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May, 2014

The Uncomfortable Hemisphere of Theology

Every age has a blind spot, and Pope Francis is moving us towards that uncomfortable spot.

We have gotten very skilled at defining normal with theology.  We can explain how things should be and how things will be in Heaven.  Unfortunately, we have gotten pitifully bad at proclaiming the good news when things are abnormal and off track.  Our theology can morally diagnose the problem, but it does not do a good job of explaining transformative hope when people are stuck in a broken situation.

For example, theology has helped us to understand ideal family life.  A family should have two loving parents and healthy children.  This family should live in a healthy community with good laws, a nice parish, justice, decent education, good work, and sound liturgy.   With this knowledge, we should order things towards this ideal.

Here is the rub: the ideal isn’t the good news.  There are people who come to Christ after marrying for the third time.  There are children trying to live their faith with abusive parents.  There are people suffering from temptations they didn’t choose or can’t shake, and these temptations keep them from attaining the normal.  Almost all of these people live with communities, governments, and parishes that are pretty far from the normal ideal too.  Christ died for people in these confused situations!  Catholicism needs to serve these people too.  We can’t let our theology harden our hearts with “shoulds” and ideals.  Our theology needs to help us be saved within our abnormal situation, and it should hels give Christian joy and hope to others in their abnormal situations.

The Carrot and/or the Stick

There are two popular ways to address social problems, the carrot and the stick.  Are either of these ways naive?

The stick is used when penalties for crime increase.  This can be done by increased enforcement or new laws.  In general, the poor bear the brunt of this negative stick. People object to this type of reform because it does not go to the root of the problem.  It doesn’t address the causes of poverty and social ills.  Instead of creating more attractive opportunities, it focuses on penalties.  The carrot is used when people create new opportunities and try to entice people away from negative activities.

Simple House is a ministry that uses lots of carrots.  The stick is usually the police.  We almost never collaborate with the police because the carrot and stick don’t really mix.  We befriend the drug dealer, the prostitute, and the criminal. Instead of trying to run them off, we try to show them a better way.  The carrot is better spiritually and materially.

Unfortunately, the carrot does not always work.  It seems to work better when there is also effective policing.  I am writing this because the stick often seems unloving.  When the carrot is compared to the primitive stick, it looks like an enlightenment, but the carrot cannot replace the stick.  It is a naive view of human condition to believe that people will choose the good if it is just offered.  In my own life, consequences have made me a better follower of Christ.  These two ways of addressing problems do not mix, but they should not trade off either.  We need both, and we should be thankful when they are done well.

Supernatural Social Work

The world needs a supernatural social work, and only the Catholic Church can lead this charge. Simple House has been developing ideas about supernatural social work and researching the history of the idea. Msgr. Paul Furfey and Prof. Mary Walsh saw the limitations of modern social work 75 years ago. Here is an excerpt by Msgr. Furfey (1944):

“The Church favors social legislation, collective bargaining, effective law enforcement, international arbitration, public health activities, efficient social work, and all other up-to-date methods of meeting social problems. In this respect Catholic social thinking shows a strong superficial resemblance to the thought of non-Catholic writers. But mark the difference carefully! Whereas these techniques are the sole solution of the unbelieving sociologist for all social problems, in the eyes of the Catholic they are only a sort of symptomatic treatment. The Catholic sees deeper, and realizes that far beneath the immediate causes the mystery of iniquity is at work and that his real solution is to attack the latter. The unbelieving social scientist is like a physician who gives a sedative to a patient suffering from a brain tumor and does nothing more. The Catholic is like a physician who gives the sedative indeed but them proceeds to the difficult and delicate operation which brings a permanent cure.
Only the Catholic has a fundamental remedy for social problems, for only the Catholic diagnoses the basic cause, which is the mystery of iniquity. To attack this he must use supernatural means. Therefore he must rely on such methods as prayer, the sacraments, the practice of the Christian virtues. This is the constant teaching of the social encyclicals. The point cannot be fully developed at present; but it is worth while to cite one example. Pope Leo XIII, speaking of the class struggle which involves “arrogance, asperity, fraud on the part of the more powerful, misery, envy, turbulence on the part of the poor,” went on to say that “it is vain to seek a remedy for these evils in legislation, in the threat of penalties, or in the devices of human prudence.” He proceeded to argue that for such evils the spirit of charity is the antidote and that we should therefore seek the solution of the problem in the Holy Eucharist, the great source of charity.”
The Mystery of Iniquity 1944