Observations: The Corruption of Charity

The greatest pagan philosopher, Aristotle, thought that it was impossible to love one’s enemies or to love a wicked man. On this last point he is frank and explicit: it is impossible to love what isn’t loveable; a wicked man is not loveable; so it’s not possible to love him.

We might think that this is a crude, un-Christian view, but St. Thomas Aquinas did not think so. He agreed with Aristotle: it is impossible, humanly speaking, to love an enemy or a wicked man. It becomes possible only through the theological virtue of charity, which enables us to love both through loving God. Such persons cannot be loved directly, but only for God’s sake.

We have to avoid cheap grace, or thinking grace is cheap. Loving an enemy or a bad person is not something to take for granted. It is truly extraordinary. After all, why was it that the love of the early Christians stood out so distinctly in the ancient world? Because their love seemed miraculous, beyond ordinary human capabilities or reasons.

Yet, if you asked some non-believing person today whether one ought, morally speaking, to love one’s enemies or to love those he thinks are bad, he would unhesitatingly reply that yes, one ought to do this. This illustrates an important difference between pre-Christian and post-Christian man. Pre-Christian man had a pretty good idea of human capabilities and limits, because the human was all he had experience of. Consequently, the supernatural was, in contrast, immediately apparent to him: it exceeded what he already knew and was familiar with.

Post-Christian man, on the other hand, has lost his sense of the human, because he has lost his sense of the divine. His head is filled with maxims and notions that make sense only if there are supernatural realities: he reads these back into human nature and ends up misunderstanding it. He tends to exalt human nature, in fact, since he attributes to it the characteristics that have come to it only through the union, in the Incarnation, of God with human nature.

In this we find the key, I think, to understanding the West today. Our culture and our morality consist of various attempts to hold onto certain Christian notions, which attract because of their high idealism, but without believing in the supernatural realities that make this idealism possible.

This has clearly happened in the case of theological charity. Our culture has wished to hold onto the ideal of loving all persons, even enemies and those one counts wicked. But, suppose Aristotle was right? How can we possibly do this? How can someone who does not believe in God succeed in loving someone, who, humanly speaking, is impossible to love?

The only way to do this is to deny, at a basic level, that one has any enemies or that there are any wicked persons. And this is what has been done. Post-Christian man has reconceived love as a frame of mind that consists in trying to view others in such a way that they are not taken to be bad or taken to be one’s enemy—even if they really are bad or really are one’s enemy.

The frame of mind that denies the wickedness of others is moral relativism. This is the basis for the superficial toleration that, in our day, serves as the secular proxy of Christian charity. Its chief feature is being “non-judgmental.” This means: one ought not think or say that someone else is doing what is morally evil. Love, then, becomes synonymous with adopting a contorted frame of mind that tries to find a good reason and rationalization for every form of sin and perversion.

Just as secularized charity does away with wickedness, so it does away with enmity. Enmity is removed through the pretense that persons who hold views that put them, practically speaking, in direct conflict with each other, are actually unified in some sublime way. The pro-choice philosophy, for example, is a product of secularized charity. It attempts to deny the real and practical opposition between those who assert the dignity of every human life and those who countenance the destruction of innocent human lives.

Enmity is also removed in the realm of thought through a kind of indifferentism that ignores beliefs that, if attended to, would be divisive. Secularized charity in such cases gives us this rule: if the assertion or preaching of a doctrine would cause division or strife, then it should not be asserted or preached. Enmity is removed only superficially, through the studious avoidance of any occasion on which the already existing enmity might become manifest.

For those who know only secularized charity, anyone who says there is an objective right and wrong, or who points to important truths over which there is real disagreement, becomes an enemy of charity. Such a person is dogmatic, intolerant, bellicose, judgmental. He introduces discord, division, bad feelings.

Yet, how can someone whose ideal is secularized charity—superficial goodness and peace at any cost—impute such bad motives to others and treat them as enemies? Doesn’t this go against the essence of the position they hold? Indeed it does, and this is why it is usual for proponents of secularized charity at this point to adopt a stance that psychologists call “passive-aggressive.” Outwardly, they are kind and benevolent toward those who assert objective right and wrong and who insist on doctrines over which there is disagreement, but inwardly and in practice, on those concrete decisions of daily life that make a difference, they act unfailingly to promote the views they agree with and to suppress the view of those with whom they disagree.

An ancient maxim states that “the corruption of the best is the worst.” Aristotle considered friendship the best of all things someone could have, and Aquinas considered supernatural charity, which he described as a friendship between God and man, to be the greatest and best of all virtues and goods. The secular equivalent of charity is the corruption of this and perhaps the most insidious vice. It robs us of zeal for what is good; it makes us indifferent to the truth; it leaves selfishness and individualism intact (unlike real love), while preening everyone on their benevolence and self-righteous, non-judgmental virtue; and it causes persons to tolerate, as if this were principled, unspeakable wickedness, such as abortion.

Yes, in the modern world you can have everything. You can hold onto your isolated self-centeredness, you can remain silent and inactive while others commit atrocious crimes, you can grow indifferent about the truth, you can be complacent while others pursue what is contrary to their eternal salvation—and you can do all of this while living perfectly the ideal of secularized charity.

Michael Pakaluk


Michael Pakaluk is Ordinary Professor of Ethics and Social Philosophy at The Catholic University of America. A Newman scholar, he is working on a book on Newman as philosopher. His latest book is The Memoirs of St. Peter: A New Translation of the Gospel According to Mark (Regnery, 2019).

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