Friday, October 7, 2011

Benedict XVI on Justice and Charity

Paul Adams

In his encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, Pope Benedict XVI (2006) begins his discussion of justice and charity with a frank recognition of the objections raised by Marxism to charity as a substitute for justice, as a way of sustaining the status quo instead of building a just social order.  For Marx, charity sapped the energy and independence of the working class, which needed rather to emancipate itself through its own class struggle.  It should be noted that Marx’s hostility to charity was, in social work terms, directed at least as strongly to those forms of socialism and solidarism, like Jane Addams’s project of “bridging the gap between the classes” as to almsgiving or the social casework and community organization developed by the COS. 

          Benedict acknowledges the truth in these arguments, at least in their reformist or social-democratic guise, which seeks to enhance the role of the state (as opposed to Marxism which seeks its overthrow) in guaranteeing to each person their share of society’s goods:
It is true that the pursuit of justice must be a fundamental norm of the State and that the aim of a just social order is to guarantee to each person, according to the principle of subsidiarity, his share of the community’s goods.  This has always been emphasized by Christian teaching on the State and by the Church’s social doctrine (p62).
He also recognizes that the Church’s leadership was slow to adapt its thinking about the just structuring of society to the new conditions of industrialization in the nineteenth century, the conditions that gave rise to modern social work. 

Benedict points, however, to the rich body of Catholic social teaching, from Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum (1891) to John Paul II’s Centesimus Annus (1991) a century later.  “This social doctrine,” as Neuhaus (2006) put it in discussing Benedict’s encyclical, “provided the alternative to the Marxist notion that revolution and the collectivizing of the means of production would establish a just society in which charity is superfluous.  Of the Marxist claim, he says, ‘This illusion has vanished.’”

          Benedict (2006) emphasizes several points about the relation of justice to charity.  First, the distinction between what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God is fundamental to Christianity.  Works of charity (diakonia) are part of the Church’s threefold ministry, along with proclamation (kerygma) and celebration of the sacraments (leitourgia).  Accordingly, “For the Church, charity is not a kind of welfare activity which could equally well be left to others but is part of her nature, an indispensable expression of her very being.”

          At the same time, the Church recognizes the autonomous but related sphere of the state vis a vis the Church.  Politics is fundamentally about ethics and its origin and goal are found in justice. As a political task, he argues, building a just order must be the achievement of politics, not of the Church.  Politics is the realm of reason, and faith can help liberate reason from its blind spots and enable it to be more fully itself.  The Church teaches on the basis of reason and natural law and it is the laity’s responsibility to work on the basis of practical judgment for a just society.  But the Church does not have the responsibility to make its teaching prevail, much less to impose its faith on others or to gain power over the state.  In all this, Benedict repeats themes he has emphasized since the advocates of liberation theology half a century ago sought to define the Church’s role in political terms.

          Secondly, Benedict rejects the notion that any political order, no matter how just, will ever eliminate the need for charity. “Love – caritas – will always prove necessary even in the most just society,” he writes. “There is no ordering of the state so just that it will eliminate the need for the service of love.”  Such a utopian program of rendering charity unnecessary leads in practice to the hypertrophy of the bureaucratic state.  It stifles those charitable impulses that find their natural expression in the structures – of family, neighborhood, church, and voluntary organization - that mediate between individual and state (Berger & Neuhaus, 1976; 1996).  Or, as Benedict puts it, “The state which would provide everything, absorbing everything into itself, would ultimately become a mere bureaucracy incapable of guaranteeing the very thing the suffering person – any person – needs: namely, loving personal concern.”

          Third, Benedict argues that for those who work in the Church’s charitable agencies, professional competence and effectiveness are necessary, but not sufficient. “Charity workers need a ‘formation of the heart’: They need to be led to that encounter with God in Christ which awakens their love and opens their spirits to others.” He has a particular concern that the Church’s own professional social workers may be infected with ideologies that deride charity as a stop-gap, a substitute for justice that serves the status quo. This tendency is strong even among social workers whose own jobs depend on charitable support of their agency.  “What we have” in such ideologies, Benedict states, “is really an inhuman philosophy.  People of the present are sacrificed to the moloch of the future…. One does not make the world more human by refusing to act humanely here and now.”

          Finally, I want to mention the point Benedict makes, though not in these terms, about the need for equanimity and a constrained vision (Sowell, 2007) of the possibilities of change resulting from the actions of the professional.  Social workers, we may say, have a professional tendency to “unscrupulous optimism” (Scruton, 2010), to assume responsibility for solving social problems in a way that reflects an exaggerated sense of the power they can or should have over the lives of others.   He points out that we “are only instruments in the Lord’s hands; and this knowledge frees us from the presumption of thinking that we alone are responsible for building a better world.  In all humility we will entrust the rest to the Lord.”

This professional tendency in social work to assume a third, extra-legal mandate beyond the intervention requested by the client or mandated by law (e.g., in child protection cases), extends beyond the social worker’s relation to an individual or family client –where the concept of empowerment exerts a restraining influence.  It leads to claims of professional authority and competence in political activism that aims at structural economic change.  Here it seems that something analogous to the distinction between the Church’s restraint but the laity’s duty in the political realm applies to the professional as distinct from civic duty of social workers as citizens.

Benedict addresses himself specifically to the “charity workers” who carry out professionally the Church’s ministry of diakonia. He assumes an identity of Christian purpose between the Church’s “ecclesial charity,” which is integral to its very being, and the professionals employed in carrying it out. He warns rightly (not least in light of the experience of liberation theology several decades ago) of the dangers of activism in the name of parties and ideologies that are alien to that shared purpose.

How does all this relate to the profession of social work, the secular inheritor of scientific charity?  It is a profession that includes many Catholics and other Christians who have chosen this field of relatively low pay and prestige precisely because of their Christian understanding and commitment to serving the needs of the poor and downtrodden.  It also includes many - and (we may suspect) especially in its leadership - who are non-religious and hostile to the Church.

A topic for another post!

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