The Catholic faith, when well-rounded and healthy, is not solely concerned with the purely spiritual. This can seem counterintuitive, as you might think that ‘faith’ is only to do with spiritual things. However, central to the Catholic understanding is the conviction that the spiritual and the physical are deeply connected. This is because of who we believe Jesus Christ to be and is a consequence of taking his teaching seriously.
Jesus Christ is God expressed in human form. We experience God in Jesus, for Jesus is God. This, then, tells us that now and for all time, the spiritual (God) finds its home in the physical (the world). We cannot live an authentic Catholic life while somehow artificially separating our faith from our real day-to-day lives. This is central to the Catholic conviction that, while belief in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the source of salvation, if that faith is not expressed in what we do (i.e., our ‘works’), then that faith is not real. A purely spiritual faith, not ‘incarnated’ in our lives, is not faith at all and is not capable of saving anyone. You cannot disconnect the spiritual and the physical.
The connection with Social Justice should be obvious. The first principle that governs our relationship with the society in which we live is that of the fundamental dignity of all human beings. While we might at times question how those we encounter may choose to live their lives, that does not undermine our awareness that they have an innate dignity that deserves our respect and, as required, our compassionate care.
There are many examples of where Jesus called those who believe in him to care for others. It can be distilled down to his teaching “love God and love neighbour” (Mark 12:30 – 31). You cannot have one without the other. But there is more to love than feelings. When Jesus speaks of loving our neighbour he tells the story of the Good Samaritan – a man who did not share the faith of the people Jesus was talking to, but who revealed in his actions a degree of love that showed the kind of person with which God is pleased (see Luke 10:25 – 37). God is to be found in those in need (Matthew 25:31 – 46), and serving them serves God.
We are so used to this idea that we can fail to recognise how unusual this was. The predominant belief had been that, if an individual or group experienced suffering or need, it was an indication that God had abandoned them. God was said to be with those who prospered, lived long lives, had many children, and made something of themselves in the world. It finds its modern equivalent in the so-called “prosperity gospel” of some more recently established Christian faith communities.
That this was not Jesus’ perspective must be taken on board. He turns the idea that health, success, etc. are a sign of God’s blessing on its head, and teaches instead that God is to be found in those who suffer. What’s more, those who serve them are the sign of God’s presence and are his hands as he reaches out to care for them. How real our faith is, is defined not by the strength of our conviction, but by the service we show to others. All you need is faith the size of a mustard seed (Luke 17:6).
A Christian faith that does not engage with the world, does not concern itself with the struggles and needs of others, and does not challenge the neglect of the economically disadvantaged, the suffering, the immigrant, the refugee, the mentally ill and so on is not the Christian faith. Furthermore, a way of being that presumes the superiority of one gender over the other, one race over another, one social and economic class over another, is problematic. There are those laying claim to the Christian faith who, by their actions and attitudes, have little right to do so. The call to live justly is a challenge to us all.
In recent times, Pope Francis has made concern for the poor, the marginalised, the migrant etc. a hallmark of his papacy. In Evangelli Gaudium, Pope Francis reflects on the basis for genuine engagement with the needs of others. If we are not prayerful people, committed primarily to our relationship with Jesus Christ, we will have no desire to serve the people God calls us to serve. He writes:
The call to serve others, particularly those most in need, is part of our commitment to make present God’s kingdom. This is challenging, for the temptation might be to see our call to simply be of service to others and fail to understand that this is itself an act of proclamation: God is in our midst.
Original text by Shane Dwyer
Crossroads photo by Vladislav Babienko on Unsplash
Fr Anthony Mellor, 30 October 2019
Archbishop Mark Coleridge, Archbishop of Brisbane, 30 October 2019
30 October 2019