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Catholic Charity

We have all heard the bill of particulars that critics of Catholicism typically bring against the Church: She obstructed the sciences, opposed the spread of knowledge, and generally retarded the progress of civilization. These complaints are as unfounded as they are common, and the past several years have seen the publication of a number of books replying to them, including Rodney Stark’s The Victory of Reason, Robert Royal’s The God that Did Not Fail, and my own How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization.

One of the few bright spots in Church history that even her most prejudiced opponents will concede, however, involves Catholic charity. Reasonable people acknowledge the extraordinary array of Catholic efforts to bring relief to the suffering all over the world. Indeed it would be difficult not to, what with the global reach of Catholic charitable institutions, and the vivid example of Bl. Teresa of Calcutta.

A New Way of Giving

Catholic charity was indeed something new under the sun, but not simply because in the early centuries of the Church the Western world had for the first time an institutionalized system for the care of widows, orphans, the sick, and the poor. Just as important as the sheer volume of Catholic charity was the qualitative difference that separated the Church’s charity from what had preceded it. Certainly some noble sentiments were voiced by the great ancient philosophers when it came to philanthropy, and men of wealth made impressive and substantial voluntary contributions to their communities. The wealthy were expected to finance baths, public buildings, and all manner of public entertainment: Pliny the Younger was far from alone in endowing his home town with a school and a library. Yet for all these good deeds, the spirit of giving in the ancient world was deficient when set against that of the Church.

Most ancient giving was self-interested rather than purely gratuitous. The buildings that the wealthy financed featured their own names in prominent display. Donors gave what they did either to put the recipients in their debt or to call attention to themselves and their great liberality. The idea that those in need were to be served with a cheerful heart and provided for without thought of reward or reciprocity would have made no sense to people reared in the ancient tradition.

Stoicism, a school of thought dating back to around 300 B.C. that was still alive and well in the early centuries of the Christian era, is sometimes cited as a pre-Christian line of thought that did recommend doing good to one’s fellow man without expecting anything in return.

To be sure, the Stoics did teach that the good man was a citizen of the world who enjoyed a spirit of fraternity with all men. For that reason they appear to have been messengers of charity. But they also taught the suppression of feeling and emotion as things unbecoming of a man. Man should be utterly unperturbed by outside events, even of the most tragic kind. He must possess a self-mastery so strong as to be able to face the worst catastrophe in a spirit of absolute indifference. In this spirit, the wise man should assist the less fortunate. He served not as one who shared the grief and sorrow of those he helped, but in the disinterested and emotionless spirit of one who is simply discharging his duty. Thus Seneca could write:

The sage will console those who weep, but without weeping with them; he will succor the shipwrecked, give hospitality to the proscribed, and alms to the poor, . . . restore the son to the mother’s tears, save the captive from the arena, and even bury the criminal; but in all his mind and his countenance will be alike untroubled. He will feel no pity. He will succor, he will do good, for he is born to assist his fellows, to labor for the welfare of mankind, and to offer each one his part. . . . His countenance and his soul will betray no emotion as he looks upon the withered legs, the tattered rags, the bent and emaciated frame of the beggar. But he will help those who are worthy, and, like the gods, his leaning will be towards the wretched. . . . It is only diseased eyes that grow moist in beholding tears in other eyes. (De Clementia 2.6-7)

Some of the harshness of earlier Stoicism began to dissolve during the early centuries of Christianity. But the ruthless suppression of emotion and feeling that characterized this school had taken its toll. It was certainly alien to human nature in its refusal to acknowledge such an important dimension of what it means to be human. We recoil from such examples of Stoicism as Anaxagoras, a man who upon learning of his son’s death merely remarked, “I never supposed that I had begotten an immortal.”

It was only natural that men so insulated from the reality of evil would be slow to alleviate its effects on their fellow men. “Men who refused to recognize pain and sickness as evils,” notes one observer, “were scarcely likely to be very eager to relieve them in others” (W.E.H. Lecky, History of European Morals from Augustus to Charlemagne, 1.202). The ancients had a tradition of good deeds without the love that he Church tells us must motivate them.

Cold Comfort Not Enough

Moving ahead to American Progressive Era of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, we encounter the scientific charity movement, which sought to replace what it considered the disorganized and haphazard nature of existing charitable work with a more systematic approach to helping the less fortunate. In addition to relieving material want, it would try to uncover the underlying reasons behind a particular family’s destitution. Catholics at the time did not oppose scientific charity root and branch, and saw in it a potentially useful tool for alleviating suffering. Some even argued that scientific charity—like so many useful advances misleadingly described as “modern”—had actually been anticipated by the Church, in this case in the work of St. John Francis Regis (1597-1640) and St. Vincent de Paul (1581-1660). But they were concerned that in secular hands scientific charity could grow cold and clinical, with its science overpowering its charity. It could, in short, wind up as emotionless Stoicism all over again.

Such an outcome could not be more remote from the spirit of Catholic charity. A student wrote to Msgr. John J. Burke, who headed the National Catholic School of Social Service (which later merged with the School of Social Service at the Catholic University of America), to thank him for the supernatural dimension of his teaching, which she considered indispensable to good social work:

We have realized how favored we are in having your wealth of spiritual thought unfolded so generously, and if we, as Catholics, are to do any worthwhile social service, surely that is the side we should stress—there are many humanitarians better equipped than some of us, if that were the one thing necessary. (Rose Ferguson, Burke Papers, 1923)

Pope Benedict XVI reaffirmed this point in his encyclical Deus Caritas Est:

Yet, while professional competence is a primary, fundamental requirement, it is not of itself sufficient. We are dealing with human beings, and human beings always need something more than technically proper care. They need humanity. They need heartfelt concern. . . . [The Church’s] charity workers need a “formation of the heart”: They need to be led to that encounter with God in Christ which awakens their love and opens their spirits to others. As a result, love of neighbor will no longer be for them a commandment imposed, so to speak, from without, but a consequence deriving from their faith, a faith which becomes active through love (cf. Gal. 5:6). (31)

Another Catholic fear was that “science” that lacked any foundation in Church teaching could lead to morally disastrous advice for the poor people involved. “For what appears to be a temporal advantage,” warned Fr. Paul Blakely, assistant editor of America, the secular social worker “will counsel conscious birth restriction, sterilization, marriages forbidden by the Church, divorce, or legal remarriage after divorce” (America, May 16, 1916). Msgr. Burke agreed: “The cult of the intellectual alone, that is, the intellectual untempered by any spiritual sense, leads to the irrational, and the morally disastrous” (Burke Papers).

Charity Transcends Welfare

Now, generations later, Pope Benedict seeks to correct the spirit of some Christian charitable work on the same grounds that Catholics in the Progressive Era warned of the secular social work of their own day: “It is time to reaffirm the importance of prayer in the face of the activism and the growing secularism of many Christians engaged in charitable work” (Deus Caritas Est, 37). No wonder Mother Teresa once said of her Missionaries of Charity, “We are not social workers.”

The charitable work of the Church, the Pope explains,

Does not simply offer people material help, but refreshment and care for their souls, something which often is even more necessary than material support. In the end, the claim that just social structures would make works of charity superfluous masks a materialist conception of man: the mistaken notion that man can live “by bread alone” (Matt. 4:4; cf. Deut. 8:3)—a conviction that demeans man and ultimately disregards all that is specifically human. (DCE, 28)

“Charity,” Benedict writes, “is not a kind of welfare activity which could equally well be left to others, but is a part of [the Church’s] nature, an indispensable expression of her very being” (DCE, 25). Charity informed by the sacramental life of the Church gives us an indispensable ingredient as we seek to help others: “Seeing with the eyes of Christ, I can give to others much more than their outward necessities; I can give them the look of love which they crave” (DCE, 18).

As Pope Benedict reminds us, those who would have all welfare functions centralized in a remote government bureaucracy defy the Church’s emphasis on subsidiarity—that the tasks of civil society should be carried out by the most local unit possible. “The state which would provide everything, absorbing everything into itself,” he explains,

Would ultimately become a mere bureaucracy incapable of guaranteeing the very thing which the suffering person—every person—needs: namely, loving personal concern. We do not need a state which regulates and controls everything, but a state which, in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity, generously acknowledges and supports initiatives arising from the different social forces and combines spontaneity with closeness to those in need. (DCE, 28)

“The greatest of these is charity,” said St. Paul (1 Cor. 13:13) of the three theological virtues. Charity, which urges us to love others for God’s sake, can truly perform miracles. It is a safe bet that more souls in AIDS hospices have been converted by observing the kindness and selflessness of the nuns they encountered there than by didactic treatises or contentious debate. This is precisely the message of Pope Benedict: “The best defense of God and man consists precisely in love. It is the responsibility of the Church’s charitable organizations to reinforce this awareness in their members, so that by their activity—as well as their words, their silence, their example—they may be credible witnesses to Christ” (DCE, 31).

Truer words have rarely been spoken.


Holy and Efficient

In the early twentieth century, Catholics responding to the “scientific charity” movement pointed to the efficiency of their own system of charitable activity, which was motivated by supernatural concerns. Msgr. John Burke, who headed the National Catholic Welfare Council, explained that Catholics’ belief in the immortality of the soul and the intrinsic worth of human life infused them with a zeal for the service of their fellow man. “In such an individual,” he wrote, “the whole meaning of life deepens, and deepens with an intensity that never reaches its limit. . . . His task is to perfect himself, and an essential element of that perfection is the dedication of himself and what he possesses to his fellow men” (Address to National Council of Catholic Men). Msgr. John Ryan, the great scholar of Catholic social doctrine, added that a religious motive in charitable work was “a much more effective motive than love of the neighbor for his own sake or for the sake of society; for the human being in distress assumes a much greater value when he is thought of in relation to God” (Social Doctrine in Action, 97).

Catholics also reminded their fellow Americans of the examples of St. John Francis Regis, whose organization and statistical methods anticipated modern scientific charity, and of St. Vincent de Paul, who did likewise. According to the Catholic World, the monthly publication of the Paulist Fathers, “the most representative of Catholic social workers [St. Vincent de Paul] was as thoroughly ‘scientific,’ and infinitely more successful in charity organization than the best of modern secular philanthropists” (June 1916, 299). The St. Vincent de Paul Society, founded in 1833, expanded on St. Vincent’s work, and sought to assist indigent families through such “scientific” practices as individual investigation of reported cases, personal visits to the poor in their homes, strict record-keeping, and attempts to uncover the ultimate causes of their deprivation.

“If American sociologists would only wipe away a certain mist of prejudice from their mental vision,” wrote America magazine in 1915, “perchance they would find that the solution which they seek has been in the world for two thousand years and is even now under their very noses” (May 1, 1915, 58).

Further Reading

The Church Confronts Modernity by Thomas E. Woods, Jr. (Columbia University)

How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization by Thomas E. Woods, Jr. (Regnery)

Sisters: Catholic Nuns and the Making of America by John Fialka (St. Martin’s Griffin)

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