When I was in high school, I took a class on Catholic Social Teaching that was essentially a course on the benefits and methods of active non-violent pacifism (which, by the by, is not all CST has to offer). By the end of that class, I was ready to solve all the world’s problems through sit-ins, Salt Marches, and hunger strikes. I wanted to end abortion, put a stop to the war in Iraq, solve world hunger; I wanted to take what I had learned and pick one cause to which I could devote my life. I was ready. I was excited.
Of course, I didn’t do any of those things, because I was too busy being confused and desperate for female attention to do much else, but I was definitely inspired by the idea of change through pacifism.
I don’t think I’m the only one who has had this type of experience.
The attraction of activism is pretty intense. It today’s world, there are a lot of causes being taken up by various social crusaders: gay marriage, the “green” movement, animal rights, women’s rights, anti-abortion, etc. (by the way, this is in no way meant to be a judgment of the merits of these different movements). And each of these causes has, at the heart of the issue, goodness: people perceive an injustice (whether it’s there or not) and want to fix it. So why is there so much anger surrounding these movements? Why do these people typically annoy me to no end? And why do they seem to annoy each other so much?
Perhaps it’s because they’re desperate. As I learned the hard way in high school, people don’t respond well when you go to them in desperation. It doesn’t matter if it’s a political party or pretty girl: no one really wants to tie themselves to someone that is going to depend on them for their personal esteem or sense of meaning. The people who crusade for these causes are typically well-meaning people who care way too much about their movement, and it’s really off-putting. Surely social and cultural issues need to be addressed, but how can we do it differently than the current political or social activist model that is so often unattractive?
Believe it or not, I’m going to say that the answer can be found in the Catholic Church.
The Catholic Church claims to have access to the “fullness of truth”. That means living a Catholic life is living a full life, or at least a life that recognizes the entirety of what this life has to offer. I don’t have the time or resources to actively pursue all of the goodness we know about in the areas of social reform, education, sex, civil rights, prayer, philosophy, and food. But I do know the Church understands and trumpets the beauty of each of these things. I know She has the Truth, because She’s married to the Truth. The Catholic Church is the Bride of Christ, and who knows a person better than their spouse?
And so while my life is dedicated to the Truths of family, education, and apparently now internet evangelization (how did I become such a nerd?), I know that there is a wealth of beauty and goodness that the Church teaches about economics and biology and monastic life and art and so on. I live a life devoted to a specific part of the Truth, but it is the fact that I recognize the beauty of the rest of it that allows me to live my part in peace.
The problem with activism (generally speaking, of course) is that it’s competitive. My cause is more important than your cause, my lobby needs more resources than your lobby, the way I spend my time is better than the way you spend your time. The environmentalists and gay-rights activists and PETA people aren’t on the same team (usually): they’re working on their own things separately, even at the detriment of the other at times. This is where the Catholic answer is so beautiful.
It is not activism we are called to, but charism. We have a recognition of the beauty of the fullness of truth and the understanding of our role in sharing that goodness along with an appreciation of the connection we have with all those seeking to do the same. The nuns who serve the poor, if they are doing it right, understand that they are part of the same movement as Jesuits who run schools, if they are doing it right; and that is the movement towards Christ. We are all one body, and we should all be moving in one direction. Different monastic orders need not be upset that some send their monks on mission trips abroad and some live as hermits and some serve as teachers: they are all participating in the truth in different ways, in the ways God has called them.
It is this unity and fullness that will counteract the madness and desperation of an activist world. We need not cling so angrily to our little piece of the truth, because we live in the entire Truth. We are one with all those saving and sharing that Truth with the world. It is through the Church that our causes are not only purified, but united: it is no longer my cause, but it is the Cause of Christ in which we are all participating.
I’m not saying people should be less active in trying to solve the world’s problems. I’m saying that what I have learned is that my desire to be an activist is really the desire for meaning in my life. True social and political change happens when souls change, when Christ becomes the center of our personal lives and the end to which we direct all of our means. So, to be cliche, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”
Actually, forget the cliche. Eat the change you wish to see in the world. Go to mass, receive the Eucharist, and let Christ live in you.