By: Fr. Charles Bouchard, O.P.
Syndicated columnist Ross Douthat noted recently that some people — including President Obama and sociologist Robert Putnam — think that the Church spends vast amount of energy and cash on a few conservative social issues like gay marriage, abortion and contraception, but that it doesn’t seem to care near as much about the poor. (“Do Churches Fail the Poor?”, New York Times Sunday Review, May 16, 2015).
Douthat rejects this analysis. He says that the media make it seem these controversial issues are on the top of the Church’s agenda because of the attention given to them, but in fact the amount of money the Church spends on them is minuscule compared to what we invest in social services, health care and education. Catholic Charities USA, by itself, had a budget last year of $4.7 billion. Catholic health care spends many times that amount on charity care each year.
But he says there is still a problem because the decline in religious affiliation is not only among upper classes who can “afford” to leave Church behind. The poor and working classes are leaving the Church too, perhaps more quickly that those who are wealthier and better educated. Douthat suggests that we have neglected the poor by failing to “reach out, integrate and keep them in the pews.” In other words, we may be meeting material needs of the poor, but we are failing them spiritually.
Could it be that we are more concerned about physical and financial need than about holiness and salvation? The Church raised the “social question” over a century ago when the rise of the industrial economy threatened to crush the poor. Liberation theologians picked up on this in the 1960s. They felt that the Church too often preached salvation “out there,” in the next world, and failed to address the systemic issues that perpetuated poverty and human suffering. They wanted to liberate people economically and politically by education and health care. Some parishes today, especially in our inner cities still follow that model. They operate more like social services agencies or political advocacy groups than centers of spirituality.
I thought of this recently when the Master of the Dominican Order, Fr. Bruno Cadore, O.P., visited our province and raised questions about our ministry to the young. “Which youth are we serving?” he asked. “Are we serving only the youth that can afford an education today at the educational institutions we serve? What about all of the youth that do not attend college? If our ministry priority is to the ‘youth,” then how is it to all of them and not only to a particular social class or those who are ‘intellectuals.’” (Report to the Province of St. Albert the Great, December 1, 2014).
I must admit it had been a long time since I had thought of that. We focus so much on reaching out to intelligent and well-educated Catholics (which for sure is part of the Dominican charism) that we could easily forget about blue-collar and working class kids who would not go to college, but are nonetheless called to seek holiness and find a vocation. Indeed, for most of the history of the American Catholic Church, it was these kids, and not the kids of bankers, lawyers and doctors, who filled our seminaries and helped build our schools and hospitals.
Douthat raises an important question for us. How do we serve the poor? Only by meeting their human needs? Or do we also provide quality experience of liturgy, prayer and spiritual guidance for them? Are we as concerned with the spiritual well-being as with their access to housing, equal rights, and wages? Do we nurture their faith lives as well as their economic lives? Can we do better?