Forming a Christian conscience means exposing it to the hard sayings of Jesus, which call for a self-emptying commitment to the “whole law”: love of God and love of all other human beings. Jesus used as an example of this love a widow who gave her last two coins to support the temple. He didn’t call his disciples’ attention to this woman just so that they would admire her; he was making a point about the wealthy people who also contributed to the temple but whose contributions came from their excess.
Jesus couched this lesson in terms of the very poor and the very rich. Most people, falling into neither category, take no risk by assenting to Jesus’ words: “They have all contributed from their surplus wealth, but she, from her poverty, has contributed all she had.” Yet those who are materially secure and comfortable but not wealthy might respond differently if they looked at these words from another angle. Jesus didn’t just disapprove of the fact that the wealthy gave less than they could have. He also pointed out that the poor woman gave everything she had, and he approved. If Jesus thought it was reasonable for that woman to give away all she had, then he expected the rest of us to act with a similar generosity.
Bishops and priests who continue the ministry of Jesus should teach that same lesson. The parish is a place to arouse consciences, inspire conversion, prompt action. It is a place to address issues in the community outside the church. The parish is not a sanctuary designed to offer uncritical self-assurance—“God, I thank you that I am not like other men.” Too many people turn from the comforts of the liturgy back to the pursuit of their private comfort and security, without regard to how their pursuit affects others. They are conditioned by a culture that regards luxury as the best measure of a successful life.
Our political and economic system concentrates power and wealth in the hands of a small minority and so guarantees the existence of a permanent underclass, whose members live without stable employment, decent housing, and proper education and health care. Programs administered by governments and nongovernmental organizations purport to address the problems of poverty. An affluent Christian may believe such programs free him from any personal responsibility for the poor. This is an illusion. As Pope Benedict XVI has written, “What the fight against poverty really needs are men and women who live in a profoundly fraternal way and are able to accompany individuals, families, and communities on journeys of authentic human development.”
The church is remiss if it does not preach on Sunday what the church has been saying in its formal documents since Pope Leo XIII. The church has a pastoral obligation to challenge the human tendency to consider maintenance of the status quo our most important goal. Here Zacchaeus ought to be our model. He rejected the notion that he was entitled to profit at other people’s expense. He recognized that personal conversion involved a commitment to justice. Scripture tells us that after his conversion he vowed to give half of what he had to the poor and make restitution “fourfold” to those he had wronged as a tax collector.
If this kind of conversion is not at the heart of the church’s pastoral teaching, then the church is allowing Catholics to ignore or even reject the risky truth of the gospel. This is the crisis in contemporary Christianity. What Christians in twenty-first-century America most need to guard against is not secular persecution or forced conversion to Islam, but the “secret infidel” that lives within every Christian, the nonbeliever willing to go through the motions of a ritual but unwilling to risk his own comfort.
The separation of daily life from the word of God can be quantified in the form of unreasonable profits and excessive interest. Our economic system not only fails to act in the interest of the truly poor but often acts against their interests. For example, there is a pattern in urban redevelopment in which housing that serves the truly poor is declared unfit or obsolete and then razed, permanently depriving the poor of their homes. Where the poor once lived, expensive housing for the middle class goes up instead. This happens not because of a lack of resources but because of a lack of will to consider the poor first.
Our culture accepts the idea that those who make it in our economy are justified in accumulating wealth and material possessions without regard for those who are left out. This idea is common not only among the widely reviled “one percent” but also among those in the middle, including Catholics who go to church every Sunday with no fear of being called to account. If, instead of flattering their flock’s moral vanity, our priests and bishops would challenge them to repudiate greed, more middle-class Catholics might take personal responsibility for the “authentic human development” of their brothers and sisters in need. Dorothy Day said her mission was to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Many of the people at Mass each Sunday are comfortable. They shouldn’t leave without being reminded of the afflicted all around them.