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sweet charity

By Diogenes (articles ) | Mar 06, 2008

"Like most violent controversialists, he believed himself to be the pattern of meekness and good temper." So wrote Ronald Knox about the Jansenist Antoine Arnauld. No stranger to violent controversy, your Uncle Di is neither meek nor good-tempered, but he doesn't sneer at those who are. There's an elementary moral beauty in the amalgam of benevolence and humility that no Christian can ignore.

I'm struck by how often Catholic controversialists admonish each other with some variation on the dictum, "in all things, charity." I think what they are really calling for is not charity, but magnanimity and graciousness. Attractive as these qualities are, they are symptoms of charity rather than its criteria, and the confusion can work unintended mischief.

In all things, charity. No argument. Charity is not proposed to us as an invitation or an ideal but given as a command -- a divine command -- and we'll all have to answer to God for our failures therein. When charity becomes a weapon in polemics, however, our theology has jumped the rails. Sometimes controversialists lob the charity grenade at their opponents in order to preempt a hostile come-back; this is what I call the "olive branch in the eye" maneuver. But even apart from cynical and manipulative intentions, the appeal to charity is inapt when made by someone with no true stake in the dispute, and it sometimes calls to mind the sanctimonious indifference mentioned in St. James (2:15f) "If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and no food for the day, and you say, 'Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well' ... what good is it?"

It's not especially hard to be serene and equable about controversies that have no concrete impact on one's life, and it's easy to urge disputants to remember the decencies of debate when the worst outcome is, simply, a lost debate. As the pseudonymous aphorist Gyp observed (with only mild exaggeration), "We don't ask others to be faultless; we only ask that their faults should not incommode our own." It's not clear to me that those who extol charity most volubly are always models of restraint when someone gets a needle into a sore spot.

The gauge of authentic benevolence is not courtesy in the face of hostility, where the issue at stake is peripheral. We need to examine the case where the whole purpose and meaning of a man's life is overthrown by the position espoused by his opponents, and especially where his opponents are on the brink of success. In such circumstances 16th century Christians took up pikes and battle-axes against their Christian adversaries -- all sides with the enthusiastic blessing of their clergy. If today's blogger forbears to take an axe to his opponent but indulges in unlovely sarcasm at his expense, we can admit that he fails in graciousness, but are we certain that he fails in charity?

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  • Posted by: - Mar. 07, 2008 8:51 PM ET USA

    I understand the argument being made here, i.e. don't remain quiet in the face of evil doing. Who could disagree? But I must say, for the same reasons you urge us to speak up, you must remember how anger can be destructive. By all means speak up for the right. But in parish and community affairs "unlovely sarcasm " can indeed be a failure of charity. And these are the worlds most Catholics live in, not the larger world where insults bounce off the armour of influence and position.

  • Posted by: - Mar. 07, 2008 6:28 PM ET USA

    As I understand it, Charity is a theological virtue, ie one which is about our relationship with God 'love your neighbour as yourself for the love of God'. What governs our relationship with our fellow humans is the Cardinal Virtue of Justice, with our own behaviour being moderated by the virtues of Temperance and Fortitude. Is it not so??

  • Posted by: - Mar. 07, 2008 5:35 PM ET USA

    Sometimes, the most charitable thing a friend can do is say something that will poke you with a sharp stick.

  • Posted by: - Mar. 06, 2008 5:21 PM ET USA

    Just today I was reading in a book about Montfort spirituality the definition of charity: willing the best for the other. Charity is an act of the will, not a feeling or polite behavior.

  • Posted by: - Mar. 06, 2008 9:51 AM ET USA

    The charge of "uncharitable!" is the weapon of choice of many who have no real clue as to the nature of this supernatural virtue of charity. It's typically confused with mere social graces or, worse yet, not "hurting" anyone's feelings. St. Paul would have been roundly castigated by such as these for his "Oh, you stupid Galatians!"

  • Posted by: - Mar. 06, 2008 7:09 AM ET USA

    I hope you'll write more on this, perhaps a Pt. 2 on "thou shalt not judge?" Christianity has nearly destroyed itself under headings of charity and tolerance. Much of it can be traced to eliminating Hell from our theology. If our neighbor's soul is not at stake, then we are merely mean (uncharitable) if we point out his error. Thus we save each other from despondency, at the threat of damnation, and call it charity.