Pope Francis Challenges Sacred-Secular Line

The pontiff’s U.S. visit included more talk about world issues than Christianity, but uniting the two while cutting out some politics is essential to promoting and preserving faith.

By Greyson Peltier

Photo: Amanda Lucidon/White House

From the moment news broke about the pontiff’s visit to America, the talk was never about the religious service for which he initially planned the trip, described by the World Meeting of Families as an “international event of prayer, catechesis, and celebration.”

Instead, all that headlines, preliminary discussions by pundits and even the televised virtual pre-visit focused on issues like immigration, poverty, and the environment. Some may be tempted to label this as a turn away from faith and toward a highly politicized papacy focused on promoting liberal policies, but this is only partly true and even then only because we make it so.

At least some of these issues are within the nexus of the work that people of faith should be engaging in. Though I am not a practicing Catholic and certainly not a liberal, I agree with some of the pope’s positions, just not necessarily the approach taken by politicians and pundits in applying them. Helping improve people’s lives has been part of the work of faith since Jesus came and has been a catalyst for growth in the number of the faithful, Catholic or Protestant.

In the Bible, there are countless examples of Jesus and the apostles taking care of a major unfilled practical need: healing the sick, which led to a plurality of the recorded conversions in the early church. Though people still pray for and receive healing from God today, some would argue that healthcare is something that only happens in the secular realm. In reality, it is a combination of both. Today, churches of various denominations operate hospitals and healthcare facilities that offer modern, high-quality care as well as spiritual care to people of various socioeconomic backgrounds. Note that the actions taken in both situations have little or nothing to do with government (until relatively recent social programs in this space), but they addressed an issue that is a lynchpin of today’s political dialogue.

The same can be said for other issues, like poverty, income inequality, and even the environment. The early church’s practice of distributing resources according to need as described in the Book of Acts and the various admonitions to help the poor throughout Scripture did not, from my understanding include a government-led, forced, centrally planned solution. In fact, the entire church was essentially an “enemy of the state” per the pharisee-led Judean government. We currently have many “small scale” efforts within the church to support the poor, such as food banks and shelters, prison ministries that serve those most in need of forgiveness and programs focused on serving ethnic minorities. These and other efforts improve countless lives and most importantly, bring the downtrodden of society to salvation through the unmerited grace of Jesus Christ.

We also have new possibilities for creating systemic change in the private sphere to promote better wages, working conditions, and environmental responsibility. This has come about due to the largely secular discipline of corporate social responsibility (CSR), the practice of running a business with altrustic objectives that go above and beyond profit. This approach has guided companies like Costco, Whole Foods Market and The Container Store, which have enjoyed financial success while paying their employees well and helping the environment. I find that CSR is in accord with Christian principles, especially given the rebukes of employers’ unfair labor practices in James and elsewhere as well as our general duty to do good, be stewards of the earth, let our faith penetrate all areas of our life, and have a good showing in the world as Christians. CSR truly gives Christian business leaders the opportunity to express their faith in front of society not afforded by any government intervention.

For those who say that an overemphasis on physical needs versus repentance and forgiveness causes an unbiblical “social gospel” to be preached, I agree with you. But I am in no way advocating a system of that sort. I am simply stating that working pragmatically on helping others is Biblical (see Galatians 6:10) and sets a great example that can lead to greater interest in the true gospel message. Put another way, if you were looking for widgets, would you buy from the pushy cold-caller who just keeps exclaiming how great his product is over your attempts to say “bye” or would you buy from the salesperson who gave you a free widget sample and answered all your questions professionally? The answer is likely the latter. Even though the public will not be “sold” on Christianity due to works alone, they can become far more receptive to the message and that can only be beneficial.

Reach Contributor Greyson Peltier here.