Yesterday was the feast day of ol’ Saint Nick, falling within what Catholics and many non-Catholic Christians celebrate as Advent, a season of preparation for the birth of Our Savior. Much of the rest of the United States has designated the month between Thanksgiving and Christmas as “the Holidays” which are held to be special for reasons we apparently aren’t allowed to publicly remember. And to the extent that Saint Nicholas is remembered at all it is usually in his 20th century caricature: the jolly old fitness-challenged pitch man, who after posing for photos with children in shopping malls for several weeks for some reason jumps in his sleigh to give people free stuff by magically squeezing down chimneys.
Of course, we can’t believe this, but it makes many feel warm inside, and causes us to flock into stores to buy things. It feels good; let’s not overthink it.
Actually Saint Nicholas — Santa Claus — was a real person, a Catholic bishop who, as a member of the Church Triumphant, remains available to us as both a reminder of great Christian virtue and as an intercessor. He is remembered both for his holy generosity — a giver of gifts — and his holy courage. One of the more famous stories about him involves how he spent his inheritance. Born of a wealthy family in what is present-day Turkey, he came into his legacy at a fairly young age when his parents died, and spent it primarily on the poor and in building the Church. When he heard of a man despondent over his inability to provide a dowry for his three daughters, he secreted gold coins into the man’s home (including, according to tradition, throwing the gold into a stocking hung over the fireplace), thus allowing his daughters to be married and saving them from lives of destitution and even probable lives of sin given the limited options of the time and place.
Santa Claus — the Catholic bishop and real man of holiness — is a model for the kind of love we are all called to as followers of Christ. We are to love fiercely, completely, seeing Christ in the poor even as we see Him in the Church he established on the rock of Peter.
In old Saint Nick we see the obliteration of what has sadly become a common and very un-Christian division in the Church: between those who dismiss the Church’s moral doctrine thinking that it is not essential to serving the poor, and those who insist that the entirety of Church teaching should inform our necessary service to the poor. This sad divide is perhaps most evident in the continuing controversies among Catholic charitable organizations who often fund groups that oppose the Church and who seem often to mirror their secular partners in language and in goals.
It is this confusion in the Church’s necessary charitable mission that Pope Benedict has been earnestly trying to eliminate. With his encyclicals Deus Caritas Est and Caritas in Veritate, and his apostolic exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis, the Holy Father has been strongly, thoroughly and charitably laying the groundwork for a new paradigm in Catholic charity. This new paradigm (which, to be honest, isn’t actually “new”), though supported with a wealth of biblical exegesis and Magisterial precedent, is ultimately quite simple in its directives and it its core message: charity, properly understood as a Christian love of neighbor, is not a side project of an elect few, but is essential to the very nature of the Church. For the Church to do this in an authentic and effective way, those whose mission it is to lead this effort must be well formed in the faith, alert to the false compromises that are now normal for much of the secular “human development” industry and unafraid to integrate evangelism with service. Charitable outreach, without authentic and well-formed Catholic evangelistic fervor, can too easily become just another secular provider of finances for development projects, and this must not be allowed to happen.
You may see why this direction makes many in the Catholic development industry uncomfortable. While publicly supportive of the Holy Father’s teaching there has been a growing grumbling among “development” folks in the Church about how the pope is “forcing conservatism” on the “servants of the poor,” how he is “missing the point” of development work, or “moving the Church backwards.”
In the wake of the Holy Father’s absolutely ground-shifting release last week of the Motu Proprio “On the Service of Charity,” we see this grumbling ratcheted up considerably. Case in point, from an anonymous statement given to the National Catholic Reporter’s John Allen:
One veteran of the Catholic charities scene summed things up this way at the time in a background comment to NCR: “When it comes to charity work, there’s a continuum from secular humanism on one end to aggressive proselytism breeding ‘rice Christians’ on the other. Nobody’s saying Caritas ought to be at either extreme, but it’s clear the Vatican is pushing us further in the direction of promoting the church while we provide humanitarian and emergency assistance.”
He seems to think that the Catholic position should be somewhere between the pure secular version of charity work (which is now entirely pro-abortion, and entirely against the Church’s moral and social doctrine) and one that’s “promoting the Church” too much. And he is not happy that the Holy Father is more clearly — in Canon Law, no less — requiring that the Church do what the Church was always supposed to do in her charitable work: properly form workers in the faith, be very careful about how this work is carried out, evangelize as they serve, and joyfully defend the identity of the Church as “Catholic.”
In other words, the authentic, integral human development that the Holy Father is calling for is too “extreme” and thus, not acceptable for the Church’s charitable work, according to this person, who undoubtedly speaks for many in the industry. This is why they feel threatened by Pope Benedict’s teaching, and especially now by the Motu Proprio that makes more concrete the real obligations of any agency that calls itself Catholic.
You might say that some leaders of the Church’s charitable work feel like they’ve gotten a bloody nose from the bishop of Rome, and they’re not happy about it. Yet the Holy Father is following in the steps of Saint Nicholas and other great saints who loved Christ and his Church as much as — indeed, in the same way as — they love Christ in the poor and marginalized. It is the same love. It is a gift, not an imposition; and it is very fierce.
What a great gift this Motu Proprio is for the Church! We will be talking about it for a long time as the Canon Law takes effect and is implemented, we hope, around the world. This Advent, we really need to pray for ongoing conversion in the Church, for a renewal of the Church’s charitable outreach, and for the Holy Father’s strength and protection. He has been under tremendous and unjust attack for years, and this courageous and pastoral move on his part is not likely to lessen the attacks any time soon.