What About the Unmarginalized?

The pews are emptying in part because of the almost monopolistic harping about the marginalized.

Pews become emptier and emptier. More and more persons of Catholic background find virtually no meaning in the Faith of their ancestors.

The Covid pandemic, during which the obligation for Sunday Mass was suspended, surely is blameworthy. Those of easy habit now find themselves less eager to return for Sunday worship; others are perhaps still fearful of contracting the disease, even though churches have not been identified as sources for its spread.

Covid, however, cannot be the only explanation. While uninspiring liturgy must rank among the most important reasons, another is highly responsible: the almost monopolistic harping about the marginalized. 

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Jesus undoubtedly had a great love of the poor and the sick; and He commands us to do likewise. Good. But does not it often seem as though that is about the only command we hear about in homilies, or especially in the Catholic media? After all, we are to love our neighbor as ourselves. Catholic teaching bids us to care for the needy, that is, the deserving poor. 

The Fathers and the tradition of canon law taught that grifters would exploit and hide among the deserving poor, whose welfare would best be served if we who cared for them would separate the wheat from the chaff. The category of “the marginalized” does not quite describe those whom the New Testament commands us to serve.

American Catholics are among the wealthiest people in the world. We are better educated than most of our fellow countrymen, live in relatively safe neighborhoods, and enjoy a standard of living unimaginable even to our recent ancestors from Europe and Latin America. We may well expect recently-immigrated brothers and sisters from Catholic Africa and Catholic Asia to prosper likewise. 

Catholic elementary and secondary schools deserve much of the credit for our upward mobility and so constitute one of the most successful social justice initiatives in history. In short, the vast majority of Catholics are not the marginalized. Do we not also need Christ? We, too, are broken and in need of His healing touch. How often is it extended to us? 

Most slights, injustices, and wickednesses are committed by member against immediate family member—spouses, children, and parents. So many social pathologies can be traced to the spiritual and physical damage relatives inflict. Catholic tradition has much to say about family life well lived. Augustine of Hippo and John Paul II insisted that all other social institutions and relationships depend upon healthy families where parents are revered and respected and children learn how to become Christian adults. 

How often do we hear what John Chrysostom preached about Christian family life? The Gospels resound with admonitions to kindnesses extended to neighbors, that is, the people whose faces we see each day. Ignatius of Loyola often observed that a great deal of good can be done merely by a kind word to either a friend or a stranger—we then serve as reminders that God abandons no one and that even in dark hours some light may shine through. How often do we hear from our shepherds the insistence of the great Bernard of Clairvaux that the path to holiness begins with goodness to the self? 

Therese of Lisieux sweetly recommended the “little way”—going about our daily tasks with contentment and extending small charities to those whom we encounter at work or in the street. In an era when so many (unmarginalized) persons feel profoundly disconnected from their fellows, our Fathers and Mothers in the Faith have responses they learned from lives lived as faithful Catholics. Though in desperate need, we rarely hear those from our shepherds.

The unmarginalized need Christ as much as their marginalized brethren. All are sinners, and Christ came to call all sinners. The synoptics all give their accounts of the public ministry of Jesus, who proclaimed, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!” The hesychast prays on each breath in contemplative meditation, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me,”—no matter the socioeconomic status of the one who prays.

We must indeed be mindful of the marginalized, but not only them, for our lives are lived with our spouses, children, friends, and neighbors, who may not be among the marginalized. Suburban homeowners need Christ as much as the homeless in the streets. Mother Teresa once commented that the poverty in Western society was at least as bad as what she saw in the streets of Calcutta. As Augustine stated, those who have the first claims on our charity are family members, neighbors, and fellow countrymen. We are creatures of times and places. The genius of Catholicism recognizes as much, even if too many church leaders, parish pastors, and campus ministers have forgotten it.

[Photo Credit: Unsplash]


  • Robert Shaffern

    Robert W. Shaffern is a Professor of Medieval History at the University of Scranton and the author of The Penitents’ Treasury: Indulgences in Latin Christendom, 1175-1375.

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