2 Ways Catholic Charity is Bizarrely Unlike American Charity

Catholics are called to love the poor in a fundamentally different way than Americans. For our culture, charity towards the needy is a kind thing to do, a worthwhile, fulfilling enterprise that a person should be lauded for engaging in. Love of the poor, in short, is a noble addition to a good, moral, and meaningful life.

The Church, on the other hand, is drastic in her demand that we love, love and love the poor. The Catechism of the Catholic Church — that beautiful summation of the truth of all existence — says that “those who are oppressed by poverty are the object of a preferential love on the part of the Church…” (CCC 2448) To be absolutely clear, preference is “the selecting of someone or something over another or others.” The poor, then, are the object of the Church’s love over the Church’s love for others.

The meaty implication is as follows: If the Church’s love for the poor is a preferential love, then we who claim communion with the Catholic Church are similarly obliged to develop a preferential love of the poor. If this freaks us out — for it freaked me ever-so-slightly — it may be because we live in a culture that associates love with equality. Surely to love everyone means to treat everyone identically, to grant them all an equal response of goodwill? How then, are we to love one group of people more than another?

Love as equality, while cute, is false. To love a person is to desire his good. The good for some people is not the same as the good for others. To love an introvert may mean to leave him alone, but this is not the same good proper to the extrovert. Since love is personal, and persons are unique, love is unequal.

St. Thomas Aquinas argues this in regards to God’s love for us. God loves everyone with equal “intensity,” sure, for he loves each of us infinitely. In the language of Aquinas, “He loves all things by an act of the will that is one, simple, and always the same.” And so we should everyone with equal fervor. However, since “to love” is “to will the good for another,” Aquinas goes on to say that “God loves some things more than others. For since God’s love is the cause of goodness in things…no one thing would be better than another, if God did not will greater good for one than for another.” (Summa, First Part, Question 20, Article 3) God loves each of us completely, willing for us the good which fulfills us personally. This does not mean that he loves us equally, for he may will a greater good for you than me.

Obviously, this is radically different than our culture’s blanket conception of love, which usually amounts to a general good feeling towards all people, instead of a personal willing of the good for that particular, unrepeatable old lady at the barber’s shop. The latter is the love commanded by Christ, when he told us to “love our neighbor.” Christian love is not leveling of differences that results in equality. It is precisely a love of people with all their differences, and is thus an unequal love, proper to unequal people.

So we arrive back at the point. The Church loves the poor with a preferential love. The good we should desire for them is a greater good than that which we desire for others. (This is obviously connected to the lack of due goods those oppressed by poverty may have — we must desire greater and more goods for the poor than we desire for those who are already secure in material and spiritual goods.) So the first difference between the Church and the culture is that what the culture claims is a good “addition” to life, or just another way of loving, the Church claims as a priority and a love above other loves.

Christ in the breadline

The second difference between American charity and Catholic charity is in their attitudes towards giving to the poor. I think there are three primary American attitudes at play here. The first is that of the fictionist Ayn Rand — all giving to the poor is evil, for it creates dependency and stifles the human person’s ability to achieve, earn, and succeed for himself. The second attitude is that giving is an option — do it or don’t, but there is no obligation to give. The third is that giving to the poor is an obligation — for we are all called — perhaps by Jesus, perhaps by a love for humanity — to give to our brothers and sisters in need. This is the typical source of American generosity.

The Church transcends all these attitudes. The Catechism quotes St. John Chrysostom, who says “Not to enable the poor to share in our goods is to steal from them and deprive them of life. The goods we possess are not ours, but theirs.” (CCC 2446) Giving to the poor is not an evil, nor an option, nor even an act of charity, kindness or generosity. It is an act of justice. To be just to another person is to give them what is their due. It is not just a kindness, an act of generosity or even an act of mercy to provide the homeless with homes, the hungry with food, the needy with money, the lonely with conversation and the spiritually impoverished with evangelization — no, these things are owed to the human person by his very nature as a child of God. To know a person lacks these due goods is to owe them to that person. “When we attend to the needs of those in want, we give them what is theirs, not ours. More than performing works of mercy, we are paying a debt of justice.” (CCC 2446)

The Catholic must give to the poor, and this obligation transcends the typical, American Christian sense of obligation, for the Catholic steals if he does not give. This fact — that giving is justice, not giving an injustice — does not separate giving from love. For love is the source of all virtues. To truly love some one is to be just to them, for love views the object of love in the entirety of his person — and this includes the goods owed to him.

So give like a Catholic. And remember the immortal words of Peter Maurin, co-founder with Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker Movement:

People who are in need
and are not afraid to beg
give to people who do not need
the occasion to do good
for goodness’ sake.
Modern society calls the beggar
bum and panhandler
and gives him the bum’s rush.
But the Greeks used to say
that people in need
are the ambassadors of the gods.
Although you may be called
bums and panhandlers
you are in fact the Ambassadors of God.
As God’s Ambassadors
you should be given food,
clothing and shelter
by those who are able to give it.

How to Kill a Community: Lessons From Mediocre Rappers
Gratitude as Felt Poverty
Selling Our Sins
Ignoring Jesus 101
  • Frederick

    Applied Christian and or Catholic charity 101:

    Plus why not Google
    Columbus & Other Cannibals by Jack Forbes

    • Mr. Kruse

      Irrational conflation in a polemical package. To be Christian or Catholic charity, your examples would have to correspond with consistent Church teaching and values as opposed to the cultural values of a people in a specific place and time. This is a logic fail. You might as well induce the conclusion that right-handed people are tyrants as right-handed tyrants can be found throughout history (Napoleon even kept his tyrant hand warm). Nonsense – please be rational, academic, and respectful when refuting a point. You will be laughed at far less.

    • wineinthewater

      You reference a site that gets such fundamental facts of history such as whether Tertullian was a bishop wrong. Arguments underpinned by embarrassingly elementary errors of fact reflect very poorly on those who regurgitate them.

  • KM

    *slow clap*

    • K C Sunbeam

      Not so fast!
      The Church is better than secular people who help the poor, by addressing some spiritual aspects.
      But the Church still craps out when dealing with the social and fellowship needs of singles who aren’t priests, monks, or nuns.
      Singles are abandoned like bags of garbage.
      ———-The writer K. C. Sunbeam
      I implore you to read my book and comment

  • Patrick

    True love I believe, is to insure that the benefactor receiving the love is not to give what would prevent or distort the commandment given by Jesus Love your neighbor as yourself.which taken as it is to be ,Love God above anything or anyone ensuring the True intention of love pointing the recipient to God and Eternal happiness in Heaven .The Mystical Body of Christ

  • Neal

    “But he’s just going to spend that money on Booze” or “it’s a scam, don’t give”

    I hear this all the time when I give a bum a dollar.

    The way I see it, God will judge me by the extent I loved, not by how shrewd I was.

    • chrisinva

      Good point, and good judgment must be applied on each particular occasion.

      Many soup kitchens and food pantries interview their clients to assure the maximum impact of their limited supplies. And prudence does suggest (and studies often demonstrate) that giving cash to some persons will only supply their alcohol or drug habits.

      Prudence and charity go hand in hand. The worst possible place to put “charitable” money is the federal government. It’s not charity (taxes are mandatory, not voluntary; and governments can’t love), most of the money goes to salaries and expenses, not to the poor, and (perhaps worst of all), many of the programs are so out of control that they don’t work – encouraging permanent dependency, for instance, and even antisocial consequences (illegitimacy, abortion, fatherless homes, and crime).

  • Pofarmer

    Have you ever thought about writing a post that doesn’t amount to “We’re better than you because…..”? The arrogance is astounding.

    • Cat 09

      It’s because he speaks truth, and let’s be perfectly honest here true Catholics are the best:)

      *artificial arrogance may or may not have been included in this comment.

  • ajpwriter

    My mind always wants to up chuck this teaching, because while I can see the spiritual value of charity, I balk at being told that what is mine belongs to another. Obviously ownership is temporary, but the logic that tells me I must give out of justice is quite capable of telling another he may – must, even – take out of justice. See all tyrants ever for further elucidation.

    • Scott Hebert

      No, it is not justice for the poor to steal from the rich. It is even less just for someone who is not poor to steal from anyone.

      Justice is not about ‘fairness’. And only an argument from ‘fairness’ can say that anyone is ‘owed’ anything.

      As a Catholic, I have a duty to aid the poor, as is so well explained above. I may or may not fail that duty. However, the fact that this duty exists does not mean that what is ‘mine’ is anyone else’s but mine. After all, I must give what is ‘mine’ to the poor. That is the exact source of the virtue, the recognition that what is ‘mine’ is only mine ‘conditionally’ or ‘contingent’ on my gifts. If someone else receives what is mine, even if it is only conditionally mine, by any other method, the action is not virtuous on my part, and is actively unvirtuous on the other’s part.

  • Caroline M.

    By saying “he will just spend it on booze,” you are saying that you know exactly what’s in his heart. It’s amazing how quick we are to judge those who are down and out. Here’s a thought: sit next to them and ask them their story. You might be surprised; and most of them need to be listened to just like they need the $. Not all our needs are physical.

  • Marta L.

    I certainly agree that this is a good way to approach charitable giving. I don’t see it as a specifically Catholic thing; the Methodist (my own denomination) emphasis on stewardship and a recognition that all good things, including our ability to work and our talents, are gifts from God that we are called to use to help one another, particularly those who need it most. I also see it reflected in Rawlsian liberalism, although there it’s the worth as a rational agent rather than a child of God that compels me to act in a way that benefits everyone and particularly the least well-off.

    I guess I don’t see what you gain by identifying this particularly with Catholocism. The RCC has a particularly rich way of describing this (I loved the Aquinas), but other traditions, including some that aren’t explicitly religious, take this same approach.

  • TheodoreSeeber

    For the libertarian- Charity is voluntary.

    For the Catholic, Charity is a Duty, a tax imposed upon us by Heaven, and the man who will not pay that tax is not a good citizen of Heaven or Caesar.

    • Bronxreader

      For the libertarian minded, charity is a private virue that a Catholic should be left free to practice in accordance with the catechism. Charity is voluntary only in the sense the government has no business compelling it. So you can be Catholic and Libertarian. Caesar has nothing to do with it. Caesar takes the property of the private citizen and uses it for Caesar’s ends. A libertarian Catholic uses his property in accordance with the virtue of justice in fulfillment of his duty of charity to his brother as this article lucidly explains.

      • TheodoreSeeber

        Except, of course, the primary rule of Libertarian Charity is Enlightened Selfishness: I have no duty to help anybody other than my own family and friends.

    • Marta L.

      It’s important to think through what we mean by voluntary and duty. Libertarians, at least the philosophical founders like Robert Nozick, were essentially Kantians. They were interested in respecting freedom and the ability of people to make their own uncoerced choices. They might recognize hey had a moral duty to do something, but they still had to be free to pursue it… or not. Libertarianism is less about being compelled by duty and morality, and more about the fact it’s your choice driving hings, not external requirements like the law.

      • TheodoreSeeber

        I know myself far too well for that. If it was only my choice driving things, my choice would be to live in a 10x10x8 room with a TV set, a computer, and food delivery service, entirely on credit and welfare.

        Luckily, I have the Church to inform me how evil that is.

        • Marta L.

          Really? I live in a working-poor neighborhood where many of my neighbors do rely on government services, and that seems to me not a very realistic picture of either human nature or the realities of life on government assistance. For instance, at least where I live (admittedly in an expensive city) welfare isn’t nearly enough to live on – it’s just enough to make a low-wage job livable. And most people I know on welfare would love to not need it. The problem is lack of decent jobs, not lack of a work ethic.

          As for psychology… humans are naturally driven to want to create and do good work, and also improve their own situation. If the options for work are not enticing enough that people would pursue them rather than that squalid lifestyle, that’s a real failure of the culture to offer good work. If I could live off of welfare and credit (which I couldn’t) and I had the choice between that and manning a counter at McDonald’s I might indeed choose the first option. But if I didn’t need the paycheck I’d teach for free because it’s good work that lets me make a difference. It’s a shame on all our heads that more people don’t have access to meaningful work like that.

          • TheodoreSeeber

            I agree the general problem is a lack of decent jobs. I’m saying that MY PERSONAL motivation level is so low that if it was up to ME ALONE, with no outside input, my prefered lifestyle would be as a couch potato using minimal input and output.

            I’m not as good as you, I realize that.

          • Marta L.

            Sorry, I didn’t mean to downplay you if it came off like that. I guess I have a high creative drive – I want to solve problems and am not happy if I can’t do that. (It’s not always a good thing!)

          • TheodoreSeeber

            I’ve got some of that too- but I could accomplish all of that locked in a room away from humanity with just a computer and a TV Set and be much more, well, sinful and content.

  • Sir Mark

    Did the Samaritan say, “I’m sorry I cannot help you because I am on my way to give to the poor?” The person to whom we should give preferential love is usually right in front of us. Quite honestly, I find the phrase “preferential love” to be close to meaningless. I know what it is supposed to say, but it doesn’t actually quite say it. That section of the Catechism needs a serious rewrite.

  • Sarah M

    Marc, it would be interesting for you to do something on government and it’s proper role both in this context, but also in general (Aquinas and the papal encyclicals have a lot to say about this). I see a lot of libertarian comments and while I think libertarian ideas can fit into Catholic Teaching, some of them can’t, especially as they are stated here by commenters. Government does have a legitimate role in ensuring justice (to reiterate, helping the poor is justice not just charity) to it’s citizens. This doesn’t have to equal socialism, but I think it would be helpful for more Catholics to understand what the Church views as the legitimate role of government. Saying government has no business in these matters is not accurate.

  • Vicar of Truth

    Funny to me that the richest religion in the world dictates the rules on charity, when the catholic church itself has more than enough money to eliminate poverty/hunger the world over… They don’t, so they can lord it over you and keep the poor the way they are. What a nice religion Catholics have. I meant borrowed occultic brotherhood of pedophiles and death worshipers…

    • John Doman

      Okay, I’m trying to find one actual true statement in your comment. Haven’t found one yet. Hmmm…maybe “nice religion”.

    • Vincentian in Texas

      The Catholic Church is the richest? How is that?

  • John Doman

    I wouldn’t give Ayn Rand that much prominence. She was an extremist and a provocateur. True, her provocations have sparked thought in a lot of people; but few have subscribed wholeheartedly to her weird and (frankly) evil philosophy. Just because you found some interesting things in Atlas Shrugged doesn’t mean you’re going to become an full-fledged Objectivist.

  • John Doman

    Excellent article Marc!
    You didn’t drag politics into it, which I love. For those who do want to, I would offer this quote from my Bishop Chaput:
    “Jesus tells us very clearly that if we don’t help the poor, we’re going to go to hell. But Jesus didn’t say the government has to take care of them, or that we have to pay taxes to take care of them. Those are prudential judgments.”

  • John Chapman

    A Catholic is called to love all without distinction. But for the sake of discussing this article a distinction must be made before the “victim poor” (Those who are the victims of circumstance) and the “parasite poor” (those who choose not to work, are lazy, etc). We are called to reach out to all and bring all nearer Christ and a mode of life benefiting society as a whole. But to say that justice demands that we give to the “parasite poor” is absurd. St Paul said that if one refuses to work they have no right to eat.