The Meaning of Charity Has Changed, Part 2
Pope Leo XIII

The Meaning of Charity Has Changed, Part 2

Part 1 explained how the meaning of Charity has changed, and ended with these questions: Why did the hierarchy embrace the non-biblical view that the poor have a right to charity? Did they not realize that it paved the way to the Socialism denounced by a number of Popes? And why are they continuing in that embrace despite abundant evidence that it is causing the poor greater misery and threatening the very existence of the nation that for centuries has been their greatest beacon of hope? Part 2 addresses these questions.

In the Catholic Church, the hierarchy, also known as the Magisterium, is composed of the bishops around the world who represent the Church’s teaching authority. Every Catholic bishop wears four items that identify his high office: the pectoral cross as a reminder of Christ’s passion, a ring signifying that he is “wedded to his diocese,” a distinctive headband called a “mitre,” and a strip of wool (“pallium”) signifying faithfulness to Christ. On public occasions he also carries a staff (“crosier”) signifying that he is, like Christ, a “Good Shepherd” who “lead(s) his faithful flock along the path of salvation.”

Given the central role the hierarchy plays in the life of the Church and individual Catholics, the three questions that ended the first part of this essay take on special importance. Let’s address each in turn.

Why did why the hierarchy embrace the non-biblical view that the poor have a right to charity? Because they were influenced by the interaction of three concepts:

THE FIRST CONCEPT is Social Justice. The term was a term coined in the 1850s by Luigi D’Azeglio, an Italian Jesuit who was concerned about the increase in poverty caused by the industrial revolution. In subsequent decades the term was co-opted by Socialism to replace equality of opportunity, which is truly just, with equality of outcome, which is both unjust and unrealistic. This development led to demands for the government to redistribute wealth and expand entitlement programs and thus achieve the Socialist ideal of a “community of goods.”

The most influential opponent to Socialism was Pope Leo XIII. In Rerum Novarum (1891), Leo affirmed that the poor have rights but denounced the Socialists’ view of “a community of goods”, arguing that “the first and most fundamental principle . . . if one would undertake to alleviate the condition of the masses, must be the inviolability of private property.” The key to overcoming the disparity between rich and poor, he contended, is not to take away the property of some and give it to others, which “neither justice nor the common good allows,” but instead to enable larger numbers of people to become property owners. This approach is beneficial to everyone, Leo argued, but “only provided that a man’s means be not drained and exhausted by excessive taxation.”

Leo also challenged the socialist claim that we owe charity to the poor as a matter of “justice.” Citing Luke 11:41, he argued that caring for the poor “is a duty, not of justice (save in extreme cases), but of Christian charity—a duty not enforced by human law.” [Emphasis added]

In time, however, Leo’s insightful analysis was forgotten and his influence over Catholic thought eroded as subsequent generations of bishops were attracted to Socialism’s view of Social Justice. (See more about that attraction here.)

THE SECOND CONCEPT, Liberation Theology (LT), increased the bishops’ attraction to Socialism. Advanced by Gustavo Gutiérrez, a Dominican priest, in the 1960s, LT was supported by many Jesuits and through their influence had a significant impact on Vatican II. Among its premises is that people need liberation more from the oppression of others than from their sins. That idea lent credence to blaming others and supported both the Socialist goal of equality of outcome and the means—redistribution of wealth—of accomplishing it. It also helped give legitimacy to political initiatives based on entitlement, notably Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society Program.”

Cardinal Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) called Liberation Theology a “radical . . . reinterpretation” of Christian faith that was in many respects Marxist in form. (For a fuller discussion of LT, see here.)  But few bishops were as conversant with the Catholic theological tradition as the Cardinal, so most of them regarded Social Justice and Liberation Theology as complementary to Catholic teaching rather than in opposition to it.

THE THIRD CONCEPT is “Preferential Option for the Poor” (PO). First expressed by Jesuit Superior General, Pedro Aruppe in 1968, this concept gained support first in Latin America and then more broadly. Aruppe was also a strong supporter of Social Justice and Liberation Theology and advanced all three concepts at Vatican II. The seed was effectively sown. Several decades later, St. Pope John Paul II endorsed PO in Centesimus Annus, which was (ironically) written for the 100-year anniversary of  Rerum Novarum.  John Paul’s successorPope Benedict XVI, not only only supported PO but expanded it beyond the poor to the marginalized, including among others, victims of oppression. Pope Francis, too, has embraced the “Preferential Option.”

Did the bishops not realize that the idea of the poor having a right to charity paved the way to the Socialism denounced by Leo XIII? In some cases, perhaps, but I suspect most did not and, indeed, do not. Here is why:

The fact that three pontiffs, one of them canonized, supported “Preferential Option for the Poor” is certainly a powerful endorsement of the concept. Considerably more significant, however, is the fact that Jesus Himself taught, “Whatever you do to one of these, my least brethren, you do unto Me.” (Matt 25:39) There can therefore be no question that the Christian focus on caritas (love) and charity applies in a special way to the poor.

However, there is room for disagreement over whether “preferential option” is the most accurate way of expressing the Christian commitment to loving the poor. I believe the way “preferential option” has come to be understood and expressed by the Catholic hierarchy has proven to be troubling. The reason is that the term was conceived and embraced at precisely the time that Marxist-related Social Justice and Liberation Theology had become influential in Catholic theology. Since that time the temptation has been great to reason as follows:

“The poor do not suffer from misfortune but instead from oppression by the rich, who have claimed as their private property that which belongs to all. The only way to right this wrong is to redistribute this wealth for the sake of the common good. Anything the poor receive is therefore not a gift but a right. Moreover, they deserve preferential treatment in the process of redistribution.”

This reasoning is a meld of Marxism (the first four bold phrases) with Christian teaching (the final bold phrase). This meld, or something close to it, has been taught in Catholic seminaries for several decades. It is therefore likely that today’s bishops learned it there and are not familiar with Pope Leo’s emphasis noted above—that our duty to the poor is not a matter of “justice” (in other words, a right), “but of Christian charity,” and that it is “not enforced by human law.”

Why are the bishops continuing to embrace the “right” to charity despite abundant evidence that it is causing the poor greater misery and threatening the very existence of the nation that for centuries has been their greatest beacon of hope? 

First, let’s consider the evidence that the concept has done great harm. Treating charity as the right of the poor rather than an act of neighborly love encouraged government action. From the government’s standpoint, the logic behind this action is impeccable—if charity is a right, then it is a matter of justice, which the government is responsible for assuring.

Government involvement in charity produced the “Great Society“ program and many other welfare initiatives based on largely political, as opposed to biblical, motives. A major effect of this has been increased out-of-wedlock births, the breakdown of the black family, and the rise of black poverty, as distinguished scholar Thomas Sowell has noted. He and other scholars have also shown that government involvement in charity has created a sense of entitlement among the poor, which led to increased government largess, followed by the resentment of the majority toward minorities.

Because justice knows no national boundaries, the government’s involvement in charity expanded to foreign countries, where corruption is the norm and a large part of what is received for the poor is diverted from the poor. This situation has given new and more shameful meaning to the biblical message, “the poor you will always have with you,” and it has exacerbated the condition of the poor around the world.

The response of the U.S. government has been to mindlessly pour more money into the pockets of corrupt foreign politicians, cast aside immigration laws, open U.S. borders (in effect) to anyone in the world who wishes to enter, and create sanctuary cities and tent communities to house them. Moreover, they are doing all this in the name of the rights of the poor while violating the rights of their constituents. Meanwhile, the Marxists are applauding the chaos and anticipating more western countries becoming like Cuba and Venezuela. (For a thoroughly documented account of Marxist influence on U.S. government and culture, see Mark Levin’s American Marxism.)

In the clear face of this social devolution, Catholic bishops have continued to embrace the concept that caused it to occur. For example, “In 2019, when President Trump characterized the situation at the border as a ‘humanitarian crisis’ and declared it a national emergency, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) issued a condemnation. Trump would use some of the emergency funding to continue construction on a border wall, which the bishops called a “symbol of division and animosity.” And as late as April of 2021 sixteen bishops signed a statement that included these words: “We renew our appeal to our governments, to political leaders, and civil society, that they work together to welcome, protect, promote, and integrate migrants in accordance with their intrinsic dignity . . .” [Emphasis added]

Why haven’t the bishops revised their position in light of abundant evidence that it is dangerously flawed? Possibly because they cannot bring themselves to abandon “progressive” TV channels and escape the propaganda blatantly presented there as truth. Or because the concept of the poor’s right to charity is so deeply ingrained in them that they are blind to Marxists using it to their advantage. Or simply because they are so enamored of the measure of infallibility Vatican I assigned them that they cannot believe they might conceivably be wrong in their pronouncements. Perhaps all three.

In my research for this essay, I came across, or perhaps was guided to, an unheralded essay written by an equally unheralded Nigerian religious teacher and titled “A Biblical Approach and Response to Poverty.” In it the teacher enumerates nine causes of poverty: “the population explosion . . . poor economic management . . . low wages . . . exorbitant interest rates . . . wars . . . [a negative] attitude toward work . . . natural phenomena such as flood, drought and conflagration . . . personal choices [such as] laziness, misuse of drugs, alcohol and sex . . . [and] a worldview that legitimizes poverty.”

Reading that essay was both refreshing and encouraging. The author didn’t once mention oppression by the rich, systemic racism, white privilege, critical race theory, or redistribution of wealth as Marxists and Socialists love to do. What is more, he didn’t mention Social Justice, Liberation Theology, or Preferential Option for the Poor, as Catholic bishops love to do. He simply discussed the complex causes of poverty and then ended with simple words that will never incite a Socialist riot or Marxist revolution, but just might open hearts to the genuine Gospel of Christ. He wrote:

“The church should not live and teach as if poverty is a virtue. It is not. Rather, it should teach those who are rich to remember those who are poor. Jesus who in his riches became poor so that sinful man may be rich (11 Cor: 8: 9) is an example of self-giving that should motivate the church to take care of others. After all, all human beings are to be beneficiaries of God’s resources. If it is thus given by God to any [of us], it becomes [our] responsibility to share this with our fellow human beings as steward[s] of God’s resources.”

Copyright © 2021 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved

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Vincent Ryan Ruggiero