Yesterday I commented on the recent sermon of Fr. Ramon Cantalamessa, preacher to the papal household. Cantalamessa stressed in a Lenten sermon that love must be active and when it is the social relevance of the gospel is made clear. He noted that the earliest Christian communities were known for “sharing” what they had with those in need.

So what does this tradition of charity and service mean to us in the 21st century and a world that is so interconnected?

In 1891 Pope Leo XIII issued one of the most significant of all papal encyclicals: Rerum Novarum. I cite it often and urge all believers to read this remarkable document. On the one hundredth anniversary of this encyclical, in May of 1991, JP II Pope John Paul II issued an anniversary encyclical that had the title Centesimus Annus. This highly important document develops the same Christian social teaching for the modern era. I have this document near my desk at all times. (Both documents are free and the links above take you to them.) I cannot speak too highly of the value of this tradition of theology to Christian thought about social theology. Other traditions have nothing like these two modern statements. The Reformed have, of course, the important social theology of Abraham Kuyper. His work parallels this Catholic theology in its own essential direction.

Since Pope Leo XIII, who followed the anti-modern leadership of Pope Pius IX (one of the worst modern popes in my estimation), the Catholic Church has routinely addressed this issue of charity, service and social theology with rigor and deep insight. This has created what Cantalamessa calls “a new form of ecclesiastical magisterium.”

Father Cantelamessa said: “The Gospel does not provide direct solutions to social problems.” Read this again! And when you’ve read it again then do it several times more. Note the word “direct” which I highlight. This statement reflects my understanding completely. The gospel speaks to social issues and creates a Christian process of thinking about how to solve them but the gospel does not give us “direct” solutions.

If I understand this correctly it is one way of saying partisan political solutions are just that, partisan solutions, not gospel solutions. But this does not mean the gospel has nothing to say to our social problems and to poverty, injustice, immigration, etc. Let me explain what I mean.

Father Cantalamessa rightly says, “The [gospel] does, however, contain useful principles by which concrete responses to different historical solutions can be framed. Since social situations and problems change from one age to another, the Christian on each occasion is called to embody Gospel principles in the situation of the moment.”

Many examples come to mind here. The constant shifting nature of how racism shows its ugly head requires not “one” gospel solution that is clearly given in a few Bible verses but rather a comprehensive response rooted in charity. Slavery, to give but one example, is still a major problem in the world but it has taken on an entirely different form from that of African slavery in the past. The gospel does require a charitable and thoughtful response that leads to real service to change this terrible situation.

I could list a whole number of such issues but a short “hot” list will suffice; e.g. immigration problems, poverty, education, abortion, marriage and laws related to marriage, the death penalty, war and when war is unjust, etc. This is why there is a succession of papal encyclicals on issues of social theology rooted in Matthew 20:25-28.

One of the most important ways the gospel has penetrated human history is through addressing issues of social consequence in the name of Christ. Because this often has been very poorly done does not mean that we should promote what Richard John Neuhaus famously called: “the naked public square.” Cantalamessa is correct when he concludes that “one of the finest gifts [Christianity] has given to the world” is social service through charity and compassion that displays real love.

Tomorrow: Does Christian Social Service Call for the Faithful to be Poor?