Religion is increasingly being seen as a negative, divisive force in history. The Crusades, the Inquisition and contemporary troubles in Northern Ireland and the former Yugoslavia are often cited as negative happenings with organized religion at their root.
In Canada, there is the legacy of the Indian residential schools and the clergy sexual abuse crisis. People's personal lives have also been wounded by anger, hypocrisy, sarcasm or rash judgment by representatives of religious bodies.
The world would be better off without organized religion, some will say. Why can't each person have their own private spirituality and stop imposing enmity and division on the world?
These are complex issues, each calling for detailed response. But as Catholics we need to say that organized religion has not only helped me personally but has been good for humanity. We should not shy away from admitting the evils that have been done in the name of religion. At the same time we need to proclaim that the witness of the Church is the greatest hope for humanity.
This is true not only from an eternal perspective where the promise of eternal salvation is the only hope. It is also true from a worldly perspective where the Church offers what is best for the human person in this world.
The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church tells us that Jesus came to bring "integral salvation," salvation that embraces the whole person. The Church is deeply concerned about the eternal salvation of each person, salvation which is only possible through Jesus Christ. Because of our faith in Jesus, the Church is also deeply concerned about poverty, unemployment, environmental devastation, war, human life, the family and a myriad of other issues.
The Church's social doctrine flows from "faith in a whole and complete salvation." It is rooted in "hope in a fullness of justice." It is the result of "love which makes all mankind truly brothers and sisters in Christ" (Compendium, n. 3).
When people discover they are loved by God, they see not only their own dignity as children of God who have an eternal destiny, but also that transcendent dignity in others as well. We weep at the sight of the injustice that plagues so much of the world. And people look "to encounter their neighbour in a network of relationships that are ever more authentically human" (n. 4).
This search for an authentically human network of relationships should lead us to strive to overcome conflict, hatred and exploitation. It should even lead to the transformation of social structures that institutionalize evil and injustice.
The power to bring about a better world is the power of the individual, moved by the gift of God's grace. But let's not be trapped by the 20th century heresy that made faith a purely personal quest, a privatized relationship between me and Jesus. Let's also avoid the other heresy - secularism which claims we can save ourselves and our society without God's help.
Deep prayer, deep union with God, is essential for lasting positive social change. Without humility in the face of the Redeemer, agents of social change are prone to become tyrants.
Jim Wallis, an evangelical pastor and social justice advocate in Washington's inner city, says, "Hope is believing in spite of the evidence, then watching the evidence change." Such hope is based on faith in things unseen. It is also based on the commitment to taking loving action to change "the evidence."
The Compendium of Church Social Doctrine says it is "a genuine pastoral priority" to make Church social teaching better known. The compendium presents that teaching "in a complete and systematic manner."
But this social teaching is not one more thing to stuff into our heads. It should lead to action. Social action should be its main fruit. The compendium is intended first for bishops and for others responsible for Christian formation. However, "The lay faithful, who seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and directing them according to God's will, will find in it enlightenment for their own specific mission" (n. 11).
The laity are, as Pope Pius XII said, "the front lines of the Church." If Catholic social teaching is to be more than a dead letter, it must be absorbed and put into action by laity.
This is not a dreary task. Life is found by refusing to accept society the way it is and, through service or advocacy, striving to make it better. Take seriously the words of Isaiah who promised, "If you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday" (58:10).
Jonathan Swift, the 18th century satirist, said, "We have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one another." It's time to get more religion and build a civilization of love.