Who’s Killing Grandma?

Last summer Republican proposals to reform Medicare inspired the Democratic public relations machine to new heights of hyperbole, the most hyperbolic showing a look-alike of congressman Paul Ryan unceremoniously dumping grandma off a cliff. The clear implication is that the Democrats care and Republicans are simply nasty. But who is really killing grandma and does either party have the answer? Where do the responsibilities for social justice truly lie? Two thoughts from Pope Benedict’s first volume of Jesus of Nazareth will guide us:

“When God is regarded as a secondary matter that can be set aside temporarily or permanently on account of more important things, it is precisely these supposedly more important things that come to nothing….It is in this world that we are obliged to resist the delusions of false philosophies and to recognize that we do not live by bread alone, but first and foremost by obedience to God’s word. Only when this obedience is put into practice does the attitude develop that is also capable of providing bread for all.”

When we forget God, we forget the soul. When we forget the soul, we forget God. To treat the body while ignoring the soul is good for neither body nor soul. In our modern developed world we have neatly placed body under the care of government and soul under the care of the Church. We have rendered unto Caesar our physical well being and unto God our spiritual well being. As the Church has always claimed and as Pope John Paul II’s recent Theology of the Body makes clear, the body and the soul are not two separate entities but a single unity. What you do to my body you do to my soul. When you hurt my body I feel it in my soul. When I use my body to do good it improves my soul. When we minister to the body, we minister to the soul. Body and soul are inseparable. To treat them separately diminishes both.

Charity must be considered in light of this unity. Charity is love in action. It is both redemptive and bonding. Charity begins with the giver who thinks beyond his own needs to others. It ends with the gratitude of the receiver who sees a gift given in a time of need. It bonds those who have with those who have not in a common humanity. It touches body and soul of the giver and the receiver. It elevates both toward God. Furthermore, the roles frequently change and those who received are often the first to give to others in need. When the state becomes involved it is no longer charity. It no longer involves the soul. The person giving is no longer thinking beyond his own needs because he now feels robbed. The person receiving no longer sees a gift deserving gratitude but an entitlement that is owed to him. There is no bonding because neither party had to consider the other. But even worse than the man who feels robbed or the man who considers himself entitled is the man in the middle who took the money to give, usually by proxy through the voting booth. He feels a sense of worth giving money he did not earn, a feeling that quickly becomes an addictive quest for new causes on which to spend other people’s money. By not directly serving body and soul we create an exchange that  diminishes the souls of all involved.

Whereas our Founding Fathers assumed a government subordinate to principles divine in origin, modern western governments, insistent on their own authority, have actively divorced themselves from any relationship to God. To think these governments can dispense charity as an act of love is absurd. With God disavowed such governments can only provide “bread alone.” The ongoing destruction of families by our welfare system confirms Pope Benedict’s observation that when we neglect God, “supposedly more important things come to nothing.”  Once men and women are no longer seen as images of God created for eternal life but, instead, are defined as biological objects of finite duration, “social justice” practiced by the state can be neither social nor just.  It is not “social” in that it cannot create a society based on the love intrinsic in charity freely given and freely received.  It is not “justice” because it shortchanges man’s claim on this world and denies his most important claim on eternity. In the twentieth-century government efforts to mandate love’s outcomes, where love is not freely given, have only created horrific dystopias.  The resulting societies have been both dysfunctional and unjust, where the assertion of power for purportedly good causes always ends in the assertion of power for power’s sake.

Recent history also clearly reveals that as the state waxes the church wanes. Yet many Christians seem intent on passing social responsibility to our government, even though it diminishes the moral authority of the church and replaces it with the amoral authority of the state.  As the state grows, it seems naïve that we should then be surprised that the state, guided by no moral compass other than the caring trend of the day, establishes abortion as a constitutional right, views marriage simply as a feel-good arrangement, and considers the exercise of sexuality as a purely recreational event in which the state has no role (except maybe to encourage it).  It should not surprise us when our government, as it recently has, declares that the Catholic Church, through its charitable, medical and educational enterprises, must support contraceptive services that violate its core moral teachings.  The cheap and ready availability of contraceptives renders this a transparent attempt to diminish the Church.  Though we think ourselves far from tyranny, the quest for power for power’s sake has already begun.  As states grow in power the Church is always seen as a threat that must be reduced. And reduced it is.

To aggrandize the state as the only solution to social ills ignores history. For the better part of two thousand years “social justice” meant something that the church did. Since its beginning, the church has cared for its neighbors. Since early Christianity it has fed the poor and built hospitals, schools and orphanages to help those in need. What is novel is the idea that social justice is the role of the state. As we transfer social justice from church to state we lose our moral bearing. We have become a society that has confused love with something that feels good. We have confused love as the choices we make for others and not the choices we make in our own lives. This is the antithesis of the love of Jesus whose love led him, not others, to His cross.  We have become a society that denies personal responsibility while crying louder and louder for social responsibility. We no longer see that social responsibility is simply the collective result of personal responsibility. Without personal responsibility, social responsibility has no foundation. We have confused loving grandma with putting her in a government-paid-for nursing home. We have confused pulling the lever in a voting booth with helping one’s neighbor. It should surprise no one that while everyone cries, “we care!” our society grows coarser, ruder and more self-centered.

So what do we render unto Caesar and what do we render unto God? Charity is a work of love. It is not the denarius or dollar we render unto Caesar. It is clearly the work of the church. Charity calls us to a Christian love whose very basis is sacrifice. Taxing your neighbor or the rich guy down the block is not sacrifice. Charity is something each one of us does based on the personal sacrifices each one of us chooses to make. Christian love calls us not only to render service unto our neighbors in need but to assume responsibility for our own lives and actions. It calls us to bring both the actions and ideals of social justice back into the Church. It calls us to redefine the roles of Church and state.

The following questions may help us to begin.

How does the state inhibit the building and operation of church institutions caring for those in need?

What strictures are placed on church institutions that prohibit the free exercise of their missions?

What wealth is the government taking from us that we could more efficiently use to care for others in our own way with our own mission?

What is it that keeps us from packaging our “bread” with our love?

Our relationship with the state should be one that frees us to truly minister to whole people and not the truncated humanity the state sees.  Increasingly, it prohibits us from doing so.

The ship of state is enormous and will not be easily turned.  A culture that abhors self-sacrifice  fuels the engines that push it forward.  Realigning government and church requires a changed culture.  Government welfare depends on a “we” that actually includes very little “I” but, rather, a significant emphasis on “you.” Though a ship so large can only be turned by equal force, that force must truly begin with a single “I.”   We must accept the call to sacrifice as personal. As a precondition to loving our neighbors, this sacrifice must start within our own families.  Only with our families intact will we be able to reclaim the role of the church in society. In our past families comprised the basic unit of welfare. To that role we must restore them.  As we rebuild our families the many iterations of “I” must come together into the “we” of  our church.  A church so constructed will be a powerful force for change.  This church must live the message that bread freely given is the only foundation for a society that truly brings people out of poverty, both physical and spiritual. This church (the many iterations of “I”) must give freely and sacrificially. The modern construct that declares Christian charity undignified and judgmental must be replaced. We must return to the idea that gifts given and received in love represent the ultimate dignity of mankind. We must see that providing for bodies with no perceived souls is the ultimate indignity.

This clearly is a dream. We cannot turn back the clock. But every future begins with a dream or fails without one. Right now we are failing without one. On our present course, the ever expanding state will consume our freedoms and will isolate our churches behind closed doors. True religious freedom will only prevail when we assert not only our rights but fulfill our responsibilities for our families and our fellow man. We need a dream that sees through “the delusions of false philosophies” and reasserts charity as something divine, as something where God is not “a secondary matter.”  Our vision must be greater than “bread alone.” Our charity must include the primacy of God and the unity of body and soul.  To accept less denies man the very essence of his humanity.  Realizing this we will then recognize that when we minister to grandma’s body alone, she often dies long before the grave.

Pete Jermann

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Pete Jermann is a self-employed craftsman and former homeschooling father.

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