Charity vs. Justice?
The controversy over the primacy of ‘charity or justice’ is reminiscent of earlier controversies about ‘faith or works’ answered by St. James 2,000 years ago: “‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” (James 2:18)
Charity vs. Justice – the Confusing Part
Taking the role of St. James, Pope Benedict XVI said: “Justice is the primary way of charity” while “on the other hand, charity transcends justice and completes it.” (Caritas in Veritate, 60)
To fully appreciate this important understanding, let us first define the terms.
What is Charity?
“Charity is the theological virtue by which we love God above all things for his own sake, and our neighbor as ourselves“. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1822)
What are the theological virtues? “The theological virtues are…infused by God into the souls of the faithful to make them capable of acting as his children and of meriting eternal life.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1822)
So, charity or “love of neighbor, grounded in the love of God, is first and foremost a responsibility of each individual member of the faithful”. (Deus Caritas Est, 20) It involves engaging, directly, those around us who are in need.
What is Justice?
“Justice is the moral virtue that consists in the constant and firm will to give their due to God and neighbor…Justice toward men disposes one to respect the rights of each and to establish in human relationships the harmony that promotes equity“. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1807)
Social justice, which is linked to the common good and the exercise of authority, results when “associations or individuals…obtain what is their due, according to their nature and their vocation.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1928)
Social justice “upholds the fundamental human right to a dignified life” (Pope Francis) and impacts social structures as it “requires the realignment of relationships between stronger and weaker peoples in terms of greater fairness“. (Pope Francis, 4)
“Charity cannot take the place of justice that has been denied; nor can justice…replace charity that has been refused.” (Pope Benedict XVI)
Back to the Confusing Part
“Justice is the primary way of charity” while “on the other hand, charity transcends justice and completes it.” (Caritas in Veritate, 60)
Key to understanding this is recognizing “Charity goes beyond justice…but it never lacks justice“. Specifically, “I cannot ‘give’ what is mine to the other, without first giving him what pertains to him in justice”. (Pope Benedict XVI, 6)
As Pope St. Paul VI asked: “is charity enough?” To which he answered “yes and no. Yes, charity is necessary and sufficient as the driving force…No, charity is not enough…if it does not have other virtues behind it, first justice, which is the least measure of charity“. (Homily, August 23, 1968)
So, “Not only is justice not extraneous to charity, not only is it not an alternative or parallel path to charity: justice is inseparable from charity, and intrinsic to it.”(Pope Benedict XVI, 6)
As Pope St. John Paul II said: “It is the strict duty of justice and truth not to allow fundamental human needs to remain unsatisfied“. (Centesimus Annus, 34)
Essentially, “Charity cannot take the place of justice that has been denied; nor can justice…replace charity that has been refused.” (Pope Benedict XVI)
Justice and Charity!
So, it is clear the question is not justice or charity. It is a matter of justice and charity.
The Church warns justice alone, without corporal and spiritual works of mercy, results in a cold, legalistic public square – a society lacking true solidarity.
While as regards charity, “Love is free; it is not practiced as a way of achieving other ends.” <(Deus Caritas Est, 31) “When animated by charity, commitment to the common good has greater worth than a merely secular and political stand would have.” (Caritas in Veritate, 7)
As Pope Francis said, “It is an act of charity to assist someone suffering, but it is also an act of charity, even if we do not know that person, to work to change the social conditions that caused his or her suffering.” (Fratelli Tutti, 186)
The Great Challenge of Christian People
“True social justice…can only be possible in a perspective of genuine solidarity that commits people to live and work always for others.” (Pope Benedict XVI, Address to CAPP Members) Absent this, “We may become a charitable NGO, but not the Church“. (Pope Francis)
So, while “To defend the truth, to articulate it with humility and conviction, and to bear witness to it in our life are…exacting and indispensable forms of charity” (Caritas in Veritate, 1) “if we do not profess Jesus Christ, things go wrong”. (Pope Francis)
Catholic social teaching is built on three foundational principles - Human Dignity, Solidarity and Subsidiarity. Human Dignity, embodied in a correct understanding of the human person, is the greatest. The others flow from it. Good governments and good economic systems find ways of fostering the three principles.
This means a correct understanding of the human person and of each person’s unique value. All Catholic social teaching flows from this: the inherent dignity of every person that comes from being made in God’s image.
Solidarity is not “a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of others. It is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good”. (Pope St. John Paul II, 38) Love of God and love of neighbor are, in fact, linked and form one, single commandment.
Subsidiarity “is a fundamental principle of social philosophy, fixed and unchangeable, that one should not withdraw from individuals and commit to the community what they can accomplish by their own enterprise and industry. So, too, it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and a disturbance of right order to transfer to the larger and higher collectivity functions which can be performed and provided for by the lesser and subordinate bodies”. (Pope Pius XI)