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Pope Francis on ‘fake charity’

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At the recent Vatican meeting of Catholic Charities Pope Francis praised the participants for their concern for the poor and marginalized, but warned them of the danger of “fake charity.”

Carol Glatz writes in Catholic Herald:

Charity is not a sterile service or a simple donation to hand over to put our conscience at ease,” he said. “Charity is God our Father’s embrace of every person, particularly of the least and those who suffer.”

The church is not a humanitarian organization, the Pope said. It is something so much bigger: “in Christ, it is the sign and instrument of God’s love for humanity and for creation.”

The Pope urged the Caritas representatives to live out this charity freely, humbly and with a spirit of poverty.

“One cannot live charity without having a personal relationship with the poor — to live with the poor and for the poor” so as to learn from them how charity is sharing.

“It is necessary to always be careful not to fall into the temptation of living a hypocritical or deceptive charity, identified with almsgiving” or fundraising or used as a “sedative” to relieve an uneasy conscience, the Pope said.

“This is why one must avoid equating charitable activity with philanthropic strength or with well-planned efficiency or with over-the-top and flamboyant organization,” he said.

Charity vs. Humanitarianism

One of the underlying problems with the dominant approach to poverty from major multinational organizations to Christian organizations, and even smaller non-profits has been the replacement of charity with humanitarianism. This is one of the underlying themes of our film Poverty, Inc While charity and humanitarianism appear similar, they are profoundly different. 

Charity, from the latin “caritas” is Christian love.  It is an act of the will that “seeks the good of the other,”    As expressed in Latin, love is an “intentio benevolentiae” the intentional desire for the  benevolence of the the other. Charity provides care and help when needed, but always keeping in  mind the goals of human flourishing and the eternal destiny of each person.

Humanitarianism in contrast, has limited horizons. It focuses on providing comfort and stops there.  Humanitarianism thinks of  providing comfort even at the expense of long term human flourishing.  And because of it materialist foundations, it has no place for the spiritual dimension of man or  for his eternal destiny.  Humanitarianism is a hollowed out, secular version of Christian love. It is precisely, in Francis’ words, “fake charity.”

Ideology of Efficiency

Pope Francis’s critiques of the the bureaucratic tendency and the ideology of efficiency.  Here he echoes Benedict XVI’s critique of foreign aid from Volume 1 of Jesus of Nazareth. 

The aid offered by the West to developing countries has been purely materially and technically based and not only has left God out of the picture, has driven man away from God. And this aid proudly claiming to “know better” is itself what first turned the “third world” into what today we mean  by the term.”

Francis and Benedict both stress that we must have deep concern for the poor and be actively engaged in helping those in need, but unless the “right ordering goods” is respected we end up harming those we want to help and create more exclusion.  What we need is not more humanitarianism or philanthropy, but a reinvigoration of charity.

I would argue that we we also need is to recover the insights from the Jewish and Christian traditions about the importance of institutions of justice,  things like clear title to land, access to justice and ability to participate in the formal economy that enable people to create prosperity in their own families and communities and thus no longer need to rely on charity.  While there are some people who will always need charity and assistance, for most people in the developing world, the real problem is not a lack of material things, the real problem is one of exclusion from the institutions of justice.

True charity must always be grounded in justice and in the truth about God and the human person. As Benedict XVI put it beautifully in Caritas in Veritate,  “Without truth, charity degenerates into sentimentality.”

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Michael Matheson Miller Michael Matheson Miller is a Senior Research Fellow at the Acton Institute

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