Before Christmas I posted my critique of the Vatican nativity scene. You can read it here if you want, but my main point was not to get huffy about the naked man or the poor quality of the art so much as the fact that the corporal works of mercy were overshadowing the Nativity.

Simcha Fisher and a few others got the wrong end of the stick and jumped to the conclusion that I was somehow down on the corporal works of mercy.

Of course I’m not discouraging the corporal works of mercy, but pointing out that there is a question of priorities.

Jesus says there are two commandments: “The greatest commandment is love your God with all you heart, soul, mind and strength. The second is like, namely this, you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Both are necessary, but one is first and the other is second, and it is not being paranoid or hyper critical to point out that one of the main problems in the Christian Church today (both Catholic and Protestant) is the tendency to put the second commandment before the first–and even to forget the first completely.

Pope Francis himself has warned of this saying we should remember that the Church is not just another NGO. In other words, the Church is not primarily a social welfare institution, and the gospel is not primarily about the corporal works of mercy.

Does that mean we’re opposed to the corporal works of mercy? Of course not, and anyone who jumps to that conclusion is either not thinking things through completely or is being mischievous.

Why is it important to be sensitive to the tendency to put love of neighbor before love of God? Because, as I said in my post, we end up with what I call neo-Pelagianism–a religion of good works.

Yes, yes, I know “Faith without works is dead.” but why do we never hear “Works without Faith is dead?”

Finally, this issue is not simply a matter of theology, but also ecclesiology. A priest’s calling is to administer, teach and sanctify. While there are some priests who also have a special calling to the corporal works of mercy, and every Christian (including priests) are called to be personally involved in corporal works of mercy, it is the laypeople’s vocation (amongst many other things) to be the main active agents of the church’s corporal works of mercy in the world.

Now please don’t jump to conclusions and get all huffy and say, “Ooh, Father thinks priests don’t have to help poor people!” I’m not saying that. I’m pointing out that priests can’t (and shouldn’t) do everything. Instead, they inspire, oversee, assist, encourage and lead the people of God to exercise the corporal works of mercy in the world.

In our parish, for example, we have an active food pantry, St Vincent dePaul Society and Mother Teresa House health and referral center. The laypeople run these ministries. I support and encourage and oversee the work with them, but this is their work for the church and for the world.

The priest preaches the gospel, teaches the truth, celebrates the sacraments and so leads in the first commandment–the love of God. The people respond by being active agents of grace in the world in their own way. It is not either or. It’s both-and.