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Charity and Justice--A Catholic Conundrum

March 11, 2010
One of the most fundamental problems in the political and economic theology is the relationship between charity and justice..  This is not just some academic quibble over terms, but has potentially huge practical significance.  Traditionally, justice has been designated as the responsibility of the state, and charity of the Church.  But if we’re going to divide things up so neatly, we’d better have a clear idea of the distinction.  On this issue of giving, the theft vs. stinginess issue I touched on in a recent post, the distinction looms very large.  For, if stinginess is always a failure of charity only, not of justice, then it is outside the reach of the law; states have no business taxing people in order to give their money to others, or penalizing people for greed, or any of that.  But if it's a failure of justice, then presumably (assuming we've rightly assigned the task of the "state," and assuming we've rightly figured out what the "state" is--ha!) we're permitting grave injustice when we don't have laws regulating the acquisition and distribution of wealth.  Unfortunately, the tradition does not give us as clear an answer as we would like on this crucial question.

The typical distinctions between duties of justice and duties of charity rest on one of two shaky foundations.  The first is the claim that whereas duties of justice are obligatory, duties of charity are voluntary and optional.  To use an example from my recent post, you have an obligation not to steal from someone, but the charitable action of giving to someone cannot be made so obligatory.  The second route is to say that while in either case you have an obligation to act in a certain way, in one case the obligation is met by an answering right or claim in the other party, while in the other case it is not.  So, for example, I may have an obligation to give to both the needy stranger and to repay the friend who lent me $10,000 last year.  But in the first case, the friend has a right to expect the money, a claim upon me; in the latter, the needy stranger does not.  If we act like the needy stranger does, then we have all the evils of the modern welfare system, where the poor treat their stipends as “entitlements” and lose any sense of gratitude.  

The first foundation for the distinction I think we can safely dispense with.  Duties of charity are duties, not suggestions.  “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” and all that it entails, is about as obligatory as you can get.  I do not recall encountering any moral theologian that argues otherwise.  However, charity is “voluntary” in the sense that it is not compelled by physical coercion, at least on the basis of the standard division between charity as the province of the Church and justice of the State.  If the State does not enforce charity, then by definition it is voluntary in that sense.  But, having then ascertained that it is “voluntary,” we sometimes have a tendency to get fuzzy with definitions, and act as if that means, “entirely up to my choice,” which it is not, ethically speaking.  We also see a desire to emphasize Christian liberty over against legalism coming in here.  To talk about obligations, we are afraid, steers us into the realm of legalism.  Much better to talk about privileges--we have the privilege to give, not the obligation.  Perhaps something is gained by this way of speaking, but I fear that more is lost.
The second foundation has a venerable pedigree in moral theology, and it seems to make neat and perfect sense, but I spot a problem that makes it all very hazy for me.  What is this language of rights?  Many theologians have been leery of the language of rights, and recently, the O’Donovans have been the most notorious opponents of the idea, insisting that the language of rights has a troubled and checkered history, spotted with many theological ambiguities, and we would do much better to go back to the language of obligations based on objective Right, rather than subjective rights.  But what does this mean for the charity/justice distinction?  If there’s no such thing as rights, but only obligations, then we can’t distinguish justice by saying that in the case of justice, there’s an answering right that is absent in the case of charity.  Don’t the two now start to slide together?  (I had best mention, also, that much of my ambiguity regarding this distinction stems from the fact that it seems almost invisible in Old Testament law and ethics, at least, the parts I have been studying.)
Now, presumably there’s another foundation for the distinction of duties of charity and duties of justice, because it goes back to before the advent of rights language, and is clearly present in Aquinas.  Yet, major ambiguities are present there, particularly on this issue of theft and generosity.  Aquinas, as I mentioned in a recent post, acknowledges that withholding charity from another in need is tantamount to theft, a violation of justice.   The duty to give, in the case of one who is in great need, is a duty of justice, it seems clearly in this passage.  However, when you go to look for the treatment of the duties of giving, it is found in his section on charity.  Yet within this section, Aquinas seems still to be designating the duty of giving to one in great need, and the duty of giving all of your superflua (anything you have that exceeds the full extent of your reasonable needs), as one of strict justice (at least, such is the reading of John Finnis, who offers one of the most thorough and authoritative analyses of this section).  Of course, there is still a kind of giving (e.g., giving to another in need when you yourself are also in need) that is supererogatory, and thus voluntary and a matter of charity.  But here we see that charity suddenly crops up again as the voluntary, rather than the obligatory.  
This ambiguity continued to vex the Catholic moral tradition.  In his Philosophy of Politics, Anthony Rosmini draws the distinction between justice and charity in this sphere as tightly as possible, in good libertarian language, 
“We know that charity and beneficence can be commanded by God, but we contradict the proper notion of the duties of humanity and charity if we have the right to demand the practice of beneficence and to regulate it by law as we please.  Such action would result in endless disputes and squabbles and even cause terrible wars which could end only in the destruction of the system of humanity.  If individuals themselves cannot require from their equals, as a right of justice, what pertains to beneficence, much less can a government, which is principally instituted to defend and preserve the right of all the individuals that compose the society.  If I am harmed by someone attempting to force a benefit from me, my right is violated, and the government must help me against those who violently attack me in this way.  Clearly, a government which protects unjust and violent people is forcefully obliging me to do what in fact depends totally on my will and on the extent of my inclination to be beneficent.  Not even civil society as a whole can change the natural duties of charity into duties of justice, nor all the members united together require one person to give, out of justice, what he is obliged (I am presuming he is obliged) to give out of affection.  Otherwise, love would not be love, and beneficence, not beneficence.”
In Leo XIII’s encyclical, Rerum Novarum, the same issue crops up:
“But if the question be asked: How ought man to use his possessions? the Church replies without hesitation: ‘As to this point, man ought not regard external goods as his own, but as common so that, in fact, a person should readily share them when he sees others in need....’  [W]hen the demands of necessity and propriety have been met, it is a duty to give to the poor out of that which remains. ‘Give that which remains as alms.’ These are duties not of justice, except in cases of extreme need, but of Christian charity, which obviously cannot be enforced by legal action. But the laws and judgments of men yield precedence to the law and judgment of Christ the Lord, Who in many ways urges the practice of almsgiving: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive,’ and Who will judge a kindness done or denied to the poor as done or denied to himself.”
Notice that Leo leaves an exception--in “cases of extreme need,” in which case, we presume, these duties of charity are transformed into duties of justice, and are thereby enforceable by legal action.  Or is that not what he means?  (It is worth pointing out, for those interested in such niceties, that Leo’s exception is much smaller than St. Thomas’s.  For Thomas, after “the demands of necessity and propriety have been met,” we are talking about one’s superflua, all of which must be given to the poor as a matter of justice.  For Thomas, “cases of extreme need” transform duties of charity into duties of justice even when the giver’s needs “of propriety” have not been met [e.g., if I “need” to buy a bus ticket to get to work, and I meet someone in desperate need of food, I have a duty of justice to sacrifice my bus ticket for their food].  Needless to say, I tend to be more sympathetic to Thomas than Leo on this question.)  I have been told (though I have not yet read this myself) that the way Leo handled this question was not considered entirely satisfactory in the Catholic Social Teaching tradition, and was reversed by John Paul II in Laborem Exercens, where he claimed that the withholding of property that ought to be given to another was "an offense before God and man." (An offense before man is presumably a matter for the justice system.)
If any of you were hoping for a solution of the dilemma at this point, I’m afraid I must disappoint you.  Like much else on this blog, this is merely an exploration of the problem.  Perhaps a solution will come to me in a vision this evening as I smoke my pipe, something I haven’t done in much too long.  (I also note that while I have analyzed the Catholic tradition on this issue, I have said nothing about how Protestants handle these matters.  If anyone wants to jump in and add that to the discussion, that’d be splendid.)


Rosmini's statement is absurd, and contradicted by the mere facts of history. Every society has some public and obligatory contributions to justice. The plain fact of the matter is that man is both individual and social, and their are social obligations which may be enforced by law. We live within a framework of institutions, and these institutions are always imperfect, and will imperfectly deliver justice to all the participants. Hence the needs for charity, both social and individual.

Leo relegated banished charity from the realm of law, but the context was a battle against socialism, particularly a socialism which socializes everything under the nation-state.

Certain services must be socialized, and those who object to all forms of socialism should not pull that socialist lever in their homes, the one that carries away their wastes into the socialized sewage system. All goods are not market goods, and it is important to be able to distinguish that which can be delivered by the market and that which can't. Certainly, we would not wish to make education a purely market good, because the market works by allocating goods and leaving some demand unsatisfied; supply and demand curves never cross at 100% of demand. This is just fine if you are talking about ipods or Buicks; it is not okay if you are speaking of education or similar public goods. Even products which are normally supplied by the markets, but which must be delivered universally, must have some non-market elements to insure that all receive a dignified share.

March 11, 2010 at 2:59 PM  

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