For many people, the first time they are ever asked to commoditize their acts of mercy is when they fill out their college applications. The application form will read something like, “Please list and describe your charitable activities.” For younger people, now many attending high schools that require public service “credits,” the process of commoditizing mercy has an added layer. To be clear, there is no exchange of cash involved in these requirements, at least none that I’m aware. Nevertheless, the attempts by secular authorities to inculcate the values of commoditized mercy – namely, perform works of mercy toward others and you will receive tangible goods in return – starts at an early age.
Secular authorities, perhaps desperate to instill empathy in young people whom they fear are vulnerable to nihilism, seem oblivious to the spiritual danger of commoditized mercy. After all, a teenager volunteering for lunch duty at a nursing home would expose him/her to the vulnerability and dependence of others, creating just the kind of emotional kinetic energy that will result in a more empathic young adult, right? What’s so bad about that?
Nothing, except for the fact that the entire design is an extremely desperate – not to mention bureaucratic – response to treat the symptom, not the underlying disease: namely, a merciless society, which of course is so precisely because it is so chock full of merciless individuals.
We live in a time when so many quarters of Catholic religious life are increasingly centered on commoditized mercy: the expectation that by performing works of mercy, Catholic religious ought to be compensated with tangible goods, namely with greater ecclesiastical power, status, and influence than other lay people (non-clergy Catholic religious are indeed lay people.) Given this reality, it would seem Catholic bishops have, even if inadvertently, fallen into a similar trap as their secular counterparts, specifically fueling a culture of commoditized mercy, perhaps for fear that without it, Catholic culture might crumble.
If it has not been made abundantly clear to American Catholic bishops already, it ought to be now: When commoditized mercy is legitimized, it is only natural for its adherents to expect, indeed demand, something for their end of the bargain. Thus, when the nuns of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious are informed by the Vatican that they, as all other lay people, have no authority to reshape the theology and official teachings of the church, they are simply flabbergasted: after all, commoditized mercy effectively promised them that they would.
If we accept the premise that American Catholic bishops have indeed incubated a church culture that has utterly distorted Christ’s command to his disciples that their light “must shine before men so that they may see goodness in your acts and give praise to you heavenly father,” (Mt. 5:16) to the point of turning it into actual commoditized mercy, it is worth it to the community of the faithful to ponder how it came to be, and what to do about it.
As a counterpoint, Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta and her Missionaries of Charity are a prime example of Christ’s followers healthily letting their “light shine” so that others can see their goodness and “give praise to their heavenly father.” The Missionaries of Charity do this without violating Christ’s command in the following chapter of Matthew:
“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” (Mt. 6: 1-4)
It never ceases to amaze me how many South Floridians have no idea that the Missionaries of Charity have a mission in Miami that feeds about 300 people, six days a week. The sisters there – again, lay people just like the rest of us – simply let their light shine on those they are serving, as that light is the very essence of who they are. Sure enough, word gets out among those in need that the sisters are there to feed. They do not announce their charity with the blare of trumpets. And they never, ever turn their acts of mercy into chits to be redeemed in theological debates.
In other words, their works of mercy are not a commodity.
Instead of continuing to legitimize lifestyles of commoditized mercy in the vain attempt that those who have made it a part of their identity will obey the bishops, and above all, expect no ecclesiastical authority as their rightful return on commoditized mercy, the bishops should face reality: the number of people called to live out the evangelical counsels, and with integrity, is small.
And yet, the number of lay Catholic men and women whose greatest desire is to serve the kingdom of God is huge. In secular terms, they may simply be called idealists. In spiritual terms, they are men and women filled with the Holy Spirit, and as such, are intensely aware – hour by hour – of the dehumanizing rhythms and priorities of the secular world.
Though not consecrated, and though many of them have discerned they are not called to live out the evangelical counsels, they contribute to the life of the church in myriad ways.
What better way to stanch the flow of commoditized mercy, in the church and society, than for bishops to allow these lay Catholic men and women to wear the habit in public, provided they take only one vow: to never engage in the act of commoditizing mercy, so expressly and undeniably prohibited by Jesus Christ. Any works of mercy performed by the men or women wearing the habit, like the Missionaries of Charity, must be done to build the city of God, and for no other purpose. If a bishop determined that the lay person was using the habit for other purposes – to glorify themselves, to assert authority over other lay people, to build-up a Catholic clientele for their real estate business, etc. – he could demand the habit be returned.
Virtually every Sunday, priests across the nation remind the Catholic faithful that each of us has a call to serve God in some way. For most, that will entail a life of a specialized career, or, more commonly, careers. For others, that may mean serving humanity in a broader way, simply by feeding the hungry, for instance. Whatever the case may be, this much should be clear: In the age of commoditized mercy, Christian vocations of all sorts should be pointing to the way out – not deeper into the hell of false love.