We can further divide our "social action" efforts into categories like justice education, which includes the study of Catholic social doctrine as well as analysis of the causes of social ills, advocacy, which involves speaking out on behalf of those who have no voice or power, and empowerment, which "helps people help themselves." So, if direct service is about giving someone a fish, justice education means learning that Jesus wanted everyone to be fed and asking if there are enough fish to go around in the first place and if so why some aren't getting their share, advocacy means letting those who control the fish market know that the system is unfair, and empowerment is (you guessed it) teaching people to fish for themselves.
The fact is, however, that today the overwhelming proportion of the Church's social efforts seem to be in the area of direct service, with the exception of advocacy on abortion and sexuality issues and empowerment in the form of schools. When it comes to poverty, we have lots of food pantries and soup kitchens, but not a lot of lobbying of Congress, calls for a more compassionate economy, or organizing of the poor and working class to obtain the power and influence of the special interests who currently make the economic rules. Yet Dom Helder Camara, former archbishop of Recife, once suggested: "In the war against injustice, 80% of our time must be devoted to changing social structures and promoting human advancement; but 20% must be set aside for tending the wounded and the victims of war." When and why did we decide that "changing structures" is unworthy of 20% of our time, let alone 80%?
Fr. Dehon, of course, did it all. He not only promoted charitable assistance and ran schools, but organized workers and farmers, challenged business owners and government officials, and studied and took positions on the big, complex, often divisive and seemingly overwhelming issues of his day. Moreover, he assessed that many "direct service" efforts of the church of his day and concluded, "we gather up the pieces of wreckage, but we don't prevent the ship from taking on water." Elsewhere, he wrote that "charity is a palliative which is always welcome and often necessary; but it does not attack the root of the evil."
If we were to examine the various ministries of our apostolates in the US today, how would we classify them in terms of direct service, justice education, advocacy and empowerment? What percentage of our efforts are focused on "changing structures," and how might we respond to Dom Helder's challenge?