Memo to the Church: Coerced Charity Is Not Charity At All

| August 21 2012
Christopher Cook

I am not a Catholic, but I have great respect for the Catholic Church. I appreciate their ancient history and admire the long line of theologians the Church has produced. I like their emphasis on faith combined with reason. And I absolutely love listening to the videos of Father Robert Barron, even when I do not entirely agree with him.

But I also find myself put off by statements, both from laity and officials (including some whom I greatly admire), on the subject of charity. The fundamental mistake involved is the conflation of government entitlement programs with the religious mission to provide charity to the poor. These things are not equivalent—in fact, they’re far, far apart—but time and time again, we hear statements that equate the two.

This is not exclusive to the Catholic Church—it happens in Judaism and Protestant churches quite a bit as well. However, it is of recent salience as a Catholic phenomenon because of Mitt Romney’s selection of Paul Ryan, who is Catholic, to run as his nominee for vice president.

As was inevitable, some Catholics are now criticizing Paul Ryan on the grounds that his budget violates Catholic social teaching somehow. Apparently, trying to make entitlement programs solvent—programs which are actuarially headed for bankruptcy—is the equivalent of denying charity to the poor.

Every time I hear this assertion made, I am incredulous to the point of near-speechlessness (not an easy thing for me). To conflate government welfare and transfer payments with the Christian call to give charity to the poor is demonstrably incorrect. And yet it is done all the time . . . mostly because a century of statism has convinced a lot of people that the state is the only mechanism for delivering support to the poor.

Frustratingly, undoing that perception—getting people to remember that society can be constituted in other ways—is only half the battle. The next step is to make people realize that government delivery of “charity” is, in and of itself, morally illegitimate and wrong. Government charity is the act of putting a gun to one man’s head and forcing him to give money to another man. If you’d like to see that gun firsthand, try not paying your taxes.

Charity via force and coercion—which is definitionally all the government is capable of—is not charity at all. It is morally wrong because it involves force. It doesn’t satisfy religious requirements because it is involuntary.

When I saw that (putatively) Catholic groups were criticizing Paul Ryan, I once again had a visceral reaction. Government taking from one man by force to give to another is not what God could possibly have meant by charity. Thankfully, I was not the only one:

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has long supported government interference in the economy as a means to help the poor. But we suspect the bishops haven’t fully thought this through: If God really did favor a top-down approach to poverty reduction, why wouldn’t He establish a government with the power to wipe away poverty on demand instead of leaving things to chance and the possibility that someone like Mr. Ryan would come along and mess up His plans?

Perhaps we dehumanize the poor when we treat them as nothing more than problems to be solved, and we dehumanize the rich when we treat them as wallets to be picked.

Wealth and poverty are catalysts for bringing the rich and the poor together in community, and community is the hallmark of the church’s mission on Earth. Government is not community. Government is one of community’s tools, a coercive one we use when it is necessary to force people to behave in ways they would not otherwise behave voluntarily.

But that word—voluntarily—is key, and it’s where Mr. Ryan’s religious detractors go awry: Charity can only be charity when it is voluntary. Coerced acts, no matter how beneficial or well-intentioned, cannot be moral. If we force people to give to the poor, we have stripped away the moral component, reducing charity to mere income redistribution. And if one really is as good as the other, the Soviets demonstrated long ago that it can be done far more efficiently without the trappings of church and religion.

That the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops can be counted on to make this error again and again is tragic, though perhaps unsurprising. After all, they’ve been become inured to statism over the last century, just like the rest of us.  Hopefully, people within the Church can begin to effect a change in hearts and minds of the hierarchy and the laity. In the meantime, it is up to everyone of good faith, of whatever religion, to reject these absurd attacks on Paul Ryan and his budget.

 

Updates:

1: There is some reason to doubt how Catholic the main group criticizing Ryan really is.

2: Also from HotAir . . . yet one more study shows us who is actually giving the most to charity.

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