Who deserves charity


Cupped Hands, Flickr image by Tainted MoonlightBack in February 2004 historian John Hirst wrote an article for The Age, praising then Labor leader Mark Latham for distinguishing between 'good' and 'bad' parents, and between the 'real' unemployed versus the 'slackers'.

Hirst's article might seem an odd throw-back to Victorian-era distinctions between 'deserving' and 'undeserving' poor, but it is a distinction of which the Howard Government made frequent use. That Government had plans to introduce contingency to welfare payments for various transgressions, including convictions for drug offences.

Five years after Hirst's article, the Rudd Government has not altered that trajectory, trialling the connection of welfare payments to kids' attendance at school. And, of course, there are the distinctions in social security budgeting. In the 2009 Federal Budget, politically popular age pensioners were granted increases to their fortnightly payments while single parents and the unemployed (who live on $227 a week) missed out.

So ironically, at a time when Centrelink officers come to resemble parole officers, when, like pocket money, welfare money is taken off you if you act up, and when the state acts like Victorian-era charity workers towards single parents, churches and other charities must provide help to the 'leftovers'.

This regression is interesting in the light of the historical development of the notion of 'social justice', with which social workers and charitable organisations are more than ever concerned.

The emphasis on social justice developed partly in response to the perception that charitable workers were censorious and treated their 'charges' without respect. Social justice engrained the principle that assistance to those in poverty is not the responsibility of private agents, but is a right born of citizenship and the responsibility of governments. This ideal has been in retreat of late.

Pope Benedict XVI's first and third encyclicals, Deus Caritas Est (2006) and Caritas in Veritate (2009), provide illuminating reading in this context.

In Deus Caritas Est, Pope Benedict called for the Catholic Church to return to Christian ideas of charity, writing that 'the Church can never be exempted from practising charity as an organised activity of believers', and that 'there will never be a situation where the charity of each individual Christian is unnecessary'.

He returns to the distinction between 'justice' and 'charity', the former the responsibility of the state, and the latter of the Church, insisting that the Church has a role in fighting for justice within the state.

In Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict further develops the themes of charity and justice, reiterating his conviction that charity is at the heart of the Church's social doctrine.

Certainly, charity (Church and non-Church) will always have a role in providing for those who 'fall through the cracks'. But Pope Benedict's words come at a time when churches in Australia increasingly have to provide 'charity' to those who have been failed by the 'justice' of the state.

As far as 'justice' goes, there is nothing wrong with establishing reciprocal obligations for people who require assistance from the Government, as both the Howard and Rudd Governments have tried to do.

If people are receiving a jobseeker's payment, for example, it could be a reasonable expectation that they go and seek jobs. If they are receiving a parenting payment, it's fair that they be required to show that there are some kids who are being parented.

The problem is that as the discourse of social justice became prevalent, governments move into territory vacated by charities. But when they try to decide whether clients are 'good' parents or 'slack' jobhunters, they go beyond what  can reasonably be achieved by government officers.

Meanwhile, both religious and other agencies provide assistance to those who fall through the cracks or, sometimes, as in the case of the Welfare to Work legislation, are co-opted into the service of the state.

Caritas in Veritate makes the task of charities even more problematic when he defines charity as incorporating and surpassing justice. 'Charity goes beyond justice, because to love is to give, to offer what is 'mine' to the other; but it never lacks justice ... I cannot 'give' what is mine to the other, without first giving him what pertains to him in justice.'

According to Pope Benedict's formula, if citizens do not receive what is just from the state, then the charity that is offered them by the church will only be compensatory, and cannot constitute 'true' giving.

In Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict writes that the Church does not claim to 'interfere in any way in the politics of States'. Lest one fall prey, however, to the familiar criticism of charity — that it is a panacaea that distracts morally committed people from the task of heightening justice in the world — church and non-church social organisations must always be prepared to commit themselves politically.

In today's context, the role of loving the unloved and embracing the rejected is critical, and so is that of fighting to dismantle punitive and exclusive conceptions of 'justice'. This is the responsibility both of those who proclaim faith and of those who proclaim simple humanism.

Susie ByersSusie Byers has worked as a welfare rights advocate and tenants advocate at a community legal centre in Perth. She is currently researching a PhD in History at the University of Western Australia and is a former President of the UWA Guild of Undergraduates. 

Topic tags: Susie Byers, social justice, Church, charities, Pope Benedict, Deus Caritas Est, Caritas in Veritate



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Existing comments

Identifying unjust structures and working to remove them is also part of the justice/charity mix. People mostly do not just end up needing charity by chance. Usually they have come against a system where privilege undermines the efforts of the disadvantaged. Our democratic government and fair go culture needs to recognise that our tax system favours the wealthy- that hard work is taxed at the expense of socially damaging investments which get tax breaks all round. Love for humanity is also about creating a level economic field which disadvantages none. Charity is there also willing and ever ready to help out when things go wrong, whether through bad judgement, illness natural calamity etc.

Anne | 14 July 2009  

Thanks for a fine piece - its concluding paragraph is focused and hard hitting: "It is the responsibility of those who proclaim the faith...[to fight] to dismantle punitive and exclusive conceptions of justice." This applies particularly at the moment to welfare and other aspects of the Northern Territory Intervention. It provides particularly worrying instances of the Rudd-Macklin administration continuing the 'trajectory' (in this case rushed and ill-thought-through legislation that has not been sufficiently modified to respect the human rights of Aboriginal people) of the Howard-Brough administration.

Joe Castley | 14 July 2009  

The Vatican treasures would help.

Harry | 14 July 2009  

we must realise there are limits to Law and Order in solving human problems. We as Christans must not lose sight of the need for 'Transformation'of our whole being and "'Healing'. the answer to social disfunction is not punitive actions, but the love of a caring community. We must never forget the Victorian phrase 'As cold as Charity'.

john ozanne | 14 July 2009  

This is a superb, and timely, piece. It is disappointing that the current government has done nothing to correct the Howard government's shift away from the concept of social justice in providing support to unemployed people.

One obvious example of the denial of justice is the fact that the unemployed were excluded when pensioners and carers were given much-needed increases in their payments. At the same time, high income earners received a tax cut.

Myrna tonkinson | 14 July 2009  

Well explained! I keep meeting people who slip through cracks,like the family some of whom had flu. With the swine flu worry they were told to stay housebound until it was identified. It was not swine flu but Dad was a casual worker so missed wages. And a Government department did not accept their address because they had a post box and did not live in a street with numbers!

Pat S | 15 July 2009  

I find the argument presented by Susie as obscure as Caritas in Veritate. I am not a scholar of theology and I suppose neither document is meant for me. However I will continue to pore over Caritas jn Veritate in the hope that some meaningful understanding will emerge. Perhaps the Editors might consider publishing a plain english version of Caritas in Veritate if indeed that is possible. The argument seems important for the laity to understand.

Ken Fuller | 17 July 2009  

The essence of the issue that you discuss, very commendably, is that 'charity' is to be dispensed to the deserving, not to the non-deserving. However, this is to slant the response to the dispossessed in way that keeps them thus.

I live in Brasil, where a miracle of 'social engineering' is taking place in the form of the 'bolsa familiar' - or, the'family bag' -which is the social security support for families. The bolsa is available for all families (of all kinds) who send their kids to school. It is not available for those who don't. Regular school attendance has risen by 80% in my State, Maranhao, since the bolsa was introduced in 2002. Kids are now receiving some form of education - however deficient it may be regarded in Western societies.

This is the provision of a basic 'right', not of charity. I suspect that Ratzinger was addressing the issue from that perspective, rather than from the point of view that pre-supposes the 'deserving poor', most of whom are so stuck in the culture of crime, corruption and a short life span that education, advancement and a decent life style are beyond their imaginings.

But what if Ratzinger is right and that 'charity' on the part of the society (the bolsa??) is the way forward?? Will 'the bolsa' work in Sudan or in Somalia?? No-one 'deserves' charity but everyone who desires a better future for their children is entitled to a 'bolsa'.

Michael Nelson | 17 July 2009  

Having run my own charity concern I was acutely aware of this divide and my own efforts were limited by finite resources. The concept of defining justice and the provision within the overal draw on governmental revenue will always be difficult however one defines needs, in contrast to wants. While government justice is finite we all serve the divine commission with infinite resources; only limited by our our efforts to seek His will to provide for the vision splendid set before us.

Stephen Coyle | 02 August 2009  

Just noticed Ken Fuller's request for simply expressed material on Caritas in Veritate.

Try www.faithdoingjustice.com.au/docs/CVDiscussionGuide.pdf
and www.faithdoingjustice.com.au/docs/IntegralHumanDevelopment.pdf

It would be great to hear if you find them useful.

Sandie Cornish | 30 August 2009  

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