ARECENTLY released survey of 250,000 college freshmen showed a heartening growth of students' commitment to community service.Compared to 1989, reported UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute, the number of students who had done volunteer work at least once during the previous year is up 10 percent for 1996.Some 38 of the respondents claimed to volunteer once a week.(The study also revealed a significant drop in freshmen's support for abortion rights as well as in their engagement in premarital sexual activity.)
The Church, of course, has always recognized the importance of “putting out” for our neighbor, even as the Reformation took umbrage at the overemphasis on deeds and other strictly-speaking material tokens of faith as guarantees to end up in heaven.
That willingness to help someone in need or the readiness to serve the common good in any other way seems to be characteristic of the American spirit, the hallmark of a people whose identity and self-image were forged as the Founders shook off the yoke of foreign rule and monarchical absolutism. Newt Gingrich and the Republican Congress may have been pushing things to an extreme, but that instinct to keep centralized government power in check is nothing new.
Of course, there is an indispensable role for government at the national and state level.However, Americans, beginning with the early settlers — who, their outlook dictated by the conditions they found themselves in, had few other options — but with essentially undiminished fervor today, believe that the responsibility for their material, physical and emotional well-being rests with themselves to a large extent.
Perhaps nowhere else is this aspect of the American genius so evident as in the 12 Step movement, which got its start with the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous just over 50 years ago, a founding, moreover, in which besides a brand of evangelical Protestantism, Catholic sensibility played no mean part.Today, there is a perhaps a surfeit of self-help programs that take the AA principles as guidelines to overcome addictive behavior, but there is little doubt that for millions physically, mentally and spiritually struggling with alcohol, drugs, tobacco, gambling, food and sexual obsession these simple steps have brought genuine liberation.
Key to the addict/alcoholic's recovery is, first, the development of trust in a loving God, at least, a leap of faith, a surrender, a making amends for the hubris of thinking that restoring order to a chaotic existence is up to the individual; and, second, the willingness to help fellow sufferers in whatever way necessary.Faith without works is dead.Areflection of Christ's ultimate self-emptying, it is the seeming paradox of the addict's newlyfound peace and serenity that he or she can only keep it by giving it away, that their treasure only grows to the extent that it is shared.
In the United States, volunteerism is evident in myriad ways.Again, some form of state intervention is a must, as Catholic social teaching also holds — and Church leaders are rightly concerned at current cutbacks in welfare and other social entitlements, as well as foreign aid — but Americans have always provided much of the protection for life's rougher edges themselves.They do so by working in soup kitchens; by working for social change; by joining any of countless charitable organizations, lodges and, of course, Church-based organizations; by raising funds to combat diseases and help their victims, etc.The list is virtually endless.
Surely, in the long-term, it is that readiness to help neighbor and self that gives the United States an edge in a global community ever more captive to unforgiving competion.The Europeans, by contrast, both in the east, under communism, and the west, with the welfare state, have had the dubious luxury of having the state basically take care of neighbor and self.Not surprisingly, self-help programs like Alcoholics Anonymous have had a slow start among Europeans, a majority of whom simply aren't accustomed or even willing to help themselves, not if there is some state-funded hospital or doctor to look after them.But as economies tighten, the omnipotent, omnipresent state will surely stop functioning as such.
Europeans, their spiritual regeneration so dear to the heart of John Paul II, too must learn, and experience is bound to teach them, that in helping others the American way, they help themselves — and that faith without works is dead.