A Taste of THE CHURCH’S BEST-KEPT SECRET #3

My latest book, The Church’s Best-Kept Secret: A Primer on Catholic Social Teaching will be released by New City Press this Monday, September 21.  

You can buy the book either in hard copy here:

…Or you can order it on Kindle here.

To celebrate, I’m posting some little tastes from the book, which lays out the four pillars of Catholic Social Teaching: the Dignity of the Human Person, the Common Good, Subsidiarity, and Solidarity. This is from the discussion of the Common Good.

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The primal saint in both the Jewish and Christian tra­ditions is the man Paul calls “the father of us all”: Abraham (Romans 4:16). Abraham is particularly remembered in Scripture for his fruitfulness and generosity rooted in faith. God makes him the father of many nations (the literal meaning of his name), and he shows constant generosity toward those around him.

Indeed, the mark of his call is that his life-giving gener­osity will ultimately touch the whole world to such a degree that God promises him, “In you shall all the nations be blessed” (Galatians 3:8). He is generous even to the wicked, famously dickering with God to spare the legendarily cor­rupt cities of Sodom and Gomorrah (see Genesis 18:22-32).

This brings us to one of the core biblical insights about the use of our gifts, whether spiritual or material. What is true for Abraham is intended to be true for all his spiritual heirs: namely, that the Chosen are chosen for the sake of the unchosen. Our gifts, whether in spiritual or material wealth, are given to us for the sake of those who do not have them—and those to whom much is given, much will be required (see Luke 12:48).

Accordingly, in the Old Testament, God commanded that Israel celebrate the Sabbatical and Jubilee years (Leviticus 25, 27), which required fields to lie fallow, debts to be canceled, and persons and goods to be released— indicating that everyone in Israel has a right to the com­mon goods of the land God gave them. Private property, while real and good, was ultimately secondary to the good of the whole community, that is, the Common Good.

When Jesus, God made man, fulfils the law and the prophets, he embarks on his mission by applying the image of the Jubilee to himself and universalizing it to apply not to Israel alone, but to the whole world.

And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up; and he went to the synagogue, as was his custom, on the sabbath day. And he stood up to read; and there was given to him the book of the prophet Isaiah. He opened the book and found the place where it was written,

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”

And he closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant, and sat down; and the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:18-19; Isaiah 61:1-2)

Jesus does not mean he is declaring a Jubilee year to begin his ministry. He means he is the Jubilee, just as he will later say he is the true Bread of Life prefigured by the manna in the wilderness (see John 6:35; Exodus 16) and he is the true temple prefigured by the stone building in Jerusalem (see John 2:19-21). What appeared only in sign and shadow in the Old Covenant is not revoked but revealed in fullness, in the Word made flesh. He does not come to abolish, but to fulfil the law and the prophets (see Matthew 5:17).

And so the Church insists that just as in the wilderness every Israelite had the right to eat the manna that God provided, so every person has the right to know the truth, mercy, and love revealed in Jesus Christ, the Bread of Life and the very embodiment of the Common Good. All our other efforts to promote the Common Good must keep that fact in mind.

But the Church does not spiritualize the law so as to deny earthly human needs. On the contrary, at the very dawn of the Christian revelation, John the Baptist will tell penitents asking what God requires of them: “He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise” (Luke 3:11). In the same way, James says:

What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith but has not works? Can his faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and in lack of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. (James 2:14-17)

And so the Catholic Tradition has long bound up the corporal or bodily works of mercy with the spiritual works of mercy and insisted that care for the human person means care for the Common Good of all, not just of people we happen to deem “worthy.”

Someone may ask, “What about Paul’s command that those who will not work shall not eat?” (see 2 Thessalonians 3:10).

To begin with, Paul is not speaking about the obli­gations of the state, but of Christians in the Church at Thessalonica who were ignoring their duties to the com­munity on the theory that Jesus’ return was imminent. He is speaking to those within the household of faith and telling them to get off their duffs—so they can provide for themselves and for the Common Good. He is not writing the First Epistle to the Americans on the Abolition of Welfare.

Meanwhile, the marching orders Jesus gives us as Christians moving in the world outside the household of faith are shocking and radical: “Give to him who begs from you, and do not refuse him who would borrow from you” (Matthew 5:42).

Note that he places absolutely no qualifications on this command. Indeed, what he says about generosity is wildly counter-cultural and counter-intuitive. He does not counsel giving only to “the deserving poor” who will thrift­ily earn a percentage on our largesse and pay us back with interest. Instead, he commands:

When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your kinsmen or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return, and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. You will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.” (Luke 14:12-14)

That’s right. The one and only qualification Jesus offers for our charity to the poor is that we make certain the people we give to will never give us a return on our investment.

Why? Because it really is about the good of the other and not about us:

For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is per­fect. (Matthew 5:46-48)

The gospel, as a quote often attributed to Dorothy Day says, “takes away our right forever, to discriminate between the deserving and the undeserving poor.” Because in God’s eyes we are none of us deserving, and we are all of us poor.

That is why St. John Chrysostom shocks us by saying that the rich exist for the sake of the poor, but the poor exist for the salvation of the rich.

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By the way, on Saturday, September 19 at 1 PM Eastern/10 AM Pacific, I will be having a Facebook livestream to talk about the book and take questions! Hope to see you there!

4 Responses

  1. You use that quote from John Chrysostom a lot. I figure it’s a more recent translation, because I couldn’t find it literally, at least not on wikisource.
    Could you let me know in which book or sermon it appears?

  2. I think it is a distillation of Chrysostom’s teaching, not a direct quote. In one of his homilies, he says “but none can rescue you from hell, if you obtain not the help of the poor”; and in the Lazarus discourse, it is mentioned that the rich man “while he had such a treasure, such an opportunity of salvation, overlooked it each day”

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