Over the past half century, in an effort to become more relevant to the mindset of the current culture, many Church leaders have been seduced into adopting a secularist vocabulary and mindset in order to convey the sacred and sanctifying truths of our Catholic Faith. As a result, a reverence for the sacred has often been displaced by a quest for a profane relevance, in the hope that what is meaningful to a secular agenda can become salvific. This is a serious mistake.
One example of this tendency is the widespread use of the word, empowerment, to indicate the goal of efforts being made to assist and nurture the potential of those suffering in a debilitating poverty. It may seem, at first, that such a term is appropriate. But it is seriously flawed.
We must note that the term, empowerment, tends to view the nature of human dignity in terms of power, rather than in terms of God's gracious fidelity, love and truth. Such a view tends to be more in accord with the mindset of Islam or Nietzsche. The Moslems revere Allah as so awesomely powerful that he is free to be completely capricious. He can even nullify the authority of his word in certain passages of the Quran, if he so wishes, through an act of abrogation.
And so, if Allah is perfect in his capricious exercise of his absolute power, human perfection must necessarily by realized by the accumulation of power. This is a theology of "might makes right" with religious trappings. And, although Allah is always free to use his power at times in a compassionate manner, he is not irrevocably committed to do so. He is Allah, and can do by his power whatever he wishes.
Nietzsche was also famous for proclaiming the realization of human dignity through power. He stressed the idea that will power is a key factor in the evolution of humanity. And he believed that this idea was supported by the dynamic described by Darwin as the survival of the fittest.
But if the accumulation of power, rather than reverence and integrity, is the measure of authentic human dignity and righteousness for each of us, we find ourselves confronted with some rather disturbing questions. If a person relinquishes his power in any way, does he not also necessarily relinquish some of his human dignity? And if he
helps his neighbor, unless he does so in a way that enhances his own ability to accumulate more power, prestige and possession, is he not degrading his true dignity? And when we convey to the impoverished the idea that they have no innate dignity, since dignity is measured by power, are we really doing them a service? The empowerment philosophy would thus seem to indicate that stinginess is next to godliness. Hoarding power and imposing one's will on others would, allegedly, be the best ways to realize one's true dignity.
In direct opposition to this is the traditional teaching of the Church concerning the nature of God as the perfection of integrity. Although He is all powerful, His loving righteousness is not measured by His power, but merely indicated through His power. The measure of human dignity is not quantitative, but qualitative, as so beautifully indicated in I Corinthians 13: 1-7 and Colossians 3: 12-17. Power that is not docile to the wisdom of truth and humbly obedient to the fidelity of love is ultimately self-destructive. And while power can be used for manipulation of others, God's graciousness, fidelity and love open the way for the transformation of all so as to raise all to a higher dignity. The capricious use of power tends to put others down, while God, in His graciousness, rejoices to raise all of us up to more noble levels of life, relationship and perspective.
Finally, as we are drawn more deeply into the mystery and the ministries of God's gracious love, we also come to see more clearly the gross perversion of empowerment spiritualities. God's graciousness draws us into the humble and joyful realization that all authentic ministry is mutual. We come to realize that such ministry cannot view another as a mere object of our compassion, but rather as a companion with us on the journey to eternal integrity, joy and peace.
We are continually being invited by our Heavenly Father into a mutuality of ministry that draws us into a synergetic fellowship of love. As one Church Father expressed it, the rich help God to deliver the poor from the demons of hunger and disease, which lurk at their doors. But at the same time, the poor help God to deliver the rich from the demons of greed and complacency, which lurk at their doors. Ultimately, all is grace, into which we are embraced by divine gratitude. Thus, any attempt to enhance one's humanity by the accumulation of merit or power only leads to subtle forms of arrogance and alienation.
Jesus came that we might have life, and have it to the full. But what is not shared, is not redeemed and not really alive. Witness, for example, how our youth are encouraged to explore the arts, so as to offer them a variety of venues, by which they can express and share themselves with others in a creative and regenerative manner.
As human beings, made in the image and likeness of God, we most perfectly possess life by sharing life. By cooperating with God's grace and submitting to His truth, we are able to be more deeply united with Christ by investing ourselves with Him into promoting each other's sanctification and eternal salvation. In this mystery, there can be no boasting, but only a reverent and humble gratitude for the sacred privilege of participating in such an awesome and beautiful mystery.
Graciousness, not stinginess, is next to Godliness.
Spero columnist Rev. Thomas Collins is a Catholic priest in the service of the people of Virginia.