The White House is getting ready for the September visit of Pope Francis to the United States, according to this AP article. The article includes the following comment by Vice President Joe Biden, who is a Catholic: “Pope Francis has breathed new life into what I believe is the central mission of our faith: Catholic social doctrine.”
Conservative Catholics will no doubt be tempted to use this remark as an occasion to take Biden to task for his own imperfect commitment to Catholic social doctrine. After all, religious freedom, the right to life, and the definition of marriage as a union between one man and one woman are very important points of Catholic social doctrine. Yet as a public man Biden has not been a defender of those principles.
But while this is an understandable and predictable reaction, it would overlook something also very important. Surely Biden errs in saying that Catholic social doctrine is the “central mission of our faith.” Catholic social doctrine is addressed to society, with a view to informing it how it can be more justly organized. This is indeed very important. But, as C.S. Lewis observes in one of his writings, societies, nations, communities don’t go to heaven or hell. Surely the “central mission” of the faith is not the construction of a more just social order–as important as it is to strive for that–but instead the proclamation of truth and the ministry of the sacraments in order to save souls. That is the Church’s highest and most urgent concern.
Here is a nice bit from the excellent Father Ronald Knox, where he is commenting on the temptation of Jesus, where he refused to turn stones into bread:
All through the centuries the Church has had to act in great measure as a nursing-mother to the faithful, not content to be merely their teacher in the faith; providing schools, hospitals, orphanages, tending the sick, relieving the poor, burying the dead; she has drawn a whole network of charitable institutions across the world, vying with one another in the service of men’s bodies. And always, that is not the point. With the other Christianities there is a constant risk that their spiritual message will lose itself in philanthropic endeavor. The movement which began in an access of burning zeal for men’s souls will have been replaced, a century or two later, by a vast organization, religious in name, but merely philanthropic in purpose. With the Catholic Church, so much older than these others, it has never been so. Her message is of the world beyond; on it her eyes are set; she tends, feeds, teaches her children distractedly, only that she may point them to heaven; she will not lose her soul in what the world calls charity.
The book in which this and many other great sermons is collected can be found here.