Today is the feast of St. John Marie Baptist Vianney, and so I think it a very good time to think upon sin and social justice…for the social doctrine of the Church, despite what many may claim, is as much about the salvation of souls as the life of the Curé of Ars.
When one hears or reads stories of St. John Marie, you might come across the tendency to paint Ars as a kind of hotbed of nefarious activity. Somehow this little town which Fr. Alban Butler referred to as “in every sense of the word ‘a hole'” can be presented as the Las Vegas of Apline France. What happens in Ars, stays in Ars. This is done, I think, because we have a tendency to want to make more of the miracle that was and is St. John Vianney. We do this by making the sins of the people he converted that much more indelicate. But this is actually a terrible strategy.
You see, the truth is that the sins of the people of Ars are the typical sins of human life. They drank too much on occasion. They ate too much at feasts. They swore and sometimes used God’s name in vain, though they knew this was probably wrong. They were, like our culture in so many ways, indifferent to the teachings of the Church… a condition which some today chalk up to the Church’s inability to stay “relevant,” but is really due to the plodding temptations of the world that numb our consciences into sinful submission. These sins of Ars were all regular sins, sins which do not raise the eyebrow of the average person or priest I might dare say. They are not flashy, and they’re not mortal…at least not all of them…and so we might be tempted to embellish them or exaggerate. But we ought not do so.
What made St. John Vianney such the glorious pastor that he was, what made him the patron of priests was a horror of sin. For the diminutive pastor even the littlest of sins was a great blight on the moral landscape of the human soul. You drank too much again? “What a pity! What a pity!” he would say in the confessional and then weep for your soul and for the offense against God.
He would weep not because he was so convinced of our pettiness but rather because he loved Christ so. This love for Christ was buried so deeply into his heart that its fire kept him warm during the harsh, French winters he endured without a proper bed or heat or food. It kept him alive some seventy-plus years despite the abuse his body took through fasting and mortifications as he attempted to make amends for all the sins he heard .
St. John Vianney was so scandalized by sin because he loved God, and like any true lover, he would not be content to simply sit and hear about all these affronts to his dearly beloved. He tried to make amends for them. He believed sin to be so horrible that if the people can’t appreciate it and make the appropriate sacrifices necessary, well then it was the job of pastor to sacrifice, to pray and fast for the sake of those souls. He loved that much, and it was all of it for the salvation of souls.
Still, Vianney wasn’t content to quietly suffer whilst his people sinned on. Once, after the death of St. John a certain Monsignor asked one of the people of Ars, a gaffer named Drémieux, whether his late pastor preached long sermons. The gaffer’s response was, “Yes, long ones, and always on Hell… There are some who say there is no Hell. Ah, well! He believed in it.” Exactly! St. John understood just what a terrible fate could await the unrepentant sinner. Fire and brimstone are nothing to the ultimate suffering of Hell, which is eternal separation from God.
What St. John Vianney did with this horror of sin is the miracle of this great priest. He used it as motivation to work tirelessly for the salvation of the souls in his charge. He understood that this was the great task of the priest and of the Church.
So, as I read about him, I cannot help but wonder how the pastor of pastors would address the contemporary questions of social justice. Color me silly, but I cannot imagine a modern version of St. John Vianney preaching a la Fr. Pfleger, insisting that social justice requires whites to give up their money in reparation for slavery. I cannot do so because what so many involved with this seem to have failed to acknowledge is that the work of the social doctrine of the Catholic Church is exactly the same as that of St. John Vianney. It is motivated by a horror of sin to try to bring about the salvation of souls.
How do I know this? Well let’s read paragraph 81 of the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, which begins this way:
The object of the Church’s social doctrine is essentially the same that constitutes the reason for its existence: the human person called to salvation, and as such entrusted by Christ to the Church’s care and responsibility.
Like good St. John Vianney, the focus of the social doctrine is the salvation of souls. It is not socio-economic structures. It is not even bringing about peace and justice. It is about guiding, cajoling, forming the consciences of Catholics so that they might better love the Word and in so loving the Word to better love the world.
Here is another bit from the Compendium paragraph 122:
The new reality that Jesus Christ gives us is not grafted onto human nature nor is it added from outside: it is rather that reality of communion with the Trinitarian God to which men and women have been oriented in the depths of their being, thanks to their creaturely likeness to God. But this is also a reality that people cannot attain by their own forces alone.
Note, please, “communion with the Trinitarian God.” This is the life Christ wants for us. This is life fully lived for the human person, in the fullest respect for our dignity. This is the ultimate goal of the social doctrine, so it saddens me when the personal relationship with the Word is reduced to earnest activity for social change.
Not that there is anything wrong with people wanting to help the poor. I suppose I should be clear that I do not condemn anyone who sacrifices their own wealth and time and psychological comfort in order to help the littlest ones in this cruel world. I applaud them for their efforts, and I thank them for the love they have for the stranger. Would that I could be so loving.
The problem is that it seems that so much of the efforts of the social justice community revolves around trying to raise Catholics’ social consciousness. Aren’t you aware of the suffering, you silly middle-class Catholic you? So while it may not be wrong to try to do so on a purely practical level, my point is that one need not be a Christian to achieve this social consciousness. Our atheist interlocutors are right when they say that one need not be a Christian in order to be a good citizen, a kind person, a loving husband or wife. They’re right. And this is why Christianity – as I used to tell my junior high students – is not about being nice. It’s about being holy.
The lesson of the Curé of Ars, who started his own free school for girls and eventually an orphanage, the lesson is that to ground ourselves in relationship with Christ Jesus is the surest way to begin the just efforts in our towns. And furthermore, this relationship with Christ is not optional. It is not a relationship we can simply walk away from as though it were a shirt we decided not to buy after all. Our deeply wounded humanity requires Him. Our sinfulness requires that we seek Him out.
This raises yet another failing of the contemporary social justice movement, namely the denial of personal sin. Focusing on personal sin – so very pre-Vatican II you know – is replaced by talk about “structures of sin.” Now there are structures of sin. Blessed Pope John Paul II mentions this himself. In paragraph 36 of Solicitudo rei socialis the Holy Father says explicitly that it is not “out of place” to talk about structures of sin. However, as JPII goes on to note, what we can never lose sight of is that the structures of sin are just manifestations of personal sin. The Compendium addresses this very directly in paragraph 117:
It is not, however, legitimate or acceptable to understand social sin in a way that, more or less consciously, leads to a weakening or the virtual cancellation of the personal component by admitting only social guilt and responsibility. At the bottom of every situation of sin there is always the individual who sins.
Without a divine Christ and with no personal sin, the contemporary social justice movement is often just another social service entity, struggling to get people “involved,” and this is a great sadness and certainly not what the social doctrine is meant for.
St. John Vianney teaches us through every hour of his time in the confessional and through every great effort of his life, that the social doctrine is still about the same things as the rest of the teachings of the Church. It is about getting us to heaven. This need not be an individualistic effort. The path to heavenly glory is one we make within a community of believers. But it is the path we need to be focused on.
To pastors out there who are wondering, then, what to do in order to advance social justice in their parish, I would say support those efforts of formation around issues like immigration, the death penalty, abortion, gay marriage, etc. But, if I may be so bold dear priests, dear wonderful priests, don’t forget to sit in the box and help us work out our way to salvation in fear and trembling…fear not of hell, no…but in fear of offending such a good and loving God. Do that dear pastors, convict our consciences that love for Christ Jesus must mean radical love of neighbor, and the work of social justice shall continue and flourish… Catholic Action may continue to transform and save.
Long live Christ the King.