Category: Effective Compassion

I was privileged to participate this week in a conference at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, hosted by the Division for Roman Law and Legal History, “Law and Religion: The Legal Teachings of the Protestant and Catholic Reformations.” My paper today was titled, “Natural Law and Subsidiarity in Early Modern Reformed Perspective.”

In this paper I explore some of the theological context in the sixteenth century among Reformed theologians like Wolfgang Musculus, Peter Martyr Vermigli, Jerome Zanchi, and Franciscus Junius that form a part the early modern pre-history of the modern principle of subsidiarity.

In this respect, I argue particularly that

The link between natural law and the idea of subsidiarity in this early modern Reformed context, then, is in the affirmation of the natural moral obligation to help your neighbor, both at the individual as well as at the institutional level. Subsdiarity, in its most basic (if not yet principled) sense is in this way a corollary of natural law, in that it is an aspect of the rational ordering of society, including human individuals with a common nature (including dignity and relative autonomy) as well as a variety of institutions with different ends (natures). Subsidiarity is an answer to the question of ordering variegated social institutions and relating them to the individual, an answer which became increasingly developed and mature as Reformed social thought progressed.

20120509-001219.jpgI was reminded of the ongoing significance of the “natural moral obligation to help your neighbor” when watching the acclaimed film Winter’s Bone recently. Ree is Sonny’s older sister, and even though she is still in high school she is the sole provider for the family. The family is under enormous financial and legal pressure, and with this background we have this exchange between Sonny and Ree. They see that their neighbors have recently killed a deer, while Ree’s family is starving:

Sonny: Maybe they’ll share some of that with us.
Ree: That could be.
Sonny: Maybe we should ask.
Ree: Never ask for what oughta be offered.

“Never ask for what oughta be offered.” In that short phrase we have a deep insight into the assumed social obligations in this example of Missouri hill country, as well as the rather remarkable willingness to go without, and perhaps starve, rather than ask for what someone is morally obliged to provide. It captures wonderfully the simultaneously coexisting rugged individualism and social conscience of historic American culture.

Ree’s neighbors have full knowledge of her family’s troubles, and later that evening they do in fact bring food to them, with the explanation that the neighbor didn’t want them to think that they “forgot” about their moral obligations.

These scenes are one small illustration of what I argue is the Reformed “vision of a society as one of mutual aid.”

Dr. Kuypers zorg voor de kleine luyden

Albert Hahn: Dr. Kuyper's care for the little people (1905)

In yesterday’s post I highlighted a pair of articles that cover the transition over the last 120 years or so in the Netherlands from an emphasis on private charitable giving to reliance upon the welfare state. In some ways this story mirrors a similar transformation in American society as described by Marvin Olasky in his landmark book, The Tragedy of American Compassion.

Olasky’s work does double-duty, however, not only chronicling this transition but cogently arguing the superiority of voluntary aid and charity, which can effectively address both spiritual as well as material aspects of poverty.

In the special issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality on “Modern Christian Social Thought,” we also find a wonderful resource on this topic in the form of Abraham Kuyper’s reflection from 1895 on the relationship of Christ and the gospel to material concerns, “Christ and the Needy.”
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I recently came across an interesting academic journal, Diaconia: Journal for the Study of Christian Social Practice. One of the sample articles available is by Herman Noordegraaf of the Protestant Theological University in Leiden. His piece is titled, “Aid Under Protest? Churches in the Netherlands and Material Aid to the Poor” (PDF).

The latest issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality is a theme issue on “Modern Christian Social Thought,” and a series of pieces take up a line of recent history in the Netherlands. A significant article by Rolf van der Woude, senior researcher at the Historical Documentation Centre for Dutch Protestantism at the VU University Amsterdam, examines the changes in Reformed thought on the social question from the First Social Congress in 1891 to the Third Social Conference in 1952. As van der Woude concludes, in the post war era, “A new generation believed that the beast of the state, caged for so long, had now been tamed. At the end of the 1950s, Van den Heuvel’s generation retreated, the Netherlands entered a period of economic boom, and a generous welfare state was rapidly erected from the ground up wherein welfare was no longer a matter of charity but a matter of justice guaranteed by the government. The beast of the state had become an ally.”

Noordegraaf’s piece can be read as a companion article to van der Woude’s, tracing the development (or lack thereof) in Christian social thought in the Netherlands over the last half century. As Noordegraaf writes, the situation has largely remained the same, in that the church’s primary responsibility is understood not merely to have to provide material assistance to the poor, but rather advocate for reliance on the welfare state for such provision. As Noordegraaf writes, a declaration on the problem of poverty in 1987 codified the approach of “aid under protest,” in which the churches provide aid to the poor but only under protest that the government was not meeting welfare needs appropriately. The statement reads:

We reject the way people are once again made dependent on charity. We plead for social security that is not charity but a right that is fully guaranteed by government. For this reason, financial aid given by churches in situations of need should be combined with protest against the causes of this need to government and society.

Noordegraaf’s observation is that the churches, both locally and denominationally, have been too concerned with meeting the momentary concrete needs of the poor and need to pay more attention to the mandate to lobby the government for more expansive social welfare programs. The point is that the need for Christian or church-based charity indicts the lack of justice under a modern constitutional state, where freedom from need and want ought to be simply guaranteed.

As Nordegraaf concludes concerning recent trends, “More and more, as the above mentioned reports show, churches have been involved in material aid: when people are in need and ask for help, you give it. It is a kind of safety net under the increasingly porous safety net of the state.” He continues, “The fact that the churches found this problematic reflects their belief that the principles of the welfare state are worth fighting for. This has to do with a vision of the task of the state to promote the general welfare and to secure the basic needs of people in society.” Noordegraaf concludes that “it is in harmony with the calvinist approach of the responsibility of the state that churches try to make clear to government and to society at large that they have helped with material aid. This signalizing can take many forms: in letters, reports, talks, discussions, programmes in the media, articles in newspapers and so on. In this way, individual aid is combined with advocacy in the public domain.”

I commend these two articles to your reading: Rolf van der Woude, “Taming the Beast: The Long and Hard Road to the Christian Social Conference of 1952,” and Herman Noordegraaf, “Aid Under Protest? Churches in the Netherlands and Material Aid to the Poor.”

They will make clear just how much things have changed over the last 120 years in the Netherlands, when Abraham Kuyper emphasized the priority of Christian giving in 1881, arguing that “the holy art of ‘giving for Jesus’ sake’ ought to be much more strongly developed among us Christians. Never forget that all state relief for the poor is a blot on the honor of your savior.” Such emphasis on private Christian charity is now understood to be retrograde and obsolete.

The noir heroes like Sam Spade in “The Maltese Falcon” served as models for a generation of Americans, says David Brooks. The new generation of apolitical social entrepreneurs could learn from them too:
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All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I had been eager to do all along.

Galatians 2:10 NIV

This video is part of an extended interview with Rev. Dr. John Dickson (Director, Centre for Public Christianity and Senior Research Fellow, Department of Ancient History, Macquarie University) for The Faith Effect, a project of World Vision Australia. (HT: Justin Taylor)

Update: I should also add that a useful collection of primary texts on the social thought of the early church is edited by Peter C. Phan, Social Thought (Michael Glazier, 1984).

Scientific American has announced that rich people aren’t nice.  In fact, they are less compassionate, more unfair and greedier than poor people. These allegations are based on the findings of two Berkeley psychologists, Paul Piff and Dacher Keltner.

There were a number of studies involved, and some significant problems are evident. For instance, Scientific American reports that factors “we know affect compassionate feelings, such as gender [and] ethnicity” were controlled. However, there is no explanation as to how gender or ethnicity affects compassion. Is there one ethnic group that is most compassionate? Is one gender always less compassionate than another?

Another study reportedly manipulated ‘class feeling’:

The researchers asked participants to spend a few minutes comparing themselves either to people better off or worse off than themselves financially. Afterwards, participants were shown a jar of candy and told that they could take home as much as they wanted. They were also told that the leftover candy would be given to children in a nearby laboratory. Those participants who had spent time thinking about how much better off they were compared to others ended up taking significantly more candy for themselves–leaving less behind for the children.

It is unclear as to how participants’ thoughts were measured, or whether or not participants were given some sort of indication of the neediness of the children involved. (Were the kids hungry? Malnourished? Did the kids “need” candy?)

The point of the Scientific American article is this:  ‘…the most powerful among us may be the least likely to make decisions that help the needy and the poor.’ And the assumption is that money made them this way. Even worse is the assumption that the needy and poor are in no way capable of helping themselves; they have to wait until someone comes along and gives them something – anything – to get them out of poverty. Those in need are just the poor kids down the hall without any candy, hoping someone will pass along the leftovers.

Money is not the teacher of morality, compassion, fairness or empathy. Money doesn’t supply a person with cultural or moral formation. We do that – as participants in our own culture, society, religious institutions and  government. Americans value compassion, but we also value hard work, creativity, initiative and personal responsibility. Do we want a culture of compassionate but needy folks awaiting leftover candy, or do want a culture that highlights empathy and self-reliance, partnership with the poor rather than paternalism? A free and virtuous society will be built on the latter.

Back in 2011, then-Bishop Timothy Dolan pointed out that our nation’s budget is not simply a matter of numbers and balanced books.  “It reflects the very values of our nation. As many religious leaders have commented, budgets are moral statements.”

In a reiteration of this, House Budget Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) says local control and concern for the poor must inform national budget issues.

Ryan said that the principle of subsidiarity — a notion, rooted in Catholic social teaching, that decisions are best made at most local level available — guided his thinking on budget planning.

To Ryan’s way of thinking, this means creating government policy that empowers people in power to achieve financial independence.

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Thanks to George McGraw, Executive Director of DigDeep Right to Water Project, for his kind and thoughtful Counterpoint to my original post.  He and his organization are clearly dedicated to the noble cause of providing clean water and sanitation to all, a cause which everyone can and should support.  It is also a very sensible objective that would aid the world’s poor much more than trendier causes such as “climate change” and “population control” which tend to view the human person and his industriousness as fundamental problems to be solved through central planning, birth control, sterilization and abortion.

McGraw is certainly right to say that the Holy See does not believe that water should be free for all, despite the purposely provocative title of my post.  And the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace document does indeed presuppose market mechanisms for the distribution of water resources.  My fear, however, is that while paying lip service to the validity of market economics and the role of profit, many religious-minded people still have a low opinion of business and fail to recognize that markets have been and remain the best way to allocate resources, especially absolutely necessary ones such as food and water.  The profit motive may not be the most high-minded way of caring for the poor, but it has proven to be the most reliable and effective one.  No one claims that markets are perfect; they are still more likely to meet human needs that the alternatives, whether these are government services or private charity.

I agree that there are circumstances in which food and water must be provided to those who cannot pay for them, but this does not make them “free” or without cost.  Someone else still has to produce and deliver them to the poor, and it will be the government who does the commanding at some level.  This is necessary in emergency situations, though still not always the best solution, as the relief efforts in the Hurricane Katrina aftermath proved.  My main concern is that introducing a legally-recognized “right to water” shifts the focus from the rights and duties of the private sector to those of the government, and away from the individual and toward the collective.  It should also be recognized that the public, subsidized provision of a good often displaces or “crowds out” private sector providers, to the detriment of the development of local businesses, a sine qua non if countries are to escape poverty.

Having worked for the Holy See at the United Nations, I witnessed all sorts of perverted thinking on the issue of human rights.  The UN was where, for instance, the Soviet Union and its satellites continually pushed for “economic, social and cultural rights” at the expense of the political and civil rights promoted by the West.  This was yet another cynical ploy to deny individual rights and collectivize society.  Since the end of communism, many of these “new” rights, also called “second- and third-generation” rights, have become less obviously ideological but remain problematic.  As the very notion of “generational” development makes clear, there is no clear standard by which to measure or order these rights.  This is the “progressive” rather than the truly liberal understanding of human rights and it ought to be rejected as such.  Two of my graduate-school professors, Clifford Orwin and Thomas Pangle, put it well in a 1982 essay on “The Philosophical Foundation of Human Rights”:

[Economic, social and cultural rights] are merely things that most people want, and that the poorer countries wish they could persuade the richer ones to give them. They are open-ended and hence often unreasonable.  There is no way, for example, that an underdeveloped country can provide adequate education or medical care for all its citizens.  By proclaiming these as universal human rights, however, such countries arm themselves with the most respectable of reasons for pressing for global redistribution of wealth.  No one can blame them for that; but we can question the status as “human rights” of what are, in a sense, letters to Santa Claus.

I have to admit to being a bit surprised by the Catholic World News report on my blog post that placed me in opposition to Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI as well as the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church.  It’s not every day that I have to prove my Catholic bona fides, so I should clarify my understanding of what the Church means by the “right to water.”  (The RealClearReligion website may have contributed to the problem by titling its link to my piece “There is No Right to Water.”)  All Catholics and indeed all people of good will should believe that human beings are entitled to the necessities of food and water as human beings; in no way do I support depriving anyone of these at any stage of life.  And the Church is not wrong to identify “rights” that are due to the person as a result of his ontological dignity.  My point was that calling for a legally-recognized international human right to water may not be the best way to ensure that everyone actually has access to it; results should matter just as much as putting some nice-sounding words on paper.  The difficulty results, in my opinion, from the long-standing abuse of the term “human rights” that I previously mentioned and a lot of subsequent incoherence, not least coming from academics looking for justification for their soft-left-wing policy preferences.

The Church is, nevertheless, a pre-modern institution that has a different understanding of human rights and human nature than liberals and progressives do, and the presuppositions of Church teaching on human dignity are crucial.  As the late Cardinal Avery Dulles once put it, “The Catholic doctrine of human rights is not based on Lockean empiricism or individualism.  It has a more ancient and distinguished pedigree.”  Without emphasizing the presuppositions made by this pedigree, any call for new rights is likely to be misconstrued and misapplied.  We need to recover the fullness of Catholic moral and social teaching without exacerbating the problem, while also appreciating the role that private enterprise has within the liberal tradition.

Rudy Carrasaco, US Regional Director for Partners World Wide speaks today at the Acton Lecture Series about Business as Mission 2.0.

Take a look at this short video of Rudy on Business as Mission and Transforming Communities that we did for PovertyCure. Rudy will be featured in the forthcoming PovertyCure curriculum.

Rudy will discuss the guiding principles of Business as Mission (BAM) which affirm human dignity and provide a foundation for businesses that seek to honor God.

2012 marks the launch of the 2nd Global Think Tank on Business as Mission as part of the Lausanne Forum for World Evangelization. This consultative process will reach every corner of the globe, invigorate the movement with case studies and lessons learned, and explore innovative development in sub-fields like BAM and Human Trafficking, BAM-in-a-Box, and BAM that alleviates U.S. poverty.

Visit Rudy’s Voices page at PovertyCure and learn more about the PovertyCure Project here

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Galatians 2:10 reads, “All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I had been eager to do all along.” This is the conclusion to the Jerusalem Council, in which Paul and the leaders in Jerusalem are reconciled and unified, and where is decided that Paul and Barnabas “should go to the Gentiles, and they [James, Peter, and John] to the circumcised” (v. 9).

The concluding point that both groups are to keep in mind in their respective ventures is that they “remember the poor.” This will have some important significance for Paul and the Jerusalem Christians later on, as Paul brings the gifts of support from the Gentile churches to relieve the suffering of the church in Jerusalem (see Acts 24:17).

The first volume of the Reformation Commentary on Scripture series includes Galatians, and includes some interesting considerations from various reformers on this text. Luther observes that “it is the task of a good pastor to be mindful of the poor. Wherever the church is there will be poor people, and more often than not they are the only true disciples of the gospel.” Wealth can be a powerful temptation.

WolfgangMusculusBut in the account of Wolfgang Musculus (a little-known reformer with whom I am well familiar) on this text, we find too that poverty has its own temptations. Musculus writes, “There was a great need of this advice concerning both the earthly life of the faithful poor and the nature of religion itself. There was a real danger that not only would their bodies succumb to hunger but also that their souls would succumb to the temptation to defect and revert to Judaism. Hunger is a dangerous persuader and the one most closely linked to poverty” (emphasis added).

This recognition of the relationship between bodily needs and spiritual goods reminds me also of the following from the Puritan Richard Baxter, in a treatise on Galatians 6:10:

Do as much good as you are able to men’s bodies, in order to the greater good of souls. If nature be not supported, men are not capable of other good. We pray for our daily bread before pardon and spiritual blessings, not as if we were better, but that nature is supposed before grace, and we cannot be Christians if we be not men; God hath so placed the soul in the body, that good or evil shall make its entrance by the bodily sense to the soul.