Catholic Identity and Catholic Social Ministry


This column is condensed and adapted from Archbishop Chaput’s June 21 remarks to the Catholic Social Workers National Association meeting in Denver. Click here to read the full text.

Everything in Catholic social ministry begins and ends with Jesus Christ.  If it doesn’t, it isn’t Catholic.  And if our social work isn’t deeply, confidently and explicitly Catholic in its identity, then we should stop using the word “Catholic.”  It’s that simple.

Faith in Jesus Christ—not as the world likes to imagine him, but the true Son of God as the Catholic Church knows and preaches him—is the only enduring basis for human hope.  Real hope has nothing to do with empty political slogans.  It has nothing to do with our American addictions to progress or optimism or positive thinking. 

The Epistle to the Hebrews speaks of faith as “the assurance of things hoped for; the conviction of things not seen” (11:1).  Faith alone makes real hope possible.  Georges Bernanos described the virtue of hope as “despair overcome.”  It’s the ability to see clearly the suffering and the injustice in the world, and yet to trust in the goodness of God.  It’s the capacity to see human weakness and evil at their worst, and yet to trust in the dignity of the human person because we believe in a loving Father; a Father who created and sustains us, and who redeems us with the blood of his own Son.

Because we believe, we can trust; and because we can trust in God’s love, we can take the risk of loving and giving ourselves to others.  This trinity of faith, hope and love echoes the nature of God himself.  It’s the economy of all Christian social action. 

We need to remember that what we do, becomes who we are.  This is pretty obvious when we speak about individuals.  A man who does good, usually becomes good—or at least becomes better than he was.  A man who struggles with his fear, and overcomes it and shows courage, gradually becomes brave.  And a man who steals from his friends or cheats his company, even in little things, eventually becomes a thief.  He may start as a good man with some unhappy appetites and alibis.  But unless he repents and changes, the sins become the man.  The habit of stealing, or lying, or cowardice, or adultery, reshapes him into a different creature.

What applies to individuals can apply just as easily to institutions and organizations.  The more that Catholic universities or hospitals mute their religious identity; the more that Catholic social ministries weaken their religious character; the less “Catholic” they are, and the less useful to the Gospel they become.

A social agency is “Catholic” in two main ways.  Structurally, it’s an arm of the local Church and organic to her mission.  And evangelically, it’s a witness to the commandment given to us by Jesus Christ to love God first and above all; and then to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.

As a result, being faithful to Catholic teaching isn’t something optional for a Catholic social worker.  It’s basic to his or her identity.  Catholic belief is much more than a list of dos and don’ts.  It’s part of a much larger view of the human person, human dignity and our eternal destiny.  The content of this teaching comes from God through his son Jesus Christ.  It’s defined by the universal Church and then preached, taught and applied by the local bishop.  The faith of the Church is constitutive of Catholic social ministry.  It’s not a kind of humanitarian modeling clay we can shape to our personal preferences; and the power and consistency of Catholic social witness collapse when we try to do that.

For Christians, the ultimate purpose of every human being is fulfilled by knowing God’s love and being with God for eternity.  All Christian charity is practiced with this goal in mind.  Therefore, to be authentic, Christian charity must be free and must be motivated to share God’s love with others, in addition to offering material aid. Christian charity is always both a material and a religious act.

For the full text of the archbishop’s comments, click here or visit


About Author

Charles Joseph Chaput, OFM Cap is the Archbishop of Denver and the author of Render Unto Caesar: Serving the Nation by Living Our Catholic Beliefs in Political Life.