Confusing Charity and Justice, Again

Ross Douthat is well-regarded across the political spectrum for his writing and thoughtfulness. As for me, I prefer writers who produce fiction to those of non-fiction. One basic test of Catholic thoughtfulness is the ability ad willingness to distinguish between charity and justice. Mr Douthat fails here. From his conclusion:

Mere religious affiliation has weakened for the poor and working class as well.

From a religious perspective, this a signal failure: A church that pays out to help the poor, but doesn’t pray with them, looks less like a church than what Pope Francis has described, unfavorably, as merely another N.G.O.

Political conservatives are largely uneasy with the alternative to charity. Justice advocacy strikes a lot of people as too “socialist” or “radical” or “uppity.” But from a religious perspective, it doesn’t make much sense to pour heaps of money into charitable efforts if the root causes aren’t addressed.

Charity is a bandaid. Real Christians would want to address why people get wounded and work to stop the bleeding at the source. Maybe that will draw disapproval from the corporate masters who employ and pull the chains of mainstream commentators like Mr Douthat.

Even if conservatives were to wangle the culturewar into the hospitals, habitat homes, and soup kitchens by preaching their middle-class morality, my sense is that without advocacy for societal change, the whole effort will be worthless. It’s fine to tell a person they shouldn’t get an abortion. Rich people have a choice, it must be said. Some impoverished pregnant women, bereft of family, job, and/or partner truly believe there is no choice. A callous society ensures that. And the Church is absent enough not to have a prayerful presence.

Before they start spouting about bad charity, perhaps folks like Ross Douthat could get involved with Catholic Charities in his diocese as a volunteer. And talk to other volunteers. And maybe pause the moralistic therapeutic conservatism playing on his tape machine long enough to encounter real people and listen to them and their needs. And not just pontificate from his ivory tower.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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7 Responses to Confusing Charity and Justice, Again

  1. Stephen says:

    Well, you seem to have complete misunderstood Mr. Douthat’s point, but I suppose that’s a risk when one doesn’t take the time to listen but instead jumps right into attacking the “other side” based on whatever sloppily constructed strawman vision thereof is in one’s head.

    I mean for goodness sake the cliches! “Corporate masters.” “Pulling chains.” “Ivory tower.” presumably you are aware of the extent of Mr. Douthat’s volunteer activity, which is why byou felt free to criticize him for the lack thereof? Because you know how he spends his private hours? Thought not.

  2. Todd says:

    I don’t have to agree with the man to have read or understood his essay. I happen to be a skeptic and yes, a critic, on a lot of approaches. Lots of people are critics of the mainstream media, of which the NYT is a part thereof.

    I did zero in on what I perceive to be a fatal flaw in the thinking and practice of many Catholics. Mr Douthat is right to say charity alone is not enough. But since his essay wasn’t about his own work in either charity or justice, I took his essay at face value.

    If you have a specific response to the point of my essay, which is the confusion over charity and justice, I’m happy to discuss. And I promise to review Mr Douthat’s essays more carefully in the future.

  3. Brendan Kelleher svd says:

    Todd, might I just presume to recall that Mother Teresa preferred to keep a distance between her work and justice issues. It is, for better or worse, and whether true to gospel values or not, an option that many Catholics take. I have always believed in what I call “lived love”, seeing action for justice as a practical expression of love.

    • Todd says:

      Good points, and good example. Sure, I think individuals can focus on either charity or justice as their charism. Both are needed, certainly. But one can form and foster relationships in justice circles–one might say the playing field is more level than the realm of person-to-person generosity.

      Ross Douthat, however, is no Mother Teresa. For one thing, I’m not sure most Catholic schools in the US fall under the umbrella of helping the poor. Most of those billions funnel into sports programs and computers and such–the trappings of suburban prep schools for the well-off.

      Perhaps I’m also thinking of a recent initiative in my own parish to move some of the parish tithe under religious formation to help balance the budget. I suppose I could accept that as a tithe if we were shipping money to the inner city, or to native reservations, if not abroad. It also occurs to me that many Catholic health care systems, including hospitals, are indeed concerned about preventive care. Giving people the tools to lead healthier lives, rather than just pills and procedures to stave off the latest condition.

      I was amused Mr Douthat cited Pope Francis’s NGO quote, as Pope Francis has also cited the discouragement Western culture offers to the young: high umemployment, low pay, and little hope for those aspiring to marry, have a family, and raise children into a better world.

      People ask why blacks can torch their own neighborhoods. Maybe the reality is that they have no ownership in the neighborhood. They know the drug dealers, gentrificationers, and the police “own” the turf. For a large segment of the violent, their turf was prison, part of the so-called war on drugs.

      I’m more interested in asking the question: what gives people hope? A handout that keeps the utility company at bay for another month? A plastic card for the grocery store?

      At root, I suppose I’m dissatisfied with both traditional (read 70’s) and modern approaches to poverty. As I said, I’m an equal opportunity skeptic. Pat Moynihan, though: I think we need more like him,

    • JennyN says:

      Umm. I’m not sure that Mother Teresa is nowadays quite the unanswerable argument she used to be. You don’t have to go the whole Hitchens [as in Christopher] to have doubts about whether her approach – at least after the early years, once more and better alternatives became available – was in fact best for the people her Missionaries of Charity claimed to be helping. (And some of the types she hung out with or accepted money from, such as the monstrous Duvaliers of Haiti, or the American Charles Keating, raise serious questions about her judgement if nothing else).

      As for keeping a distance between charity and justice issues being “whether true to gospel values or not, an option that many Catholics take” – if Catholics are taking an option that is *not* true to gospel values, shouldn’t they be strongly urged to re-examine what they are doing and their motives for same? I must say that in reading Catholic blogs and news sites, the strong preference expressed by some commenters for personal charity – as against the correction of systemic injustices, or using State power to correct social imbalances – seems to stem from their concern for *their own* spiritual wellbeing: not whether said charity is really what the recipients need or want, or whether it’s effective.

      After all, if social justice prevails (even partially); if government / state regulation, assistance and funding assists people on the way to self-determination and control over their own lives – well, they won’t be available as objects of charity…

      • Todd says:

        Thanks, Jenny. More good points, to be sure. It’s not really my practice to throw a convenient foil under the bus. I’m not aware of Mother Teresa’s life to be able to criticize her. But still: Ross Douthat isn’t quite a servant of the poor first and media pundit second.

        And yes, I think you’ve hit on a vital distinction: do Catholics “do” charity from some sort of personal obligation? That strikes me as using the poor as some kind of “ticket’ to heaven–just punch the card next to Mass attendance and declining the use of contraceptives. Are a person’s charity and justice efforts a means to an end of forming and fostering relationships with the needy? Would I be someone’s friend and advocate even if eternal life weren’t my reward for it? I would hope so. We should be doing good not just because it’s good for me, but simply because it’s good.

  4. Chris says:

    Todd, you are exactly right about the need for Social Justice, to adress the causes of injustice rather then contenting ourselves with merely the band-aid measures of charity (although both are necessary). This is what the Church teaches.

    God Bless

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