A couple of years ago, a meme started to float around in what I think of as my Internet circles that wasn’t so much a joke as it was an expression of despair. It was simply a block of text – I think it was originally lifted from a headline – that read, “I don’t know how to tell you that you are supposed to care about other people.”
My response fell somewhere between a laugh and a pang because the macro in question was being spread in areas that in many cases were supposed to be explicitly Christian spaces. A lot of people seemed to think that a lot of others needed reminding that love of neighbor is the command second only to love of God according to Christ.
I don’t feel like I need to belabor the point that a lot of Christian discourse about our duty to neighbor has fallen well beyond the wayside, landing in a kind of rhetorical puddle that allows the idea to mutate until the Good Samaritan finds the man beset upon by thieves and offers minimal, virtue signaling help before asking, “But what did he do to get there? What was he wearing when the thieves attacked him? Was taking this road asking to get robbed?”
I’ve seen this attitude a lot, not only among friends and acquaintances but also among those who work with the poor or disadvantaged. Compassion fatigue often pushes good-hearted people into performing the mental calculus of determining who are the truly deserving poor.
Then, of course, there are those who have nothing to offer the poor but wine mixed with gall, who think being poor or even disabled is a moral failing that should be viewed with quibbling compassion – and they should be grateful for what they get! – or outright contempt.
In the last year, two writers of my Internet acquaintance – Mark Shea and Mary Pezzulo – have each written books that serve as necessary but gentle correctives to the disordered thoughts and attitudes that lead one away from love of their broken and beaten neighbors.
Shea’s book, “The Church’s Best-Kept Secret: A Primer on Catholic Social Teaching,” was written in response to what he sees as the unnecessary pitting of social issues against each other in a way that fractures the Church’s unified theory of the dignity of humanity, a theory that includes not only dignity in birth and death but throughout life in between. Shea argues that, “…all human systems are good only insofar as they contribute to the Dignity of the Human Person and they become evils the instant they assume priority over that.” (p. 33) The thesis of the book can be summed up with the thought: “If every life is sacred, then every life is truly sacred”; how such a radical idea can be applied requires a huge ethical overhaul in contemporary understandings of the common good, subsidiary and solidarity. The kicker, Shea demonstrates, over and over, is that the teachings needed for that overhaul have been there all along, from the Bible to the writers of the Patristic era to contemporary Popes and teachers.
Pezzulo’s autobiographical work, “Stumbling Into Grace: How We Meet God in Tiny Works of Mercy”, is very different and yet uniquely related to Shea’s. (She even mentions him in one chapter.) Whereas Shea leans back on his years as a lecturer and
writer of books explaining Catholic theological, dogmatic and devotional ideas for the public to craft a primer that reads like a chatty novice’s manual for a Catholic Worker house (the book is dedicated to Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin), Pezzulo sticks almost completely to the personal, communicating the deep despair that poverty, chronic illness, loneliness and doubt can cause without whining or self-pity.
Pezzulo builds her autobiography on a framework of the corporeal works of mercy, with each chapter telling a story that highlights the graces that can be found in feeding the hungry, instructing the ignorant, clothing the naked, etc. In most of the stories, she is the recipient of the Work, and when she speaks of the hard circumstances that led to her receiving the Work, she tells of how God can offer renewal in the tiniest things; when discussing the Work that is giving drink to the thirsty, she relates a story of a time when someone offered her a bottle of water as she suffered a neurological episode in the hot sun of summer. “A volunteer approached me respectfully. ‘Ma’am, would like a drink?’ He helped me up. Be brought me to the table beside the big fan. He gave me not only a drink but also a bowl of salad and a hot dog. I opened the cold, sweating bottle of water and took several big gulps. Imagine how good that tasted. Imagine how that mercy felt.” (pp.27-28)
In other words, Shea’s book is a view from above of how things should be and a manifesto for action using the Church’s own words, and Pezzulo’s book is about what it’s like on the ground when the Church’s social teaching, embodied in the Works of Mercy, is applied in the mud and stink of a world.
Both of the writers have reputations online for being outspoken, including about politics. Both of the books, however, are evenly written with passion and clarity, and are apolitical in terms of American politics even as they are political in terms of Gospel application.
The political dimension can be seen throughout Shea’s work because he builds his case for all social teaching on the idea of the common good. When he writes of the idea of solidarity, he says that it, “…emphasizes the universality and interdependence of God’s provision for each member of the human race, as well as his call to us to play an active role in that provision.” (p. 105) We have to participate in that provision, in whatever way we can, because we are indebted to the entire world; “We owe God an unpayable debt for literally everything. But we also owe our family, our country, our civilization, and the entire human race for a colossal bounty of gifts. They gave us food, clothing shelter, education, language, Shakespeare, fishing, physics, a million recipes, Star Wars, Homer the Beatles, the Bible, bubble gum, pencils, penicillin, aspirin, automobiles, indoor plumbing, and a billion other things we could not have thought of, much less created on our own. We depend on others – and the organizing power of the state – for a host of things. Therefore we owe those people – and the state – a debt not of charity but of justice…” (p. 115)
Parts of Shea’s book were written after the COVID-19 pandemic had begun, and in his discussion of solidarity, he points out that showing solidarity can have different applications depending on what rung of society’s ladder one stands on; the roles of families in this application was to shelter at home, while the role of health care workers was to treat the sick and the role of the medical and scientific community was to communicate clearly and globally their discoveries. (p. 97) In doing their part, they are rendering payment, not to nullify, but to acknowledge their debt of interconnectedness and their duty to act as the hands of God.
Because the abortion question so often sidetracks discussions of social justice – what’s the point of doing ‘x’ if abortion is still legal? – Shea deftly addresses it early on, discussing the dignity of the human person by affirming in so many words, the seamless garment approach of protecting life, “from the womb to the tomb.” He calls this the Consistent Life Ethic, which is, “about the right to live, not merely the right to be born.” The implications of a Christ who came to give not only life but life abundant are startling when applied to the areas of human rights, economics, immigration and even international relations; using the words of both Popes St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI, Shea discusses Just War Theory as defined in the Catechism of the Catholic Church and questions if – because of the weaponry involved and how warfare is presently conducted – the restraints Just War Theory posits can even allow for such a thing as a just war in today’s world.
When Shea writes about the concept of subsidiary – which is bound with solidarity – he makes clear that, while it is participation in the work of God, each person’s act of subsidiary is by necessity proportional to ability to participate. A man with $72 billion in assets can give $100 million to food banks and never notice that it is gone, but the Gospel story of the widow who gave two mites at the temple demonstrates how one can proportionally participate more fully in her works of subsidiary.
Pezzulo offers a moving story of solidarity and subsidiary in her chapter about feeding the hungry. When her family was too poor to afford food, a neighbor gave the Pezzulos a box of vegetables that included three sacks of potatoes. As they worked their way through those sacks of potatoes, trying to eat the food that had been given them before it went bad, a polar vortex was headed toward their city, bringing with it the kind of cold that could kill people. The local warming shelter put out a call for food to help feed those who did not have housing or heat, and as Pezzulo saw more and more people taking food to the shelter, she wanted to help. “One of the most painful parts of being poor is feeling that you don’t have a purpose. Everyone wants to feel helpful, but poor people don’t have a lot of material goods to contribute, and it can make a person feel like a burden instead of a member of the community,” she writes. (p. 5)
At last, she concludes that she can give the shelter some of the potatoes. After baking them, she boards a bus, carrying the cooked tubers in an insulated bag, and delivers them. They were eaten within minutes. She concludes: “There has never been a potato that wasn’t a gift. To some people, God gives land and the means to grow a potatoes. To some, he gives money and access to stores and restaurants. To others he sends a sack of potatoes through a friend. But food is always a gift from God. The rest of us just help pass it around.” (p. 6)
For someone who has been poor and food insecure, parts of Pezzulo’s book can be triggering. She neither glories in or blushes at the times she lived in near-harsh poverty, and in some chapters she speaks frankly about illness, loneliness and religious abuse. After discussing abuse, she includes a section in every chapter about how to perform a Work of Mercy in a way that does not accidentally perpetuate cycles of spiritual malfeasance.
My favorite passage in the book was a scene in the chapter about Instructing the Ignorant, during which the chains of one of those cycles is broken. While attending confession one afternoon, Pezzulo hesitantly discusses with a priest an unintentionally evil theology that was deeply instilled in her as a child, and when she asks about it he simply responds, “Nope, that’s definitely not how it works.” (p. 14) Even though she had already come to realize that the teaching in question was baloney, the simple act of having someone affirm it for her lifted a terrible weight from her shoulders.
Both books are fairly short, and can be read in one sitting. Shea ends each chapter with several questions to encourage reflection about what’s been read. Pezzulo concludes the discussion of each Work with practical tips on how to perform them in ways that help both the recipient and the worker; some of her tips are simple – keep cool water in your car to give to people you help in the summer – while others require more intention than most people realize, like checking in on a friend who has been ill for an extended period without making them feel like a burden. Each chapter of Stumbling into Grace ends with a prayer.
Pezzulo and Shea deal with topics that can be harsh, but both books end on an optimistic note, because as the Little Flower said – and despite the fact that such books had to be or even could be written – everything is grace.
And when we understand that everything is grace and we are all interdependent and interconnected, there is no deserving or undeserving. Even in the dirt and the grit and the highway noise that competes between the narrow and the wide paths, every life – every life – is sacred.