THE BLOG

Charity "a la Carte"

02/18/2014 11:48 am ET | Updated Apr 20, 2014

When we invoke the old biblical saying: "Charity covers a multitude of sins," (1 Peter 4:8) we'd best be careful what translation we're using. "Charity" in this case, as in the old King James and Douay-Rheims translations, means the highest degree of love -- something much more basic and demanding than donating old clothes or even money to "charities." In this latter case, such acts of good, which are often elicited by well-publicized disasters, will may occasionally be little more than disguises or cover-ups for basic or systematic violations of basic justice. Such "charity à la carte", as Pope Francis has recently termed it, despite how urgently needed from time to time, too often only serves as sop to soothe a bad conscience. As the pope added, quoting St. John Chrysostom, a fourth-century Christian bishop, who writing from a biblical perspective, said "Not to share one's wealth with the poor is to steal from them and to take away their livelihood. It is not our own goods which we hold, but theirs."

Now don't get me wrong. I think it is wonderful that Bill Gates and the foundation that he and his wife Melinda founded is giving away millions upon millions of dollars to improve the lot of people in Africa and other impoverished parts of the world. And the same can be said for Warren Buffett and other billionaires who are beginning to realize that they have a moral obligation to share their wealth. But if anyone has become rich by short-changing their own employees, by not paying decent wages or creating monopolies that drove other competitors out of business, then I think that their "charities" perhaps need to be called something else -- perhaps "reparations" or "restitution." In other words, justice must come before charity, or that so-called charity is suspect.

Genuine charity or philanthropy requires, above all else, that we are dedicated to seeing to it, first of all, that every human being has access to all the basic human rights, which, according the teaching of Pope John XXIII, include adequate "food, housing, work, education," as well as "basic health care, the freedom of communication and expression and the protection of religious freedom." These rights and many more, including the right of workers to organize are among those enumerated in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was also described by Pope John Paul II as "a true milestone on the path of humanity's moral progress."

How is it then that so many of these rights are being ignored, not just by totalitarian regimes, but even in supposedly free, democratic countries? The problem seems to be a lack of sense or valuation of the common good. This fundamental concept of the common good is based, on the one hand, on the conviction that the Creator has given the earth and its riches to be shared by all of humanity, and on the other hand, by the experience that it is only when everyone has an equal voice in determining how these riches are to be used, can society function as it should. At least it seems obvious that this common good is what the founding fathers of the United States of America had in mind, even if their political compromises violated many these ideals from the start.

However, even if progress has been made, it is obvious that even this has been increasingly threatened, not just by the growing gap between the rich and the poor around the world, but even here in the U.S.A., where even the political rights of average citizens to effectively determine their own future have largely been undermined by those individuals who possess the most financial clout. Thus we can see tax-exempt "donations" being used to rig the political process in such a way that our nation's wealth is being diverted away from the common good to the profits of the already privileged few.

It seems obvious, when the concept of "charity" has become so perverted as to have subverted the basic demands of justice that "common man" no longer has any just or fair access to the commonwealth, that some serious change must take place or else a major disruption will eventually occur. Or to put it another way, our choice is between a gradual evolution to a more just society now, or else face a more violent revolution at the point where we have run out of time to do anything else.

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