If God wants us to be His cooperators in transforming the world, it's because the world needs conversion. The world is good because God created it. But the world is also sinful, because we've freely made it that way by our sinful choices and actions. Just as Mary said “yes” to God in humility, the modern world too often says “no” to Him in pride. And in saying no to God, the world rejects its true identity. In effect, we deny that we are creatures. We want to be the Creator. We want to be the “lord and giver of life.”
How should Christians respond to this? To begin with, we need to understand the “real world” as it really is, the way Vatican II described it in Gaudium et Spes, the great Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. Gaudium et Spes saw the world as a pattern of light and shadow, good and evil. That means we need to be actively involved in the world, for the sake of the world. We need to love the world as it needs to be loved — affirming its accomplishments, respecting its freedom, supporting and cultivating its virtues, and cooperating with all of the good in it . . . which includes all persons of good will, whether they're Christian or not.
Listen to these opening lines from Gaudium et Spes: “The joy and hope, the grief and anguish of the men of our time, especially of those who are poor or afflicted in any way, are the joy and hope, the grief and anguish of the followers of Christ as well. Nothing that is genuinely human fails to find an echo in [the] hearts” of the disciples of Jesus — and this is “why Christians cherish a feeling of deep solidarity with the human race and its history.” And later in the same text, listen to these words: ” … Christians can yearn for nothing more ardently than to serve the men of this age with an ever-growing generosity and success.”
Gaudium et Spes is the best argument for the dignity of the human person; for economic and social justice; for true peace and development, that's been written in the last 100 years. And it provides us with an “examination of conscience” we can apply to just about every aspect of our lives — our personal choices, our parishes, our business activity, our political leaders, everything. For example:
Do we reverence and defend the dignity of the human person from conception to natural death?
Do we really love our enemies? Do we even try?
Do we teach our children to take responsibility for society, and to participate in building up the common good? Do we teach that by our own good example?
Do we preach, by our actions, the dignity of human labor and the value of human activity? Do we live our lives with a purpose — the purpose of co-creating with God a truly human world, a world shaped by the Gospel, a “new heaven and new earth”?
Do we promote the nobility of marriage and the sanctity of the family?
Do we work to ensure that our art, science, technology, music, law, entertainment media — all the elements of our culture — advance the real dignity of women and men?
Do we practice justice in our own social and economic relationships? Do we really try to root out the prejudices in our own hearts? And do we encourage justice in our friends, business associates and leaders?
Do we take an active hand in the political process? Do we demand that our officials promote the sanctity of the human person? And do we do everything in our power to correct or replace them if they don't?
Finally, do we create in ourselves and in our children a sense of international community? The word “Catholic” means universal. We live most of our lives in our families and parishes — and that's where our first priorities should always lie. But there's no such thing as a “parochial” Catholic. We're all internationalists. That's why issues like hunger, economic development, the rights of migrant workers, religious persecution — even when they're happening on the other side of the world, they're happening to our brothers and sisters in the Lord. And so they involve us.
As Christians in the world, we have a sacred responsibility to the world — to be in the world as agents of the Gospel. We think too little of ourselves when we assume that we were made for nothing better than the “present arrangement” of things. We should never be slaves to the present arrangement. God put us here to be agents of change. Woody Allen once said that “80 percent of life is just showing up.” He's funny — but he's wrong. That's a life 80 percent wasted, because there's so much need in the world crying out to be heard.
There's a Ghanaian proverb that goes like this: “God swats the flies of the cow with no tail.” It means that God takes care of the poor, because the poor don't have the power to take care of themselves. That's why the Church has a “preferential option for the poor.” If God loves and serves the poor, then how can we do anything else? And if that requires political action, so be it.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said, “I'm puzzled about which Bible people are reading when they suggest that religion and politics don't mix.” And the great Protestant theologian, Karl Barth, once said that, “To clasp hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the world.” And Vatican II never said, and never meant, that Christians should let the world go to hell because of some mistaken idea of good manners.
(Archbishop Chaput serves in the Archdiocese of Denver.)