George Weigel

To Sanctify the World: The Vital Legacy of Vatican II

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The Blessings of Charity

Americans are the most generous people in the world, freely giving hundreds of billions of dollars each year to an extraordinarily diverse array of charitable institutions, at home and abroad. Add to that the untold millions of hours of volunteer work that Americans donate to nonprofit groups, and the American investment in charity increases exponentially.

And yet in America and elsewhere, the very idea of “charity” is under a cloud. Since the early twentieth century, some have insisted that charity is at best a weak sister to “philanthropy,” by which they mean a new, scientific way of abolishing the root causes of suffering. Others have gone so far as to argue that charity is inferior to, even the enemy of, “justice.”

Charity vs. Philanthropy

Both these criticisms of charity have recently been restated by prominent figures. Thus Steve Gunderson, the new president and CEO of the Council on Foundations, recently made deprecatory remarks in a BusinessWeek interview about “charity, which tends to be a much more emotional response” to human suffering than philanthropy. Gunderson pitted charity and philanthropy against one another, having been deeply impressed by one of his board members, who drew for him a sharp (and hardly neutral) distinction: “There’s charity, and then there’s philanthropy, and philanthropy is nothing more than problem-solving charity.”

As William Schambra, head of the Hudson Institute’s Bradley Center on Philanthropy and Civic Life, explains, “At the beginning of the twentieth century, when the first large foundations like Rockefeller and Carnegie were established on the industrial-age scale of the modern corporation, their leaders believed they would be engaged in ‘scientific philanthropy’ rather than old-style charity. Charity, as they saw it, merely treated the symptoms of social problems, usually by deploying a rag-tag crew of amateurs. But the immense new resources of the foundations, funding an army of experts armed with the new social sciences, would at last be able to find the ‘root causes’ of social problems and solve them once and for all.”

Of course, many foundations, and the people who lead them, do not understand their work this way, but instead see themselves more humbly as an extension of the average American’s charitable activity, that is, as simply an expression on a larger scale of all the tithes to churches and synagogues, all the volunteer hours at the local Red Cross, all the checks quickly written to help those devastated by Hurricane Katrina. But many of the largest philanthropies, and the groups that serve them, have a different agenda. Their intention is to replace charity, large and small, not complement it or extend its reach. And they usually see a large, centralized government as their natural ally. In this view, philanthropic bureaucrats and governmental bureaucrats are arrayed on one side, with businesses, entrepreneurs, family foundations, charities, churches, and private citizens on the other.

The Pope Weighs In

This debate over charity and philanthropy is crucial for America’s foundations. A new and perhaps surprising figure entered the debate in January, when Pope Benedict XVI issued his first encyclical, Deus caritas est (“God is love”), and insisted that there is no substitute for charity — for the direct, personal involvement of individuals and communities in the lives of those who are suffering, those in need of material or educational assistance, or those simply needing the consolation of human contact. Deus caritas est is not, to be sure, a broadside aimed from one side at another in the philanthropy wars. It has things to say, however, that deserve reflection by all concerned, because they challenge us to re-examine our understanding of modern philanthropy.

Pope Benedict addresses his fellow Catholics in terms that can be appreciated by any morally serious person, believer or not. He makes several key points. First, he insists quietly but firmly that love of neighbor, expressed in works of charity that embody a personal responsibility to the “other,” is not something that can be outsourced to government agencies. Those agencies have their place, but we fail the test of our own humanity — we fail to grow into the persons we ought to be — if charitable giving and charitable activity are not part of the rhythm of our lives. Something is awry in our own hearts if we imagine that paying the taxes that support governmental social services fulfills the obligation of love-of-neighbor, whether we conceive the source of that obligation to be God or simply common decency.

The Pope then looks to the Acts of the Apostles and the story of the first Christian deacons — men who were appointed to look after the material needs of the poor — for a lesson in the nature of charitable work itself. The “social service” which the deacons were meant to provide, the Pope writes, “was absolutely concrete yet at the same time it was a spiritual service”; it was a service to the human spirit, to someone, not merely a provision for the needs of somebody. When charity becomes only a “social service” to be “delivered” by a professional, Benedict seems to suggest, that someone is subtly transformed into a problem to be solved, rather than a human being to be encountered. And because of that, an opportunity may be lost — the possibility of meeting the needs of the spirit as well as the needs for food, clothing, shelter, medical care, and so forth.

Charitiy vs. Justice

In a section entitled “Justice and Charity,” Benedict XVI traces the intellectual roots of the notion that is, in Schambra’s terms, “the central theoretical assumption of the modern philanthropy industry.” The Pope is largely thinking of European ideas and events, but his analysis is nonetheless related to Schambra’s concern.

“Since the nineteenth century,” Benedict notes, “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 [and] almsgiving are in effect a way for the rich to shirk their obligation to work for justice and a means for 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 will receive their share of the world’s goods and no longer have to depend on charity.”

This critique of charity, in a softened form, continues to be pressed by many major players in twenty-first-century philanthropy. And yes, Benedict concedes, there is “some truth” to be found in this critique; the state does have a primary responsibility for ensuring justice in society, and a just society is one in which each person has an appropriate share of the material necessities of life. Yet there is also, the Pope insists, “much that is mistaken” in a line of argument that sets charity against justice, and that treats charitable giving and charitable activity as obstacles to achieving the just society.

To set charity against justice and then to rule in favor of justice is, Benedict contends, an ultimately dehumanizing exercise, in both personal and political terms: “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 that 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 neighbor is indispensable.”

To presume that these enduring human problems can be “solved” once and for all by government and/or by large philanthropy, is to be blind to a danger that Benedict, John Paul II, and their predecessors have long warned against. As Benedict puts it, “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…generously acknowledges and supports initiatives arising from the differing social forces [which] combine spontaneity with closeness to those in need.”

The Pope then cuts to the humanistic core of the debate. Some claim that “anyone who engages in charitable initiatives is actually serving the unjust system, making it appear at least to some extent tolerable…. Seen in this wa
y, charity is rejected and attacked as a means of preserving the status quo. What we have here, though, is really an inhuman philosophy. People of the present are sacrificed to the moloch of the future — a future whose effective realization is at best doubtful. One does not make the world more human by refusing to act humanely here and now. We contribute to a better world only by personally doing good now, with full commitment and whenever we have the opportunity.”

The Pope reiterates the classic Catholic doctrine of “subsidiarity,” which teaches that decisions should be made, as much as possible, at the lowest levels of society, so that families, neighborhoods, and local communities flourish and take responsibility for mutual care. The extreme opposite arrangement appeared in the totalitarian regimes that Benedict and John Paul II suffered under, regimes that brutally sacrificed existing persons in the name of the utopian future they claimed to be ushering in.

Today’s Western democracies are far less disordered, but John Paul II nonetheless cautioned in Centesimus annus (1991) that “By intervening directly and depriving society of its responsibility, the social-assistance state leads to a loss of human energies and an inordinate increase of public agencies, which are dominated more by bureaucratic ways of thinking than by concern for serving their clients.”

Religious Charity Without Soul

Finally, Benedict XVI raises caution flags for all religiously based charities: “it is very important that the Church’s charitable activity maintains all its splendor and does not become just another form of social assistance.” This should lead us to wonder: Does a religiously based charity become “just another form of social assistance” when a large proportion of its budget comes from the government, whose funds inevitably carry certain restrictions? Can religiously based charities protect what Pope Benedict would not hesitate to call their soul as they are drawn ever closer into the secularizing embrace of the state? Is there a tipping-point at which, given a certain critical mass of government funding, a religiously based charity ceases to be something distinctive? Deus caritas est puts an important question onto the table of America’s continuing debate over the role of federal and state dollars in religiously based social services: Is the real danger here to the Constitution — or to the identity of Catholic Charities, Lutheran Social Services, Jewish Community Services, and similar agencies?

Although Benedict XVI was writing for a global audience, his message to the United States seems clear: There is no substitute for the rich diversity of charitable activities and agencies that is a defining characteristic and glory of American society, and there is no substitute for the personal giving and volunteering that the social critic Alexis de Tocqueville (a Catholic layman) recognized as the engine of charitable activism in the United States. Giving ourselves to others in works of charity is important for the giver as well as the receiver. Retail charity at the personal level is crucial for the individual and crucial for society. It can’t be replaced by a wholesale form of philanthropy that, aiming to change “unjust social structures,” often ends up turning men and women into mere numbers. “We are dealing with human beings,” the Pope concludes, “and human beings always need something more than technically proper care. They need humanity. They need heartfelt concern.”

Charity in Africa

Bono, an Irish Catholic rock singer and Time’s co-Person of the Year, has long campaigned for increases in government-provided and government-managed development aid (particularly in Africa). Just a week after Deus caritas est was released, he addressed the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C., and inadvertently illustrated the point of view Benedict was critiquing. After he acknowledged that America had not abandoned the world’s poor after September 11 — in fact had vastly expanded governmental spending on global health care and AIDS relief — Bono had this to say:

“And finally, it’s not about charity after all, is it? It’s about justice. Let me repeat this: It’s not about charity, it’s about justice. And that’s too bad. Because you’re good at charity. Americans, like the Irish, are good at it. We like to give, and we give a lot, even those who can’t afford it. But justice is a higher standard. Africa makes a fool of our idea of justice; it makes a farce of our idea of equality. It mocks our pieties, it doubts our concern, it questions our commitment.”

In truth, the idea which Africa “makes a fool of” is not the Western idea of justice; it’s the idea, beloved both of establishment philanthropy and of rock stars with left-wing politics, that governments should be the primary providers of “social services,” including education and health care.

Yes, Africa is in crisis and could easily fall off the edge of history into a continental oblivion that would forever scar the memory of humanity. But to suggest that the answer to Africa’s suffering is to set justice against charity and to prefer governmental aid programs over other forms of aid is to be willfully blind to recent history, which has seen hundreds of billions, perhaps trillions, of aid dollars squandered or stolen by corrupt African governments over the past 40 years. It also suggests ignorance of the fact that, in Africa, only non-governmental organizations (and especially churches) have shown themselves capable of promoting the kind of changed behavior that drives down the incidence of AIDS.

To his credit, Bono and celebrities like him have kept in the public eye issues that many of us would prefer to forget. But Bono and his friends in establishment philanthropy should read Deus caritas est. Charity, Pope Benedict reminds us, is always needed by givers and receivers alike. Historically, setting justice against charity has shown itself to be a prescription for injustice and a sure-fire method for muffling the sense of fellow-feeling and obligation that gives rise to charity in all its forms, large and small. Setting justice against charity reinforces the instinct of all modern governments, including democracies, to absorb nearly every facet of social life into themselves. Setting justice against charity creates a barrier to imaginative thinking about public/private partnerships that can deal with complex humanitarian emergencies like crisis-ridden Africa.

Charity, Pope Benedict writes, “is a way of making present here and now the love which man always needs.” That is why there is no substitute for charity — which is a lesson both government and the establishment philanthropy industry must learn, for the sake of justice.

This article was originally published on Philanthropy Magazine

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