The Soft Theology of Social Activism and Why I Cannot Buy It

Masolino da Panicale, Healing of the Cripple and Raising of Tabatha, 1426-27 |  Fresco, Cappella Brancacci, Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence

Masolino da Panicale, Healing of the Cripple and Raising of Tabatha, 1426-27 | Fresco, Cappella Brancacci, Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence


‘There used to be a time…’ some say, expressing nostalgia for past days of rigor in religious praxis and belief…

The reality is that however good we can think the past has been, we do not live in it now.

Which fast forwards us to modern day questions on the nature of the Church, her teachers and pastors, her dogmas, her practices, her liturgy, and yes, her children — the sheep and their suffering.

The key and primary pastoral work of the Church has always been the stewardship of souls. However much involved in the day to day needs of the world, the institutional Church stands at the service of the human person to allow its fullest flourishing and its final sanctification. We are in the care of the Shepherd of souls, whose Church executes this particular work as the primary end of its ministry.

I am doubtful this is a matter of opinion. However we may stray from this objective reality we are reminded that Christ is the Way, the Truth, the Life. This trifecta of directive identities, coming from Christ Himself, should be sufficient to understand that His testament intends, desires, illumines the way souls are held in life, and the way they should be cared for.

It is an all too common misconception that understanding this and adopting it precludes the care of the totality of the human person, a being with inalienable dignity endowed with soul and body, and in need of the particular help we rightly afford it as a moral society. A contemplative, richly theological approach and focus to pastoral work does not diminish the effectiveness of the social work of the Church in the world. It is actually without it, that the Church is reduced to being just another social agency.

I have many close friends whose life project is effecting the social teaching of the Catholic Church as it applies to the many ailments of modern society. I respect this work deeply, and subscribe to it. But I also do think that on its own and reduced to forms of social activism — however laudable — it is often inconsistent with the fullness of faith, and at best insufficient.

It is time to get back to foundational basics on caring for the suffering of the person in the world. Lest we forget, each human person is not just a body, but a unity of body and soul. As such, the kind of care we offer in faith cannot be reduced to simply alleviating the needs of the body. It must first and foremost be concerned with the needs of the soul. Pastoral work and social work done by Catholics must be grounded in a rich theology of Charity — that primary virtue that encompasses firstly the love of God above all things, and only flowing from it, the love of neighbor. Anything else is radically lacking.

Soft theology has introduced a new form of easier, un-mysterious faith. It is the way we have moved away from contemplating difficult mysteries of belief to engaging agendas of social activism under the guise of faith in practice. The problem with this approach is that it anthropomorphizes God, reducing Him to the level of our need, when in fact God himself became man, so that we might become like onto God — ascending to the level of His nature — living in consonance with the Imago Dei we are. The first act of social charity was the advent of God incarnate, His descent and adoption of our frail human nature in the flesh. As such, every act of social charity should mirror this advent — bringing Christ to a hungry world.

Believing the hard stuff is indeed challenging. And the point is that it is not meant to be easy. The model set by the One who is Life is not easy — nor is the Way or the Truth easy. To fragment faith, to simplify the challenge of belief to social activism imperatives, is to reduce the capacity of human aspirations. It is to crush and render numinous, insignificant, the glory we should aim for. It is to say to God we have plenty among ourselves, if only we shared well enough, and so we’ll figure out how, but for now we need not You. It is to propose that although He says He is the Truth, here we have our truth, our way, our life. And that is good enough for us.

All this is summed up in a recent recent exchange wherein I was told specifically that the study of theology is a waste of time — that the practice of theology (understood as the practice of what are classically called corporal works of mercy) is what matters most.

The problem with this approach, it seems to me, is that it forgets the corporal works of mercy exist alongside the spiritual works of mercy. Practice, without the prior contemplation of the roots of the faith, seems unguided, or at best, misguided. Charity, without knowledge of what impels it, stands on sand. And sand is prone to shift under the weight of human need.

To truly know the plethora of pains that assail the person, we must first know Christ. Apart from Him, suffering, poverty, war, the manifold forms of real evil, all remain meaningless, draining, tortured dimensions of human experience — obvious manifestations of the fall, and of the fragility and woundedness of human nature — and nothing more. They remain unintelligible portals to despair.

How can we truly help the poor, if we have not been first totally captivated by the poverty of God who became incarnate?

How can we discuss morally challenging scenarios if we do not attempt to grasp the fullest orientation of ethics?

What small dent can we make in the greatest struggles of human existence without the confidence that this is participation in the work of God in the world?

How can we wash the feet of the wandering if we have no concept of the depth of Christ’s own example — union so total, love so radical, that the Son of God accepted a cruel death for the redemption of the world?

What kind of sense can suffering make if it is not grafted onto the deeply nuanced and piercing theology of the Cross?

And how can any of this become the motivating force for the charity we exercise if we know not that first demand of Charity: a radical love of God?

And how can we love God, if we do not know Him?

Surely our need is great. Surely there are hungry people on the corner, and dying people in the throes of foreign wars. We are poor in body, we are wounded, we suffer, we are assailed by injustices, we inflict them on others ourselves. But the remedy for this cannot be more of us. The pastoral and social work of the Church cannot be guided by the merely human needs of the person, but must be propelled by the godly needs of the person. The moment we lose track of the fact that we must aspire higher than the remedies we can come up with for the multiplicity of injustices in the world, is the moment we have given up on the harder, more mysterious theology that looks to the final orientation of the person beyond the valley of tears. And this is to give up on paradise.

Mother Teresa, that servant of the poorest, got it right when she left each convent of her nuns the instruction to always meditate on Christ’s parting words from the Cross ‘I Thirst’.

This is not soft theology. It is the harder theology of placing the ineffable mystery of the Incarnation at the heart of the limited attempts we offer in Charity to alleviate the pains of Christ in the world. Christ’s thirst is not simply the human thirst of the begging poor, but the thirst of the Savior whose lacerated heart bled for the union of humanity and divinity through the redemption of the Cross.

The theological poverty of the Incarnation, the poverty of the Savior, is the only answer to the soft theology of material solutions we have sold ourselves to. Not because material solutions aren’t intrinsically part of the Christian calling to effect mercy corporeally, but because however we surmise the sum of our strength to eradicate the physical suffering of the world, we are ultimately powerless to eradicate the suffering of the soul in the world.

The early Church knew this well

Now Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, the ninth hour. And a man lame from birth was being carried, whom they laid daily at that gate of the temple which is called Beautiful to ask alms of those who entered the temple. Seeing Peter and John about to go into the temple, he asked for alms. And Peter directed his gaze at him, with John, and said, “Look at us.” And he fixed his attention upon them, expecting to receive something from them. But Peter said, “I have no silver and gold, but I give you what I have; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.” And he took him by the right hand and raised him up; and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong. And leaping up he stood and walked and entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God.
Acts 3. 1-9

It was not alms that made the beggar walk. It was the name of Christ. His healing is the encounter which the power of the resurrection, poured forth to alleviate the crippling of body, which is first a mirror of the crippling of the soul. For the soul without faith is crippled; paralyzed is the one who lives each day waiting for the next, unmoved.

Only the Christ can show us the depths of this form of pastoral work. And He did show us, leaving a patrimony of sacramental means through which to literally raise the dead and buried soul to life. He left us soulutions. We are to be like Peter and John. The practice of Charity can only be effective ‘in the name of Christ’. And the name of Christ must first be known with the full sum of faculties at our disposal: a mind that studies and so knows, a heart that desires, a soul that contemplates, a body willing to suffer in com-passion.

The reality is that however good we can think the past has been, times of greater and lesser faith come and go. The apostles left us the lasting testament to how to care for the poor. The glory days are not over. They are always before us. Because wherever there are souls, Christ waits — and asks for us to find the sheep as they wander off. He asks we walk the temple porticoes of the world and bring people to the altar of sacrifice on their own two feet.

The first poverty of the world is the privation it has chosen from God. And the first task of the Church’s social mission is to alleviate this poverty.

Pastoral work, social work in the Church exists so so there may one fold, one shepherd.

And so that none may be lost.

This is the work of the mystery of faith — it is primarily the stewardship of the precious patrimony of souls entrusted to our care. We are called to give the thirsty living water. Finding it is a matter of encountering Christ at the well. But we must know Him deeply first to be able to identify Him there. Because we cannot give what we ourselves do not have.

‘But how are men to call upon him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without a preacher? And how can men preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach good news!
Romans 10. 14-15

The first act of social charity was the descent of God. Every act of Catholic social charity since then should mirror it. And this is why a simplified, softened theology of social activism makes little sense to me. And why, apart from the richer theology of faith and mystery — grounded in Charity, oriented towards the knowledge of God whose work we effect in the world, and towards the salvation of souls — I cannot buy it.

Because He came that we might have life, and have it more abundantly.

You may reach Maria Grizzetti at