Atheist Richard Dawkins writes: “What major institution most deserves the title of greatest force for evil in the world? In a field of stiff competition, the Roman Catholic Church is surely up there among the leaders.”
To tweak words from Mark Twain, there are lies, damn lies, and statements like Dawkins’. His rhetoric seeks to drive a wedge between the institutional Church on the one hand, and ordinary Catholics on the other. If Dawkins claimed that individual Catholics were the greatest force for evil in the world, he would be charged immediately with anti-Catholic bigotry, and confronted with the counterexamples of innumerable individual Catholics who are caring, compassionate and conscientious people.
But the abstraction of the “institutional Church” is so broad and impersonal, so far-off and Roman, that Dawkins’ big lie sounds a bit more plausible. However, the institutional Church is made up of individual Catholics, many of whom (indeed, the vast majority, in my experience) are no less caring, compassionate and conscientious, indeed often more so, than any other people. Of course, in any institution — educational, medical, financial or spiritual — one can find selfish, unprincipled and evil people. The bigger the group, the more such people are to be found.
But an institution as an institution should not be judged on this basis, but rather on the basis of its overall work and effectiveness. Before making wild accusations about the Church being a contender for “the greatest force for evil,” Dawkins should have learned a bit more about the institution he so passionately hates. Dawkins has the truth exactly backward.
Worldwide, there is probably no institution that is a greater force for good in the world than the Roman Catholic Church.
Most people would agree that care for the poor is good, not evil. Worldwide, and also in the United States, few institutions provide more to help the poor and the needy than the Catholic Church.
The evidence can be found in — and the following quotations in this article are drawn from — the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops document, “The Catholic Church in America: Meeting Real Needs in Your Neighborhood” (available at www.usccb.org/comm/2006CIPFinal.pdf).
For example, in the United States, the Catholic Charities network is the nation’s fourth-largest nonprofit organization, according to The NonProfit Times. The combined revenue of the Catholic Charities network from all sources, public and private, was $2.69 billion in 2000.
Nearly 90 percent of these funds were spent on programs and services, making the Catholic Charities network one of the country’s most efficient charities.
Today, the Catholic Charities network — more than 1,600 local agencies and institutions nationwide — provides help, sometimes with government funding, and create hope regardless of religious, social or economic background, thanks to the dedication of more than 51,000 staff and 175,000 volunteers.
In the United States, in 2003 alone, Catholic Charities provided food for 6,597,998 people; clothing and utilities assistance for 1,521,597 people; emergency shelter for 201,653 people in need, such as victims of domestic abuse and runaways; and various “community building services,” such as care for the elderly, job readiness training and disability services for 3,108,839 people.
When we broaden our perspective to include not just care for the poor in the United States, but care for the poor worldwide, the good done by the institutional Church is immense in its scope, sustained over centuries and profound in its effects on individuals struggling to just survive.
Virtually everyone also agrees that education is a great good for the human person, and education is a good that is greatly fostered by the institutional Church. The Catholic Church sponsors grade schools, high schools and universities throughout the world.
In the United States alone, “the Catholic Church runs the largest network of private schools in the United States. Over 2.5 million students are enrolled in its 6,386 elementary schools and 1,203 high schools.” These schools, particularly grade schools and high schools, have an excellent record of helping minority students to excel academically and escape a life of poverty.
Good for your health
It is obvious also that health is a great human good. People’s lives are enhanced, both in terms of escaping poverty and in terms of control, by means of health care.
Again, the Catholic Church sponsors medical research and hospitals worldwide. “615 Catholic hospitals account for 12.5 percent of community hospitals in the United States, and over 15.5 percent of all U.S. hospital admissions. ... In addition to hospitals, the Catholic health care network also includes 404 health care centers and 1,509 specialized homes.” These services help millions of people worldwide each year regain their health or endure their illness in greater comfort.
‘Force for good’
The Church is a great “force for good” in terms of providing basic services to eliminate poverty, in terms of education, and in terms of health care. The Church’s primary mission, however, is not providing any of these important services. The Church is not primarily a social service organization; it is rather a religious family filled with adopted children of God. This spiritual emphasis itself contributes greatly to people’s well-being. On average, psychologists have found that people who practice their faith report greater happiness than those who do not. Religious involvement is associated with feelings of well-being, positive moods, and greater satisfaction with sex, marriage, work and life in general. Religious involvement is also associated with mental health. It goes along with lower rates of depression, suicide, drug and alcohol abuse, delinquency among teenagers, recidivism in adult criminals, and divorce rates.
In sum, the Catholic Church facilitates the good for human persons not only in the social services that it sponsors, but most especially in its specifically religious practices, such as worship and the proclamation of Jesus’s message of forgiveness, mercy and love for others.
How could Dawkins have missed all the evidence against his view? They say that love is blind, but I believe that hatred is blind. When you hate, you cannot see any good in the object of your wrath. When you hate, you focus exclusively on the faults, errors and weaknesses of your enemy. When you hate, you see the speck in your brother’s eye, but miss the beam in your own. Bigotry is impervious to evidence.
Christopher Kaczor is professor of philosophy at Loyola Marymount University and author of “How to Stay Catholic in College” (Catholic Answers, $1.95).
Catholic Charities USA in 2009 served:
◗ Ten percent more people in food banks, soup kitchens and meal delivery than in the previous year.
◗ Unemployment services to 66,794 people, an increase of about 34 percent from 2007, the start of the current U.S. economic crisis.
Source: The CARA Report, Fall 2010