Corpus Christi, Social Justice and the Common Good

June 8, 2007

We have a monthly Catholic business men’s meeting at the chancery hosted by Fr. Mark, the Director of Stewardship for the Diocese of Colorado Springs. This month he gave us the talk by Archbishop Chaput on the common good that caused a bit of a stir around the blogosphere a month back.

A couple of days ago I was listening to a local talk radio station and the discussion topic was whether we are more generous now than a generation ago.

This Sunday (or yesterday, depending on your liturgical taste) is the feast of Corpus Christi. Yes, I know it isn’t called that anymore in the new rite.

A month back I had the unpleasant fortune of discussing some financial assistance for medical bills with a rep at our local Catholic hospital.

All of these things tied nicely together this morning in our discussion.

Social Justice and Spiritual Welfare

The Church used to have two public faces: the social justice side and the spiritual side. The social justice side could be seen (and still can be seen) in its hospitals, schools, soup kitchens and hundreds of other organizations meant to help those in physical need. The spiritual side used to be much more visible – priests and sisters in “uniform”, Marian processions, Corpus Christi processions, church buildings and even Fulton Sheen’s television program.

Unfortunately, the spiritual side has been almost hidden for the last fifty years as priests go around “incognito”, as one told me, churches look on the outside like shopping centers and on the inside like a modern artist’s worst nightmare and religious processions are deemed archaic.

This diminishment has led to an unfortunate separation of social justice and spiritual concern that in some cases has led “Catholic” groups into a bizarre support for abortion on demand as a social justice cause. A Jesuit priest in our diocese once said in a homily that he was proud that during his work on the Indian Reservations he never tried to convert anyone to Catholicism.

The bishop says:

The “common good” is more than a political slogan. It’s more than what most people think they want right now. It’s not a matter of popular consensus or majority opinion. It can’t be reduced to economic justice or social equality or better laws or civil rights, although all these things are vitally important to a healthy society.

The common good is what best serves human happiness in the light of what is real and true. That’s the heart of the matter: What is real and true? If God exists, then the more man flees from God, the less true and real man becomes. If God exists, then a society that refuses to acknowledge or publicly talk about God is suffering from a peculiar kind of insanity.

“The common good is what best serves human happiness in the light of what is real and true.” Unfortunately, the common good usually refers today to whatever will make me personally feel good with very little or no reference to the good of others and almost no concern about whether or not what feels good is truly good.

The Loss of Spiritual Concern Leads to Dehumanization

The other problem with removing the spiritual component from the social component is that it almost inevitably leads to a removal of the human concern from those in need of social justice. Each poor person is just a number, a statistic, a source of government funds for our organization. Fr. Mark commented that the Vincentian (he is one) spirituality clearly laid out the way in which one was to bring comfort to the needy. St. Vincent actually had to tell his religious sisters that they had to go themselves to take food to the poor, they couldn’t send the maid. They were required to treat the person they were helping like a person and explain the love of God to the person while they were helping him. Fr. Mark described it as a very “individualistic” assistance – you care about this person as a child of God, not as another mouth in the food line.

A few weeks ago, due to having several thousand dollars in medical bills from an accident (yes, I am stronger than the rear window of an SUV) I approached our local Catholic hospital about some kind of financial assistance since they weren’t willing to wait in line behind the other various labs and doctors to whom we owed money. The director of the program was condescending, treated me like a stupid child when I didn’t have all the proper documentation, and when asking me questions to fill out the forms on her computer, had me sit in a chair with her back to me while she interviewed me. As it turns out, the financial assistance program at our local Catholic hospital wasn’t actually charity, it was “The Colorado Department of Health Program for Indigents.” We figured out another way to handle the bills.

I think this serves as a clear example of what happens when charity is separated from spiritual concern and becomes either a government program or a cause.

The Replacement of True Concern for the Common Good With “Feel Good” Charity

There was an interesting discussion a couple of days ago on a local radio station about whether we are more generous now then we used to be. Pretty much everyone came down on the side of being more generous now. Examples like the aid given after the Tsunami in Asia, Hurricane Katrina and locally when an entire apartment complex burned down were given as proof.

But do these acts of generosity really prove the point? I don’t think so. These are acts of charity that are more about making myself feel good for “helping out” by sending a check instead of actually being truly concerned for those involved. We can sit in front of our Nintendo Wii and say that had we been there, we would be right there helping to pull people out of the rubble or working in the Red Cross shelter. But would we really? Would we be willing to inconvenience ourselves to help out? When we brush off the panhandler on the street can we truly say that we would be there when there are thousands of them all around us? Jesus said in a parable that “because you have been faithful in little things I will put you in charge of greater.”

I believe that our current generation is one of the most stingy since the debauchery of the Roman Empire. How can we call ourselves generous when we abort three million children a year, mostly for convenience? How can we call ourselves generous when we contracept ourselves out of existence? How can we be generous when no-fault divorce claims more than half of all marriages, mostly for trivial reasons? These are all examples where true common good has been replaced by the false common goods of the “right” to abortion and the “right to be happy” (whatever that means). We have come untethered from our foundations that used to root the good in The Good instead of my personal vision of good for me.

Yes, we may send that check to help the victims of whatever the current disaster is but are we doing it out of a true concern for the individuals involved or are we doing it to make ourselves feel good about being “generous?”

It’s this feel good charity without spiritual moorings that leads the debate on embryonic stem cell research. Don’t you know that if you don’t support it you don’t truly care about people? You would rather see them suffer than be cured. Religious people obviously don’t care about the greater good of humanity because they would rather protect a bunch of microscopic cells than see your mother cured of whatever disease ails her.

The Importance of the Feast of Corpus Christi in All These Ramblings

So here we are at a point where the common good has been reduced to abortion on demand, stem cell research, protecting the environment through forced population control, and letting the government handle poverty assistance. What should be the Catholic Church’s answer to this?

I would argue that a beautiful, solemn, long and public Corpus Christi procession is a good way to start. A Corpus Christi procession gives people the opportunity to see publicly the spiritual root of the concern for the common good and social justice work that the Church does on a daily basis. The monstrance holds the result of the largest act of charity in human history – the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross for the redemption of mankind.

Beauty and solemnity are attractive to people. A Corpus Christi procession is an opportunity for a parish to show off the glory of the Church and possibly encourage others to go in to the Church to see the spiritual root of the social work that the Church does in the world. Hopefully it will lead to a greater concern about the true common good that is the salvation of souls WHILE assisting with the physical needs of people instead of caring for the physical needs of people to the exclusion of their individual humanity and need for redemption that needs to be the basis for all social concern.

For more thought on the Feast of Corpus Christi, take a mosey over to the Happy Catholic.

The Virtue Driven LifeFr. Groeschel has a book, the Virtue Driven Life, that talks about these issues of social and spiritual welfare much better than I.