The quasi-religious movement called activism in the U.S. raises some serious issues for Catholics. Concern starts with what Catholics ought to expect from institutions in society. Fundamentally: “Human institutions, both private and public, must labor to minister to the dignity and purpose of man.” (Vatican II) This can apply to businesses, governments, NGOs, colleges, and churches. All of these have to follow this principle to serve the common good. Consequently, there would be no objections if activists were to promote man’s dignity and purpose.
It is worth noting that Vatican II devoted a whole chapter in the Constitution on the Church in the Modern World to the Dignity of the Human Person. Given the lack of attention to the teachings of Vatican II in the U.S., that chapter is a worthy place to start, especially when deciding into which causes one throws oneself.
From another perspective, there is the mindset that says, “practically every sin is [considered] a social sin, in the sense that blame for it is to be placed not so much on the moral conscience of an individual, but rather on some vague entity or anonymous collectivity such as the situation, the system, society, structures or institutions.” (John Paul II) People can lose sight of the fact that it is individuals who sin, even if their sins get amplified by institutional processes. Activism at this level loses sight of individuals and their dignity, which still have to be respected. It tries to deal with people in arbitrary groups when they rarely even know the basic features of the group. Of course, treating people as part of a group is fundamentally flawed, as John Paul II explained.
Activism that is structured this way begins to lose its shine. It turns into a noisy powerplay advancing flawed ideas of what it means to be a human being which is not what Catholics do. Catholics are told to advance accurate anthropology and not get caught up with ersatz concepts of human beings. At this point, we are beginning to see what Catholic activism might look like. It relies on the anthropology and sociology found in Divine Revelation. That is what makes Catholic activism unique and superior.
Importantly Catholics “do this not for ulterior motives or hidden interests. since it has none but ‘out of a humanitarian concern,’ it places its institutional structure and moral authority, which are altogether unique, at the service of concord and peace.” (John Paul II) The hidden interests show secular activism in its true light. In contrast, Catholic activism has transcendent values.
The mention of concord and peace raises yet another point: that much secular activism is violent and destructive. It appeals to the lesser angels of our nature. This is just another aspect of the violent side of secular activism.
The particular violence of some activist trends is the violence they do to the truth. They don’t see themselves necessarily as passers-on of truth.
There is more, and again it is not something that would be found in the knowledge base of many Catholics. The prayer at the end of the Office for Morning Prayer on the Monday of the Fourth Week says: “Father, may everything we do begin with your inspiration and continue with your saving help. Let our work always find its origin in you and through you reach completion.” This is the prayer of the faithful, those who are not stirred by rage, revenge, or just the urge to cause mayhem. This is the prayer of the one who lives from grace, the only way to serve the entire common good.
This means that the Catholic activist is really God’s activist. One’s inspiration does not start in one’s own culturally conditioned spirit but rather in the mind of the One who wishes the particular good of each person. The activist does not try to bring about what they would like to happen. Of themselves, activists simply do not know enough to achieve the best good for those they focus on. Catholic activists have the humility to know this.
Catholic morality sets the bar high. The Church is only here for the ultimate good of all. Those baptized into the Church are agents of that will to good and the supernatural power that goes along with it.
When these standards are consistently applied then, aside from all of the other positive effects in society, then the activist Catholics feed into the culture, “a more critical ability to distinguish religion from a magical view of the world and from the superstitions which still circulate purifies it and exacts day by day a more personal and explicit adherence to faith.” (Vatican II) Given the massive number of Catholics in the U.S., many problems could be sorted out in the culture.