I was a Catholic Worker in Nebraska from 1976 til around 1980. What I can say is that working with the poor and living among the homeless, fills you with a sense that you are among the only ones who are “really doing something.”
My young friends and I even slept outside with the street people when the fire department said our building was unsafe. We offered charity—true kindness and acts of love–but we fought for “justice” believing that no one should have to sleep on the street. No one should have to go without decent health care. No one should be underpaid…and we demanded that the government solve these problems.
But, in truth, the stories we heard belied our “agenda for justice”.
Many of the homeless folks we met were there because the choices they had made led them on a downhill slide that only love could transform! Some had started drinking heavily after marital problems. They missed work, lost jobs and just kept on drinking. Some had mental health problems but refused to take medications or listen to their families. Some had simply walked away from their former lives because nothing was making sense anymore.
I’m not saying that they are to be defined by those choices. But what I am saying is that the most trans-formative thing they could experience was charity offered in love, person to person. And in fact, we saw some people change. They did NOT need institutional, impersonal big government handouts. Nor did they need tax changes and the “redistribution of wealth” forced onto those people who have become successful. Those who have achieved wealth are the very ones who are most in a position to offer charitable aid, yet we want to strip them of that humane possibility.
We also end up stripping the needy of their humanity by administering institutional charity through paid employees who often hate their jobs! Anyone who has visited a Social Security Office knows that to be true.
Charity should be an act of kindness between human beings. Justice should be a correction of things that have gone wrong (which requires a moral compass to define that word–“wrong.”) Both charity and justice have a role to play in our lives and in transforming the culture. And the Catholic Church has guidelines which were defined under Pope Leo XIII in 1891.
The guidelines are these: Solidarity means we should remember that we are united to each other in subtle ways and should be kind and compassionate in every way possible to those we meet. Subsidiarity means that “whatever can be done locally should be done locally.”
That second principle recognizes that big government is a problem because it is not personal. It is far removed from the person to person contact that makes us humane. Thus much of the changes we know our society needs, must be done through education and within communities first.
Back in my “social justice” days it was an easy slide into pride and arrogance. It also was easy to distance myself from the Church because I felt that we, who were so active, “had the answers” and so we didn’t want to hear anything else. More recently I have talked to “social justice” folks who tend to see programs for the poor as more important than ANY other issue so they were willing to actively promote the current president’s second term. No other issues would be considered except the candidate who offered to increase assistance programs. Even arguing that welfare programs do not promote any kind of justice, but only dependence, did not get through to these folks.
I started this essay because we really need to do some serious re-education and soul searching about the nature of justice and charity. Justice has a place. But it is unjust to create laws to re-define marriage and family and thus collapse the very structure of civilization. The terrible impact of the changes in the definition of family will be realized by upcoming generations.
It is unjust to let folks enter this country illegally while others feel compelled to follow the legal requirements. There are times when charity needs to enter into this for specific cases.
It is unjust to allow welfare to become an institutional, generational lifestyle. It is unjust to treat people anywhere as if there were lesser beings.
We need charity to help people in our communities rather than insisting that the government solve every problem. We need charity to give people the courage to make necessary changes in their lives. We need a return to the Church’s teachings on the true nature of love.
To really understand our role is issues of justice, we need a lot of prayer!
Photography: See our Photographers page.