It it more noble to volunteer for secular work or for church work?

By Paul Dion, STL

Welcome to the United States, the volunteer capital of the world. Statistics tell us that there are more volunteers per capita in this country than in any other country in the world. Volunteerism is a dynamic part of our culture. It seems that each and every one of us volunteers for something.

As you read this, you are perhaps saying, "I don't."

Really now? Are you sure? Before you go to bed tonight, examine your conscience and I am willing to say without fear, that somewhere in your life there is a cause for which you dedicate some of your precious personal time.Would you like a little help with your examination of conscience concerning this matter?

Sure you do. Here goes:

Are you the favorite baby sitter in your family/extended family? Are you the one who has the knack of caring for the sick, young and old, so you get called a lot? Are you the one who is always cleaning the house along with the housewife after parties? Are you the designated driver of the old person down the street when it is time to do the weekly shopping? Are you the one poll worker who is always there at every election? Are you the one who still has three space heaters stored in the garage waiting for your friends to claim them back? Are you getting exasperated with these silly questions? Say, "yes."

I haven't mentioned the real professional volunteer yet, but I don't think I have to because we all know one or more of those. You, dear reader are perhaps one of them.

I will only take a passing swing at some of the things that volunteers do in this sweet homeland of ours: Blood bank workers, catechists, church cleaners, Red Cross workers, readers for the blind, tutors for children with special needs, Girl Scout troup leaders and Boy Scouts too, church community leaders of all stripes and colors...I don't have to continue.

It is generally conceded that volunteering is a good thing. It falls well into the call of God through St. Matthew, chapter 25, to "feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the prisoners..." etc.

The burning question is; "Is it more noble to volunteer for the benefit of secular communities, like hospitals, city halls and such. Or is it better to volunteer for Church work, like teaching catechism, reading the Scripture at Mass, carrying communion to the sick, etc.?"

What do you think? Share your thoughts with the community.


  1. God give us blessings and talents to share and we use them to help other.many times we do charities and volunteer, but for me the bigest gift we can give to others is to pray for others and to be a good example to bring them closer
    to our creator

  2. Anonymous6:10 PM

    I've been a part of a service branch of a Young Adult Catholic Group and this is a question we struggle with. It has been argued that we need to "only" focus on "church work" and not secular work.

    My personal feel is that secular work that (1) does good, (2) is done with love and (3) when the participant prays for the intercession of the Holy Spirit is still work done in His name and thereby should not be discounted. Important to note is that implicit to my point is how prayer needs to be a central component of the work. I do however believe that a good practicing christian needs to do work specifically geared toward building the Kingdom.

    Speaking directly to the points above I truly emphasize with those who are in Rotary or other generally good groups who's organizations have ties to abortion or "population control" groups. As a cyclist and triathlete this question often comes up with MS150.

    The stance I have come to is that I respect those who are practicing Catholics who participate in these groups because I know they do it for the good the groups want to accomplish and cannot be held responsible for the organizations ties at a national or international level. Judging these people goes against the faith. Judging the ACTIONS of the organization is not.

  3. David De Luna6:11 PM

    I think it's a matter of priorities and of applying your gifts. With the little free time I have, is my time better spent teaching RCIA, or filling Thanksgiving baskets at the St. Vincent de Paul? For me, I'll do both, but more time teaching RCIA (something I love and am good at), and less time feeding the hungry (something my heart and Scripture calls me to). Because of my faith, I'll always lean more heavily toward Church work. Doing that, I know I can't go wrong in terms of responding to the call of Christ.

  4. Deacon Simon11:28 PM

    In a word No. There are many gifts but only the one spirit. What is most important is our spiritual motivation, if we act with right motivation then what ever we do will be right. The spirit always motivates us to do right. And if you are a speaker speak as God would speak and if you are a helper help as God would help. God loves everyone, those in Church, those not going to church, those of a different faith and even those of no faith therefore God want us to help all - without discrimination or sselection. Now that is not an easy thing to do but thankfully we are a catholic - universal - church and so we should all assist in whatever way we can and what ever that is we all take Christ with us, some in communion, some in his word, some in our actions and some in his spirit.

  5. Molly5:30 PM

    I think it's important to do both. As Catholics we can witness to others in our local communities by volunteering in secular areas. In order for our parishes to be vibrant places of worship and strong faith communities, it's critical for us to get involved there as well. Most people have limited time for volunteer activities; one way I like to prioritize is by what organization has the most difficulty securing support. For instance, the pro-life community is small in comparison to a cancer support organization. While I think both are worthy causes the largest percentage of my time goes to the pro-life community since they have a smaller base of supporters. I support these efforts in my parish and in the secular world. I apply this principle to most efforts that require my limited time and financial resources. I usually opt for supporting the "little guy" who may derive proportionally greater benefit from my time and financial resources.

  6. Great question. Right now, I'm doing both, volunteering for Catholic Charities as well as the Atlanta Community Food Bank. I think it's important to support Catholic agencies, as they do a great job and others in the community can see their work. Plus, there are plenty of people within all of our parishes who are in need. But, for me, it is also important to 'go and sojourn in the world'. I don't think you have to necessarily need to alternate between between Catholic and secular on a regular basis, either. For years, I volunteered with RCIA, then spent a couple years volunteering at the Food Bank. Now I alternate between both Catholic and secular.

    An interesting story- Ricardo Bailey grew up in Atlanta and his mom attended a local AME Church. However, when she saw all of the Catholic Nuns attending to the needs of the homeless, she told Ricardo that those nuns understood what it truly meant to be a Christian. She converted to Catholicism and Ricardo Bailey became the first African American at St. Thomas More Catholic School in Atlanta. Years later, he became the first African American priest in Atlanta. It wouldn't have happenned if those nuns didn't care for all people. Now he takes care of his own as well as speaks on a local secular radio show on a weekly basis, reaching thousands of people in a secular audience.

    That being said, taking care of our own is a very good thing. Many of my friends are Greek Orthodox and I have always admired how they have taken care of their own.

  7. And there is much to take care of. Over the last 6 months, I began relinquishing my secular volunteer responsibilities in favor of volunteering for Catholic causes.

  8. To me, any service in the help of another individual qualifies, be it secular or religious.

  9. Chris8:14 AM

    For those who are arguing that Catholics should donate 100% of their charitable work within the Church, I offer this to ponder:

    "Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do." Mark 2:17 NAB.

    If a secular or non-Catholic institution is doing work that is close to your heart and in keeping with Church teaching, then one should feel free to give to it. Organizations that support the culture of death, as Rotary seems to do, are obviously not to be supported. But here in Detroit, a Lutheran organization is leading the way in the prevention of teen suicide. They're doing good work, and they're effective. They merit my support in spite of that annoying Wittenberg incident.

  10. Anonymous8:18 AM

    Good question. On the surface the tendency might be to answer "Church work" as there is certainly need there. On the other hand, working in more "secular" groups is an opportunity to be a witness to Christ as well. To me it has never been an "either or" choice, but rather carefully praying where God would have me use His gifts. The only exception to working in the secular world I would offer is caution on getting involved in groups whose mission or work is contrary to Church Teaching.

  11. David2:42 PM

    Excellent comments. I think the key variable is not the place of service, but the love with which the service is performed.

    "Where there is not love, put love, and you will find love." -St. John of the Cross

  12. Peter3:46 PM

    I don't really know but the idea of volunteering in some capacity is weighing on my heart right now. One thing to keep in mind is that Jesus did preach to the least among the people, such as tax collectors and thieves.

  13. Donald2:48 PM

    I hope you do not mind if I broaden your question a little. Does volunteering at church or secular count towards the time/talent and treasure in the church. Thus if I devote time to volunteer, church or secular, does that mean I can cut back on my treasure to the church? We have been told by our deacon that is OK.

  14. Don, I once had a priest describe it as a three-legged stool that supports the Church--take away any one of the three and the stool (Church) falls over. That being said, I would think this has to be one of those issues of personal prayer and discernment. Giving--time, talent and treasure--is supposed to be sacrificial--it's supposed to hurt a bit. That being said, I think if one is curtailing in any one of those areas, it has to be in order for a greater good, for example, in these hard economic times, if it comes down to groceries or cutting back on donation (it should still be something, after all Jesus tells of the widow giving her two mites, all she had) one has to take care of one's family. Maybe in doing so, you will be able to give more time or talent and that is certainly valuable too.

    I think, and I hope your deacon was not suggesting it as such, that the balance between the three can not be answered in a blanket statement and really depends on the state of one's heart and intent.

  15. How fitting that Pope Benedict XVI just finished saying that the faith is not an intellectual exercise. Our relationship with Christ through the Church is not a mathematical exercise. I like Tom's comment.

    Paul Dion, STL Theology Editor

  16. Chris:
    Ah, that embarrassing Wittenberg incident, nails in the Cathedral door and all. May it not interfere with your generous support of the community who helps to prevent teen suicide...a holy mission indeed.

    Paul Dion, STL Theology Editor