In the last few years, there has been a revival in interest in the role that private charity can play in the revitalization of civil society. This renewed interest is partly driven by an overwhelming sense that most of us have, regardless of political and ideological interests, that the modern welfare state has produced less-than-impressive results. I would take this analysis much further: The welfare state has been a complete disaster, in some instances creating, and in others enhancing, a myriad of problems—family disintegration, the loss of respect for the elderly, the moral nihilism of the youth, the loss of a clear sense of right and wrong, and the collapse of community at all levels in society.
But if we are really entering the post-statist age in which the welfare state is going to continue to disintegrate bit by bit, where do we go from here? A good start would be to build on the substantial pocket of civic virtue that remains despite the tendency of government to destroy and replace it, to build on and extend the sense of responsibility that individuals and families still have to create a viable civic culture.
This is obviously easier said than done. Some concrete steps that could take us very far in the right direction, though, relate directly to the mission of churches in the practice of authentic social work. I am not suggesting that our churches can or should be the only source of charity, and I am especially not arguing that their social mission is limited by their social utility. But from time immemorial, it has been the case that the most difficult work of caring for the least among us has been initiated by them and from the resources that church leaders and members accumulated voluntarily. They must not be overlooked. But there is a preliminary step that must be taken before churches can again become completely viable institutions in this regard. They must regain a sense of their salvific mission, and apart from this theological and soteriological task, I have strong doubts as to whether they can pick up where the state leaves off and become vital instruments of social and cultural healing. The churches must truly believe that the doctrines they preach really are good for others, both in a temporal and an eternal sense. They cannot profess a belief in the truth of faith and then not want to recommend it to others.
The ability of the church to take care of the poor is directly connected to its understanding and confidence in its own mission. Believers must be confident that they are doing more than merely providing for material needs; they must believe that their mission is broader and more important. They must believe they are also meeting spiritual needs, that they are saving souls, that they are preparing people not only to face this world but also the next. This requires, in the first instance, a revitalization of doctrine and faith. If the church does not believe in its primary mission—human redemption—it will not be able sustain enthusiasm and interest in its proximate mission—works of charity. And that means our churches must again seek to convert souls.
All of which goes to say, show me a group of God-fearing people of faith who reject the secular world, who reject the values of the mass media while embracing those beliefs about this world that are shaped by Holy Scripture and other ancient texts, and I will show you people who are capable of providing the greatest service to the poor.