May 19, 2005
by Fr. Robert A. Sirico
The following essay was prepared for a discussion on accountability in philanthropy—part of a series of six discussions entitled "The Dialogues on Civic Philanthropy: Perfecting Our Grants" (2005-2006). By clicking the links to the right, you can access more information on this series, learn about the Dialogues project as a whole, read other prepared essays, and download discussion transcripts.
IN 1891, LEO XII wrote, “No human devices can ever be found to supplant Christian charity.” That remains true today, though we are more confused than ever about what constitutes genuine charity. Many Christians are under the impression that paying taxes suffices to discharge our duties to our neighbors, because the state has undertaken so many activities to care for the well-being of those in need. Others think that charity comes from holding to the type of politics that supports redistribution.
A great danger of all religious ideas is their tendency to be employed for political purposes, a tendency which always introduces an element of distortion. Christian ethics are especially vulnerable to political manipulation. Is it really true that the state is a worthy substitute for voluntary action?
The Christian tradition has a special concern for the poor in its social mission, regarding their status as, in many ways, the primary standard by which a social order must be evaluated. The priority in terms of individual and social charity must be their well being. The need to focus special and unique attention to the poor applies not only in our individual charitable activities but also to the manner in which our societies are organized and the manner in which we use our goods.
Whether we should accumulate personal wealth without regard to the demands of charity, even as others go hungry and homeless, or face up to the moral obligation to exercise charity, is also affected by this teaching. Moreover, this is not a new teaching but one that is intrinsic to the entire social message of the Gospel, emphasized again and again in Christian ethics, most vividly in the encounter between Jesus and the rich man (Mark 10:17-27). It is clear from the whole of scripture and tradition as regards social teaching that the status of the poor is a special concern in the “exercise of Christian charity.”
This phrase, however, has been variously misconstrued to require a particular political agenda, even one with Marxist overtones. A misreading sets the interests of the poor against the rich in a kind of class war that need not exist. In fact, we might think of the requirement to be charitable to the poor as a means of mitigating the appearance of class conflict that disparities of wealth in society—which are an inevitable feature of all social organization—can sometimes create.
The obligation to be charitable is not based on the existence of some fundamental conflict between rich and poor (much less a Marxian-style conflict between the economic aggregates of capital and labor) but is, rather, a means of ameliorating the potential for the appearance of conflict that could end up threatening the security and material well being of all members of society.
In thinking about ways to help the poor, we must consider the costs and benefits of various strategies. If we turn to the government as a response of first resort, particular dangers arise. Government policies can create impersonal bureaucracies with which the poor will be forced to deal, which can be demeaning. In the developing world, politics, and not foreign trade commerce, is a main source of oppression of the poor. Political systems that
Father Sirico is president of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty.
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