Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront approaches the zenith of American cinema. Winner of all the principal Academy Awards in its day, it remains worth watching whether one wants to witness Hollywood great Marlon Brando at his peak or wants simply to satisfy a craving for a good crime thriller. In the character of Father Barry (Karl Malden), moreover, the film provides a model of Catholic activism. Father Barry enters the film along with Edie (Eva Marie Saint) after her older brother is murdered for testifying against the mafia-controlled union. When he consoles the grieving sister by saying that he would be in his church if she ever needed him, a stunned Edie replies with one of the most challenging lines in all of cinema: “Did you ever hear of a saint hiding in a church?”
In response to this challenge, Father Barry begins to shepherd his flock boldly, guiding them to stand up to the mafia and promising to be with them every step of the way. His understanding of his own vocation is renewed. During an impassioned “sermon” on one of the ships after the murder of another potential informant, Father Barry confronts heckling gang members, turning their call that he go back to his church on its head: “Boys, this is my church!” he exclaims, pointing at the dead informant’s body. He then reminds them that Jesus stands beside the workers oppressed by the mob who are worried over whether they can work to provide for their families, and recalls the parable of the separation of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25:34-40).
The convergence in this scene of the body of the murdered informant, the body of Christ, and the body of Father Barry’s church resonates with me today. I try to do my part to work on behalf of the marginalized in any possible manner. Unfortunately, like Father Barry, I have not always accepted that stepping outside of my church to help the poor and marginalized is an important part of living my faith. But with time and God’s help I have begun to recognize Jesus in the faces of those around me.
In 2010, I impulsively embraced the Tea Party movement. A naïve nineteen-year-old, I trusted my conservative friends and the talking points of public figures rather than my own research of the group’s policies. Despite repeated experiences of being called out and unable to defend the compatibility of my faith with my political convictions, I held onto conservative ideology long after my Tea Party passion fizzled away.
With time, I turned to the apologetics community to learn how to defend Catholic teaching. I spent my time responding to dissent from Church teaching on the sacraments and sexuality through the lens of an apologist. I believed that it was of the utmost importance to engage in spiritual works of mercy by correcting heresies. As someone who had been diagnosed with OCD, moreover, doing so quelled the anxiety that dissent among fellow Catholics triggered within me.
While I was urgently trying to convey to my Protestant friends that good works were required for salvation, I did not consider engaging myself in corporal works of mercy to be quite as urgent. In my mind, I didn’t need to do or say anything about homelessness, because everyone already agreed that it was bad and was working to address it. Instead, my efforts could best be directed to battling over abortion, since people still needed to be convinced that it was morally wrong.
Whenever I engaged in debate over heresies, people would admonish me to work in homeless shelters and soup kitchens if I was so concerned about living the Gospel. I found this frustrating, a simple dismissal by liberals who thought moral issues did not matter and who wanted to focus only on helping others in need. I approached my Christian life primarily from an intellectual perspective, akin to a debate. What’s worse: a starving family, or a society that rejected the dignity of the unborn? Well, for me at the time, the answer was clear! Even as I began to refer to social justice, it was often only to disarm my opponents. I wanted it to appear that I was invested in the matter, when I just wanted to convince others about the rightness of my position while leaving them to the practical effort of serving our neighbors.
It’s not that I was unaware of the vast body of Catholic social teaching. I had been educated at a Catholic high school, where I was instructed in Church teachings brought forth in such encyclicals as Rerum Novarum (which addressed unrestrained capitalism and newly emerging movements inspired by Karl Marx). I had learned about religious orders devoted to the poor and marginalized, and about my responsibility to engage in community service as an extension of my formal education.
Nevertheless, I still clung to conservative dogmas regarding economics and humanitarian aid. I had learned enough sophistry to respond to those who rebuked me to care for the needy by pointing out that those were prudential matters in contrast to abortion, which was a dogmatic one. In my opinion at the time, it was the private sector’s job to care for the least of us, not the government’s. And especially not mine.
Then 2016 changed everything about the comfortable intellectual framework I had crafted for myself. On a personal level, I moved to Boston from a small and relatively wealthy town in Connecticut and was exposed to the full spectrum of humanity for the first time in my life. There were no homeless where I grew up, and while there were collections at Christ the King in Old Lyme to help the needy in urban areas, those acts of charity were qualitatively different from the experience of stepping out of St. Cecilia’s in the Back Bay to see the homeless standing before me, asking me to spare some change or buy them a meal. Meanwhile, my political priorities were being challenged. During the primaries, the party that claimed to champion traditional values and the sanctity of the lives of the unborn nominated a man whose character was clearly in conflict with those values.
As I interacted with refugees who had fled for their lives to the United States, I reached a point where I recognized that I could no longer dismiss social justice. While I previously deflected opposition to my views by insisting that those positions were prudential—really meaning that they didn’t matter as much—I now began to accept the evidence indicating the circumstances of refugees, prisoners and the poor were dire, and that broader issues of “social justice” needed to be addressed just as urgently as other moral questions.
I came to realize that I did not have to approach activism from the perspective of either/or. The cliché was true: it was both/and. I can believe that dispelling heresy is important and I can also show my commitment to Church teaching by offering practical assistance to those in need. We can use reason and argument to defend the Church and try to win lost souls, and we can rest assured that in doing so we are engaging in spiritual works of mercy. But I have realized the urgency of those basic Christian responsibilities the Bible teaches us, like caring for the homeless and for refugees and prisoners. These corporal works of mercy are just as important as the spiritual work of “instructing the ignorant” regarding important moral questions relating to sexuality, marriage, and abortion.
We cannot emphasize too much the instruction of the prophet Isaiah: “Make justice your aim: redress the wronged, hear the orphan’s plea, defend the widow” (1:17). And we can look to God Incarnate for guidance, heeding the teaching of Christ who said that the caring Samaritan was the true neighbor of the man left for dead, not his fellow Jews who passed him by (Luke 10:25-37). Above all, we should remember that we will be judged at the end of time based on how we received the least among us, in whom Jesus dwells (Matthew 25). And in those corporal works of mercy we can reach more hearts than with even the best-rehearsed of our arguments. Many canonized saints can inspire us to undertake such noble, humble works. So, too, I would argue, can Father Barry.