Another thought worth keeping in mind this election season. The relationship between charity and justice in Christian life has been shifting a bit in recent years. Many progressive Christians believe-quite strongly-that the latter “trumps” the former. One proponent of this particular perspective (alliteration…I know, I know…) was the late Marcus Borg. In The Heart of Christianity Borg wrote:
Beyond the church, the practice of compassion means both charity and justice. The distinction between the two is important. About a hundred years ago, a Christian activist and author named Vida Scudder listed three ways that Christians can respond to growing awareness of human suffering: direct philanthropy, social reform, and social transformation. Director philanthropy means giving directly to those who are suffering, social reform means creating and supporting organizations for their care, and social transformation is about justice-changing society so that the structures do not privilege some and cause suffering for others.
The first two are about charity, the third is about justice. All three are important. Charity is always good and will always be necessary, but historically Christians have always been long on the first two and short on the third. One reason is that charity never offends; a passion for justice often does. To paraphrase Roman Catholic bishop Dom Helder Camara from Brazil: “When I gave food to the poor, they called me a saint; when I asked why there were so many poor, they called me a communist.”
Charity means helping the victims. Justice asks, “Why are there so many victims?” and then seeks to change the causes of victimization, that is, the way the system is structured. Justice is not about Caesar increasingly his charitable giving or Pilate increasing his tithe. Justice is about social transformation. Talking the political vision of the Bible seriously means the practice of social transformation.
Now, I do not wish to speak ill of the dead, and there was a time I deeply cherished Borg’s writings. In a sense, he kept me from leaving Christianity. I saw him speak at a Call-to-Action conference (in 2011) and I continue to think of him rather fondly. That being said, his argument here has always deeply annoyed me. Borg, along with many progressives, clearly views justice as being superior to charity, his statement to the contrary notwithstanding. One senses in his quote from Bishop Camara a sense of disdain towards charity as a practice that is a poor substitute for justice advocacy (it amounts to little more than putting band aids on artery wounds) and downright enabling of injustice at worst.
It was this perspective that prompted critics of Mother Teresa to write an article entitled “Mother, Why Are They Poor?” The authors of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Catholicism (which is a rather liberal compendium that ultimately advocates for something called “quantum Catholicism”-yikes!) put it this way:
Inside the Church, there were concerns that Mother Tersa did not bother to examine the social causes of poverty, but instead to chose to direct her attention to bandaging up the victims of an unquestionably oppressive system of economics and politics.
In her defense, Mother Teresa did not see that it was her job to ask “Why?” Her spirituality was based in charity and love rather than politics.
Once again, one can detect more than a faint a hint of contempt here. Still, there is something worth chewing on-what does it means to have a spirituality based on charity and love, rather than on politics? Which is the proper, or superior if you prefer, expression of Christianity? Or are the two supposed to be completely equal to one another? The Catholic answer to the question, as hinted at above, sidesteps and transcends the dilemma created by Borg. Both are deeply and firmly Christian, but the two are expressed in different ways and different spheres. Let’s elaborate a bit on this.
First, it goes without saying that Catholic social teaching is a veritable treasure trove of social justice. The Church has an entire book on this subject (the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church), and the Catechism has a few unambiguous words too. Here is just a smattering:
1928 Society ensures social justice when it provides the conditions that allow associations or individuals to obtain what is their due, according to their nature and their vocation. Social justice is linked to the common good and the exercise of authority.
1938 There exist also sinful inequalities that affect millions of men and women. These are in open contradiction of the Gospel:
Their equal dignity as persons demands that we strive for fairer and more humane conditions. Excessive economic and social disparity between individuals and peoples of the one human race is a source of scandal and militates against social justice, equity, human dignity, as well as social and international peace.44
And, contrary to what some may think, Catholicism does call upon to ask why so many are hungry, and so many are poor:
2448 “In its various forms – material deprivation, unjust oppression, physical and psychological illness and death – human misery is the obvious sign of the inherited condition of frailty and need for salvation in which man finds himself as a consequence of original sin. This misery elicited the compassion of Christ the Savior, who willingly took it upon himself and identified himself with the least of his brethren. Hence, those who are oppressed by poverty are the object of a preferential love on the part of the Church which, since her origin and in spite of the failings of many of her members, has not ceased to work for their relief, defense, and liberation through numerous works of charity which remain indispensable always and everywhere.”248
One thing that needs to be made clear, however, is that social justice is not the raison d’etre of the Church, as many progressives mistakenly believe. This section of the Catechism is one component of a much larger section discussing the human vocation and the human person, and these teachings become unintelligible if severed from this context. Social justice is indeed an integral part of the Church’s teachings, which form a coherent whole, but they are derivative and inseparable from other more fundamental teachings. We need to make that point quite clear.
Moreover, while the magisterium does speak of “social sin,” the concept cannot be divorced from good ‘ole fashioned personal sins. Again, the Catechism:
1869 Thus sin makes men accomplices of one another and causes concupiscence, violence, and injustice to reign among them. Sins give rise to social situations and institutions that are contrary to the divine goodness. “Structures of sin” are the expression and effect of personal sins. They lead their victims to do evil in their turn. In an analogous sense, they constitute a “social sin.”144
As I have noted before, social sin is essentially a “negative feedback loop” created by, and dependent on, many individuals. In the words of St. Pope John Paul II:
In addition to all this, the sins of individuals strengthen those forms of social sin which are actually the fruit of an accumulation of many personal sins. Obviously the real responsibility lies with individuals, given that the social structure as such is not the subject of moral acts. As the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Reconciliatio et Paenitentia recalls: “Whenever the Church speaks of situations of sin, or when she condemns as social sins certain situations or the collective behaviour of certain social groups, big or small, or even of whole nations and blocs of nations, she knows and she proclaims that such cases of social sin are the result of the accumulation and concentration of many personal sins…. The real responsibility, then, lies with individuals” (n. 16).
This was another point that Borg, remarkably, got quite wrong in his exegesis. In another book (The God We Never Knew) Borg wrote:
The passion for social justice we see in the prophets is a protest against system evil. Systemic evil is an important notion: it refers to the injustice built into the structures of the system itself. Embedded in oppressive and exploitative social structures, systemic evil is a major source (perhaps the single greatest cause) of human suffering.
Importantly, the issue is not the goodness or wickedness of elite individuals. Elites can be good people: devout, responsible, courageous, kind, gentle, charming, intelligent, committed to family, loyal to friends, and so forth. Moreover, systemic evil is not necessarily intended even by some who benefit from it. So the issue is not character flaws among the elites. The issue, rather, is a system in which some people sleep on beds made of ivory while others end up being sold for the price of a pair of sandals.
Thus the passion for social justice does not focus on individual change but on structural change. Of course, individual persons can be converted to a passion for justice (and such conversion is important), but when they are, their concern is not to maximize charitable giving within the existing structures but to change the structures themselves. The prophets were not simply saying to the elites, “Be good people, more charitable to the poor, and worship the right God.” They said, in Amos’s words, “Seek justice, and live.” The problem was not individual sinfulness but a social system in which the poor of the land were brought to ruin.
Due respect to Borg, this exegesis is pretty much FUBAR (Google it). The criticism of the prophets is unleashed precisely at individuals. I grant that Borg is correct that the individuals in question (the elites) are being called to do more than increase tithes, but Borg’s insistence that the target was not individual sinfulness is remarkably wide of the mark. To contend that the prophets were out to target social structures, as we use the term today, is a thoroughly anachronistic claim. Ross Douthat, in Bad Religion, quotes the following gem from Saint Basil the Great:
The bread that you possess belongs to the hungry. The clothes that you store in boxes, belong to the naked. The shoes rotting by you, belong to the bare-foot. The money that you hide belongs to anyone in need. You wrong as many people as you could help.
Douthat then adds:
Note that Basil isn’t arguing for a slightly higher marginal tax rate to fund modest improvements in public service. He’s passing judgment on individual sins and calling for individual repentance.
One who wishes to understand the Classical Christian understanding of what “individual repentance” means in this context could hardly do better than studying the works of St. John Chrysostom. It is worth noting, by the way, that the saint did not favor wealth redistribution as some might think:
Should we look to kings and princes to put right the inequalities between rich and poor? Should we require soldiers to come and seize the rich person’s gold and distribute it among his destitute neighbors? Should we beg the emperor to impose a tax on the rich so great that it reduces them to the level of the poor and then to share the proceeds of that tax among everyone? Equality imposed by force would achieve nothing, and do much harm.
Those who combined both cruel hearts and sharp minds would soon find ways of making themselves rich again. Worse still, the rich whose gold was taken away would feel bitter and resentful; while the poor who received the gold from the hands of soldiers would feel no gratitude, because no generosity would have prompted the gift. Far from bringing moral benefit to society, it would actually do moral harm. Material justice cannot be accomplished by compulsion, a change of heart will not follow. The only way to achieve true justice is to change people’s hearts first – and then they will joyfully share their wealth.
This position is in accordance with the prophets. Borg’s vigorous insistence that “good” individuals are puppets of an evil “system” is not the Classical Christian position. Classical Christianity asserts that all people are a mixture of good and evil, and that we cannot change the world unless hearts and minds are changed first.
What, then, IS the proper relationship between justice and charity according to the Church? Here, I yield the floor to the Pope Emeritus, who discussed this subject in some detail in Deus Caritas Est. Here are the key snippets you need to know:
26. Since the nineteenth century, an objection has been raised to the Church’s charitable activity, subsequently developed with particular insistence by Marxism: the poor, it is claimed, do not need charity but justice. Works of charity—almsgiving—are in effect a way for the rich to shirk their obligation to work for justice and a means of soothing their consciences, while preserving their own status and robbing the poor of their rights. Instead of contributing through individual works of charity to maintaining the status quo, we need to build a just social order in which all receive their share of the world’s goods and no longer have to depend on charity. There is admittedly some truth to this argument, but also much that is mistaken. It is true that the pursuit of justice must be a fundamental norm of the State and that the aim of a just social order is to guarantee to each person, according to the principle of subsidiarity, his share of the community’s goods. This has always been emphasized by Christian teaching on the State and by the Church’s social doctrine. Historically, the issue of the just ordering of the collectivity had taken a new dimension with the industrialization of society in the nineteenth century. The rise of modern industry caused the old social structures to collapse, while the growth of a class of salaried workers provoked radical changes in the fabric of society. The relationship between capital and labour now became the decisive issue—an issue which in that form was previously unknown. Capital and the means of production were now the new source of power which, concentrated in the hands of a few, led to the suppression of the rights of the working classes, against which they had to rebel.
28. In order to define more accurately the relationship between the necessary commitment to justice and the ministry of charity, two fundamental situations need to be considered:
a) The just ordering of society and the State is a central responsibility of politics. As Augustine once said, a State which is not governed according to justice would be just a bunch of thieves: “Remota itaque iustitia quid sunt regna nisi magna latrocinia?”. Fundamental to Christianity is the distinction between what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God (cf. Mt 22:21), in other words, the distinction between Church and State, or, as the Second Vatican Council puts it, the autonomy of the temporal sphere. The State may not impose religion, yet it must guarantee religious freedom and harmony between the followers of different religions. For her part, the Church, as the social expression of Christian faith, has a proper independence and is structured on the basis of her faith as a community which the State must recognize. The two spheres are distinct, yet always interrelated.
Justice is both the aim and the intrinsic criterion of all politics. Politics is more than a mere mechanism for defining the rules of public life: its origin and its goal are found in justice, which by its very nature has to do with ethics. The State must inevitably face the question of how justice can be achieved here and now. But this presupposes an even more radical question: what is justice? The problem is one of practical reason; but if reason is to be exercised properly, it must undergo constant purification, since it can never be completely free of the danger of a certain ethical blindness caused by the dazzling effect of power and special interests.
Here politics and faith meet. Faith by its specific nature is an encounter with the living God—an encounter opening up new horizons extending beyond the sphere of reason. But it is also a purifying force for reason itself. From God’s standpoint, faith liberates reason from its blind spots and therefore helps it to be ever more fully itself. Faith enables reason to do its work more effectively and to see its proper object more clearly. This is where Catholic social doctrine has its place: it has no intention of giving the Church power over the State. Even less is it an attempt to impose on those who do not share the faith ways of thinking and modes of conduct proper to faith. Its aim is simply to help purify reason and to contribute, here and now, to the acknowledgment and attainment of what is just.
The Church’s social teaching argues on the basis of reason and natural law, namely, on the basis of what is in accord with the nature of every human being. It recognizes that it is not the Church’s responsibility to make this teaching prevail in political life. Rather, the Church wishes to help form consciences in political life and to stimulate greater insight into the authentic requirements of justice as well as greater readiness to act accordingly, even when this might involve conflict with situations of personal interest. Building a just social and civil order, wherein each person receives what is his or her due, is an essential task which every generation must take up anew. As a political task, this cannot be the Church’s immediate responsibility. Yet, since it is also a most important human responsibility, the Church is duty-bound to offer, through the purification of reason and through ethical formation, her own specific contribution towards understanding the requirements of justice and achieving them politically.
The Church cannot and must not take upon herself the political battle to bring about the most just society possible. She cannot and must not replace the State. Yet at the same time she cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice. She has to play her part through rational argument and she has to reawaken the spiritual energy without which justice, which always demands sacrifice, cannot prevail and prosper. A just society must be the achievement of politics, not of the Church. Yet the promotion of justice through efforts to bring about openness of mind and will to the demands of the common good is something which concerns the Church deeply.
b) Love—caritas—will always prove necessary, even in the most just society. There is no ordering of the State so just that it can eliminate the need for a service of love. Whoever wants to eliminate love is preparing to eliminate man as such. There will always be suffering which cries out for consolation and help. There will always be loneliness. There will always be situations of material need where help in the form of concrete love of neighbour is indispensable. The State which would provide everything, absorbing everything into itself, 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. The Church is one of those living forces: she is alive with the love enkindled by the Spirit of Christ. This love 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” (Mt 4:4; cf. Dt 8:3)—a conviction that demeans man and ultimately disregards all that is specifically human.
29. We can now determine more precisely, in the life of the Church, the relationship between commitment to the just ordering of the State and society on the one hand, and organized charitable activity on the other. We have seen that the formation of just structures is not directly the duty of the Church, but belongs to the world of politics, the sphere of the autonomous use of reason. The Church has an indirect duty here, in that she is called to contribute to the purification of reason and to the reawakening of those moral forces without which just structures are neither established nor prove effective in the long run.
The direct duty to work for a just ordering of society, on the other hand, is proper to the lay faithful. As citizens of the State, they are called to take part in public life in a personal capacity. So they cannot relinquish their participation “in the many different economic, social, legislative, administrative and cultural areas, which are intended to promote organically and institutionally the common good.”  The mission of the lay faithful is therefore to configure social life correctly, respecting its legitimate autonomy and cooperating with other citizens according to their respective competences and fulfilling their own responsibility. Even if the specific expressions of ecclesial charity can never be confused with the activity of the State, it still remains true that charity must animate the entire lives of the lay faithful and therefore also their political activity, lived as “social charity”.
The Church’s charitable organizations, on the other hand, constitute an opus proprium, a task agreeable to her, in which she does not cooperate collaterally, but acts as a subject with direct responsibility, doing what corresponds to her nature. The Church can never be exempted from practising charity as an organized activity of believers, and on the other hand, there will never be a situation where the charity of each individual Christian is unnecessary, because in addition to justice man needs, and will always need, love.
Collapsed into a pithy summary, the answer is this: the Church enunciates general teachings about what justice is, but the implementation (incarnation) of justice is a task for the laity, in the world of politics. The Church Herself does not engage in justice advocacy, per se. C.S. Lewis hit on this subject in Mere Christianity:
The second thing to get clear is that Christianity has not, and does not profess to have, a detailed political programme for applying “Do as you would be done by” to a particular society at a particular moment. It could not have. It is meant for all men at all times, and the particular programme which suited one place or time would not suit another. And, anyhow, that is not how Christianity works. When it tells you to feed the hungry it does not give you lessons in cookery. When it tells you to read the Scriptures it does not give you lessons in Hebrew and Greek, or even in English grammar. It was never intended to replace or supersede the ordinary human arts and sciences; it is rather a director which will set them all to the right jobs, and a source of energy which will give them all new life, if only they will put themselves at its disposal.
People say, “The Church ought to give us a lead.” That is true if they mean it in the right way, but false if the mean it in the wrong way. By the Church they ought to mean the whole body of practicing Christians. And when they say that the Church should give us a lead, they ought to mean that some Christians–those who happen to have the right talents — should be economists and statesmen, and that all economists and statesmen should be Christians, and that their whole efforts in politics and economics should be directed to putting “Do as you would be done by” in to action. If that happened, and if we others were really ready to take it, then we should find the Christian solution for our own social problems pretty quickly. But, of course, when they ask for a lead from the Church most people mean they want the clergy to put out a political programme. That is silly. The clergy are those particular people within the whole Church who have been specially trained and set aside to look after what concerns us as creatures who are going to live forever: and we are asking them to do a quite different job for which they have not been trained. The job is really on us, on the laymen. The application of Christian principles, say, to trade unionism and education, must come from Christian trade unionists and Christian schoolmasters; just as Christian literature comes from Christian novelists and dramatists–not from the bench of bishops getting together and trying to write plays and novels in their spare time.
Charity and justice are both thoroughly sacred and thoroughly Christian. But they belong to different spheres, and the former occupies a special “place” in the Church that the latter does not. Again, Pope Emeritus Benedict:
25. Thus far, two essential facts have emerged from our reflections:
a) The Church’s deepest nature is expressed in her three-fold responsibility: of proclaiming the word of God (kerygma-martyria), celebrating the sacraments (leitourgia), and exercising the ministry of charity (diakonia). These duties presuppose each other and are inseparable. For the Church, charity is not a kind of welfare activity which could equally well be left to others, but is a part of her nature, an indispensable expression of her very being.
This three-fold responsibility of the Church is also acknowledged by the Catechism:
1070 In the New Testament the word “liturgy” refers not only to the celebration of divine worship but also to the proclamation of the Gospel and to active charity.6 In all of these situations it is a question of the service of God and neighbor. In a liturgical celebration the Church is servant in the image of her Lord, the one “leitourgos“;7 she shares in Christ’s priesthood (worship), which is both prophetic (proclamation) and kingly (service of charity):
Pace Borg & Co., charity stands “above” justice. Charity is liturgy. Then again, justice is a cardinal virtue and charity a theological virtue, so this really shouldn’t be news to anybody. Charity participates in a special way in Christ that justice advocacy does not. One more word from the Pope Emeritus:
a) Following the example given in the parable of the Good Samaritan, Christian charity is first of all the simple response to immediate needs and specific situations: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for and healing the sick, visiting those in prison, etc.
b) Christian charitable activity must be independent of parties and ideologies. It is not a means of changing the world ideologically, and it is not at the service of worldly stratagems, but it is a way of making present here and now the love which man always needs.
The message of Classical Christianity is a tad jarring to us. Yes, it is true, we are summoned to liberate the oppressed. This task is incumbent on all of us who deal in the political process. Yet, as noble as the quest for justice is, it plays second banana to charity, which is the practice of love in concrete situations (which are often unpleasant-in the words of Dorothy Day, the poor are ungrateful and smelly), and a special participation in the life of God. We are not asked to choose between charity and justice (nor can we), but we must remember that love transcends and goes beyond mere justice, into the very heart of God.
The summary of this essay is that while justice advocacy is neither optional, nor incidental, it is not central to, nor is it the teleos of, the faith. A sense of where it falls in the order of things can be found in the words of St. Augustine:
The turbulent have to be corrected, the faint-hearted cheered up, the weak supported; the Gospel’s opponents need to be refuted, its insidious enemies guarded against; the unlearned need to be taught, the indolent stirred up, the argumentative checked; the proud must be put in their place, the desperate set on their feet, those engaged in quarrels reconciled; the needy have to be helped, the oppressed to be liberated, the good to be encouraged, the bad to be tolerated; all must be loved.
Such is the Christian life.