Nowadays, “charity” conjures up various images, some of which are quite distant from everyday life. Consider the “nonprofit sector”—or government welfare programs.
Others images are more immediate—soup kitchens, or Salvation Army kettles.
But charity—caritas—is actually a supernatural virtue. As Saint Paul puts it, “now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.” True charity—Christian charity is a gift, bestowed by the grace of God.
Christ calls all men to perfect charity—“Be ye perfect, even as my heavenly Father is perfect.” But fallen man can only strive after it.
Non-Christians are called to charity as well. The natural law inclines all men to exercise good will towards one another, even strangers. This is a virtue—a natural one. Aristotle calls it eunoia, acting with the good of others—the common good—in mind. Grace perfects what is in nature. So Christian charity perfects what we are already called on to do “by nature.”
But Aristotle also points out that an act cannot be virtuous unless it is truly voluntary. Clearly, an act of personal generosity qualifies under that definition; but does a government program?
Here arises a possible impediment. Christian charity must be selfless. Man must subordinate self-love—amor sui—to love of God—amor dei. In fact, for Augustine, self-love is the central feature of the City of Man, which “is ruled by the lust of rule”—libido dominandi, power-lust. And government programs, even welfare programs, can be self-serving—serving the interest of the government, not the governed. That is, a government “charity program” can be perversely designed to increase the power of the government, rather than to serve the common good. We don’t have to look far to find examples.
Are those politicians who are so generous with other people’s money truly selfless? Alas, merely to ask the question is branded as uncharitable.
The Beatles sang, “All we need is love.” They were wrong. As Augustine makes clear, the lust for power can be driven by love too—self-love. It is not by chance that Orwell chose to call Big Brother’s torture chamber the “Ministry of Love.”
This week the Church celebrates the feast of St. Stanislaus, the Patron Saint of Poland. As Bishop of Krakow, Stanislaus had a lot of run-ins with the government—in this case, the Polish king Bolesław the Second. Stanislaus repeatedly reprimanded King Boleslaw for breaking the Commandments, for sending soldiers off to unjust wars, and for his cruelty to the people. Finally, Stanislaus excommunicated the King.
Bolesław responded by ordering his men to kill the bishop. They refused, so the king killed Stanislaus himself, with his own sword. (He then fled and died in exile.)
Saint Stanislaus offers us a model of the perfect charity that we are all called to emulate. “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”
This week Catholics also celebrate the feast of Saint Julie Billiart. Julie’s heroism surpasses anything you might find in a Victorian novel. At age thirty she was paralyzed by a mysterious illness. For twenty years she taught, counseled, and prayed—from her bed! The French Revolution forced her into hiding, but despite her travails, she founded the Sisters of Notre Dame, devoted to teaching the poor and preserving the faith that had been so persecuted by the revolution.
Please note that the marvelous works of Saints Stanislaus and Julie were carried on without government funding. Quite the contrary. Hostility in France caused Julie to move her motherhouse to Holland. There she inspired German sisters to adopt her religious rule. Then those sisters were thrown out of Germany by Bismarck’s Kulturkampf—so they came to the United States. Since then, thousands of Sisters of Notre Dame have taught millions of children all over the world.
Thrown out of France by the anti-Catholic government. Thrown out of Germany by the anti-Catholic government. Did that stop them? Not at all. Through all this adversity, God raised beautiful works of charity that today spread all over the world. And there are hundreds of religious orders with similar histories.
Times Change, Charity Doesn’t
The nineteenth century was the golden age of voluntary Catholic charity in America. Schools, hospitals, orphanages, churches, and other works of mercy flourished, supported not by government funding but by voluntary, even sacrificial giving from poor Catholic immigrants.
In the twenty-first century, things are different. Many of the Catholic Church’s charities—Catholic Charities, Catholic Relief Services, Catholic universities, Catholic hospitals—now depend on taxpayer funding, billions of dollars every year.
When you pay your taxes this week, will you feel the thrill of performing a work of Christian charity? Did you seal your envelope with a fervent kiss overflowing with Christian love? When you render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, are you rendering to God what is God’s with the same check?
Is this our century’s version of charity?
Each age brings its own challenge to charity. Stanislaus and Julie, saints who confronted the challenges of their day with faith and fortitude, are models of heroic virtue. In our own day, just getting married and staying married seems to require heroic virtue. That’s tough enough, to be sure—but today’s challenge goes deeper, especially for our children.
For each two children born today, there’s a third child that didn’t make it. That sad fact accounts not only for the violence so prevalent in our society, but also the poverty. That poverty is not material, but spiritual. “Any country that accepts abortion is the poorest of the poor,” Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta tells us.
America’s children grow up in fear and trembling today. Good Catholic kids are surrounded by a generation that is spiritually impoverished. As they grow, so do the challenges. Burdened by ideology, our schools don’t educate like they used to. Yet high-schoolers still vie to gain entrance to the college of their choice—and the prospect of acquiring tens of thousands of dollars in debt. After graduation, graduate or professional school means more debt, while the job market offers few prospects.
Young Catholics today have a mountain to climb. Many hope to marry, to buy a home someday, and to have children. Yet, many face the prospect of paying off their college debts all the way through their childbearing years. How can they afford a marriage? How can they afford a mortgage? How can they afford children?
The sexual revolution blind-sided our bishops fifty years ago. They’ve been off-balance ever since. Cardinal Dolan, president of the bishops’ conference, says they’ve had “laryngitis.” And yet, he says, our young people hunger for the truths of Humanae Vitae, the Church’s teaching on human life, marriage, the family, and, yes, sex. This encyclical was promulgated by Pope Paul VI in 1968. It was immediately trashed by almost everybody.
Calling All Heroes
Humanae Vitae is the answer to our culture’s ills, but the roadmap requires heroic virtue. Not in great things, but in small things. Families. Babies. Sacrifice. The building blocks of a culture of life.
Today the Church must teach the poorest of the poor. According to Mother Teresa, that can also mean Americans who might think that they are pretty well-off.
As members of the Order of Malta, we resolve, every day, “to practice charity towards our neighbor, especially the poor and the sick.” In our age, it is the spirit that is impoverished. It is the intellect that is sick.
Our government seems to thrive on this, but our children are suffering. We must reach out to the spiritually and intellectually impoverished among us and help them—by word and by example.
We can no longer rely on the government to do this. For Big Brother, “Ignorance is Strength.” It’s up to us—to teach the truth, especially the unpopular parts, as Pope Benedict repeatedly observed, and to teach it in boundless charity—that supernatural virtue that is the greatest of all.
Editor’s note: This column is excerpted from a talk delivered to members of the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes, and of Malta in Washington, D.C., on April 11, 2013—the Feast of Saint Stanislaus.