Catholics should stop encouraging “community service.”
Community service is a noble concept that obscures and confuses more than it helps. The idea implies that those in need are encountered mainly beyond the ordinary circumstances of every day life. It creates a false dichotomy between ordinary and charitable activity. It excludes all but altruistic motivations and devalues genuine engagement with others.
Catholics don’t believe that community is distinct from ordinary living. Community is primarily the family. This natural truth is supported by the supernatural reality that the original community of persons is the Holy Trinity. Through the family we encounter the every day needs of love which require us to serve one another.
Our tradition provides us with a rich lexicon for this service: the Corporal Works of Mercy and the Spiritual Works of Mercy. Catholics do not serve; we work. Catholics do not merely give; we show mercy. The acts themselves occur ordinarily in family life: feeding, clothing, comforting, instructing, visiting, et al. In other words, the habits of merciful work and engagement occur as a normal part of daily activity, not as an add-on to normal life.
Catholics would do well to stop referring to “community service” altogether, and instead adopt the language of public spiritedness or public life. The only practical distinction between our works of mercy is where they occur and not when. This language also has an added benefit: it expands our political engagement beyond that of sound-bite politics. If we’re not careful, we can bifurcate charity into “welfare” and “private support” when what we really mean is “government run” or not. Anyone who enters the polis does so in order to engage in the public life. Ceding this territory with terms like “community service” only further erodes the natural checks on overreach that is common to power.
And to think, it all starts in the family.