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On the Philosophy of Charity
Biship Fulton J. Sheen POSTED: 2/5//13

Social Justice or the Social Reign of Christ the King

 “In the broad sense of the term, everything in the world is a sacrament, for everything in the world can be made a means of leading us on to Christ and hastening the reign of Christ.”

There is a philosophy behind charity as there is a philosophy behind everything else in life.  It is that philosophy in relation to the tendencies in modern social service which this chapter seeks to discover and analyze in light of Catholic philosophy.

The first tendency in modern charity is towards greater organization, even to the extent of making it one of the big business concerns of the country.  The breadbasket stage, the penny-in-the-cup stage, the handout stage, have given way to the bureau and the scientific-giving stage.  Statistics are replacing sympathy, and social workers are replacing emotions.

The second tendency in modern charity is towards a deification of society at the expense of the individual.  The philosophical principle behind this tendency is not that of the common good, which claims that individuals shall effectively cooperate for the well-being of society, but rather the principle that individuals be submerged for the sake of the collectivity.  Some socialists carry glorification of society to the detriment of the individual to such a height that he makes “the service of God consist in the service of men,” and consequently denies any such thing as an individual sin.  The only sin is the social sin; “disloyalty to society”

The final tendency in modern philanthropy is toward absoluteness---not in the sense that it seeks to rid the world of poverty, crime and disease, but in the sense that the alleviation or partial elimination of these ills constitutes its full and final purpose.  Giving bread means filling empty stomachs---it means nothing more and it can mean nothing more.  Improving home conditions means better light, better food, warmer temperature---and nothing more.  It is assumed throughout the whole process of alleviating the ills of mankind that mankind has no other destiny than the present, and that the fruits of helpfulness and philanthropy, if they extend beyond a stomach, a playground or a clinic, never go any further than a formula gleaned from those experiences.

The true philosophy of charity would not condemn these modern tendencies and ask for their destruction.  Rather it would ask that they be elevated to conform to these three principles:

1)   Charity must not only be organized, but must be organic

2)   Charity must deal not only with society, but also with individual souls

3)   Charity must not be absolute, but sacramental---not only of the earth earthy, but of the heavens heavenly.

The assumption behind organized charity is that charity work becomes organized when individuals come together and unite themselves for the purpose of remedying the social ills of mankind, as men might come together to form a club.  It is further assumed that charity work develops horizontally, that is, it begins with men and ends with men, proceeding from the organization through the social worker and finally out to the needy

This conception of charity is not the Christ-like one.  For us the source of charity is not the will of men, but the will of God.  The origin of charity lies not in effective human groupings, but in divine life, and hence its development or unfolding is not horizontal which begins with men and ends with men, but vertical, beginning with God at its summit, and ending with man as its term.  According to our philosophy, charity begins within the bosom of the Triune God, for charity is the definition of God.  Charity, then, is not horizontal, extending from kind-hearted men to needy men, but vertically extending from the infinite source of charity, God Himself, down to the members of the mystical body, through the Incarnation.  Charity, then, is not organized, nor is charity work accomplished through organizations.  The first charity bureau was in Bethlehem.  Its first case was the case we are still working on---the salvation of humanity through the infinite life of Jesus Christ.

If there are certain members of Christ’s society who are thirsty, hungry or in need---it is we the whole body, who are thirsty, hungry and needy, for we are members one of another in the body of Christ.  Their needs, their wants, are not theirs but ours, and no charity can call itself Christian unless is realizes this. And so, the sufferings of the poor weak members of the mystical body are our sufferings, and the sufferings of the body are the sufferings of Christ.  There is a charity-sentiment, divine in its inspiration, that we should love all those who are near and dear to us.  In addition to the charity-sentiment, there is the charity-duty, which is based not upon natural affection for one another, but upon the divine affection of Christ for members of His body.  There may be much in humanity that is worth loving, even from human  motives, but there is little to love in the wrecks that come to charities.  If there is to be love for them, it must be inspired by Some One Who first loved some one who was not worth loving---I mean Christ loving us--- and unless the social worker sees Christ in the needy, he will not long love the needy.

The true philosophy of charity cannot accept without correctives the modern tendency to regard as the absolute end of charity the alleviation of the ills that afflict mankind, nor can it regard as an ideal a society that is free from disease, hospitals, and prisons---not because such an ideal is wrong, but because it is incomplete.  It is a tenet of the Catholic philosophy of charity that the lessening of the ills of mankind and the diminution of the traces of disease are not ends in themselves, but rather means to an end.  In other words, philanthropy is not absolute in its end but sacramental.  In the strict sense, there are seven sacraments---material things used as means of spiritual sanctification.  In the broad sense of the term, everything in the world is a sacrament, for everything in the world can be made a means of leading us on to Christ and hastening the reign of Christ.

It is this sacramental, transparent character of charity that lends dignity and worth to its duller and harder side.  It is love of society that enables some men to get out from their individual self-centeredness and selfishness….But if there is no Christ beyond society, if there is nothing but society, then where can society find something that will make it forget its self-centeredness and selfishness

Charity workers are therefore to do with these great realities what He did.  First of all, we are to offer our individual human natures to Him, that He may continue the work of His Incarnation---human natures in which He might visit the sick, instruct the ignorant, counsel the doubtful, open blind eyes to the light of His sunlight, unstop deaf ears to the music of the human voice.  Secondly, we are to make use of things, our possessions, our talents, as kinds of sacraments, each one of which has pronounced over it the consecrating words:  “This is offered on account of You, O Lord!”  in order that the whole universe may become sacramentalized for His Honor and Glory.

This is the philosophy of Catholic charity.  It has never been quite right to say that God is in His Heaven and all is right with the world; for Christ has left the heavens to set it right and He is found amongst us.

Edited for The Remnant by Connie Bagnoli from “Old Errors and New Labels” 1931


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