Sacramental Social Doctrine

Authentic Catholic endeavors for social justice must be rooted in the sacramental presence of Jesus Christ.

In their elusive quest for social justice, civil authorities have over the centuries learned much from the Church. As a result, a great many forms of state-sponsored welfare—especially in the growing liberality of the West—are a testament to the two-thousand-year presence of the Gospel and the outpouring of grace in the seven sacraments.

Modern social activists have largely forgotten this. Indeed, the idea that the Church is responsible for the West’s charitable genetic code is unintelligible for many.

This amnesia is a threat to social cohesion and to the state’s desire to attain what is right and just. In forgetting the role Christianity, the West not only forgets its identity but also its strength. Thus it will fail to achieve such goals as universal health care, expansive forms of welfare, and the moral foundations that make civilization possible. In time, as state-mandated compassion meets its limits (financial and otherwise), civil authorities must and will conclude—either through reason or empirical evidence—that governments can only do so much when they actively restrict the presence of God.

The state seeks social and civil justice primarily through the passing and enforcing of laws. In contrast, the Church speaks in her catechism of proposing principles for reflection; providing criteria for judgment; and offering guidelines for action (§2423). The Church does not dictate particular political or social policies. Rather, she hopes to baptize people and cultures in two ways: with the offering of her teachings and with the grace of God.

When we consider the former, the relationship between the Church’s social doctrines and society has a sacramental character—a relation that seeks not to destroy the nature of human cultures and start from scratch, but to challenge, engage, and, hopefully, elevate them.

As Pope Benedict XVI often reminds us, we must dialogue with the world so that we can offer the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which has been elevating human hearts for two thousand years. This is at the core of the Holy Father’s call for a New Evangelization and this Year of Faith, which is meant to encourage the faithful to better know what and Who we are faithful to. During this time, we are especially exhorted to grow in awareness of the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the documents of the Second Vatican Council. Both contain doctrines that many will relearn or hear for the first time.

In particular, as we read Gaudium et Spes, the Council’s 1965 “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World,” we must be especially mindful of the second facet of the sacramental relation between Church teachings and society. Catholic social doctrines must be considered sacramentally not only because of their relational nature to their partners in dialogue, but also—and importantly—because of the sacramental grace that God channels through the Church and her ministers. As the constitution reminds us, the efforts of man—whether taken individually, by the state, or by a parish social justice committee—are threatened with impotence without some recourse to God.

More recent magisterial writings underscore this reality. The necessity of grace resounds throughout the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church and is robustly evident in the encyclicals of Pope Benedict XVI and within his Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis (“The Sacrament of Charity”).

This latter document highlights a series of gatherings and texts on the Eucharist. This includes activities during the Year of the Eucharist, held from October 2004 through October 2005. This was also a time when the Church grieved the last days and the death of John Paul II and delighted in the election of Benedict XVI. Thus Sacramentum Caritatis quotes from both pontiffs, who in their own ways express this one message: in order to authentically engage and care for the world, we must first encounter, receive, and be transformed by the person of Christ and His living grace.

In speaking of moral transformation in light of the Eucharist, the exhortation bridges the two pontiffs with a message at the heart of seeking justice in the social order:

Pope John Paul II stated that the moral life “has the value of a ‘spiritual worship’ (Rom 12:1; cf. Phil 3:3), flowing from and nourished by that inexhaustible source of holiness and glorification of God which is found in the sacraments, especially in the Eucharist: by sharing in the sacrifice of the Cross, the Christian partakes of Christ’s self-giving love and is equipped and committed to live this same charity in all his thoughts and deeds.” In a word, “‘worship’ itself, eucharistic communion, includes the reality both of being loved and of loving others in turn. A Eucharist which does not pass over into the concrete practice of love is intrinsically fragmented.” (Sacramentum Caritatis, 82, quoting John Paul II’s Veritatis Splendor, 107, and Pope Benedict XVI’s Deus Caritas Est, 14)

In noting that by the sacraments—especially the Eucharist—the believer “is equipped and committed to live this same charity in all his thoughts and deed,” we are reminded that the grace of God seeks to partner with and elevate our activities in ways that are impossible for the human person. Furthermore, we must admit that our desires to live charitably will remain only desires without the sacramental grace that has really, truly, and decisively been flowing into human history since Pentecost.

This is a subversive message for cultures that increasingly desire government to do the dirty work of loving thy neighbor. But one does not need to be a bureaucrat of the state—as I am—to know that the civil authorities are ultimately incapable of commissioning the human heart to love actively and sacrificially.

Thus seeking an authentic relation between Church and state is all the more necessary in secular cultures, no matter how hostile civil authorities and their supporters can be toward Christians. It is, after all, central to Christian discipleship to possess a missionary zeal, to become incarnate in societies (and their governments) that struggle without the truth of Christ and the strengthening of the Spirit. Pope Benedict spoke of this in his first letter to the Church, Deus Caritas Est:

Love—caritas—will always prove necessary, even in the most just society. There is no ordering of the State so just that it can eliminate the need for a service of love. Whoever wants to eliminate love is preparing to eliminate man as such. There will always be suffering which cries out for consolation and help. There will always be loneliness. There will always be situations of material need where help in the form of concrete love of neighbor is indispensable. The State which would provide everything, absorbing everything into itself, would ultimately become a mere bureaucracy incapable of guaranteeing the very thing which the suffering person—every person—needs: namely, loving personal concern. (Deus Caritas Est, 28b)

What Christians must offer the world is both this authentic love—graced and made possible by our participation in the sacraments—and the admission of sin that teaches us why we need sacramental grace in the first place. Human failings exist because of our fallen nature and no amount of self-help, government aid, or state mandates will adequately, if at all, heal and elevate broken human hearts—which is vital when seeking to bolster the social order.

Catholics actively engaged in matters of social welfare and charity—as we should all be—must never forget that the source of our successes is the very summit to which we are called: true communion with Christ and his Church. (Indeed, Catholics whose primary vocation is social justice should meditate especially on the Luminous Mysteries of the Rosary, which speak of divine transformations in material world.) We invite terrible forms of failure when we engage in matters of social justice without first accepting that it is God, not us, that initiates, encourages, sustains, and completes our good works.

Catholic endeavors for social justice that do not acknowledge or offer the sacramental presence of Christ are no different than secular activities. At best, this is adequate if this is all one seeks to provide. At worst, it muddies the waters of what it means to be Catholic. After all, there is a difference between how atheists or government officials feed the poor and comfort the sick and how the same activity takes on greater depth when done by, say, the Missionaries of Charity, who begin their days with Mass and spend time in Eucharistic adoration in the evening.

Certainly, a good deal of the modern hesitancy to include the presence of the sacraments in the work of Catholic service is rooted in state-sponsored (and some non-profit) funding, which restricts “proselytizing.”

A local pastor tells the story that his parish’s work with a statewide assistance program came with stipulations that there be no prayer during periods of food distribution. And yet he steered around that rule by prefacing his prayers with a disclaimer that no recipient need give thanks to the Lord of Lords, but that he and those present who were Catholic would be doing just that—and everyone was invited to join them.

“In this sacramental perspective we learn, day by day, that every ecclesial event is a kind of sign by which God makes himself known and challenges us,” writes Pope Benedict XVI in Sacramentum Caritatis. “The eucharistic form of life can thus help foster a real change in the way we approach history and the world” (Sacramentum Caritatis, 92). Elsewhere, the Holy Father tells us that “[t]he Church’s social doctrine illuminates with an unchanging light the new problems that are constantly emerging.” (Caritas in Veritate, 12)

In other words, when the faithful encounter the new sufferings of a new age, we must do what Christian communities have always done and what the state cannot: remain faithfully present and, with love, offer our doctrines with the intent not to condemn but to teach; not to expel but to invite; not to dictate but to guide. With this readiness to comfort souls lost in the rubble of exhausted, bankrupt, and famished secular and atheistic orders, Catholic social doctrines will—with the sacramental grace of God—bring new life as the Spirit roars forth to renew the face of the earth.

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About William L. Patenaude 35 Articles
William L. Patenaude MA, KHS has a master's degree in theology and is an engineer and 33-year employee of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management. His debut novel A Printer’s Choice, has been described as "a smart, suspenseful Catholic sci-fi novel, with a richly imagined fictional world."