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Religion Is Not Social Activism

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As tempting as it may be to treat social activism as if it were our highest calling, in fact, it is not. Father Jeffrey Kirby’s new book, Real Religion, attacks the idea that biblical religion can be reduced to a kind of social activism. We asked him about how Christianity views social activism.

Read more from Fr. Kirby here.


Is biblical faith anything more than social activism? Father Jeffrey Kirby next.

Cy Kellett:
Hello and welcome to Focus, the Catholic Answers podcast for living, understanding and defending your Catholic faith. I’m Cy Kellett, your host. I always enjoy talking with our friend, Father Jeffrey Kirby, and we got to talk with him recently about his book, Real Religion, How to Avoid False Faith and Worship God in Spirit and Truth. It’s new from Catholic Answers Press. But he’s such a great guest and this is such a great book, that we invited him back because there’s another topic that he covers in this book that really is of vital importance to our time. The idea of the intersection, the meeting point, between social activism and our Christian faith, our biblical faith. Sometimes the temptation to make social activism be the total of our faith, the total way that we express our faith. That is not a good option when it happens and here’s Father to explain why.

Once again, Father Jeffrey Kirby. Real Religion, How to Avoid False Faith and Worship God in Spirit and Truth is the new book. Thanks for being here with us again, Father Kirby.

Father Jeffrey Kirby:
My pleasure. Thank you.

Cy Kellett:
You wrote this book as you told us last time, out of a kind of pastoral concern with the number of people who thought they could improve upon the Mass.

Father Jeffrey Kirby:
Absolutely. Anytime you hear language like that, we’re going to make the Mass better, just be careful, be careful. Those are those words where you should just stop and pause because especially with the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass that was given to us by the Lord and as a divine action, we can’t make it any better. So yes, it came from that desire to help people.

Cy Kellett:
There is a sense in which we can make it better by being more reverent however. I want to give you a chance to say something about that because I can imagine the listener who’s like, “What, I mean, all I want is a reverent celebration of the Mass.” I sympathize with that person.

Father Jeffrey Kirby:
Yes, yes. Certainly reverence in terms of our souls and so on, we can enhance the spiritual fruits, the transforming power of God’s grace. Absolutely. In terms of our recipients or we could say our subjective encounter or experience of worship. Absolutely we can enhance that. I speak mainly of the objective, the suggestions or ideas people have. “Hey, we need to have guitars and drums and we need to change this part of the Mass and we need to …” “No, we just need to listen to the wisdom and follow the tradition of the church and humble ourselves because this is not our action. We participate as the members of the baptized. We are called to be transformed by this but this is ultimately God’s action. This happens because of the power of the Holy Spirit. If the Spirit does not arrive, this doesn’t happen no matter how much we think we’ve made this or created this.” I think just kind of humbling or reordering is so important.

Cy Kellett:
I got to say, Father, it’s you guys as much as it’s us guys. I say that as a layman speaking to a priest that a lot of lay people would just like priests who stop ad libbing during the Eucharistic prayer and stop, just stop with all the performing and just pray the Mass with us and for us.

Father Jeffrey Kirby:
Amen. I’m right there. The few times when I come and celebrate and a brother priest is the main celebrant, I don’t understand it. I don’t understand why the false creativity. Why the speculation that somehow our personal thoughts or creativity are better than the longstanding tradition of the church. I don’t understand the disobedience in some cases. I took the solemn promise before I was ordained that I would follow the liturgical law of the church. It’s not mine. I am a servant. Just as an example, in my parish one of the first things I did when I came here, well I moved my chair. It used to be that the celebrant’s chair was right next to the tabernacle. To me it was awkward. I am not worthy to sit next to my King. I moved it up and had it facing the altar because I explained to the people catechetically, I am a servant. This is the throne room of our King. Let us keep our focus and please do not attempt to make me your king.

Cy Kellett:
Right.

Father Jeffrey Kirby:
Let’s keep the focus here, first things first. I will say this, that this is what I have found among a lot of clergy and people who work in the church is this idea that if we do this, people will come. Or if we do this, people will keep coming. We hear this language a lot and there’s a place where that could be appropriate but it gets exaggerated to the point where at times I like to remind people that worship is not meant to be one of the means of evangelization. Worship is an act of adoration by the baptized. I almost want to challenge some of my brother priests and people who are for the church, don’t be lazy and not do the real work of evangelization where it needs to happen but instead, in trying to merge it with adoration, with worship. Remember our calling.

Just look at the restorative RCIA. The idea that we send out the net, we throw out the net, we evangelize, we bring people back into the church and then as members of the baptized, they begin to worship. In the restored RCIA, the unbaptized are dismissed after the prayers of the faithful. It goes back to the early church where only the baptized could actually be at Mass. If you weren’t baptized, you weren’t even welcome to that part. You were dismissed. Very much it emphasizes that worship is the act of the baptized of adoration. Well, people will come. Well, people enjoy this. People will keep coming. Wrong, wrong place, wrong place, wrong place, wrong place. Wrong emphasis, wrong focus, wrong direction.

Definitely we should evangelize. Use Catholic Answer resources. I mean, this is good stuff. Get out there, but do the real work of evangelization, door-to-door evangelization, programs of evangelization. But oftentimes what I’ll find is parishes that really just overwhelmed the liturgy with all this extra stuff, oftentimes then they don’t do the real work of evangelization.

Cy Kellett:
Yeah.

Father Jeffrey Kirby:
They just merged it into the liturgy thinking that they’re doing something, not doing the real work of evangelization and then really adulterating or so broadening the work of liturgy that it loses its power. The people cannot receive the fullness of the grace that God desires to give to us.

Cy Kellett:
As you speak, it strikes me that you hit a theme consistently in your writing and speaking about Real Religion and the theme has to do with it being essentially God’s work. It not being essentially our attempt to get something accomplished. It belongs to God and that’s fundamental to biblical religion.

Father Jeffrey Kirby:
Absolutely. In fact, our tradition in the liturgy was referred to as the Opus Dei, the work of God. That this is something that I am humbled and empowered to participate in. I’m called. I did not deserve it. I did not merit it. I could not ask for it. I couldn’t expect it. But as a member of the baptized, I have been summoned and called by God out of darkness into his wonderful light. As a member of the baptized, I have the privilege to be able to participate in this. The sacrifice is greater than me. It’s beyond me. It’s majesty is infinitely superior to me and yet I get to be a part of it. Receive that invitation and then to go in and say, “But I want to change all this so it looks like me …

Cy Kellett:
Yeah.

Father Jeffrey Kirby:
… is to miss it. No, this is where we go in order to have that transformative power of grace. To have that comfort and consolation that this doesn’t depend on me. I can actually let everything go and just stand before the God who loves me, who’s infinitely good and to worship him in spirit and truth.

Cy Kellett:
The book’s called Real Religion and within the pages, in addition to giving us a primer really or a reeducation or re-introduction to the tenants of biblical religion, you tackle several kind of general areas of false religion that are out there in a contemporary way. Among them is social activism, when religion becomes social activism. I’m pleased we get to talk about this but it seems like a difficult one because we live in an age of really sincere and intense social activism where many people see, for example, being anti-racist or being a good environmentalist or being part of the #MeToo movement. They’re trying to do something very, very good. They really want racism to go away and the planet to survive and women to be treated with respect. Are you at all concerned with telling these people, your efforts are not as important as you think?

Father Jeffrey Kirby:
Because I would say that certainly you see so many of these social movements and efforts to make the world a better place and so on. What I would say to the people involved in these movements is that it’s not that what they’re doing is wrong obviously. These are all social goods, but they’re incomplete.

Cy Kellett:
Okay.

Father Jeffrey Kirby:
I’d like to tell them, “Look, imagine you can rally the cause here, but do it in such a way that it has infinite value.” You can imagine you give all this energy to this particular social good and then it’s destroyed. It’s taken away by someone else or a successor or some other group or you lose funding or you get too old to run it and it dies with you. And the list goes on where these are goods of themselves but if you were to do these within proper worship, they have infinite value. You contribute something beyond the here and now. I loved in Deus caritas as Pope Benedict XVI. That actually kind of shook me a little bit because as a Christian I’m involved in social goods and social areas to make things better and to respect the dignity of human beings and so on. These are things we are called to be a part of as believers.

But when Pope Benedict said it is an error, an act of hubris to say that we will make the world a better place because we don’t have that power. We don’t have the power. We are fallen. We play our small part. God is the one who makes the world a better place. Only his grace can bring that about. That perhaps best summarizes what I’m trying to express. When we make religion and the worship of God just about social work or social change, we lose the infinite horizon that God is offering to us and we fall into this hubris. We start thinking we can do things we don’t have the power to do.

Cy Kellett:
The other side of that hubris is a kind of exhaustion though, where if I try to save the world, I am going to burn myself out. I’m just going to burn myself up, you know?

Father Jeffrey Kirby:
Yes. And our spiritual tradition, sloth. Oftentimes people will say, “Oh, that’s laziness.” And it can involve that. But more to the heart, sloth is when we so exhaust ourselves in activism that our soul does not have the energy to perform the acts of religion. When we’ve worked all day, worked all day, we get to the end of the day and we’re so tired we can’t even pray, like our soul is just tired. You can imagine the people who have turned religion into this type of social change, social reform, they don’t have the energy to pray or to worship God because they’ve been giving to this work the adoration that belongs to God alone.

Cy Kellett:
When it becomes religion however, when the social activism becomes religion or I suppose you could think about a movement like, say, the social gospel movement from a little more than a century ago. Where it’s not that the activism becomes a religion but people will actively say, “Well, really this religion is an activist religion. That’s what Jesus is trying to get us to do is to be activists.” How do you respond to that?

Father Jeffrey Kirby:
I would say that certainly there’s a change in how that’s expressed today. And somewhat shows you look at all the things that would be the mark of true religion.

Cy Kellett:
Okay.

Father Jeffrey Kirby:
Or the way of life of a believer, and you see these pseudo reflections in these movements. So you have to have a particular hashtag or you have to have a particular color or you have to be at certain events and you’re expected to chant certain things. Pick the movement. They’re almost as a pseudo expression of religion. As a believer, I can look at that and say, “I know that because I have a daily schedule. I have certain symbols that are very powerful to me. I have certain things that are expected of me.” So I start to see all of the ritualistic elements that I recognize as a believer but now changed into something else in these social movements.

The social movement stands on its own so it becomes this type of religion where someone could dedicate their lives to these movements the way that I have and continuing to try to dedicate my life to the living God. That false religion will never satisfy and they will never be able to accomplish what they think they can do. It’s almost in a sense like dooming a life to incompleteness and to just this type of constant misery because it’s a fallen world. We will never solve world hunger. The poor will always be with us. It doesn’t mean we stop working. It doesn’t mean we don’t seek to serve the poor but we realize at the end of this day, we simply play our part. We do our best with those who are in front of us. I think it’s interesting that sometimes you can find the people who are involved in these movements, and this involves our religious, this involves members of the clergy, they invest so much time in these movements and then you look at their own personal lives and they’re not even really involved in the work.

They advocate for the poor and then, when was the last time since you went to a soup kitchen? So it becomes this religion ideology that’s very peculiar. People would ask me this and say, “Well, how can you see this? How do you know in terms of clergy or religious?” Say, well, “Ask are our traditional symbols or our traditional marks of religion visible in them?” So often times out of the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks. You can tell a tree by its fruit. Is Sister in a habit or is she wearing some T-shirt of some movement or ideology? Does Brother speak more about the environment than Jesus Christ? Does Father talk more about immigration than the power of the sacraments? It’s not that any of these things should not be spoken about but they have to be put within their proper context and this is about the worship of God. Serving the people in front of me, it becomes just one more movement or ideology, well, that serves no good.

Cy Kellett:
Would you even include a certain kind of pro-life activism where that becomes … It does seem to me that that person … I’ve tried to be a pro-life person I don’t know, for a long time. My parents were pro-life people and I see in that movement, it becomes almost a pseudo religion itself as well. You feel afraid to say it because it is the most important social issue and I don’t want to be like, “What, are you against pro-life?” No, but … So, I’m going to put the heat on you. I’m just going to make it a question. Does the pro-life movement sometimes take the place of real religion in our lives?

Father Jeffrey Kirby:
It can, it can. In fact that I have oftentimes wondered with some people, are they pro-life because they’re Catholic or are they Catholic because they’re pro-life? Which one’s first? If it’s not my discipleship, the surrender of my life to the Lordship of Jesus Christ, if that’s not first, then no matter what, anything else no matter how good of itself, like anything else, like the defense of the unborn. Not even that surpasses our discipleship to Jesus Christ. So it’s in our surrender to Christ, our discipleship to him, that all these other things take on added value. To protect the unborn, to welcome the foreigner, to serve the poor. These are why we do these things because we seek to continue the work of Christ. Our Lord has done this. As his disciple, so I must.

I’m not trying to change the world. I’m not trying to introduce some radical movement. I seek to give the person in front of me food who’s hungry, to let him know you are not alone. There’s a God who loves you. He has sent me to be here. We are brothers. I am not your benefactor. I am your sibling. I will sit with you. I love you. And so that is the work of the Christian. That’s true religion. Not I’m going to use you, the poor, in order to promote my ideology or my agenda. The thin line between doing something with or for someone, that thin line between doing something to someone. You have to really watch that line, that thin line that should exist.

Cy Kellett:
One of the reasons that I personally try to avoid on our radio program talking about politics, not that I don’t think that politics is important, but our job is, as you said earlier, that there’s this thing about evangelization. We would like the person who accidentally turns on the radio to just stumble upon hearing the name of Jesus and hear about that. They can hear about politics somewhere else, but the name of Jesus is more important. I have to say, I’ve blown it on that and I hear it all the time in Catholic media where I feel like what’s the message that you want to deliver? Is it that you want someone to vote for this person or do you really genuinely want to share Jesus Christ above all things?

I say all of that by the way of asking you this to that, can we sometimes make politics a little bit of an idol as well so that our social activism, we’re not intending to do anything wrong but we’re not involved in politics in a way that trusts Jesus to have it all in his hands but in a way that says, I desperately need to get everybody to vote for this guy and not this guy because that’s the key thing.

Father Jeffrey Kirby:
Yes, very much like that. I oftentimes like to say, “We were not baptized into a political party.

Cy Kellett:
Yeah.

Father Jeffrey Kirby:
We were not baptized into a citizenship of any nation. We were baptized in Jesus Christ and all that we do has to be born from him.” If there are opinions about one candidate over another or one political party over another or the emphasis of a particular social issue, all that for we who are believers, flows from the love that we have received from Christ and the love that we seek to give back to Christ and to our neighbor. I call it the Good Samaritan principle.

Cy Kellett:
Right. Okay.

Father Jeffrey Kirby:
I love you as my neighbor. I know the fullness I have received in Christ. I seek for you to have that fullness so I’m sharing with you and I want to convince as best possible, give as convincing an argument as possible in order for you to understand this. Because if you can understand this, our society can understand this, then we can all receive that fullness that the Lord desires to give. It has to be an act of love. Sometimes the church is called within the realm of justice. To defend the unborn, to historically to defend minorities and so on, and we will do that. We will fight. We will stand for what is true and noble and good but always with the love of Christ. That is what compels us, pushes us, sustains us, heals us in the midst of this battle. The moment we start to sense that what we’re doing is not because of the love of Christ, is a time where we need to take some time out and go back and re-encounter our first love.

Cy Kellett:
Do you as a pastor, get the person who comes to you and says, “Father, the parish needs to do this and this and this.” And it’s a lot of social activism and you need to … It’s not necessarily bad things that they’re saying but you can see this is off. It’s just not resting on the ground that it’s supposed to be resting on. It’s something else.

Father Jeffrey Kirby:
Yes, very much. In fact, I oftentimes in particular within the past two years or so have asked people and challenged them, do not use the church to promote your agenda. The church is the bride of Christ. She is to prostitute to no one so do not use her in that way. The church has engaged in certain social areas. She does so because she has been called by her Lord and seeks to reciprocate his love. Sometimes if people come and they say, “This, this.” “Okay, then we should do this. We need to get involved here.” “Okay, good.” How is that going to help us to know Christ better, to make him known better? St. Paul would say in Christ. Everything St. Paul did, in Christ, in Christ, in Christ. In fact, you could just say that that is the single most summary of his entire ministry on behalf of the Lord. In Christ and whatever we’re called to do, we have to ask, is this being done in Christ?

Theology would say orthodoxy, which is right teaching, must be matched by what’s praxis. Action. It must be right action. It can’t be opposed to the teachings of Christ. It can’t defy his Spirit. It cannot betray the dispositions of his heart. How can we spread the kingdom of God with a spirit that is foreign to the kingdom of God? I think this type of calling back and reordering is really what I was hoping to do throughout the book and especially this particular part because these are areas where it’s easy to just fall into these false religions. If they’re good, they become quickly exaggerated. They become isolated, to get removed from truth and oftentimes if we’re not careful, they can very easily become extreme and that’s just when no good is served either in the person’s heart or in our society.

Cy Kellett:
What strikes me too in much of the false religion that you point out, it’s always wrapped in something good. Like the self-help thing. Being helped is good. The social activism thing. Well, social goods are good. Working for social goods is a good thing to do. It’s just that the center seems to be hollowed out of them somehow when they become these ideologies, the center part is missing. Where’s the Jesus part here?

Father Jeffrey Kirby:
Yes, yes, yes. I think that it’s been said by many great people that falsity is always truth in exaggeration. Oftentimes in these cases we see something good and this is why they’re so attractive to good people or people who are searching for something or something to go deeper within or to dedicate their life to. But you’re right. The heart’s taken out. It simply becomes this raw or empty social activism or political activism or whatever it might be. The very purpose, like the life that was meant to motivate that, like the love, the mercy, the reconciliation, the hope that comes in Christ is removed. That’s why oftentimes these movements can become extreme or very cruel in terms of how they handle people who are opposed to them or people who don’t understand or people who would not completely agree with them exactly the way that they think it should be done is because that heart’s gone and so cruelty somehow they think is justified. I think we have to be very careful in these areas.

Cy Kellett:
I’ll ask you like I asked you at the end of the last episode on religion as self-help. If I am afflicted with this, if I have become ideological even for something as wonderful, as good as the pro-life movement or maybe as … I’m kind of a culture warrior person who’s fighting for the good of society either politically or with social movements or whatnot. Or I’m fighting racism or environmental. But I see here and I’m listening to you, Father, and I’m like there is something missing. How do I move to real religion from whatever ideology has kind of taken that place in my life?

Father Jeffrey Kirby:
Yes. I would point us again to our only hope which is the cross. To look for those moments of a true death to self. If I’m inclined or pushed to the social areas and then to the social change, then do something that’s going to really hurt, a real death to oneself. You’ll take a holy hour early in the morning or commit oneself to daily Mass in the midst of their schedule or the Stations of the Cross every Friday. Do something opposite that’s going to require a certain death to oneself and that’s going to kind of balance, especially in terms of the spiritual traditions, the spiritual interaction with our Lord, developing this relationship in that way. I would say that to try to balance that. Oftentimes St. Paul said, the Spirit prays through us. Oftentimes when we begin to avail ourselves of that grace, oftentimes these other areas naturally get very tempered because we begin to put first things first.

Cy Kellett:
I have received the critique from my children on occasion and I imagine you, as a pastor might receive the critique from your parishioners that, “Well, you’re not doing enough then. Why don’t you do this and this and this? You’re just so focused on that religion thing. You’re not doing enough.”

Father Jeffrey Kirby:
Mmm. Hmm. It’s interesting because no one person can do all the good that is needed in our world. And even the Lord Jesus in his public ministry, he said, I’m paraphrasing. If you think I’m doing great things, wait until you see what my disciples will do, for they will do far greater. As disciples, we are attentive to the spiritual life, to the heart of what it means to be a human being, a child of God, and then we play our part. Oftentimes it’s a small part. It could be a humble part, a part that is not known by the massive portion of society but we will play our part. If someone says, “Well, you’re not doing enough.” I say, “Well, then more people need to be doing something. Because to try to strip ourselves of spiritual depth or grace in order to do more, do more, do more, in the end we lose ourselves and we end up accomplishing nothing in the social order.

Cy Kellett:
I’m actually pretty good at accomplishing nothing, Father. Thank you for the book, Real Religion, How to Avoid False Faith and Worship God in Spirit and Truth. If I could ask you for one more thing, it would be your blessing for us and for our listeners.

Father Jeffrey Kirby:
Absolutely. Let us pray. May the Lord bless you and keep you. May he let his face shine upon you. May he open the doors of his heart to you and may you know of his love and mercy. May the Almighty God bless you, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Cy Kellett:
Amen. Thank you, Father Kirby.

Father Jeffrey Kirby:
Okay. Thanks.

Cy Kellett:
Real Religion, How to Avoid False Faith and Worship God in Spirit and Truth is the new book from our guest, Father Jeffrey Kirby. Get it if you enjoy what he has to say. It really is a very, very fine book and we are tempted these days to false religion. Among the false religions we’re tempted to is a religion purely of fighting evil by social activism. Fighting evil is not a religion. Only loving the good and being drawn more and more by the worship of God into the good makes for true religion. I do hope you’ll read the book. You can get it at shop.catholic.com. You can go to your local bookstore and ask them to get it for you. Real Religion, How to Avoid False Faith and Worship God in Spirit and truth.

Thanks for joining us. Send us an email if you like [email protected], [email protected] We’ve been getting a lot of good suggestions for upcoming episodes so I appreciate that. If you’ve got a suggestion, send it there, [email protected] Don’t forget, we do need your financial support. If you’re able to do so, please support us at givecatholic.com and write a little note saying that your donation is intended to support Focus, givecatholic.com. If you listen on Spotify, Stitcher, Apple podcasts, or anywhere else, you can give us that five star review. That will help us grow the podcast. If you give us maybe a little word or two about what you get from the podcast, that also will help us grow the podcast. And don’t forget to like and subscribe right down here if you’re watching on YouTube. I’m Cy Kellett, your host. See you next time, God willing, right here on Catholic Answers Focus.

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