Mother Teresa was once asked how she could go on, day after day, year after year, caring for the sick, dying, and poor, and offering them so much comfort. “It’s not hard,” she answered. “Because in each one I see the face of Christ in one of His more distressing disguises.”
It’s important to emphasize this Christological dimension of Christian charity, because many Christian agencies and even whole religious orders of consecrated men and women founded on the basis of this original Christian inspiration, appear to have settled for a kind of Christian gloss over charitable work that is secular at its core. These religious communities have unwittingly allowed themselves to be guided by a kind of materialist framework for helping the poor.
Such groups would do well to understand that Mother Teresa’s words are not an expression of mere sentiment or outdated piety. They are a reflection of a core Christian idea, one that inspired those armies of missionaries who sought out “the lost”- — so as to tend their material needs, certainly, but also to share the message of eternal life in Christ. Their great sacrifice, heroism, ingenuity, and generosity flowed from their understanding of their mission. They were more than social workers; they were bearers of the eternal Good News.
And they were bringing that good news to human beings whom they saw as more than a bundle of unmet needs. They knew that the poor they served had eternal souls more valuable than the most prized possessions of the rich. The English writer C.S. Lewis captures the spirit of their anthropology with a striking image: “Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.”
When Christian institutions attempt to mitigate or compromise this understanding of their mission, often as the result of the political pressure, they morph into shadowy versions of their former selves. Often, instead of a passion for the Faith a substitute passion comes into play: a passionate political agenda which attempts to bring the kingdom of God to earth through political means. Dissent if you like from any proposition of the Nicene Creed, but not from any piece of legislation cutting welfare budgets. That, to their minds, is the real heresy!
The reasons for the secularization of religious institutions are undoubtedly many, but among them one can identify the loss of confidence in the message of the Gospel in the face of secular social science. In the popular imagination one sees the budding of this mindset in Harvey Cox’s The Secular City (1965), followed by other corruptions of orthodox Christianity by the secularist ideological premises that underlined, for example, most forms of liberation theology and feminist theology. These movements called into question the whole manner in which theology had been done over the preceding 2,000 years, introducing a skepticism about traditional faith, which their adherents believed needed to be corrected by Marxist social analysis or feminist critiques of “patriarchy” in the Church. What all this boiled down to in the pew was a sense that somehow religion had to “get with it” in order to "be relevant" to what was going on in the culture.
By the 1990s, the decline of mainline Protestantism was obvious — and documented by Thomas Reeves in The Empty Church. The sad irony is that the very churches most willing to compromise in pursuit of being “hip” or “culturally relevant” were the very ones that suffered the greatest decline in membership among the young. The Episcopalian, Presbyterian, and Methodist denominations, known in recent decades for their ardent pursuit of “relevancy,” barely managed to retain 50 percent of their minor members into adulthood. The situation has not improved in the years since. Instead decline has spread to other churches, most noticeably the single largest religious body in America, the Catholic Church. Regular Mass attendance has fallen from more than 60 percent in 1960 to less than 30 percent today. Some 10 percent of all Americans are ex-Roman Catholics.
These figures are not of interest only to churchgoers; the decline in religious life has had pernicious effects on American culture more broadly. At the same time that most nuns were abandoning their habits and some priests their collars, when overtly Christian terminology and symbols were dropped from the names and descriptions of various Christian organizations in an attempt “not to alienate any one,” and when ministers began focusing their attention on liberal political causes rather than preaching the Gospel message of repentance and salvation, a widespread cultural decline also emerged, one marked by growing hostility toward parental, political, and religious authority; rising drug use; and skyrocketing rates of divorce and out-of-wedlock births.
What I find remarkable is that this trend should surprise anyone. The heart of a healthy Judeo-Christian culture is that locus of unifying ideas that sustains and inspires respect for the divine and the beings made in His image. If core sets of ideas are somehow called into question or secularized, it follows that the culture will change.
And that decline has been particularly hard on the poor in America. Climbing out of poverty and staying out of poverty involves a measure of good fortune, certainly, but it also requires hope and confidence, along with a sense of responsibility, a work ethic, honesty, temperance, and all the other virtues that enable individuals to thrive. This isn’t to say there aren’t hard-working and virtuous poor people. Of course there are; I grew up with many of them. But when the institutions that teach, model, and reiterate the importance of these virtues are weakened or absent, then, all other things being equal, poverty becomes easier to fall into and harder to climb out of.
This article is drawn from Rev. Robert A. Sirico's new book, Defending the Free Market: The Moral Case for a Free Economy. (Regnery, May 2012).