In Pope Benedict XVI’s Encyclical, Charity in Truth, he taught that: To love someone is to desire that person’s good and to take effective steps to secure it (Caritas in veritate, 7). Thus, in order for our charitable activity to be truly Catholic, in addition to desiring the person’s good, our actions must take effective steps to secure it.
But what is the person’s good? Ultimately it is that they come to know Jesus Christ and his Church, which Blessed Paul VI spoke of as our preeminent responsibility in regards to charity (Apostolicam actuositatem, 3). Cardinal Ratzinger (before becoming Benedict XVI) put it this way: As disciples of Jesus Christ, we have to give men what they most need – communion with the living God (Gospel, Catechesis, Catechism, p. 41). Elsewhere he noted that: Everything depends upon intimate friendship with Jesus, so that the most urgent priority, he said, is to foster the growth of a personal relationship with him (Jesus of Nazareth Vol I, p. xii and p. xxiv).
So the first good that our charitable activities must take effective steps to secure is the recipient’s growth in a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and his Church.
The next good that our charity must work to effectively secure is the recipient’s freedom and dignity through their gradual acceptance of personal responsibility. This runs counter to much popular thought in our culture today, but the Church has always been clear regarding it: Being out of work or dependent on public or private assistance for a prolonged period undermines the freedom and creativity of the person and his family and social relationships, causing great psychological and spiritual suffering (Benedict XVI, Caritas in veritate, 25). Anything that undermines freedom and causes great psychological and spiritual suffering is clearly not securing the person’s good, regardless of what the underlying motives for it may be.
Thus the Church teaches that: Help [must] be given in such a way that the recipients may gradually be freed from dependence on outsiders and become self-sufficient (Apostolicam actuositatem, 8).
Anything that stops short of this is not true Catholic charity. Thus, St. John Paul II observed that: The Church has always been present and active among the needy, offering them material assistance in ways that neither humiliate nor reduce them to mere objects of assistance, but which help them to escape their precarious situation by promoting their dignity as persons (Centesimus annus, 49).
This led Benedict XVI to note: Assistance … is always designed to achieve their emancipation, because it fosters freedom and participation through assumption of responsibility (Caritas in veritate, 57).
A great example of this type of genuinely Catholic charity in the Archdiocese of Denver is the Julia Greeley Home. It is a residential program for homeless women that seeks to help the women move beyond homelessness and to rediscover their dignity and independence as daughters of God. It enables them to develop the practical skills and confidence necessary to re-enter the world as independent, self-sufficient women (www.juliagreeleyhome.org), thus meeting all the above criteria.
In emergency circumstances our responsibility is to take the necessary actions to save a person’s life and remove him or her from situations of grave danger. Sadly, many of our persecuted brethren throughout the world are facing such circumstances today, including martyrdom. This requires a modern version of the corporal work of mercy “to ransom the captives.” One Catholic charity that is doing much needed work in this area is the Knights of Columbus through their Christian Refugee Relief fund (www.kofc.org/en/christianRelief/hope).
In light of the Church’s teachings we have a responsibility to support those charities that are fully Catholic in their approach – those that seek to foster the individual’s growth in a personal relationship with Jesus and his Church and those that work to gradually free recipients from dependence on either private or public assistance. These are the charities that effectively promote the recipient’s dignity as children of God and deliver them from the psychological and spiritual suffering that long-term dependence on such assistance causes. We are blessed in Denver to have effective options like the Julia Greeley Home and the Knights of Columbus Christian Refugee Relief fund to support with our charitable contributions.
John LaBarbara is an author, speaker, adjunct professor of Scripture and Apologetics, and Founder of the Center for Advanced Leadership Consulting and Catechetics (CALC Inc.)