On Charity

Aiming for perfect justice, our laws gussy up old sins as new rights.

Bruce Fingerhut, the good director of St. Augustine’s Press, sent me the other day the following amusing, but provocative citation: “Bertrand Russell, who, when asked why he did not give to charity, replied: ‘I’m afraid you’ve got it all wrong. We are Socialists. We don’t pretend to be Christians.’” Needless to say, that witty retort contains a whole theology and a philosophy that deserve to be spelled out. The logic of classic socialism makes Christianity not only superfluous—everyone has everything by rights—but impossible—no one has anything to give.

Russell is right, of course. In a socialist world, no charity can exist because there can be no need that is unfulfilled by the commonality’s duty. It is a world in which there can be no gratitude. I can thank someone for giving me what is really his. I cannot thank him for giving me what is by rights already mine. And if everything belongs to the community, how can I give it away? Or if I do give it away, how can it be anything but stealing from the commons on my part and receiving illicit booty on the receiver’s part?

Grace and charity have no place in a socialist world, the kind our current leaders seem to be partial to, even when they deny it. As Heather Higgins points out, charitable giving institutions, those unique instruments that do not exist in every culture, are suddenly under political fire. The Christian world and the socialist world are built on entirely different principles. Benedict XVI in Deus Caritas Est took pains to make clear that no actual world could exist in which, by right, everything was automatically taken care of through the public mechanisms of the state.

But what I wish to suggest here is that socialism is not a heresy of justice, but a heresy of charity without justice. It gives everything away without asking where what is to be given away comes from or what causes it to be in a condition to be given away in the first place. From each according to his contribution, to each according to his need, so the famous phrase goes. This is Plato’s principle of specialization gone mad. It ends up with no one really being related to any one else except in terms of calculations of quid pro quo. The current rhetoric about the rich, who pay most of the taxes, is that their remaining wealth cannot be legitimate. It does not exist, so the theory goes, as a reward for innovation or work or accomplishment, but as a stolen property which must be “returned” to its rightful owners, whose main claim to have it is simply that they do not have it. There are people in need, but such theories won’t much help them.

Briefly put, the world we live in would be a terrible world if it were composed of only justice or only charity. I have long been struck by the conclusion of C.S. Lewis’ unsettling novel, Till We Have Faces. The Fox, the fatherly Greek philosopher, is talking to Orual, Psyche’s efficient sister. Orual loved her beautiful sister ever so reasonably, but she did not know what love could really do. She finally accuses the gods, but the gods now accuse her.

She cannot hope, reasonable as she is, that the gods will be merciful to her. The Fox replies: “Infinite hopes—and fears—may both be yours. Be sure that, whatever else you get, you will not get justice.” Orual responds, “Are the gods not just?” To this the Fox replies, “Oh no, child. What would become of us if they were?” (297). This is one of the greatest lines in all of Christian literature. The world is not created in justice, as Aquinas tells us, but in mercy. What would become of us if there were just justice!

Such an answer, so unintelligible to our modern minds, does not say there is no justice, but that justice by itself is not what the world is about. Benedict in Spe Salvi is careful to point out why each of us also needs judgment and hence justice. Neither the world nor the Incarnation of the Word needed to have happened. They were not “owed” to anyone. This is their glory. It is this “glory” that we spend our lives seeking. Injustice enters the world when we choose to seek it in the wrong way, in the wrong place.

Mary Ann Glendon wrote a book called Rights Talk, a good book. It made the same point. The constant talk of “rights,” which pretty much describes the modern world, has something very peculiar about it, even (or especially) when indulged in by clerics. We notice in the last few weeks, if we have not been awakened before, that the new “rights” being decreed into law almost every day are, more often than not, the old sins, gussied up as rights. I have often been concerned by the almost total lack of attention to the “logic” of rights whereby almost anything is enforced.

If the poor have a “right” to someone else’s wealth, then it will be impossible actually to do anything for them in the sense of giving them what is in fact mine. All we can do is “redistribute” mine to yours. If I do give something to someone, he will “rightfully” conclude that it was already his. I was just tardy in forking it over. The “rights” laws are there to see that I do.

All one can do is “restore” what is already someone else’s. The noble phrase “social justice” often comes to mean the sort of redistribution that would simply make everyone poor and the poor poorer. That was Russell’s point. If I have a “right” to something that I do not yet have, then someone else must have an obligation to give me what I do not have. What I have already belongs to whoever does not have it. We need the government to make him who has give it to me who does not have.

And if what I do not have is already in the hands of someone else, why should I work to acquire what I need or want? My work would be silly, as the problem is not my work, but someone else’s possession of what is already rightfully mine. If I have a natural right to everything that I do not have, why on earth should I do anything but complain about it (or vote about it) until I receive what is mine? This background explains much contemporary political rhetoric.

But frankly I admire Russell’s main point: “We socialists are not Christians.” We do not give to charity. We rather set up a world in which no charity, as you Christians call it, is either needed or possible. There is a divine claim here, of course: the socialist can really do these infinite things in this world.

A niece of mine recently sent me a quip of Groucho (not Karl) Marx: “I’ve had a perfectly wonderful evening. But this wasn’t it….” We need minds to know why that is funny. But we also need minds to know what to say when we do have a “perfectly wonderful evening,” as in fact we do. What we say is not, “This was owed to me. Before this evening, you deprived me of it. But now justice is restored. I have my ‘right.’” Rather we say, “For a perfectly wonderful evening, I thank you.”

It is like the world itself—much more exists in it than justice. God did not need to create the world, nor us in it. Certain things belong to every nature because of what it is. “Rights talk” seeks accurately to define these things. But when it comes to a world we would really like to live in, save us from a just world in which no one can thank anyone for anything.

Put us in a world where we really can be generous and gentle, where we really can have things that our own. Only then can we give them away, if we will. The saddest world is not a world in which there is injustice to be attended to. The saddest world is one in which no one can give anything to anyone, in which no one can say “Thanks,” and in which no one else can respond, “You are very welcome.”

James V. Schall, S.J. is professor of government at Georgetown University.

About James V. Schall, S.J. 160 Articles

James V. Schall, S.J. taught political philosophy at Georgetown University for many years until recently retiring. He is the author of numerous books and countless essays on philosophy, theology, education, morality, and other topics. His most recent book is Reasonable Pleasures: The Strange Coherences of Catholicism (Ignatius Press). Visit his site, “Another Sort of Learning”, for more about his writings and work.