Private Charity Versus Government Welfare

Less than three years has passed since the publication of Pope Benedict XVI’s third encyclical, Charity in Truth. As some readers may remember, the encyclical caused quite a stir both in secular and religious circles — as have many of the past papal encyclicals dealing with economic questions, going back to Pope Leo XIII’s groundbreaking 1891 exposition of social justice, Rerum Novarum.

It appears that the redaction and publication of the current encyclical was speeded up to address the ongoing global economic crisis — and that it does. This article, however, will instead take a brief look at the proper roles of private charity and government welfare in pursuing the integral development of persons, families, and countries.

Encyclicals are magisterial. That is, they are meant to be studied, prayed over, and applied to the subject at hand. However, in questions of social justice, while the Holy Father and the bishops in communion with him may teach with authority, ultimately it is the laity’s role to apply the teaching to the concrete circumstances of particular countries, economies, and societies. It is at this level that there can be legitimate and perhaps diverging opinions on the ways to apply the teachings in particular cases. Rarely will there be any perfect solution.


In Charity in Truth, Pope Benedict cites Pope Paul VI, who

had an articulated vision of development. He understood the term to indicate the goal of rescuing peoples, first and foremost, from hunger, deprivation, endemic diseases, and illiteracy. It meant their evolution into educated societies marked by solidarity; from a political point of view, it meant the consolidation of democratic regimes capable of ensuring freedom and peace.

However, Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict both emphasize the principle of solidarity, which can be defined as “a sense of or responsibility on the part of every one with regard to everyone.” Benedict is clear that this cannot be delegated to the state alone. It seems, given his insistence on the virtue of caritas — love — that one cannot see the State as the principal caretaker of welfare or so-called “social justice.” Benedict insists again and again on what he terms “gratuitousness,” which is a reference to the long-time heart of Joseph Ratzinger’s theology: the emphasis on the sincere gift of self. We could also translate this as the “self-gift,” and find in this formulation a second meaning, since through it a person finds his true self in charity. Private charity is preferable because it is a means of growing in grace for the donor. Clearly this cannot be the case of the Leviathan government, which has no moral subject.

Pope Benedict maintains that Market plus State is simply not enough; such a reduction of social relationships is corrosive of society. We must remember that both John Paul and Benedict lived under totalitarian states that persecuted religion and were responsible for tens of millions of deaths and many martyrs. They knew that perhaps the most important factor in the slow but sure growth of early Christianity was the self-gift of early Christians and their families to those around them, which contrasted so strongly with the brutality and coarseness of the gradually decaying Roman State. Speaking of the early Church, Pope Benedict says in his first encyclical, God is Love, that,

As the years went by, and the Church spread further afield, the exercise of charity became established as one of her essential activities: love for widows and orphans, prisoners, and the sick and needy of every kind is as essential to her as the ministry of the sacraments and preaching of the Gospel. The Church cannot neglect the service of charity any more than she can neglect the Sacraments and the Word.

Today, the Church continues to be the world’s largest private agency of charity to the indigent, as it has been through the centuries, spearheaded by figures as well known as St. Vincent de Paul, Frederic Ozanam, and Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta.


Along with solidarity, Benedictand indeed all of his predecessors who taught on human development and the justice of economic systems — insists on the principle of subsidiarity. He writes:

A particular manifestation of charity and a guiding criterion for fraternal cooperation between believers and non-believers is undoubtedly the principle of subsidiarity, an expression of inalienable human freedom. Subsidiarity is first and foremost a form of assistance to the human person via the autonomy of intermediate bodies. Such assistance is offered when individuals or groups are unable to accomplish something on their own, and it is always designed to achieve their emancipation, because it fosters freedom and participation through assumption of responsibility.

The beauty of this principle is that it provides for charity only as needed while encouraging self-reliance as possible. Whether this assistance comes from the government at the local or federal level, from private charities, from the Church, or simply from relatives, it should normally be limited to getting people or families back on their feet, rather than fostering prolonged dependency — the compelling counterexample being the tens of millions of Americans on food stamps.

Benedict notes: “The principle of subsidiarity must remain closely linked to the principle of solidarity and vice versa since the former without the latter gives way to social privatism while the latter without the former gives way to paternalistic social assistance that is demeaning to those in need.”

The pope then applies these principles to foreign aid. “Such aid, whatever the donors’ intentions, can sometimes lock people into a state of dependence and even foster situations of localized oppression and exploitation in the receiving country.” He goes on to stipulate that “Economic aid, in order to be true to its purpose, must not support secondary objectives.”

It is clear from Benedict’s tour de force survey of the current state of human development that private charity is preferable to public welfare, in that it satisfies the principles of subsidiarity, solidarity, and gratuitousness, or self-giving, which ennoble those who provide it and enable those who receive it as needed.

On the other hand, government assistance generally should serve as temporary help when private charity is not available or effective — the proverbial safety net — but not as a form of bribery for political purposes or as a means of gaining power over people, as if oppressive taxation and inflationary monetary policy were not means enough. After all, as the saying goes, what the government can do for you, it can also do to you.

I will let Pope Benedict have the last word:

The greatest service to development, then, is a Christian humanism that enkindles charity and takes its lead from truth, accepting both as a lasting gift from God. Openness to God makes us open towards our brothers and sisters and towards an understanding of life as a joyful task to be accomplished in a Spirit of Solidarity.


Rev. C. J. McCloskey III


Fr. C. J. McCloskey III is a Church Historian and a research fellow of the Faith and Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. After and while earning a degree in economics from Columbia University, he worked for two major firms on Wall Street. Visit his website at

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