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The First Principle of Catholic Social Concern

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jan 11, 2010

In attempting to figure out how the problem of poverty should be addressed in a healthy culture, the first thing we come up against is the impossibility of solving any social problem by reducing it to its statistical parameters and then establishing bureaucracies to address the statistics. This is because such problems always have causes that go beyond what mere numbers show. Especially if unjustly restrictive laws have been eliminated—that is, the government itself is not the direct cause of the poverty in question, as it may be under a corrupt regime—these causes are always in some measure personal. As such, they can ultimately be addressed effectively only through personal intervention.

At least in a generally prosperous society, poverty has deep roots in such problems as the absence of family support, abandonment, abusive relationships, problems posed by dependents, lack of self-respect, destructive habits, addiction, low expectations, poorly developed character, poor diet, inadequate health patterns, a dearth of education or training, community prejudice, and many similar things which are often fundamentally spiritual in nature. For this reason, the first rule of Catholic concern for the poor is that this concern must be motivated by love for the whole person in his fundamental spiritual identity as a child of God. St. Augustine made this point in the early 5th century:

What is perfection in love? Loving our enemies and loving them so that they may be converted into brothers. Our love should not be a material one. Wishing someone temporal well-being is good; but, even if he does not have that, his soul should be secured…. It is uncertain whether this life is useful or useless to someone; whereas life in God is always useful. Therefore, love your enemies in such a way that they become your brothers; love them in such a way that you attract them to fellowship with yourself in the Church. (Treatise on the Epistle of St. John to the Parthians, 1, 9)

Some sixteen hundred years later, in his 2006 encyclical Deus est Caritas, Benedict XVI found himself making the same point:

Charitable activity…is always concerned with the whole man. Often the deepest cause of suffering is the very absence of God…. A Christian knows when it is time to speak of God and when it is better to say nothing and to let love alone speak. He knows that God is love (cf. 1 Jn 4:8) and that God's presence is felt at the very time when the only thing we do is to love…. It is the responsibility of the Church's charitable organizations to reinforce this awareness in their members, so that by their activity—as well as their words, their silence, their example—they may be credible witnesses to Christ. (31)

This fundamental orientation to the whole man, in both his temporal and his spiritual need, is the hallmark of the Christian response to the poor whom, as Christ so tellingly observed, “you will always have with you, and whenever you will, you can do good to them” (Mk 14:7). I do not mean to suggest by this that Christians are bound to oppose government programs of assistance to the poor because they are inevitably bureaucratic rather than personal. I simply mean to establish the perspective from which all efforts to help the poor must be judged. Understanding both the deeply personal nature of poverty and the kind of engagement it takes to overcome it enables us to avoid political utopianism, whether ideological or statistical, and forces us to critically examine the various possibilities on offer.

It should also go far toward eliminating the use of poverty programs as either political weapons or political sinecures, for we will find that even when we have exhausted all the possibilities of public policy, we will still have a very long way to go. This is because the ultimate plight of the poor will seldom depend on the accessibility of government agencies, yet in each individual case it will depend on love, and love is generally unrecognizable after it has passed through political hands. Therefore, since we ought not to feel so very satisfied if all we have done is pass a bill, perhaps we can now take a step back, survey the landscape, and begin again.

Previous in series: Catholic Social Teaching: Buried in the Bunker?
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Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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