Is Almsgiving Charity or Justice?

Is Almsgiving Charity or Justice? April 9, 2011

As I was reading Mollat’s The Poor in the Middle Ages I ran across a brief but intriguing passage:

Twelfth-century thinking on the subject of poverty derived from traditional patristic writings about justice as well as charity.  Writers did not limit themselves to reaffirming the right of the poor to the rich man’s excess or to a quarter or third of the income from tithes and church property.  Nor were they content to remind princes and bishops of their duty to protect the poor….But the question arose whether the poor could legitimately insist that their rights be observed….Peter the Chanter maintained that the authorities had the power to force the wealthy to give alms. (110-11)

This was an important development in thinking about poverty.  Prior to this period, the poor were always (usually?) viewed as the object, never the subject:  they existed so that the rich might exercise charity, but were not seen as independent actors who had claims of justice.   It does not appear that Peter the Chanter’s position became widespread.  Mollat’s discussion turns instead to the closely related question of whether a hungry man can steal to feed himself; by the end of the 12th century the consensus appeared to be that he could and this did not constitute theft.  Given Anatole France’s ironic observation that the law forbids the rich as well as the poor to steal bread, it would seem that this position no longer holds:  in our capitalist society, private property is sacrosanct and so guarded against the depredations of the poor.

But I am intrigued by Peter the Chanter’s position, which seems consonant with (and indeed may demand) the social programs of liberal democracies.   These programs are often referred to as entitlement programs:  the poor are entitled to these benefits, and government spending must rise or fall to meet the need.   To pay for them, the government (the “authorities”) compel the wealthy to pay taxes; presumably then, taxes must rise or fall to meet the need as well.

Accepting this position does not entail supporting every government welfare program; nor does it rule out “private charity.”   There is wide scope for discussing the roles of government and civil society and what implications subsidiarity has.    But what it does entail is recognizing that the poor are not simply objects—the recipients of government or personal largess—but are in fact subjects whose demands for food, clothing, shelter and medical care are legitimate and must be met.  In particular, in the current political situation it calls into question the Republican budget proposal (as put forward by Rep. Paul Ryan) that Medicaid be converted from an individual entitlement to a block grant program.  The inevitable effect of such a change would be a cost-shifting from the state to the poor, which in turn is a denial of their right to health care.


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  • I remember being impressed with Peter’s position, but also, being led to want to study more from many of the ancient sermons which dealt with this question. So many of the West and the East were about social justice; they might not have understood all the dimensions of it as to how to best establish it (we are still discovering those in our day), but they understood that the absolute notion of possession we have today was a grave error…

  • jeff

    Walk in the shoes of a philanthropist before you bloviate.

    Thanks.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Meaning what, precisely? From my post, what do you infer that I do not understand about philanthropy or philanthropists?

  • I think is a really nice way of framing the question. It is primarily a matter of justice, and the state is charged with enforcing justice.

  • It seems to me the answer is not either/or

  • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

    Even if the answer is “both/and”, this still leaves the central question that MM alludes to and which was originally raised by Peter the Chanter: if it is justice, how shall the state enforce it?

  • Kurt

    David, I agree the proposition that charity and justice are distinct, but I think a better explanation is needed.

    First, I don’t think it should be said that; These programs are often referred to as entitlement programs: the poor are entitled to these benefits, and government spending must rise or fall to meet the need. To pay for them, the government (the “authorities”) compel the wealthy to pay taxes; presumably then, taxes must rise or fall to meet the need as well.

    The federal budget term entitlement is much misused. It neither relates to the poor specifically to a personal entitlement. It does describe a program that is funded to meet criteria rather than a dollar amount. So federal employee pensions and veterans’ benefits are entitlements.

    The major entitlement programs: Social Security, Unemployment Insurance, Hospital Insurance for the Aged and Disabled (Medicare Part A) are financed through social insurance contributions. They are not so much transfers from the rich to the poor, but payments by persons during times of gainful employment for times when one becomes unable to work due to age, disability or layoff. These programs are solidaristic and reflect the best of Catholic social principles.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Kurt,

      I agree that there are entitlement programs not intended for the poor, but there are some significant ones that are: Medicaid, SSI, Foodstamps, TANF (or whatever “welfare” is called these days). Also, Social Security (at least according to an actuary I discussed this with) does have a significant aspect of wealth redistribution built into it, by design.

  • Unless I’m confused, you seem to be changing positions mid-paragraph, in your last paragraph. First you say you are leaving open the possibility that the needs of the poor might be met by private charity, but then you say that any denial of government health benefits robs the poor of their right to health care. (Not to mention that you have not yet established the existence of a “right to healthcare”.)

    But anyhow, I agree with you that there is objectively an obligation to feed, clothe, etc. the poor, and that each one of us will be judged on the Last Day as to whether or not we met that obligation. Since Europe was a Catholic society through-and-through, such an obligation could be expressed and imposed as having been divinely revealed. And no one could really argue since it was the Church’s judgment that God had indeed revealed such an obligation, and anyone who didn’t want an interdict imposed on him would have to submit. (I’m oversimplifying of course.)

    However we no longer live in a Catholic society. On what basis can we now argue that the rich *must* give to the poor, and that the government has the *right* to take money from the rich (or anyone else) for that purpose?

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Whether or not we live in a “Catholic” society is irrelevant: either Catholic Social Teaching is objectively true or it is not. The Church teaches that it is proper for the government to collect taxes, and the responsibility of citizens to pay them (other criteria having been met). Peter the Chanter was making the argument that under what we now call CST, the “right” of the poor to alms is not simply an exhortation aimed at the rich, but an actual right that can and should be enforced by the state. One way for this right to be enforced is for the state to manage the redistribution of property (in line with the universal destination of goods) by taxing those who have a surplus and giving it to those deemed in need.

      This does not rule out private charity and the two could very well continue to exist in tandem as they do now. Under the principle of subsidiarity, I think both should continue. I have no objection to the taxes I pay being used for social programs, and I continue to donate to targeted charities that I want to support above and beyond the tax dollars they receive (if any).

      Finally, as for the right to healthcare: “tend the sick” has always been part of CST, and again, under Peter’s argument, if this is an obligation placed on the rich, then it is reciprocally, a right that the poor can expect.

  • Question: If we are being taxed by the government for the purpose of feeding and clothing the poor, and providing healthcare, are we excused from any further obligation to give alms? Could we plead on the Last Day that we met our obligation through our taxes?

  • Kurt

    Question: If we are being taxed by the government for the purpose of feeding and clothing the poor, and providing healthcare, are we excused from any further obligation to give alms? Could we plead on the Last Day that we met our obligation through our taxes?

    Something to consider only under the following conditions:

    1. We live in a democracy, i.e. we are a people who govern ourselves and therefore the people and the government are the same, hence the actions of the government are our actions.

    2. The poor are fully fed, clothed and nursed.

    3. We do not excuse ourselves from alms-giving for other needs of the poor beyond food, clothing and health care. Most importantly, we make the sacrifical gift of our time and friendship with the poor.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Thank you Kurt, this would have been the substance of my reply.

  • David writes, “Whether or not we live in a “Catholic” society is irrelevant: either Catholic Social Teaching is objectively true or it is not. The Church teaches that it is proper for the government to collect taxes, and the responsibility of citizens to pay them (other criteria having been met). Peter the Chanter was making the argument that under what we now call CST, the “right” of the poor to alms is not simply an exhortation aimed at the rich, but an actual right that can and should be enforced by the state.”

    Again, I don’t argue that we have an obligation to provide for the needs of the poor. The problem I tried to raise is a practical problem, that of implementing a right which is based in Catholic teaching on the citizens of a society whose government and laws are officially non-religious. We have not succeeded in getting abortion, birth control, or divorce outlawed based on Catholic teaching. How could we impose a right of some persons to the money of other persons on that basis? In other words, if we could not get it established on the basis of Catholic teaching, then on what basis could we get it established?

    Or are you suggesting not that we attempt to establish such a right as such, but rather, simply increase taxes on the wealthy while also increasing social programs, thus achieving the same result?

    Another difference between implementing such a policy during the middle ages, and doing it in modern society, is that back then, I’m sure that if a rich man could demonstrate that he had already given a third of his income to the poor of his own volition, he would not then have been forced to give an additional third. Whereas today, if you made it a matter of taxation, then a rich person would be forced to give a third of his income to the government for the care of the poor, regardless whether he intended to give a third to charity of his own volition. In other words, the option of private charity would be taken from him.

    If you set it up so that a person would have the choice whether to give to the poor via the government, or through private charity, I might have less difficulty getting behind it.

    On a another tack: I think an argument could be made that it’s a mistake to say that the poor have the right to the money of the rich. If we did that, then almsgiving would no longer be an act of charity.

  • Kurt

    Whereas today, if you made it a matter of taxation, then a rich person would be forced to give a third of his income to the government for the care of the poor, regardless whether he intended to give a third to charity of his own volition.

    A third of our taxes do not go to charity for the poor. And thanks to the charitable deduction, those who give to the poor have their taxes reduced.

    Having said that, I do think you have some point about the right to alms. I think there are demands of justice the poor and low wage people in our society and there are social programs that respect those demands of justice (workers compensation, OSHA, education, Pell Grants, etc.).

    And the case might be made that the state has the same obligations to tithe to the poor as a private person. 10% would be just about the proportion of goverment revenues that go to true charity for the poor.

    • Kurt writes, “A third of our taxes do not go to charity for the poor. And thanks to the charitable deduction, those who give to the poor have their taxes reduced.”

      True, but a deduction only nets you a percentage of what you give, 38% at most.

      • Kurt

        Agellius,

        It nets you no taxation of that portion of your income that you give to charity. How little do you think we should care for the poor, socially?

  • Kurt writes, “… thanks to the charitable deduction, those who give to the poor have their taxes reduced.”

    Of course, now the President proposes to eliminate it.

  • Kurt

    Of course, now the President proposes to eliminate it.

    For the wealthiest 2% of taxpayers, and for which I respectfully disagree with the President.

    • Kurt writes, “For the wealthiest 2% of taxpayers, and for which I respectfully disagree with the President.”

      Well, there’s something we agree on. : )

  • Kurt writes, “How little do you think we should care for the poor, socially?”

    What a strange way of wording the question! : )

    In answer to it: I’m still trying to work that out for myself. I’m honestly not sure the extent to which I believe the state needs to be in charge of charitable works. I’m also doubtful as to how efficiently the state can deliver them. I wonder if anyone has figured out how much of each dollar spent actually gets delivered to the recipients of government programs? That would be good to know, so we could compare it with the efficiency with which private charities deliver services.

    I guess at this point I’m not persuaded that we should automatically assume that government provision of services is the best way to go. In addition to that issue, is the issue of whether private individuals should have the choice of whether to give their dollars to private charities or to the government. The former seems preferable in at least one sense: That charities could “compete” against each other, with the most trustworthy and efficient being “rewarded” with more contributions.

    If we’re using the Middle Ages as a model, was charity at that time primarily provided through governments, i.e. princes, kings and emperors? Was it not rather done primarily through Church-related organizations? And couldn’t the rich of that time, even if they were forced to give a certain proportion of their income, choose which religious order, or what have you, to give his alms to?

    • Another thing I meant to say: Not only am I not convinced that government is the best source of services for the poor on the ground of efficiency. I am also concerned that government, since it officially disregards divinely revealed teaching as to man’s nature and purpose, necessarily has a distorted view of that nature and purpose, and therefore many services are apt to be actually harmful either in the nature of services provided or in the way they are provided. It’s more likely that a Catholic organization under the authority of a bishop would have a better idea what people need, in accord with their true nature and purpose, and the best way of providing it.

    • Kurt

      Agellius,

      Asking your pardon, I think it’s easier for me to respond to your questions in reverse order.

      If we’re using the Middle Ages as a model, was charity at that time primarily provided through governments, i.e. princes, kings and emperors? Was it not rather done primarily through Church-related organizations?

      Largely paid for by government and administered by the Church, similar to our current system of tax financing and administration by NGOs including faith based NGOs.

      I guess at this point I’m not persuaded that we should automatically assume that government provision of services is the best way to go.

      Neither I nor the American centre-left assumes that. I think it is conservatives who automatically assume government should not. We have developed our thinking and practice without an automatic assumption either way. Hence, our initiatives are varied and pluralistic.

      I wonder if anyone has figured out how much of each dollar spent actually gets delivered to the recipients of government programs? That would be good to know, so we could compare it with the efficiency with which private charities deliver services.

      I would welcome that discussion. Can we compare the administrative expenses in Medicare and private insurance; the administrative expenses in Social Security and privately managed pension and 401(k) plans; administrative costs in SNAP (“Food Stamps”) and private charity food assistance programs, and; Workers Comp administered by commercial insurance companies and the self-administered WC program for federal workers? I think all of this data is readily available and I’ll be happy to collect it.

      I’m still trying to work that out for myself. I’m honestly not sure the extent to which I believe the state needs to be in charge of charitable works.

      The State largely is not in charge. Much of these works are publically financed but with NGOs in charge of the program, chosen by merit selection. That has led to Catholic Charities and other Catholic agencies being the biggest entity in charge of charitable work though groups like PP being a comparatively minor player.

      • Kurt writes, “The State largely is not in charge. Much of these works are publically financed but with NGOs in charge of the program, chosen by merit selection. That has led to Catholic Charities and other Catholic agencies being the biggest entity in charge of charitable work though groups like PP being a comparatively minor player.”

        “[C]hosen by merit selection”? Chosen by whom, if not the State? If the State chooses, then it’s in charge: It decides who pays how much, and where the money goes.

        In any event, I think we are (again) talking past each other here, and it’s our own fault for not defining our terms. I suspect you are referring to different things than I am when you talk about “works [that] are publically financed but with NGOs in charge of the program”.

        However my point still stands, but I will rephrase it as, I’m not convinced that it’s best to have the government be the “clearinghouse” for alms required to be paid by citizens, rather than letting the citizens decide for themselves where their money will go.

      • Kurt

        However my point still stands, but I will rephrase it as, I’m not convinced that it’s best to have the government be the “clearinghouse” for alms required to be paid by citizens, rather than letting the citizens decide for themselves where their money will go.

        I don’t think it is an either/or. Where private charity has filled a need, the state should not enter into that field. I think the American center-left has no problem affirming that.

  • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

    Agellius writes:


    On a another tack: I think an argument could be made that it’s a mistake to say that the poor have the right to the money of the rich. If we did that, then almsgiving would no longer be an act of charity.

    But here we come to the very heart of the argument that Peter the Chanter was making: alms are not charity but justice, and he was arguing that this justice should be enforced by the state, if necessary. So, in a nutshell, a fundamental question: should the state have the power to compel almsgiving, at least to some degree?

    • David writes, “But here we come to the very heart of the argument that Peter the Chanter was making: alms are not charity but justice, …”

      Well, I can’t claim to know the answer with certainty, but it has always been my understanding that alms should be given out of charity. To be persuaded otherwise, I would have to see more evidence.

      David writes, “… and he was arguing that this justice should be enforced by the state, if necessary. So, in a nutshell, a fundamental question: should the state have the power to compel almsgiving, at least to some degree?”

      As I said before, if people are given the choice whether to give alms through the state or through private charity, then I might be able to get behind it. Assuming you’re talking about rich people. People who are living closer to subsistence have to be allowed to decide for themselves how much they can afford to give, because they are more likely to be giving of their substance and not their excess (I’m sure you agree with that).

  • Kurt:

    It dawns on me, belatedly, with regard to the relative efficiency of charitable benefits funded through government or private charity: If, as you say, what government does mostly is give grants to private charities with which to carry out charitable work, then clearly it would be more efficient for people to give their alms directly to the private charities. Since if it goes through government, then the government has to collect the money, channel it through its bureaucracy whereby it decides to whom it will be doled out and in what amounts, and eventually disburse it. That bureaucracy itself costs money.

    The charities themselves have administrative costs which are taken out of each dollar received in donations. It seems that having the money go through government only adds another layer of administrative costs.

    • Kurt

      If, as you say, what government does mostly is give grants to private charities with which to carry out charitable work, then clearly it would be more efficient for people to give their alms directly to the private charities. Since if it goes through government, then the government has to collect the money, channel it through its bureaucracy whereby it decides to whom it will be doled out and in what amounts, and eventually disburse it. That bureaucracy itself costs money.

      Would you like to see my collection of return address stickers? 🙂

  • Kurt writes, “I don’t think it is an either/or. Where private charity has filled a need, the state should not enter into that field. I think the American center-left has no problem affirming that.”

    The either/or is, if we implemented a legal requirement that the rich give one-third or a quarter (as suggested in the OP) to the poor, that can be done either by having the government collect the money and disburse it as it sees fit, or by having citizens give the money directly to the charitable causes of their choice. It can’t be both (unless you are suggesting that the gov’t collect half and the citizens give half on their own, or something like that, but even then you are doing one or the other with each dollar given, not both or neither).

  • Kurt

    The either/or is, if we implemented a legal requirement that the rich give one-third or a quarter (as suggested in the OP) …

    except its not suggested in the OP. The OP notes that the Church was expected to distribute to the poor a quarter to third of its income from tithes (church taxes) and its property (glebes). Not unlike the current law which requires foundations to distribute a certain portion of their investment earnings in exchange for their tax free status.

    • I’m not going to argue about whether the OP was advocating what I said it was. I’m simply saying that I could get behind the idea of the rich being required to give a proportion of their income to the poor, so long as they have the option of giving through the gov’t or giving directly to private charities. Which is an either/or proposition.

      • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

        The passage in Mollat is too short to say exactly what Peter the Chanter was driving at, but my guess is that he only wanted to consider having the authorities intervene if the rich were not already giving: if they were, then the rights of the poor to receive alms were being upheld. So I actually find what you are suggesting a reasonable interpretation for today.

  • David:

    That’s a helpful clarification, thanks.