December 20, 2013


On serving the poor

“Behold those Christians. Look how they love one another.”

These are words in the Apology of Tertullian, who died in 230. It’s reported that a man named Aristides, sent by Emperor Hadrian to spy on the Christians, uttered the words.

At this Christmas time, let’s ask ourselves if we Catholics can still be identified by the way we love one another. The evidence seems to indicate otherwise. Today we have Catholics who identify themselves as conservative, liberal, orthodox, progressive, traditional or whatnot.

It’s so bad that Pope Francis, in his apostolic exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium” (“The Joy of the Gospel”), had to say, “No more warring among ourselves.” He describes some people, correctly we believe, as not content with “belonging to the whole Church in all its rich variety,” but insist on belonging “to this or that group which thinks itself different or special.”

Right now that seems to apply to people who consider themselves conservatives. Among them are those who have criticized Pope Francis as being liberal, as if what he is saying about wanting the Church to “be poor and for the poor” is some kind of new teaching.

Yes, it’s quite true that Pope Francis has been giving extra emphasis to serving the poor. But that has been part of Catholic teaching and practice from the very beginning. The Council of Jerusalem, held in the year 51, approved the work that Paul and Barnabas were doing among the Gentiles, but told them “we were to be mindful of the poor, which is the very thing I was eager to do” (Gal 2:10).

How did service to the poor become part of only the liberal agenda? It’s something that every Catholic should be doing if he or she accepts all that the Church teaches. Fortunately, we believe that most good Catholics do try to help the poor. In our experience, those who are considered conservative because of their views on the so-called social issues are also those who volunteer for the Society of St. Vincent de Paul or similar Catholic organizations.

It’s our society that has somehow decided that liberals care for the poor and conservatives are interested only in opposition to abortion—which simply isn’t true. The problem comes when we have to make political choices since neither the Democratic nor Republican Party stands for the same things that the Catholic Church teaches.

Catholics must be political, though, if we are to do the things Pope Francis is calling us to do. As he said in his exhortation, service to the poor doesn’t just mean handouts. “It means working to eliminate the structural causes of poverty and to promote the integral development of the poor. This means education, access to health care and, above all, employment.”

Whether you think that those are liberal or conservative issues might say more about you than about the pope. Liberals and conservatives alike say that they favor better education, greater health care, and higher employment rates. They just disagree on how to accomplish those things.

There should be agreement, though, about the pope’s criticism of “ideologies that defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation” that, he said, led to the current financial crisis and an “idolatry of money.” Certainly the poor need safety nets.

The pope was thinking globally when he wrote his exhortation, but there’s plenty of poverty right here in the United States, despite its being the wealthiest country in the world. Almost 20 percent of our population, or about 47 million people, have annual incomes of $12,000 or less, and another 18 million people earn $15,000 or less.

As the year 2013 draws to a close at a time when so many people are hurting financially, we encourage those who are not below the poverty level to be more generous. Naturally, we suggest contributions to Catholic Charities. It has offices throughout the archdiocese—in Indianapolis, Terre Haute, Bloomington, Tell City and New Albany.

We invite you to check the archdiocese’s website at to see all that Catholic Charities does for the poor.

It’s true that non-Catholics should be able to identify Catholics by the way they love one another. But not only one another, but all others, too.

—John F. Fink

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