The Church’s Essential and Ultimate Mission

Is the paramount duty of the Church and its faithful to aid those in need?

What is the purpose, the goal, and the essential mission of the Church?

That is the first question I put to a group of catechists earlier this month as we embarked on a week-long course in ecclesiology, part of the Archdiocese of Portland’s ministry formation program. It was the central question of the entire course, which was based on the structure and theo-logic of Lumen Gentium, the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church.

I also asked my students, “What do most non-Catholics think is the Church’s purpose, goal, and essential mission?” They agreed the Church is often perceived and presented as a merely human institution that is either a sort of social club or a political entity. As such, the Church is then praised when it emphasizes messages and concerns aligning with the trending beliefs and inclinations of the dominant culture, or criticized when it fails to be “on the right side of history” and proclaims doctrine deemed “backward” and “out of touch” with expressive individualism—to borrow an apt phrase from philosopher Charles Taylor—and secular ideals.

So, the Church is criticized for being bigoted and intolerant for what she teaches about marriage, homosexuality, family life, and related matters. But she is praised for her concern for the poor and the needy. This combination results in many commentators insisting, in various ways and forms, that the Church really needs to jettison the former and focus solely on the latter. After all, some further state, caring for the poor is the purpose, goal, and essential mission of the Catholic Church. In fact, this is not so much argued as simply asserted, as if it is a truism known by all except those glowering, gloomy conservative Catholics who obsess over moral behavior and worry about what sins are being committed in bedrooms across the nation.

For example, a recent essay in Fortune magazine, “This pope means business” (Aug. 14, 2014), which praised the managerial skills of Pope Francis, took care to point out that “The church has often promoted issues that tended to divide Catholics more than unite them. And the backlash made Rome look defensive, as many bishops and cardinals viewed their role as defending Catholic doctrines against a hostile culture of secularism.” As every learned and sophisticated person knows, being defensive and divisive is an unenlightened and regrettable thing. The piece then helpfully explains why the Catholic Church exists:

By contrast, Francis’s upbeat, quotable approach and emphasis on charity over doctrine have quickly made him perhaps the most talked-about and admired person on the planet. (Fortune named him No. 1 on its World’s Greatest Leaders list earlier this year.) His famous “Who am I to judge?” declaration on homosexuality distanced him from Benedict’s severe criticism of gays. Francis could be called the first modern pope. His Twitter account, @Pontifex, boasts 4.3 million followers in nine languages. And his message is universally appealing: The paramount duty of the church and its faithful is to aid those in need.

As I noted in my blog post about the article, that final statement is simply false: “the paramount duty of the Church and the faithful is not to aid those in need, but to bring all men into communion with God, through Christ, and into the fullness of the Kingdom.”

To be fair, I don’t expect reporters who cover economics to be theologians. But this misunderstanding (or misrepresentation, as the case often is) is hardly isolated. It is commonplace, even among many Catholics. A subtle but telling example can be seen in this August 14th piece by Thomas C. Fox, publisher of National Catholic Reporter, about Francis’ remarks to the Korean bishops:

A visibly animated Pope Francis came out strong on his first day in South Korea, telling its bishops that solidarity with the poor must be seen as “the essential element of the Christian life.”

His words were uncompromising. This solidarity, he said, “must penetrate the hearts and minds of the faithful and be reflected in every aspect of ecclesial life.”

However, the pope actually said, “Solidarity with the poor is at the heart of the Gospel; it has to be seen as an essential element of the Christian life…” The difference between “the” and “an”, in this case, is the difference between saying, “The purpose of the Church is solidarity with the poor,” and saying, “Solidarity with the poor is an expression and demonstration of the purpose and nature of the Church.”

Put simply, if the purpose of the Church is to care for the poor, then it means, logically, that the Church is a human institution oriented to temporal goals and purposes. This, it goes without saying, is what many people—including some Catholics—would prefer the Church to be. And those temporal goals, it follows, should be socially conscious and politically-correct, otherwise they are of no earthly value. Which is why, for instance, New York Timescolumnist Nicholas Kristoff lauds nuns who chain themselves to nuclear facilities, hand out condoms to prostitutes, and say homosexual “love” is just as good and beautiful as the love between a husband and wife. Kristoff laments that the mean old men in the Vatican have been carrying on “the Great Nunquisition,” but holds out hope (of the wordly sort) for the current pontiff: “Pope Francis, so far, has continued the crackdown, but he seems more enlightened than his predecessors and maybe he’ll understand that battling nuns is hopeless.”

Kristoff may himself be “enlightened,” but he is in the dark about both Francis and the nature of the Church. He and others would do well to pay closer attention to papal addresses and documents. To give just example, he might consider the following remark:

To the poor, missionary activity brings light and an impulse toward true development, while a new evangelization ought to create among the wealthy a realization that the time has arrived for them to become true brothers and sisters of the poor through the conversion of all to an “integral development” open to the Absolute. … The Church all over the world wishes to be the Church of the poor…she wishes to draw out all the truth contained in the Beatitudes of Christ, and especially in the first one: ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit.’ …She wishes to teach this truth and she wishes to put it into practice, just as Jesus came to do and to teach. … It follows that the poor are those to whom the mission is first addressed, and their evangelization is par excellence the sign and proof of the mission of Jesus.

That was not from Pope Francis, but written by Saint John Paul II, in his 1990 encyclical, Redemptoris Missio, “On the permanent validity of the Church’s missionary mandate”. Many other examples abound, but the key point here is that caring for the poor is an important aspect of the Church’s ultimate, divine mission. The very first paragraph of the Catechism of the Catholic Church provides the essential orientation:

God, infinitely perfect and blessed in himself, in a plan of sheer goodness freely created man to make him share in his own blessed life. For this reason, at every time and in every place, God draws close to man. He calls man to seek him, to know him, to love him with all his strength. He calls together all men, scattered and divided by sin, into the unity of his family, the Church. To accomplish this, when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son as Redeemer and Savior. In his Son and through him, he invites men to become, in the Holy Spirit, his adopted children and thus heirs of his blessed life. (CCC, 1; also see 850, 775-76)

Simply put, caring for the poor and treating them justly is an integral demonstration and realization of the self-sacrificial charity to be pursued by all disciples of Christ. In the words of Pope Francis to leaders of the apostolate of the laity in Korea:

We know there is but one mission of the Church of God, and that every baptized Christian has a vital part in this mission. Your gifts as lay men and women are manifold and your apostolates varied, yet all that you do is meant to advance the Church’s mission by ensuring that the temporal order is permeated and perfected by Christ’s Spirit and ordered to the coming of his Kingdom.” (emphasis added)

Or, as he stated last year, in an address to members of the Pontifical Mission Societies: “Mission is a paradigm of every Church institution; it is a paradigmatic attitude.” That mission is to evangelize and proclaim the Gospel, Francis noted, “to ensure that God’s grace may touch the heart of every man and of every woman and lead them to him.” And, he stated directly: “Furthermore, for every Christian, for the whole Church, this is not an optional mission it is not an optional mission, but essential.”

The Church, as Francis quipped this past June, is “not a well-organised NGO full of pastoral plans.” No, the Church is missionary and it carries out the mission of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—the “trinitarian mission” (see CCC, 257)—which is to communicate the divine life to mankind, so that we can, by God’s grace, be true children of God. That theme, which is the heart of the Gospel, has been expressed often and clearly by Francis since the start of his pontificate, but it simply doesn’t grab headlines the way that talk about politics, economics, and “hot button” topics does; it simply ain’t sexy enough! Besides, to the self-appointed enlightened among us, such shop talk is boring or bothersome—and perhaps a bit upsetting.

Even Catholic commentators sometimes overlook the pope’s emphasis on mission, martyrdom, and the heart of the Gospel. John Allen, Jr., in his summary piece about Francis’ visit to Korea—“In South Korea, Francis displays a truly globalized papacy” (Boston Globe, Aug. 18, 2014)—focused on “what a truly globalized papacy looks like in action,” diplomacy, and, of course, the poor. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but there’s also nothing in the piece about the Gospel, witness, and martyrdom (save a passing mention of the beatification of 124 Korean martyrs), themes at the very heart of the papal visit, as CWR’s managing editor, Catherine Harmon, outlined so well.

Again, the ultimate goal of the Church is the eternal salvation of men—not just the poor, but everyone. If we think that caring for the poor is the ultimate end of the Church, we shortchange and sharply skew the nature and mission of the Church, which is concerned with both the temporal and eternal needs of men. The connection between those two needs was explored and expressed often by Francis’ immediate (and unenlightened, ahem!) predecessor, Benedict XVI, especially in his third and final encyclical, Caritatis in veritate:

The more we strive to secure a common good corresponding to the real needs of our neighbours, the more effectively we love them. Every Christian is called to practise this charity, in a manner corresponding to his vocation and according to the degree of influence he wields in the pólis. … When animated by charity, commitment to the common good has greater worth than a merely secular and political stand would have. Like all commitment to justice, it has a place within the testimony of divine charity that paves the way for eternity through temporal action. Man’s earthly activity, when inspired and sustained by charity, contributes to the building of the universal city of God, which is the goal of the history of the human family. In an increasingly globalized society, the common good and the effort to obtain it cannot fail to assume the dimensions of the whole human family, that is to say, the community of peoples and nations, in such a way as to shape the earthly city in unity and peace, rendering it to some degree an anticipation and a prefiguration of the undivided city of God. (par 7)

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About Carl E. Olson 1200 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.