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Pope's equivocal view of social justice


Caritas in veritate, Pope Benedict XVIChristian reflection on almost anything important soon has to deal with the tension between charity and justice. It affects the way we see God's relationship to human weakness and the way we respond to the world in which we live. Both justice and charity need to be given full weight.

Catholic rhetoric about justice and charity, as of much else, is influenced by the thought of the reigning Pope. In his reflections on society and other aspects of human life, Pope Benedict privileges charity. If any planning or struggle for a just society is to be effective it will depend on people's good will and generosity in the implementation. People need to trust and care for one another.

The insight is particularly pertinent to education, health and welfare programs. When people's needs are met by large public programs, it is common for administrators to separate the service provided from the persons to whom it is given. People are then treated simply as objects of service and not as subjects.

To work effectively with people welfare agencies need to develop a culture that puts priority on the person with the need and not simply on the need itself. Their agents need to interact with their clients as person to person, not simply as seller to customer, official to member of public, or professional to client.

This requires a personal commitment by those who work in welfare. But it also requires a culture. The Pope spells this out in Christian terms, basing it on God's love for each human being shown in the life, death and rising of Jesus Christ.

Charity, of course, is neither restricted to nor necessarily to be found in Christian agencies. The common currency of the phrase 'as cold as charity' is testimony to past failure. In many public organisations, too, the place of charity is spelled out and embodied splendidly in secular terms. People experience their dealings with other public agencies as being as cold as the lack of charity.

The Pope also says 'yes' to social justice. But his 'yes' is normally a 'yes, but ...'. The commitment to justice must be accompanied by love, by prayer, by loyalty to the church and so on. When speaking of prayer and participation in liturgy his 'yes' is unqualified.

That is not to doubt his commitment to social justice. All of us respond to some things with a 'yes but'. We may, for example, endorse an interest in spirituality, but remark that it always needs to include a concern for the poor. Conflicting 'yes buts' make for balance.

Today it is right to endorse even charity with a 'yes but'. Charity is central, but it demands a strong commitment to social justice. If we were to see Christian faith as expressed only in charity, we would reduce the relationships between people to those of personal gift. We would fail to see that we owe and are owed much by others.

If I owe someone something, the generosity and affection with which I pay my debt are commendable but they do not make my payment simply a gift. My dispositions and those of the recipient may make it felt as gift, but it remains something owed.

Ultimately we make a claim on one another by the fact of our shared human dignity. This places a responsibility on us to feed the starving and to care for the sick and to welcome those who seek asylum. In complex societies we expect the state to organise the ways in which we discharge our debt. We might make of the services we provide a gift graciously given, but they are not a gift that we can in good conscience refuse to make.

If we view our responsibilities to the poor only in terms of charity, we ignore the connections and responsibilities to poor and disadvantaged people that we bear by virtue of the humanity we share with them. Within a Christian view of the world, too, we ignore the implications of God's care for each human being, and so especially for the most needy, and our membership in Christ's body by virtue of his death and resurrection.

To focus exclusively on love is a particularly insidious temptation for churches. Christian history is full of religious authorities and groups whose profession to act out of love has blinded them to the appalling lack of respect they displayed in their dealings with members who fell out of favour.

If the claims of justice are not recognised and met, assurances of love are self-deception. In intellectual reflection our affirmation of the centrality of justice may legitimately be a 'yes but'. In our actions such a qualified affirmation is equivalent to a denial. 

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street


Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Pope Benedict, charity, social justice



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Existing comments

The key word...rhetoric-says it all...that great big signpost that points up, underlines, confirms, shrieks aloud...the ever widening gulf between what the Pope (church) says and what he and the church does..the gap between precept and practice. 'Nuff sed!

Brian Haill - Melbourne | 04 May 2012  

But I always thought that loving embraced the whole person - as they are - affording them the dignity and respect that I would hope for myelf. Isn't that the second commandment? And how can I love that person if I'm blind to the injustices in their life? Please tell me if I'm missing something, because I want to Jesus with clarity and joy.

A. McGregor | 04 May 2012  

It seems to me, though please correct me if I am mistaken. It would be more just to say -Christian history is full of religious authorities, groups, cults and heretics whose profession to act out of love has blinded them to the appalling lack of respect they displayed in their dealings with "other" Christian members who fell out of favour for expressing their right to question, oppose, conform to and/or defend religious authorities, groups, cults, heretics and such.

Myra | 04 May 2012  

I think there is a potential problem with a focus on "charity" and separating it in our conversation from "social justice". The problem is that charity is presented as a virtue, which it undoubtedly is, but when viewed or engaged in as an act of holiness it can create an unequal relationship between giver and recipient and leave the recipient in a position of less self-worth and obligation. This is why many people do not like or want "to accept charity" and why various devices are implemented so that donated goods can be provided in less obvious and less personal ways (e.g. through SVdP retailing operations). I think the solution to this lies in ceasing, for most purposes, to distinguish in our discourse, between charity and social justice, for, if understood correctly (in my opinion), charity is a virtue precisely because it serves justice and not for any other reason. In other words, if someone is needy, and I have the means, I OWE her my charity, something of my means. This is why I support strong redistributive social and economic policy.

Stephen Kellett | 04 May 2012  

Another thoughtful reflection that calls each of us to renew our own practical commitment to both loving kindness and to justice. As Pope Benedict put it in Love in Truth: Not only is justice not extraneous to charity, not only is it not an alternative or parallel path to charity: Justice is inseparable from charity, and intrinsic to it.…

Denis Fitzgerald | 04 May 2012  

Can 'love' exist without the foundation for that love being intertwined with concern for the human rights of the 'loved one?'

Caroline Storm | 04 May 2012  

"If the claims of justice are not recognised and met, assurances of love are self-deception." In reflecting on being a member of Christ's 'body', I would observe that we struggle with the same issues 'secular' society does. We like to think we are 'not of this world', that we are somehow more enlightened, more charitable. And when we let each other down, it's like a slap in the face. Kyrie Eleison - the cry of the needy in the face of the all powerful one.

Pam | 04 May 2012  

Can we have a clear definition of precisely what 'love' means please? One man's 'love' seems to be another man's imposition, coercive behaviour, and dodgy deal. What does the Pope know of 'love' within a marriage when birth control is prohibited? What does the Pope know of 'love' between people of same sex relationships? I doubt the Pope has an inkling on the meaning of 'love' at all.

janice wallace | 04 May 2012  

Love To dream the impossible dream To fight the unbeatable foe To bear with unbearable sorrow To run where the brave dare not go To right the unrightable wrong (1)To be better far than you are(1) To try when your arms are too weary To reach the unreachable star This is my quest, to follow that star No matter how hopeless, no matter how far (2)To be willing to give when there's no more to give (2) (3)To be willing to die so that honor and justice may live (3) And I know if I'll only be true to this glorious quest That my heart will lie peaceful and calm when I'm laid to my rest And the world will be better for this That one man, scorned and covered with scars, Still strove with his last ounce of courage To reach the unreachable star [Notes:] (1)To love pure and chaste from afar (2)To fight for the right without question or pause (3)To be willing to march into hell for a heavenly cause

Myra | 04 May 2012  

Who was it said "charity covers a multitude of sins"? There is indeed some truth in the saying.

John R. Sabine | 04 May 2012  

How much more charitable the Pope and the Catholic Church as a whole could be if it were able to genuinely respect and treat equitably women and homosexual people, just for starters! After all, as well as being notoriously cold, isn't charity supposed to also "begin at home"?

Michelle Goldsmith | 04 May 2012  

I suppose, Janice Wallace, the Pope sees love as the absence of hate. Perhaps it is difficult to embrace 'love' if the psyche prefers to embrace 'hate'. To embrace love might be more uplifting. Love for human life (which is what all this social justice rhetoric embraces) is what the Pope is talking about.

john frawley | 04 May 2012  

Interesting point, Andrew. My understanding was that from a Natural Law perspective Justice is respect for the good of others, while Charity or Love was desire for the good of others. Justice demands that we respect each other's right to pursue the good; at a basic level it is non-interference, at a higher level it includes fairness in our dealings with others. A person may be Just without actually caring whether others flourish or not. But Charity requires that we truly desire the flourishing of others. Not only does it logically incorporate the lesser requirements of Justice, but it dramatically reorients our own inner landscape such that our typical pursuit of our *own* good is subsumed and transformed in our new-found will that others also flourish. The Charity you are critiquing sounds like a false Charity. I agree that if we do not comprehend Justice then we cannot comprehend Charity. In our culture 'Charity' has become an impoverished concept, reduced to the modern equivalent of giving alms. Of course, as with so much of the Christian response, real Charity requires us to be better people. There will always be pressure to reduce it something independent of individual character.

Zac | 04 May 2012  

How do we practice love, charity and acceptance when we deny people justice and love according to their gender, sexuality and race. Many Church letters say one thing while meaning another. On the surface they show a Church reaching out to embrace the poor, oppressed and alienated, while denying the same rights offered to the majority of people. Too often the opposition to the sexual preference of a person is voiced and may I add voiced with conviction, yet when violence is committed against these persons the voice become somewhat less or even not even heard.

Michael | 04 May 2012  

The industrial society introduced welfare systems to address the unemployment which that society directly caused. The victims of the system are not receiving " public welfare". A tax was imposed on them when they were employed, and is imposed on workers still employed, to finance it. It is called charity by politicians to disguise the wasteful use of our taxes on propping up the banks and other wasteful expeditures.

Reg Wilding | 04 May 2012  

Never mind that after 17 centuries of what is pictured and described in these references the church is somehow magically transformed to be the vehicle of "social justice"? http://www.dartmouth.edu/~spanmod/mural/panel13.html http://www.jesusneverexisted.com/cruelty.html Can the leopard willfully change its spots?

Frederick | 04 May 2012  

It is easy to see why English translators, faced with the shifting meaning of the word ‘charity’, altered ‘Faith, Hope, and Charity’ to ‘Faith, Hope, and Love’. Caritas does not mean non-profitmaking organisations designed to assist in acts of benevolence, it means Love. ‘Faith, Hope, and Love’ are called the Christian virtues, as though they were something we aspired to, whereas it seems to me that Paul talks about them as all we have left when everything else has failed, as everything else will in fact fail. The sort of Love we are talking about here is not just love for those it is easy to love but, rather extremely and annoyingly, anyone. This kind of Love is about much more than active giving and caring, though they are necessary. If you love someone you want to see that they receive justice in their need, but Andrew I think is saying that even more than that, Love requires justice for anyone. The source is Love itself, not simple charity.

FONTES VITAE | 04 May 2012  

It is difficult to write about the Pope's writings without sounding disrespectful but - to use the "yes but" approach - I will take that risk. Has Benedict XVI ever written anything original? Has he revealed some insight that makes the reader go - Wow! (If you want to know what I mean by the Wow-factor read "The Testimony of St Paul" by Carlo Maria Montini.) Has the Pope illustrated traditional Christian beliefs in such a way as to make them clearer? More intelligible? More inspiring? I regret to say that his encyclicals read like updated theological lecture notes - devoid of any pastoral experience at the parish level. As it is I don't know where he gets the time to write his Encyclicals and other correspondence to his representatives throughout the world. There are not many, if any, Prime Ministers or Executive Presidents who have the time and application to write philsophical essays on Democracy Society and how its members should conduct themselves. Even books/speeches attributed to them have been penned by ghost-writers or wordsmiths. From the submitted feedback so far I get the impression some ES readers feel that the Pope's writings/pronouncements lack the milk of human kindness.

Uncle Pat | 04 May 2012  

'Ultimately we make a claim on one another by the fact of our shared human dignity. This places a responsibility on us to feed the starving and to care for the sick and to welcome those who seek asylum'. One doesn't need to be a Catholic, or even religious, to embrace that view. I've always regretted the Whitlam government's decision to remove the words 'Commonwealth of Australia' from our bank notes, replacing them with the simple 'Australia'. For me, the word 'commonwealth' was a constant reminder that the 'right' to pursue one's individual interests must always be qualified, and that the resources of the nation ought to be held in trust for the common good.

Ginger Meggs | 04 May 2012  

I wonder to what extent ex Bishop William Morris of Towoomba feels vindicated about his perceived injustice by the church now that this book has been published

John Whitehead | 04 May 2012  

I enjoy reading the varied views of Uncle Pat, but must hold him to account over the claim that a Bishop of Rome never has time to compose his own encyclicals. Pope Benedict has been assisting in the composition of papal documents, including encyclicals, for the past twenty or more years. Whatever one's view of the quality, significance, and effect of some of these encyclicals, the hand of Benedict is there. It is a matter of historical conjecture how much any encyclical is the work of one hand, or the result of consultation. Historians are left to figure out who was on the committee, but we usually expect the pope to be there somewhere in the process. An object lesson in how a world leader has time to write at depth on philosophy, theology and society while in office can be seen at the Lambeth Palace website. It is very apparent in reading the almost daily sermons, addresses &c. there that only Rowan Williams could have written any of them. I suppose we should be grateful in this day and age that we can still discern when cognitive activity has been employed in the writing of all these words, meaning they weren’t made up by a machine.

PHILIP HARVEY | 05 May 2012  

The absence of hate, indifference, is not love. And indifference explains how 6 millions Jews managed to be slaughtered in a country where only a minority might be regarded as hateful. Charity is merely another word for love - but it's often perceived by the recipient as a form of manipulation or power play to hold them in a state of motional indebtedness.

AURELIUS | 05 May 2012  

I agree with Stephen and Zac. If we love we must do justice to those who need it, otherwise our love is false. Love requires action , acts to fulfil the needs of our fellow human beings. To my mind, justice is love in action.

Tony Santospirito | 05 May 2012  

Thanks Fr. Andrew and the people commenting; this has been helpful. For me the duties of loving and doing justice aid each other. Realization that I'm not giving someone a fair go often comes to me because my conscience has reminded me of the commandment to love. If I find a person difficult to love, an opportunity to deal fairly with the person aids loving.

Paul | 07 May 2012  

There is nothing more beautiful more perfect on the earth than the love between a mother and her child- Motherhood is the womb of creation- Billions of mothers around the world experience the Love God has given Us His Beloved Creation through this sublime love. This Love is the only Power in the world- and the foundation of every fruitful happy civilisation.

Myra | 10 May 2012  

Philip Harvey makes a valid point with the example of the writings of the Archbishop of Canterbury. I find Rowan Williams a superlative example of how to write about theological and moral matters in the Christian tradition. Of course he has the advantage over Benedict (not that I want this comparison to sound like a tennis match)in that English is his mother tongue; he is not writing with the blinkers of Thomistic and/or Augustinian concepts;he speaks from grassroots pastoral experience; and he has a Celtic/Welsh sense of humour. My criticism of Benedict's writings/pronouncements is deeply influenced by my Celtic/Irish culture. Philip holds me to account over my claim that the Bishop of Rome doesn't have the time to write his own Encyclicals. I actually wrote that I didn't know where he got the time to write them. I did make the mean-spirited suggestion that they smacked of old theology lecture notes being updated. I'm not looking for new doctrines but for fresher, more engaging ways of propagating them -much like Jesus did with many of the religious and moral teachings of the Hebrew Scriptures.

Uncle Pat | 10 May 2012  

Uncle Pat raises the interesting question of how much the Thomistic framework effects the way papal encyclicals are framed. The late, saintly Archbishop Michael Ramsey, like Rowan Williams, was a theologian of some considerable ability. He was regarded as a fairly "Catholic" theologian for an Anglican. I'm not sure whether Rowan Williams came from a Welsh speaking family background but Ramsey was definitely English. There have been some excellent Melkite Catholic writings in English viz Archbishops Joseph Raya, Joseph Tawil and Elias Zoghby.Because Melkites are Eastern Rite Catholics, they don't write from a Thomistic viewpoint. So, I would say, although Thomism shaped Western Christian thinking, it may not be necessary to write from a Thomistic viewpoint to be an authentic modern Catholic theologian. As some strains of High Church or Anglo-Catholic theological writing effect some modern Catholic writers, perhaps the literary style will change? The doctrinal stance need not but it might be expressed more in the style of the great Anglican divines who wrote wonderful, clear, incisive prose. I confess my own paternal ancestry is from the English side of the Welsh Border where Norman, Saxon and Celt all mingled so I feel a great affinity for Anglo-Welsh writers like the poet George Herbert.

Edward F | 23 May 2012  

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