:4-6).  Jesus’s healing miracles point to His divinity.  They are meant to draw our gaze to Him and in Him recognize Love incarnate.

Fr. Ronald Knox

In 1938 Fr. Ronald Knox preached about the Catholic Church’s approach to charitable work.  “Her eyes are set on the world beyond,” he proclaimed.  “She tends, feeds, teaches her children distractedly, only that she may point them to heaven; she will not lose her soul in what the world calls charity.”

We don’t need to wonder what the central mission of the Church is.  We don’t need a committee to devise a mission statement.  Our mission has been given to us by our founder.  “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, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Mt 28:19-20).  Our mission is to make disciples.  Our business is reconciling souls to God.

We are called to promote justice, yes.  We are called to perform works of mercy, yes.  We do these things out of love of God, who is perfectly just and perfectly merciful, and love of neighbor, who are the recipients of His justice and mercy.  But true love of neighbor does not end there.  True love takes the long view.  True love longs to see our neighbor perfected with us in heaven, resting in the the peace of God for all eternity.