The universality of Catholicism implies a socially inclusive Church. From its revelation in the institution of Christ and the preaching of the apostles, the New Testament reveals the Church as the home of every natural identity. She embraces women as well as men, the poor as well as the rich, the learned and the simple, the old and the young, the white and the black. Christ, the Head of the Church, perpetually creates in Himself a new humanity, reconciled corporately to the Father and individually one to another — a society within society, uniting all strata in sacramental dignity. Each member of Christ, of both sexes and every race and socio-economic standing, is one in Christ, and in our legitimate differences we are helps one to another in our mutual salvation. This is the Body of Christ, in which “the eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you.’”
Unsurprisingly, the communal unity of Christ’s members, a unity effected by the Trinity, is Trinitarian unity. In Christ distinction is perfected by unity rather than annihilated, just as in the Trinity each hypostasis possesses everything in common other than what makes each himself. The Father is not the Son or the Spirit, but the Trinity is one in essence. Likewise the Father is greater than the Son and Spirit as unoriginate cause [cf. Jn. 14:28], yet the greater and lesser exist in the perfect harmony of a single divinity — in ἀγάπη (agape) love, which knows no envy. In a similar way, baptism not only leaves social distinction intact, it sanctifies it. Assumed into God with Christ’s humanity, one’s distinct characteristics become one’s gifts. Maleness lays down its life for femaleness; femaleness supports and guards maleness. Wealth mitigates the sting of poverty; poverty humbles wealth.
But, some will ask, didn’t Isaiah say, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me; he has sent me to preach glad tidings to the poor”? How are we to understand Isaiah’s words, which Jesus applied to Himself in Nazareth, in light of our Trinitarian and Pauline insight? In the Sermon on the Mount, Christ said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” The words poor in spirit indicate his intent. Christ is concerned with more than the mere absence of material resources. Jesus reveals mankind’s universal need of divine grace, his infinite poverty with respect to God. The pauper to whom he preaches is everyone. The material poverty of this age is only a concrete symbol of the spiritual poverty of all mankind before God, and is not of itself the primary concern of the Good News.
Indeed, to a first century reader, εὐαγγέλιον (euaggelion – “good news”) is news of the military conquest of a nation by a greater power. It carries the connotation of a herald announcing the coming of a kingdom by force. Good News? Sure, for those beloved of the King — and terrible news for his enemies. To be a friend of God is to acknowledge one “falls short of the glory of God,” and admit one’s dependence on Him. Without this, material comfort is only an idol. Christ’s εὐαγγέλιον announces God’s Kingdom is reorienting our kingdoms towards Him, and the alleviation of physical need is a sign of this reorientation.
The story of the canonical gospels is that God has become King in Jesus of Nazareth, of the Gentiles as well as the Jews, not only of the materially poor but also of the rich. Fulfilled are the Psalmist’s words, “The Lord shall reign for ever, even thy God, O Zion, to all generations.” Without the universality of the Kingdom, Jesus becomes merely a social radical, no different than Simon bar Kokhba or Che Guevara. The universality of the Good News in society necessarily means every element of society can be redeemed. This also means Jesus’ message is necessarily a subversive one. Christ reveals the potential rivalry between the Kingdom of God and the kingdoms of this age, and demands they make themselves subservient to a higher power.
How beautifully this is expressed in the Apocalypse! “The kingdoms of this world have become the kingdoms of our Lord and of His Christ, and He shall reign forever and ever.” Every political system, if it is to be a friend of the Divine King and not an enemy, is to be challenged and animated by the Christian Gospel, and every ruler is to know himself the steward of a heavenly authority. Society is therefore to be Christianized. Even in this age, the Kingdom is to come “on earth as it is in heaven,” a foretaste of God being all in all. This is the great vision of which Christendom is the fulfillment, and its realization requires the involvement of the materially wealthy.
It is common today to imagine the Church merely as an instrument of economic change, oriented exclusively to the physically poor, “a poor Church for the poor.” God, if he is thought of at all, exists only to alleviate discomfort. The error of this lies in a radical inversion. Final or eschatological salvation is treated as a symbol of material betterment, which is exactly the reverse of the truth. This thinking leads ultimately to a distorted idea of the Father. God, of whom we are created images, is thought a created image of man, a metaphor for the human person. Service of man is taken to be the ultimate good, and the Trinity is imagined a metaphor for the human community, a symbol of the harmony created by social justice. The untamable Lion is in fact domesticated, or so we imagine.
This inversion leads naturally to the invasion of an especially vulgar, modern form of political corruption. Latin American churchmen openly cater to the poor, forgetting the transcendent poverty that binds all together and which allows material riches and poverty both to aid in salvation. In Europe, bishops form factions over moral dogmas, as though presenting bills to a parliament. Some give interviews with the populist rhetoric of a presidential campaign, filled with catchphrases and generalizations. Children hungry for the bread of eternal truth are fed the stones of temporary policy. All is in the name of “mercy,” “smelling like the sheep,” and “the gospel of the poor,” but it is not God’s mercy or Christ’s Gospel. It is fully hostile to the shepherd and the flock, and is indicative of pervasive false religion, the sine qua non of which is the loss of an awareness of God’s transcendence and man’s needfulness.
On the contrary, however, inasmuch as the Church is the Church of the poor, it is chiefly spiritual poverty of which she is the remedy. Another way of saying this is that the spiritual works of mercy give meaning to the corporal. Without the former the latter are at best mere humanism. The Church’s bishops are at the helm of a divine society, and open politicking or catering to particular social strata on their part is obscene and scandalous. Ecclesiastical life ought to be pervaded by the kind of Trinitarian and Pauline insight that encourages the contribution of all according to their ability. The Kingdom belongs to the poor in spirit, to all who recognize God and admit their unworthiness.
If we allow this cancerous worldliness to metastasize, we risk becoming just one more political structure divided by class and imbalanced in favor of specific interest groups. And we risk not only this, but the disorder that arises in any society that denies specialization according to ability. If the wealthy do not serve the Church as well as the poor, the Church’s artistic and cultural contributions to civilization will be impoverished. By the same token, if the scholar is not allowed to contribute to the Church’s life by serving in those posts that demand refined knowledge, such as in the see of Rome and other sees, neither learned nor simple will benefit. Moreover, if those functions that demand masculinity — such as those in the sanctuary — are dominated by the feminine, neither men nor women will reap reward.
I call on Catholics to do three things: First, recognize the universality of the Gospel rooted in God’s transcendence. Know yourself a sharer in mankind’s universal poverty, and spread knowledge of the sublime riches of Christ in his Holy Church. Only the true Good News can bring order and harmony to the world. Making Catholics authentic ambassadors of the Gospel is part of OnePeterFive’s raison d’être.
Second, practice the corporal works of mercy. Strive for authentic humility, which is always scarcely aware of itself. Be kind. Put aside social status and labor for the poor. Be Christ to them and find Christ in them. In word and deed, stand against true injustice in society, but let human salvation be your animating principle. In doing this you rob false religion of its power.
Lastly, identify the encroachment of bare humanism and base politics and oppose it at every approach. Anything that directs our thoughts heavenward must be zealously encouraged. Our liturgies must be windows to the divine, and our churches oases of transcendence. Use language evocative of transcendence — for they who control terminology control the debate.
Do not give way to timidity in false submissiveness, or to naïveté in false optimism, but in all things be a good solider of Christ, ad maiorem Dei gloriam inque hominum salutem.
Jonathan Pierre Cariveau is a Minnesota native and a convert to Eastern Catholicism from Evangelical Protestantism. He writes on Eastern Catholicism, Church history, liturgical theology, and Catholic life in the 21st century.