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Conflating Politics and Charity: A Mistake We All Make?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jul 17, 2012

It is evident in nature that men and women are social beings, but it is sometimes a shame that we are also political animals. This leads us, very often, into the neglect of the supernatural virtues which have been infused into Christian souls by God. Let me explain.

This neglect is often seen in the confusion of political action with charity. There are a variety of reasons for political action, but most of them derive from our desire for a well-ordered society in which disruptive extremes are kept to a minimum. Through politics, we generally seek to ameliorate some inequity suffered by the marginalized in more or less the same way as we attempt to remedy some inequity occasioned by the powerful. These are requirements of the common good which arise from justice.

Liberals and conservatives tend to differ over what problems are best solved by governmental action, and also over how far various solutions ought to be pushed. Surely our apprehension of human goods and values enter into such decisions, but only infrequently will these decisions be determined by a consideration of supernatural virtues. Most often, in fact, such virtues would be ruled out of political bounds. Again, through politics we are not generally aiming to respond in the deepest way to the demands which God places on each one of us as Christians; rather, we wish simply to ensure a certain stability, peace and prosperity in the natural order.

What is dangerous is our tendency to allow what is clearly only one component of human well-being to be mistaken for the whole. Conservatives frequently make this complaint against liberals. It is characteristic of the liberal mind (as it is of philosophical liberalism) to see the social order as something which man can perfect through the rational action of governing elites, shaping the social order according to their superior expertise. Liberalism, then, inescapably contains a certain element of secular utopianism, in consequence of which the liberal too often sees himself as quit of his social obligations if he has gone through the motions of influencing government to take care of things.

This may explain why liberals in the United States give forty percent less to charity than do their conservative counterparts, who generally see a stricter separation between the proper scope and duties of government on the one hand, and all the other problems that need to be addressed on the other. Even so, and at the risk of denigrating this forty percent gap, this is hardly an adequate measure of charity. After all, the conservative may simply prefer to work toward his ideal social order through non-governmental organizations. In any case, it is common for conservatives to fight mightily in the political order against the notion that the demands of charity can be met through political programs and in favor of a wider scope for private action. But when the political battle is done, they may content themselves with a certain self-satisfaction in defending the right and necessity of personal charity, without any commitment to put a significant portion of their efforts into any sort of charity at all.

Of course insofar as no liberals and no conservatives have been animated by the supernatural virtues, particularly the virtue of charity, we may be content to let the devil take the hindmost. What more, after all, can we expect of pagans? But insofar as there are real Christians in these two broad groups, then the lure of political battles can become a kind of trap. Political action can make us think we have done our part in the work of charity, just as it can occupy far too much of our energies for far too little return. Indeed, given the typical choices available in most political campaigns, it is probably an understatement to suggest that we ought to be giving serious consideration to putting our energies someplace else.

In any case, charity demands a deeper and more direct engagement with real persons in real circumstances, an interaction with the whole person whenever possible, in order to raise both the recipient of our charity and ourselves to a higher level, both natural and supernatural. Charity must change all of our relationships, deeply touching the lives of our family members, friends, co-workers and the other members of our community with whom we interact. In addition to our vocational duties—our special treatment of and love for those who share with us the burdens of our particular path in life—the potential scope of our charity is perhaps best summarized by the spiritual and corporal works of mercy:

Spiritual:

  • To instruct the ignorant;
  • To counsel the doubtful;
  • To admonish sinners
  • To bear wrongs patiently;
  • To forgive offences willingly;
  • To comfort the afflicted;
  • To pray for the living and the dead.

Corporal:

  • To feed the hungry;
  • To give drink to the thirsty;
  • To clothe the naked;
  • To shelter the homeless;
  • To visit the sick;
  • To ransom the captive;
  • To bury the dead.

Now we may not all have frequent opportunities to directly engage in all or even most of the corporal works of mercy, though we will certainly find real opportunities for some of them, even among our family or our ordinary circle of acquaintances; and we have the opportunities to engage in all of them through truly sacrificial support of appropriate organizations. As for the spiritual works, well, it is a rare soul who will not have ample opportunities for all of those. Suffice it to say that there are more ways to instruct the ignorant, counsel the doubtful, and admonish sinners than even politics provides!

Why do I bring up the obvious? Because we constantly forget it, and we tend to forget it even more colossally than usual when we get involved in politics. For example, this will pose a special challenge to Americans between now and November, resulting in an almost certain decline in charitable activity during our Presidential campaign. This problem has many related aspects, and I'd like to call your attention to another one in Words I Wish Had Been Mine: On Charity. But here my point is very simple: For the Christian, politics is never enough. Our political invovlement does not even begin to discharge our divinely-appointed duties. And oh by the way, politics cannot save.

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Show 3 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: Barbnet - Jul. 18, 2012 7:19 PM ET USA

    The US bishops are probably wise not to comment on issues like social spending and social justice. If they support these things, Catholics may rightly blame them for the mounting (near $16 trillion dollars) of debt plus the $100 billion a month the US Treasury is borrowing. If the country experiences an economic decline due to unmanageable debt or catastropohic currency devaluation, the generous Catholics who support the parishes and dioceses will go down along with everyone else.

  • Posted by: FredC - Jul. 18, 2012 10:39 AM ET USA

    The U.S. bishops have said that the demands of charity can be met only by the government. They claim that the problem is too big for them to solve. The bishops need to re-think this support of impersonal "charity", such as having the government mail people food stamps. The government would do better to classify people according to their needs so that individuals would be given (tax) credit for financially helping the needy.

  • Posted by: spledant7672 - Jul. 18, 2012 12:07 AM ET USA

    Time and again I have found that this clarity of categories which leads to such precision of analysis is a distinct attribute of the Roman Catholic intellectual heritage. As a Ukrainian Greek Catholic I am grateful for the fullness of the Church, "breathing with both lungs."

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