Helping the poor, intelligently
By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Oct 26, 2021
Every person should be concerned about the well-being of those who are unable to secure for themselves and their families such things as adequate food, clothing, shelter, medical care, basic education, and employment. With thought, we might add a few other potential deprivations to this list, such as reasonable protection against crime or unjust attack. These wholesome concerns are rightly prompted by the natural law. Quite apart from the natural human concern we have for our families and our immediate communities, we all ought to grasp the obvious reality that the natural goods of this world are intended to be shared by all, not hoarded by a few.
In Catholic social teaching, this insight is called the “universal destination of goods”, and it is worth noting that the foundational principles of Catholic social teaching are drawn from the natural law. They can be perceived by all: While Divine Revelation provides additional instruction and insight, these things are known to us primarily through nature itself (as, by the way, is the existence of a Creator). But the more deeply we understand Divine Revelation through Jesus Christ, the stronger our commitment to these basic principles should become.
There are, however, a few distinctions that we need to make if we are to avoid hopelessly botching our efforts to help others, and more generally to promote the common good.
For the love of God
The first distinction concerns why we ought to help others. This obligation does not arise by virtue of some ideological vision. We ought not, in other words, to define the good we do to others in terms of what we might call specialized human theories of how to create the perfect world. Paradoxically, part of what we learn from both nature and Christianity is that we cannot achieve ultimate perfection in this world, and that the effort to fit everyone into some pre-conceived ideological mold in order to achieve such “perfection” is just another way of attempting to remake the world in accordance with our own theories—which we neither have the wisdom nor the ability to do without causing significant fresh damage.
Ideologies are, of course, one of the curses of our time. The huge mechanisms of government, media, schools, and commerce seem to flit from one ideology to another, forcing the larger social order into a constant frenzy about the remaking of human nature and natural morality—which is not even possible for us without deadly distortions. In contrast, I came across a rather succinct statement of the proper motive for treating the poor well in my recent rereading of the Bible.
I have often mentioned that each time we read Scripture we are in a slightly different personal situation and, at least partly because of this, we are assisted by a slightly different grace. These circumstances combine to cause different passages to leap off the page and into our hearts, passages to which we had paid little or no attention before. What struck me forcibly just last night was this statement about the poor in the Book of Proverbs:
Whoever oppresses a poor man insults his Maker,
But he who is generous to the needy honors Him. [Prv 14:31]
This idea that mistreatment of the poor is an insult to God is repeated in slightly different words in the next chapter: “Whoever mocks the poor insults his Maker” (17:5), and the theme is expanded in a variety of ways by several other proverbs, one of which is particularly worth quoting in this context:
Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the Lord,
And He will repay him for his deed. [Prv 19:17]
Ultimately, then, we assist the poor out of reverence, for the Maker and for the works of His hands. And if meditation on these proverbs does not guide us in the way of a proper motivation, nothing else is likely to do so. Life is simply not about our own feeble conceptions of the perfect world. Life is about the bountiful goodness of God, in which He calls us to participate: “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (Mt 25:40). Or “Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me” (Mt 25:45).
If all of these statements sound rather personal, this is because they are. In the first instance, our moral obligation is not to institute and enforce government (or corporate or academic) policies which make a collectivity out of various “groups” of people who are to be treated in prescribed ways through an exercise of bureaucratic power. It is possible to punish certain egregiously evil actions through the powers of law and government; but it is impossible to mandate cohesive systems of behavior through the inevitable bureaucratic codes. Moreover, when we approach this concern for the poor primarily in political/bureaucratic ways, we lose both that schooling of the will which amounts to personal human responsibility and that touching of the heart which roots action in human love.
I will say (perhaps for the hundredth time) that this goes far toward explaining why our bishops should be far more active in encouraging closeness to God and the growth of natural and Christian virtue than in trying to cure the world’s ills by endorsing “policies”. The first rule of thumb for the cultivation of a cohesive society is that this cannot be accomplished by government fiat. It can be accomplished only by a growing understanding of how we ought to treat each other in every from of relationship—husband and wife, parent and child, employer and employee, supervisor and staff, teacher and student, friend among friends, and neighbor among neighbors. I do not say that government and law have nothing to do here, but I do say that government and law can contribute only insofar as they tend to create space for the genuine personal engagement of real people in the common good.
It is not too much to say, in fact, that prudence itself demands more attention to personal conversion and positive action among friends and neighbors and less emphasis on government edicts, programs, and financing. If we want to foster a healthy society, we must look to the revitalization of faith, charity and collaboration in parishes and dioceses, rather than to the next round of bureaucratic tinkering and control.
And this also highlights an important area in which people must be free to disagree. Everyone who is capable of doing so is morally obliged to help others in a variety of ways. But nobody is obliged to agree that government program X is the best way to accomplish personal objective Y. Quite apart from the difficulty of distinguishing helpful programs from bureaucratic waste, government programs are never the ideal way to accomplish anything at all, though there are many properly-conceived governmental duties. The ideal way is always through a virtuous people active in treating each other as thoroughly Christian people ought to treat each other, through churches, families, friends and neighbors, businesses and associations.
It takes not only zeal but prudence to make such distinctions, and even to get into close enough touch with reality to recognize and respond to the truly personal demands of what Pope St. John Paul II called love and responsibility. After the Fall, God did not intend life in this world to be easy; still less did he intend it to be easy only for a few. But He did intend that life on this earth would bring us to our senses so that we might be more firmly rooted in Him.
We must realize that there has never been a secular State that could get out of its own way. We must distinguish this whole issue from politics, lest we begin to think political partisanship is the measure of our responsibility, and political programs the proof of our love. If that is so, all who enter here must abandon hope. But no, God’s life in us is far more fundamental and far more powerful than that. The Book of Proverbs does not speak of the State, nor does it prescribe public policy. But it does, once again, say this:
Whoever oppresses a poor man insults his Maker, but he who is generous to the needy honors Him.
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Posted by: Jeff Mirus -
Oct. 27, 2021 11:03 AM ET USA
timmccmd3591: I take your point, and it is not without some merit. However, I was speaking primarily about helping the poor. Government--when it is good government--can excel at making the cost of criminal activity too high and at infrastructure improvements. But it typically does not excel at effecting positive changes in the lives of individuals and families, particularly individuals and families who are poor or marginalized. That sort of help has to be primarily local, primarily free of partisanship, and primarily given through personal engagement and even mentoring in conjunction with cooperative community efforts, all based on a profound respect and even reverence for those who have been in this sense left behind. That is what I was trying to get at in this particular essay. Moreover, it is hard to identify a government today which is motivated by sound, non-ideological values. Consequently, rebuilding effective local cultures, especially effective local cultures surrounding Catholic dioceses and parishes, is absolutely vital.
Posted by: timmccmd3591 -
Oct. 26, 2021 10:29 PM ET USA
The results of government programs are due mainly to the active participation of citizens, OR rather, the neglect of such duty (where a handful are allowed to pass laws that favor wealth transfer...because few citizens speak up to stop this). The arguments and remedies you suggest show a somewhat dated view and no longer reflect the reality of a highly stressed global environment where issues challenging humanity's survival are larger than just local charity.