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Want to serve the poor? Get to know them first

| Sunday, February 2, 2014

I am writing to clarify a few things in Bianca Almada’s latest Viewpoint article “Catholic Social Ignorance” from Jan. 30. To start with, I agree with Bianca on a number of points. I agree that “there is more to Catholic thought than abortion, gay marriage and premarital sex” and that one aspect of their faith that “Catholics are continually unfamiliar [with] is that of Catholic Social Teaching.”

However, I disagree with Bianca that a “vast amount of Catholic Social Teaching leans toward the left.” At first glance the Preferential Option for the Poor and Vulnerable can sound a lot like the left agenda. This principle follows from Mathew 25: 31-46 when Jesus says, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” As Catholics (honestly, as human beings) we have an obligation to the poor, to protect them and take care of them.

Some people will look at this and say that in order to fulfill this principle we must extend jobless benefits, increase funding for social programs, etc. But I think that this is one of the shallowest things that you can do for the poor. Yes, the poor need food, shelter and clothing, but simply throwing money at them accomplishes little, and honestly is quite demeaning. Instead of simply checking a box next to a political candidate that says they are committed to helping the poor, why don’t you help them yourself?

Last summer, I participated in the Summer Service Learning Project through the Center for Social Concerns, and one of the most important things I learned is that service is not about serving others. Service is about letting them serve you. You cannot let a homeless man serve you until you get to know him personally. Extending jobless benefits will undoubtedly help a lot of people, but it will not make them feel loved. Simply paying your taxes to support the less fortunate does not fulfill your obligation to the poor and vulnerable. Instead you must commit yourself to the common good and genuinely sacrifice your time, energy and often money to help others.

The plural of anecdote is not data. But in my experience, private philanthropic institutions (like Catholic charities) do more good, change more lives and save more souls than government programs and benefits.

Bianca concludes her piece by pointing out, “If people are attempting to follow these Catholic principles, then it may require a shift in their views.” I think she is implying a shift in political views, and I disagree. Attempting to follow these Catholic principles requires a shift in your heart.

The moral test of a society is how it treats its most vulnerable members. The most vulnerable members of our society are undoubtedly the unborn. They have no voice and they are too weak to fight for themselves.

Joshua O’Brien
Dillon Hall
Jan. 31

The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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  • LSR

    Joshua, I was with you until your last paragraph. I am sure you would
    agree that a frightened, unwed pregnant teenage girl with little in the
    way of resources or support is most certainly one of our most vulnerable
    members of society, and deserves to have the choice of self-determination. This is not a feminist issue or even a Catholic one, necessarily — it’s a human rights issue.

    • Verity

      Yes, “an unwed pregnant teenage girl with little in the way of resources or support is most certainly one of our most vulnerable members of society.” But her vulnerability pales in comparison with the vulnerability of the human being whom she has the right to self-determine out of existence. And you are right: That is not a feminist issue or even a Catholic one–it is a human rights issues.

      • LSR

        It seems we disagree significantly on what constitutes a human.

        • Verity

          Well science doesn’t.

  • Diana

    Joshua, please do some more research on your Catholic faith. Catholicism embraces a both/and approach, not either/or. Yes, getting to know the poor is great, but so is creating balance in the economy. Simply throwing money (which ultimately come from hardworking and low paid individuals, not just investors) back into the hands of wealthy people does little good. The Church teaches that wealth redistribution programs and limited government intervention in the economy can be good for the common good.

    • Verity

      It is you, and not Joshua, who should please do some more research on your Catholic faith. Your comment demonstrates a fundamental error in your understanding of Church’s teaching. You write: “Simply throwing money (which ultimately come from hardworking and low
      paid individuals, not just investors) back into the hands of wealthy
      people does little good.” The only way you can throw money “back into the hands of wealthy people” is if it is not their money, earned by their capital and labors. And the Church clearly teaches in the fundamental right to private property. Further, if you are talking about the government “throwing back money back into the hands of wealthy people,” then you are treating the money as the government’s. The Church likewise condemns socialism, as intrinsically evil. These teachings are not a matter of prudential judgment. Conversely, nothing Joshua writes contradicts Church teaching. And his letter demonstrates a clear understanding of solidarity and subsidiarity.
      In the end, though, the Church teaches that how to best serve the poor is a prudential judgment. The Church condemns the extremes of socialism and laissez faire capitalism as intrinsically evil. Joshua’s letter does not purport to support laissez faire capitalism,
      while the language of your comment does indicate a support for
      socialism. Again, those are intrinsically evil. Beyond that, though, the Church teaches that reasonable people of faith may disagree on the best way of serving the poor. As Joshua wrote, the Church does not adopt a “left agenda.” And it is a further misunderstanding of Church teaching to think the Church finds your prudential judgment “right” and Joshua’s “wrong.”
      If there is any flaw in Joshua’s letter from a Catholic perspective, it is that he misses that poverty is not merely material, but spiritual. I would argue that government dependency creates spiritual poverty. And that speaking of wealthy people as taking money low-paid and hardworking people (as if the wealthy aren’t hardworking), fans the deadly sin of envy. But I also recognize that this is my prudential judgment–one I think born out by the real life results of the “left agenda”–and that other faithful Catholics may have a different prudential judgment.

      • AugustWest

        Almost everything that you said in your post is wrong. The church recognizes that laws regarding property are important, but only insofar as they recognize that the universal destination of all property is the common good. Pope JPII had this to say regarding the means of production: “They cannot be possessed against labour, they cannot even be possessed for possession’s sake, because the only legitimate title to their possession- whether in the form of private ownerhip or in the form of public or collective ownership-is that they should serve labour, and thus, by serving labour, that they should make possible the achievement of the first principle of this order, namely, the universal destination of goods and the right to common use of them.”

        The protection of private property for its own sake is notion that is antithetical to Catholic Social Teaching. In fact, it is official church teaching that one of the primary purposes of government is the redistribution of wealth. Pope Benedict XVI said: “The different forms of economic enterprise to which they give rise find their main point of encounter in commutative justice. Economic life undoubtedly requires contracts, in order to regulate relations of exchange between goods of equivalent value. But it also needs just laws and forms of redistribution governed by politics, and what is more, it needs works redolent of the spirit of gift. The economy in the global era seems to privilege the former logic, that of contractual exchange, but directly or indirectly it also demonstrates its need for the other two: political logic, and the logic of the unconditional gift.”

        The “Church” does not condemn socialism as intrinsically evil, you are mistaken. Most of what people associate with socialism as a political ideology has in fact been endorsed by the Church.

        I don’t think you aren’t catholic for holding the views that you hold, but everything that you said has been refuted by the last three popes.

        • Verity

          If you want to claim that everything I’ve said has been refuted by the last three popes, you should . . .
          well refute what I actually wrote and maybe quote a pope refuting it.

          Re socialism: Let’s go back to 1849 and move forward. Here are a few quotes from the Popes. There are plenty more. But first, let’s take a key quote to show it is intrinsically evil: “Socialism, if it remains truly Socialism, even after it has yielded to truth and justice on the points which we have mentioned, cannot be reconciled with the teachings of the Catholic Church because its concept of society itself is utterly foreign to Christian truth.” Encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, May 15, 1931, n. 117). (A good moral theology book will do a nice job summarizing the principles in this and the later quotes and highlighting that socialism is intrinsically evil but capitalism is merely susceptible to misuse.)

          Some more:

          You are aware indeed, that the goal of this most iniquitous plot is to drive people to overthrow the
          entire order of human affairs and to draw them over to the wicked theories of this Socialism and Communism, by confusing them with perverted teachings.” (Encyclical Nostis et Nobiscum, December 8,1849)

          “…communism, socialism,nihilism, hideous deformities of the civil society of men and almost its ruin.”
          (Encyclical Diuturnum, June 29, 1881)

          “… For, the fear of God and reverence for divine laws being taken away, the authority of rulers despised,
          sedition permitted and approved, and the popular passions urged on to lawlessness, with no restraint save that of punishment, a change and overthrow
          of all things will necessarily follow. Yea, this change and overthrow is deliberately planned and put forward by many associations of communists and socialists” (Encyclical Humanum Genus, April 20, 1884, n. 27).

          “They [socialists, communists, or nihilists]
          debase the natural union of man and woman, which is held sacred even among barbarous peoples; and its bond, by which the family is chiefly held together,
          they weaken, or even deliver up to lust. Lured, in fine, by the greed of present goods, which is ‘the root of all evils, which some coveting have erred from the faith’ (1 Tim. 6:10.3), they assail the right of property sanctioned by natural law; and by a scheme of horrible wickedness, while they seem desirous of caring for the needs and satisfying the desires of all men, they
          strive to seize and hold in common whatever has been acquired either by title of lawful inheritance, or by labor of brain and hands, or by thrift in one’s mode of life.” (Encyclical Quod Apostolici Muneris, December 28, 1878, n. 1)

          “…socialists and members of other seditious societies, who labor unceasingly to destroy the State even to its foundations.” (Encyclical Libertas Praestantissimum,
          June 20, 1888)

          “But what if Socialism has really been so tempered and modified as to the class struggle and private ownership that there is in it no longer anything to be censured on these points? Has it thereby renounced its contradictory nature to the Christian religion? This is the question that holds many minds in suspense. And numerous are the Catholics who, although they clearly understand that Christian principles can never be abandoned or diminished seem to turn their eyes to the Holy See and earnestly beseech Us to decide whether this form of Socialism has so far recovered from false doctrines that it can be accepted without the
          sacrifice of any Christian principle and in a certain sense be baptized. That We, in keeping with Our fatherly solicitude, may answer their petitions, We
          make this pronouncement: Whether considered as a doctrine, or an historical fact, or a movement, Socialism, if it remains truly Socialism, even
          after it has yielded to truth and justice on the points which we have mentioned, cannot be reconciled with the teachings of the Catholic Church because its concept of society itself is utterly foreign to Christian truth.” Encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, May
          15, 1931, n. 117)

          “Continuing our reflections, … we have to add that the fundamental error of socialism is anthropological
          in nature. Socialism considers the individual person simply as an element, a molecule within the social organism, so that the good of the individual is
          completely subordinated to the functioning of the socio-economic mechanism. Socialism likewise maintains that the good of the individual can be realized without reference to his free choice, to the unique and exclusive responsibility which he exercises in the face of good or evil. Man is thus reduced to a series of social relationships, and the concept of the person as the autonomous subject of moral decision disappears, the very subject whose decisions build
          the social order. From this mistaken conception of the person there arise both a distortion of law, which defines the sphere of the exercise of freedom, and
          an opposition to private property.” (Encyclical Centesimus Annus − On the 100th anniversary of Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum, May
          1, 1991, n. 13)

          Re private property:

          I have no disagreement with your quotes. But I never spoke of the protection of private property for its own sake. Nor did I say anything in contradiction to your quotes. I addressed two points on private property: First, that “throwing money back into the hands of wealthy people” language treats the money as someone else’s money. While the universal destination of goods remains primordial, the Church clearly teaches that there is a fundamental right to private property, (see above quotes) which the “throwing money” language implicitly rejects. With this recognition then, I have no disagreement with what you quote. But that ties to the second point I made, which is that how the Church’s teachings on property play out in practice is a prudential judgment, which Joshua, Diana, you and I are able to make in good conscience.

          • AugustWest

            None of your quotes say that socialism is an intrinsic evil. This is because it is not Church teaching, but I’m not going to quibble, the distinction is nonsense anyway.

            It’s important to keep in mind what we are talking about when we say socialism. In your original post you equate government redistribution of wealth with socialism. Pope Benedict has been very clear that the purpose of government is to redistribute wealth.

            “Lowering the level of protection accorded to the rights of workers, or abandoning mechanisms of wealth redistribution in order to increase the country’s international competitiveness, hinder the achievement of lasting development.” Caritas in Veritate, 32.

            “Economic life undoubtedly requires contracts, in order to regulate relations of exchange between goods of equivalent value. But it also needs just laws andforms of redistribution governed by politics, and what is more, it needs works redolent of the spirit of gift.” Caritas in Veritate, 37.

            In your quote from Pope JPII, socialism is used to refer to a specific system of Marxist-Leninist, totalitarian empire. JPII made a similar point in Laborem Exercens where he argues that the problem with socialism is that it suffers from the same problem of capitalism. That is, it takes the means of production out of the hands of the capitalists and gives it to an unaccountable, distant State apparatus. These are descriptions of historical experiences. In John Paul II’s analysis, socialism (as it has manifested in history) is not socialist enough.

            “For it must be noted that merely taking these means of production (capital) out of the hands of their private owners is not enough to ensure their satisfactory socialization…We can speak of socializing only when the subject character of society is ensured, that is to say, when on the basis of his work each person is fully entitled to consider himself a part-owner of the great workbench at which he is working with every one else. A way towards that goal could be found by associating labour with the ownership of capital, as far as possible, and by producing a wide range of intermediate bodies with economic, social and cultural purposes; they would be bodies enjoying real autonomy with regard to the public powers, pursuing their specific aims in honest collaboration with each other and in subordination to the demands of the common good, and they would be living communities both in form and in substance, in the sense that the members of each body would be looked upon and treated as persons and encouraged to take an active part in the life of the body.”

            Here the Pope identifies a system of anarcho-syndicalism as the type of system most true to the Teaching of the Church. I guess we can debate whether this is socialism or not but I think it’s just semantics. What is beyond debate is that this vision is completely incompatible with capitalism.

            You insist on referring to the “fundamental right to private property.” I’m not sure what you mean by fundamental but I would agree with Pope JPII’s analysis: the right to common use of property is fundamental and sometimes private property helps us realize this fundamental purpose (“the right to private property is subordinated to the right to common use,to the fact that goods are meant for everyone.” LE, 14).

          • verity

            I never referred to socialism as redistribution of property. I said the idea “of the government” throwing the money back into the hands of the rich treated it as the governments money (only the one owning something can throw it. Taking and redistributing is a different thing…one for prudential discussion. But when you treat all property as the governments that is socialism which the church condemns as intrinsically evil. That is what i wrote. do you agree that that type of socialism is intrinsically evil? What else can cannot be reconciled mean? Or any of those other quotes…they aren’t talking prudential judgment.

            Fundamental right or natural right…to property. Do you think the church teaches there is no natural right or fundamental right to private property? I’m not talking about the why or the limits, I’m talking about the right.

          • AugustWest

            C’mon Verity, taking and distributing is different than “throwing”? Only the one owning something can throw it?!

            wtf are we talking about here.

            I do not agree that socialism is intrinsically evil, because the Church made up the intrinsically evil distinction and the Church has never used that very technical (i would argue jesuitical) term to refer to socialism. And they won’t. Laborem Exercens shows us why they won’t. Capitalism and socialism as they have manifested in history suffer from precisely the same flaw. Neither sufficiently socializes property for the good of all. Capitalism puts property in the hands of the capitalists and most socialist regimes have taken property and entrusted it to unaccountable dictators or unaccountable bureaucrats. Pope JPII’s vision of an economy puts the means of production in the hands of the workers and their associations (unions) who would then enjoy some modicum of autonomy from the state. What are we gonna call this? Capitalism? I think if we moved to such a system the socialists would rejoice and the capitalists would not.

            Re property I think you are missing the point that JPII was making. The first principle is the universal destination of all goods in service of the common good. It’s not a limit on private property. Private property is secondary.

          • verity

            You can’t throw money at the RICH if you are talking taking and redistributing. but I get it…you refuse to accept church teaching on the difference between intrinsically evil and prudential issues. You could have said that without the profanity and then falsely professing to be asserting church teaching while claiming the church made that up. Seriously, why bother discussing what the church means by something if when you disagree you say they just made it up.

          • AugustWest

            Hahaha, you are correct that I refuse to accept Church teaching regarding the difference between intrinsically evil and prudential issues. This of course has absolutely no bearing on my attempt to live a Christian life. But, I don’t go around falsely proclaiming something to be intrinsically evil when the Church has never declared it so. Which is worse?

            The distinction doesn’t help anyone become a better Christian. When we answer for our lives I don’t think we will be asked to muse on the difference between intrinsic evil and plain old evil. But if it helps you, more power to you.

            But don’t distort the teaching. You can’t point to anything that says that its intrinsically evil. You have quoted all sorts of encyclicals but have failed to find anything saying its intrinsically evil. Admit that you made a mistake.

          • verity

            It is only a distortion if you refuses to accept the concept of intrinsically evil. If you do, then you can see from the quotes above it is intrinsically evil. Socialism cannot be reconciled, for instance …it doesn’t say like with capital punishment rarely be justified…it doesn’t say susceptible to a abuse. It says it CANNOT be reconciled. I did not make a mistake.

            logic and the language of those encyclicals should be enough, but there are plenty of instances where the actual label intrinsically evil has been used by the teaching authority of the church. If I had the time and it would actually matter I’d put together a list of resources showing that the teaching authority of the church considers socialism intrinsically evil But since you refuse to accept the church’s authority, it is a waste of time.

          • AugustWest

            lol, there are plenty? How about one. Do you have google?

          • verity

            Okay, here you go http://madisoncatholicherald.org/bishopscolumns/3366-bishop-column.html
            Now you find one church leader saying socialism (as I used it ie all property owned by the government no private property rights is ever licit. Or if you’d rather, just use logic to explain how something that cannot be reconciled can ever be moral. That’s all intrinsically evil means…that it is evil in all circumstances.

  • Reality Check

    great article