Jesus said that those who inherit God’s kingdom will be those who fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, welcomed strangers, clothed the naked, cared for the ill, and visited those in prison. He told us that when he returns to identify the righteous who will gain eternal life, he will say to them, “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:31-46).
Charity, says the Catechism of the Catholic Church, is “superior to all the virtues” (1826) and “the goal of…Christian practice” (1827).
So, like my fellow Catholics, I engage in charitable giving. I give at Mass every week to support my Parish and its community outreach. I give to various charitable organizations on a monthly basis. I also provide direct support to people in need who cross my path.
Because of the Church’s teachings about charity, I was alarmed to see President Trump’s proposed federal budget, which seeks to gut anti-poverty programs and reduce assistance for housing, nutrition, and other necessities. I agree with Kevin Clarke, who writes in his U.S. Catholic article “A Social Safety Net is Not an Optional Expense,” that Trump’s “spending priorities run directly counter to the church’s preferential option for the poor, which proposes that in a just society the needs of the most vulnerable people are among the chief considerations.” I have always supported government-funded “public welfare” programs that provide food stamps, health care, free lunch for disadvantaged schoolchildren, and so on. I have no problem at all with requiring more fortunate Americans to help our less fortunate citizens.
This past week, however, I read an article that challenged me with the opposing viewpoint. In “To Whom Do Democrats Pray?” in Crisis magazine, history professor Dr. Jason Morgan opposes (among other things) the “welfare state” as a form of wealth redistribution for the less fortunate. “Welfare dependency,” he writes, “weakens personal dignity, undermines mediating institutions like the family, and accelerates the collectivization of more and more isolated and powerless individuals.” He criticizes current Catholic emphasis on “social justice” as promoting public welfare over private charity when the latter is the more effective way to help the poor improve their lives.
I spent some time considering Dr. Morgan’s arguments and found some flaws in his point of view.
The Church teaches that work and its resulting self-sufficiency promote human dignity, so I would agree that choosing to be “on the public dole” instead of working robs people of their power and their ability to participate in God’s creation. Those who are able to work should do so. However, most of the people who are receiving public assistance either cannot work (e.g., the elderly, the ill, the disabled, children from disadvantaged families) or have low-wage jobs that keep them in poverty. Even police officers and firefighters are sometimes eligible for food stamps. Some cities (like Naples, Florida) are considering the construction of “affordable” housing for professionals such as teachers and nurses. Income inequality is very real and increasing. The rich are indeed getting richer and the poor getting poorer.
Let’s consider next the idea that private charity is more effective than public welfare. Even if we agree that’s true, would there actually be enough private charity to meet the needs of our less privileged citizens? Poverty remains a major problem in the United States. In 2015, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, an estimated 43.1 million Americans lived in poverty. Fortunately, charitable giving from individuals, organizations, and corporations continues to increase, as charitable giving statistics show. However, if government-funded assistance programs were eliminated or even drastically reduced, could private charity really pick up the slack? Charitable giving would have to increase exponentially. I’m not sure that citizens whose tax bills were slashed by the elimination of public assistance would redirect those savings to charitable giving.
I’m in favor of a large portion of my tax contribution being used to help those in need. Cardinal Tobin warns us against compartmentalizing our faith and reducing it to something we pay attention to only for an hour every Sunday morning. Instead, faith should permeate every area of our lives. That’s why I’ll keep striving to be charitable in all areas of my life – at home, at church, at work, as an American citizen. I would much rather my taxes be used to help provide food, health care, housing, and clothing for our less fortunate citizens than for wasteful outrages such as luxurious perks for elected officials who are millionaires and billionaires.
I know people who have good jobs, live in comfortable homes, and enjoy plenty of discretionary income for things like good food, cars, electronic devices, boats, shopping trips, and vacations. Yet, these people rail against the use of their tax dollars for public assistance. They believe that, as hard-working Americans, they should keep those funds for themselves. Oh, and they’re all Christians. Sometimes I wonder if they’ve ever encountered this sentence in Luke 12:48: “Much will be required of the person entrusted with much, and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more.”
That’s clear to me. Charity is the goal. Once I’ve met my own basic needs, I must help others. I’ll keep endorsing and providing all forms of assistance — both private and public.