“CITIZEN SERVICE BELONGS to no party, no ideology,” President Clinton said earlier this year, announcing plans for this month's summit on community service. The President was correct—American people of good will from all walks of life and all parts of the country give freely of their time and energy to help each other. In fact, they revere the volunteer spirit that has always been so much a part of our national heritage. And, for Catholics, that spirit is part of their theological and spiritual heritage as well.

Former President George Bush championed volunteerism when he spoke of the “thousand points of light.” ABC news anchor Peter Jennings often makes an outstanding volunteer the “person of the week.” The Catholic Church also recognizes extraordinary volunteers, often through canonization—Saints Vincent de Paul, John Bosco, and Frances Cabrini to name but a few.

The importance placed on good works goes back to the very beginning, to Jesus himself. In Matthew 25, 31-46, he promised salvation to those who feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, and visit those sick and in prison—the acts are known collectively as the Corporal Works of Mercy—and damnation to those who did not. St. Paul wrote about it several times, as in Romans 2, 6: “[f]or he will render to every man according to his works,” and Galatians 6, 7: “whatever a man sows, that he will also reap.” Perhaps the best known portion of Scripture on this topic comes from James (2, 14-17): “what does it profit … if a man says he has faith but has not works? Can his faith save him?… So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”

Many of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church took up the theme of the importance of good works, and made some significant, and often misunderstood, theological distinctions concerning merit, grace and salvation. The Protestant Reformation was based, in part, on one such misunderstanding. Martin Luther, and other 16th-century Reformation theologians, interpreted the Catholic teaching this way: in order to be brought to God and earn salvation, one must do good works. The Church actually teaches the reverse (as reiterated by the Council of Trent in the 1540s), that it is because of God's grace that we are able to do good works—and we merit salvation only because God has promised it to us.

That remains the Church's teaching. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that: “the merit of good works is to be attributed in the first place to the grace of God, then to the faithful” (2008); and: “[t]he charity of Christ is the source in us of all our merits before God” (2011).

Any discussion of the importance of good works to a life of faith would not be complete without an explanation of what St. Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century called “the virtue of liberality.”

According to Domincan Father Basil Cole, professor at the University of St. Thomas Aquinas (the Angelicum) in Rome, liberality refers not only to the willingness, but to the need humans feel to be generous with each other.

“Volunteerism has to do with the virtue of generosity. To do not only what our strict duties are, but to go beyond that. And generosity first begins with God,” Father Cole explained. “God freely and without compulsion creates and sustains the universe, and then, after the Fall, he voluntarily saves us. This was a free act on the part of God, most fitting in light of his infinite love.

“Everything we possess is ultimately borrowed from God. We have to develop our talents for the glory of God,” Father Cole said. “we have this richness precisely for others. Every human needs others. Somehow we need to share, to give away our talents for the building up of other people.”

Father Cole said people who do good works with love, faith, hope and charity, merit grace for themselves and others and for the Church. “St. Therese of Lisieux said that you can save a soul by picking up a needle,” Father Cole said. “what counts more in the sight of God is the love you put into the deed. We are all called to do ordinary deeds with great motivation … God doesn't call many of us to great deeds.”

These days however, “nothing counts in society unless there is a paycheck attached to it, and that's killing us,” said Msgr. William Smith, acting rector of St. Joseph Seminary (Dunwoodie) in Yonkers, N.Y. “Do you think Jesus was paid?… The whole of Jesus' life is love,” he said. “Love that doesn't come out of itself shouldn't be called love.”

“During Lent, I ask people to give up an hour and a half each week to go volunteer in a literacy program, or visit someone in a nursing home who doesn't have any visitors,” he explained. “That's very important—what you give up, what you give away.”

There is a healing aspect to the act of giving that has been well documented, especially as a component of the 12-Step Program outlined by Alcoholics Anonymous, and also used by many other groups dealing with addictive behavior.

Dominican Father Emmerich Vogt travels around the country and the world giving retreats and missions, borrowing from his positive experiences with the 12-Step Program. He said that coming from an alcoholic family, the steps have helped him grow in a kind of practical wisdom that he wants to share with others.

“The cause of most of our agony is self-centered, “father Vogt said. “we need to learn to die to self and surrender to God.” The problem is that most people do not die to self until they have a serious personal crisis.

“They say that religion is for people who are afraid of hell,” Father Vogt said, “and spirituality is for people who have been there. The first of the 12 steps is admitting that I am powerless. The second is acknowledging that there is a power greater than me—God. The third is surrendering to God,” he said. “And the 12th step is pledging to bring this spiritual awakening to others.” It is that pledge to help others that keeps many recovering alcoholics sober. The treasure of their hard-won serenity grows to the extent that it is shared.

Americans have long been people who help themselves and help their neighbors. American Catholics see those traits for what they really are—faith in action.

Molly Mulqueen is based in Colorado Springs, Colo.