With the arrogance of youth, I determined to do no less than to transform the world with Beauty. If I have succeeded in some small way, if only in one small corner of the world, amongst the men and women I love, then I shall count myself blessed, and blessed, and blessed, and the work goes on. -- William Morris

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

The Ordo Caritatis and Giving to the Poor: Yet Another Example of How Political Ideology Distorts the Gospel

A panhandler approaches you asking for money. What is your duty as a Christian? Back on October 4, 2008 I along with my wife and one-and-a-half year old were at a mass, at St. Mary’s Church in Old Town, Alexandria where the celebrant, Fr. Robert Ruskin I believe, was preaching an anti-abortion message that I very much endorse. He also believed himself to be preaching a pro-life message. He wasn’t.

Instead, he was advocating a right wing, republican ideology disguised as authentic Catholic orthodoxy – a mistake (if not a heresy) that is happening more and more on both sides of the aisle. Apparently, this particular priest, tragically, had not yet been exposed to the idea that right wing and left wing ideologies do not exhaust the possibility of mediating the Gospel of Christ.

Now, normally, I harbor a high degree of toleration for those who wrongly believe that Catholic orthodoxy is somehow synonymous with right-wing, or left-wing, ideology. This priest pushed that toleration to the brink. He defended capital punishment, and even pursued justifying the Iraq war. But as much as I vehemently disagree with these positions, I am able to understand one who tries to defend them with Christian thinking.

However, he went further. In trying to distinguish between abortion and other acts that take life, he focused on the term ‘innocent’ even though he never actually justified his understanding of this term by proposing a definition. Instead, he simply gave examples of situations in which life was not innocent. The criminal who had taken a life; the assailant in a moment of assaulting another; the enemy combatant in a war…Again, all examples of instances where he believed taking a life was not violating the pro-life position. Fine.

But then he went on. What about the panhandler on the street begging for some money? Here is where he lost me, though that is putting it lightly. His explanation actually made me ill. Had there been even a shadow of a donatist in me, I would have marched my family right out in the middle of the homily. Thankfully, the beauty of the Catholic mass is independent of the quality of the homily. Nevertheless, here is how it went.

The basis of his position was an interpretation of the ordo caritatis, a teaching that intends to illuminate an order or hierarchy through which love becomes most efficacious – though I should hasten to add that, given the fact that he didn’t use the actual term and the fact that he completely disfigured the doctrine, I would assume he was unaware of what he was doing.

The ordo caritatis teaches that there is an order to charity, through which one may not only come to understand love's ever mysterious content, but through which one may engender better charitable practices within one’s own life. There is some complexity to this teaching, especially in its medieval formulation. But the point is pretty simple: there is an order one follows with respect to the three primary elements of any act of charity: 1) the recipients of our charity (God, self, family, friend, colleague, fellow citizen etc), 2) that which is given in charity (money, food, time, etc.), and 3) the degree of need surrounding a charitable act (extreme need, grave need, common need). Consequently, violation of this order inhibits or prevents the charity that is being sought or given.

Anyway, on this principle, this priest claimed that when confronted with a person begging for money, one has no obligation to help since in most instances the person is "lazy" and "could otherwise be working". Instead the beggar chooses to take the easy road of asking for money. This priest brazenly asserted that in almost every case, the panhandler is therefore not innocent and so loses any ‘defense of innocent life’ reasoning. Most shockingly and sickening of all, this priest even went so far as to say that it is our “Christian duty” to “scold” the panhandler (actual words). Where can one begin unmasking all the flaws in this sort of thinking?

Most fundamentally he was entirely wrong in his understanding of the order of charity. The order of charity is not a Christian teaching meant to limit charity, but to order it. As a hierarchy, the ordo caritatis is a system that intends the maximization of charity by ordering it properly, not to limit charity by providing an excuse to be uncharitable. Understanding this requires that we understand certain principles involved.

Principle 1] Love for one’s neighbor should not result in a detriment or danger to one’s family, or those closer to him. This is a very plastic principle, subject to the simplest of distortions, so it is important to be clear. Providing particular examples may be helpful, but they would not cover the universal foundation that is necessary. For instance, if one gives money to charities with the consequence that one’s family is unable to live comfortably as determined by Western society, is that a violation of this principle? If one sells his family’s television in order to feed the hungry, is this a violation of the ordo caritatis? Seemingly the answer would be 'no'; sacrificing luxuries that a particularly affluent society believes to be necessary to life is not a standard by which to measure the ordo caritatis because the standard of living in the West is not an accurate measure of comfort and need.

Now, clearly, when one puts the very health of one’s children and spouse in jeopardy in order to provide for the less fortunate, then one risks violating the ordo. If a father forces a life of poverty upon his family then this act risks violating the ordo. If a mother is so busy tending to the needy that she neglects the needs of her own children, then this risks violating the ordo. So, one would have to secure this first principle of the ordo caritatis by saying that it is only violated when one puts the health of one’s family or friends in jeopardy against their will in order to provide for others determined to be more in need (and even this ought to be a reluctantly stated principle).

Principle 2] Love for one’s neighbor should derive from love for oneself and those closest to him, not replace it. This is a psychological principle requiring a high degree of analysis, and its violation is difficult to demonstrate objectively. Still, it is worth mentioning in order to raise the conscious awareness of the one who would give ear to the command to love one’s neighbor. If one’s practice of charitable acts derives from a low-sense of self-worth with the belief that performing these acts will elevate his ‘state’ in the eyes of others or God, then one risks violating the ordo. Ultimately, though, it is a principle determined by a high degree of personal introspection, and can really only be accurately assessed by one’s judgment over oneself.

Principle 3] Love for one’s neighbor should never replace, or become a substitute for, love for God. This is violated anytime a political ideology tries to use the poor for political gain, or anytime improvement of impoverished conditions is reduced to material circumstances. This tends to be found mostly within a left-wing ideology. But there is an inversion of this found perhaps with equal if not more vehement vigor within the right wing ideology. This inversion tends to distance God so much from our fellow brothers and sisters that they recapitulate the very sin Christ railed against in the Temple leaders of his time. In this case, God becomes an excuse for not having to ‘get one’s hands dirty’ with the poor or with any others in our lives; one exploits the distinction between God and others in order to avoid God's presence in them - that is, to avoid having to deal with the poor in our midst. And if Christ’s words are any indication, this is a far worse route to take. In both cases, one can declare that the ordo caritatis is being violated.

In contrast, it is necessary for all Christians to heed the words of St. Francis: “give to all those who ask.” Now, it should be acknowledged that, in a society where a general concern for the poor prevails, there are those who will seek to exploit the generosity of others for their own personal gain. That is to say, there are those who might deceitfully present themselves as poor when in fact they are not. Or they may in fact realize that it is easier to take advantage of the generosity of others instead of pursuing hard work themselves. Fine, this will be an obvious condition in our postlapsarian ‘fallen’ state.

However, before using this as an excuse to ignore panhandlers, several important points should be considered:

1) First, one who panhandles does so either out of volition or out of circumstance (there is not third reason since volition is of ‘mind’ and circumstance is of ‘being’ and these two categories – mind and being – exhaust the whole of created reality). If one panhandles out of volition, that is, out of choice, then, so it is believed, one deceitfully seeks to acquire a gain by exploiting the work of others. This is an act defined as the sin of usury with the consequence that giving to a panhandler implicates the giver in this same sin of usury. BUT in our contemporary, Western, society, as a reason for refusing charity to a panhandler, this reason is easily unmasked as hypocritical and flimsy.

a. Usury is a sin that permeates the whole of the contemporary Western world. The banking system, the insurance system, the mortgage system, the credit system – all of these exploit the hard work of others in order to make a profit and so fit the category of usury. Why it is acceptable to be complicit in these forms of usury but not the pandhandler’s is a confusion based on self-interest. Thus:

b. There are a few differences between these systems and the panhandler: 1) these systems are accepted as legitimate forms of usury; 2) these systems provide a service to the consumer and so are not viewed as a ‘handout’; 3) these systems have come to constitute the foundation of our capitalist system and so exercise a degree of necessity over all individuals; 4) the panhandler gives nothing in return to the one who would give him money (at least not materially). But this being the case, these differences, based on Christian principles, would indicate that it is actually better to give one’s money to the panhandler rather than to these other systematic forms of usury.

c. In other words, as we already noted according to the argument against giving to panhandler one’s act of giving becomes complicit in the sin of usury. Now, to be consistent and honest this argument ought to also be applied to these other forms of usury. Moreover, out of these examples, giving to the volitional panhandler is the only “participation in usury” done without any self-interest. If it is true that giving to a panhandler amounts to complicity in usury, then clearly this complicity is better done when one makes no profit than when one gains something.

2) The argument against giving money to beggars based on the assertion that the beggar exploits the system assumes that money is the only legitimate way to give. Naturally, giving food and other items are equally charitable and should be considered. But what about those panhandlers who refuse these other items and continue to demand money? Does this not provide a problematic situation with respect to discernment? The short answer is that since one is never in a position of certainty to discern the extent of a beggar’s request, it is better to err in generosity and give. It is not our job to discern every minute detail of a would-be beggar’s life and situation. Giving is always a good, and so serves well as a default approach (as St. Francis well knew).

3) The argument against giving money to beggars based on the fact that they don’t want food or clothes can be addressed in this way. First, we must, as Christians, examine the judgment being used to assess this. Suppose one attempts to offer food in lieu of the money being requested, but the offer is rejected. One immediately assumes that since the offer for food is rejected, the person is somehow unworthy of our generosity; surely the money sought must be intended for non life-sustaining elements (drugs, alcohol, etc.). But is this judgment really valid on Christian principles? When the beggar refuses food, the would-be giver is faced with a choice: simply walk away providing nothing, or inquire as to why the beggar doesn’t want food. The first option seems in violation of St. Francis’s principle to ‘give to all who ask’, as well as several examples from the Gospels. So, let us focus on the second. Suppose one asks why that person only wants cash and refuses food. Whatever reason is given, it will either be convincing or unconvincing. But clearly, whether it is convincing or not cannot be a matter of what is said; the resulting judgment will be based solely upon whether the would-be giver trusts the reasoning of the beggar. Why? Because there is no practical way, in an encounter of only a few minutes, to verify any given reason. For example, if the beggar says he or she needs the money for a bus ticket or some other non-food item, there is simply no way to verify the reason’s veracity. So inquiring into the reason is superfluous since the decision to give or not will be determined by the degree of trust over the reason given. Furthermore, the amount of the offering in question is entirely up to the would-be giver, so it makes no sense to investigate such claims and reasons to the fullest possibility – one can give 25 cents, or a dollar, or ten dollars. Instead, it is clear that one’s refusal to give at this point is motivated by prejudice – a judgment made before any evidence is provided. One may use instinct as the excuse, but this can never be verified. So, it seems in all cases it is better to give something rather than nothing.

4) In most cases of panhandling, the dominant assumption is that the panhandler’s request yields something good only for the panhandler. But is this assumption a valid one, based on Christian principles? As many in the tradition have testified, the answer is 'no': the panhandler provides the would-be giver with an opportunity to ‘give without counting the cost,’ as St. Francis prays. For the provider to focus only on the material circumstances of the beggar is to reduce the act of faith to the material realm. But clearly, the act of faith goes beyond this. The panhandler offers an opportunity for all to be generous, to be giving, regardless of circumstance. Giving money to a panhandler is a good for the giver completely independent of what the panhandler does with the money or why he wants it.

So, as I sat listening to this priest continue to brow-beat the poor in our midst, fighting that donatist in me trying desperately to express himself, I realized once again just how powerful the two ideologies that dominate our political landscape are. Their dominance is so fierce that they even blind those consecrated to the holy priesthood, seducing them away from Christ into the chambers of the Temple Authorities.

The priest’s explanation as to why a panhandler is not innocent, and so merits being scolded rather than being given something, may make sense based on the principles of a right-wing, republican ideology. But based upon Christian principles, it amounts to a false, unChristian, teaching. The fact that this priest sought to justify his position by exploiting the ordo caritatis indicates either a high degree of malice and hard-heartedness, or simply ignorance motivated by a zealous loyalty to a political agenda. The second is far better than the first, though we are in no position to really judge. What can be judged is that St. Francis is a far better teacher than this particular priest as to how one ought to understand the poor and follow Christ.

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  • At 2/10/2010 8:27 PM, Anonymous オテモヤン said…

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  • At 2/14/2010 7:43 AM, Blogger Henry Karlson said…


    I've experienced many a bad priest whose homilies have infuriated me. There is one priest in particular who follows a health and wealth gospel, who preaches if people are poor they are sinners, and no immigrants should be allowed in the US because they are ruining our nation. He has so upset me after a few such homilies, I stopped going to the parish he is at when I visit my parents-- making it that I go to a Roman parish at those days (like Christmas).

    Sadly, nothing is done.

  • At 6/07/2010 12:19 PM, Anonymous Volker from Germany said…

    Hallo, Ich haben eben Eure Internetseite besucht und nutzen sogleich die Gelegenheit,euch auch einen Gruß aus Deutschland in Eurem Gästebuch zu hinterlassen. P.S. Kommt uns doch auch mal besuchen
    Urlaub an der Ostsee
    oder Nordsee

  • At 3/10/2011 5:54 PM, Anonymous Sara said…

    Just think positiv my friend!


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