The Catholic Thing
Charity to Match Our Poverty Print E-mail
By Matthew Hanley   
Thursday, 24 January 2013

From time to time, I’d visit a few people at a secular nursing home in Baltimore, and in some respects the human misery I saw there affected me more than what I’d seen in, say, rural Africa. I don’t mean to minimize the impression made on me by raw material poverty and impending mortality. The first time I paid a home visit to an AIDS patient in a part of Kenya with very little electricity, she was sprawled out upon the floor – compacted earth – beneath her modestly thatched roof. She was without means even for transport to the nearest hospital.

Perhaps my subjective assessment of our homegrown misery was heightened by this nursing home’s surrounding bleakness. It was located in a distinctly un-charming, drug-infested corridor of “Charm City.” This was no “old folks” home. Many residents were relatively young and, incapacitated for various reasons, there for the long haul. They had four walls and three squares a day. Any sense of hope or meaning seemed much scarcer, and they often endured their torment alone.    

I don’t necessarily say the staff was deliberately inattentive, but human warmth was conspicuous by its absence. It simply wasn’t part of the job description. The constant din of the TV in the rooms might have distracted, but it yielded no real succor nor diminished the lingering odors.

Across town, in another blighted neighborhood not far from Johns Hopkins Hospital, the Missionaries of Charity operated a hospice for those with AIDS who had nowhere to turn. I’d occasionally stay there on night duty. The surrounding commotion – the blaring music, the confrontational outbursts, the sirens, and whatnot going on all hours of the night – was hard to tune out. In what I considered a very rare personal revelation, one of the sisters – a true missionary of Indian origin braving the foreign streets of Baltimore – told me how much the nights in this environment grated on her nerves.

But the orderly environment inside could not have been more different from that run-down nursing home across town. The sisters had created an oasis of peace in that rough and tumble zone of inhospitality. The patients were not in great shape; many were not long for this world. Yet they were welcomed with attentiveness and regard. Care was “holistic,” stretching beyond what was necessary for mere subsistence. Meals were shared.

Another thing the Missionaries of Charity did impressed me. I had just begun to work for Catholic Relief Services when I visited their (overflowing) care-giving home in Johannesburg. Shortly afterwards, I learned that they turned down a grant opportunity because they felt its requirements would divert their energies away from their mission and identity. There was no moral issue in this particular case. They were just concerned it would interfere with their established daily priorities. So they decided to pass up a bit of short-term security, preferring instead to rely on Providence. 

Turning away morally unobjectionable funding is by no means necessary in a categorical sense, but their willingness to do so indicated that they had their priorities in order. And having them in order is the essential thrust of Pope Benedict XVI’s recent apostolic letter on charity– aimed particularly at the Church’s charitable agencies.

Issued motu proprio – on his own initiative it is the latest indication of his conviction that charitable agencies must display greater faithfulness. He stresses, inter alia, the need to staff charitable agencies with people willing to meet the countercultural demands of the faith; they must be vigilant, even exclusionary, with respect to funding opportunities tied to seriously conflicting agendas.

Catholic Charities and Catholic Relief Services presently take in tens, even hundreds of millions from the government. That may not always be problematic, but securing and managing those grants requires employees who know how to talk their talk. They also often think their think, which means the kinds of overhauls Benedict has in mind — conflicting as they do with the ideas and priorities of the powers with the purse strings – are generally not warmly received in-house (as I discovered).

The well-compensated Obamacare enthusiast Sr. Carol Keehan, incidentally, still sits on the board at CRS. Who knows: given the present climate, might she be recommending them to ditch the pesky Catholic label altogether – as Catholic Health Care institutions have recently done on her watch – for the sake of treasured federal mammon?

Now is as good a time as any to adjust the prevailing modus operandi at many charitable agencies. Besides, as Robert Rector has pointed out, material standards of living have been rising for decades, so that the one in seven Americans living in poverty today lead lives markedly less deprived than those enduring the poverty of yesteryear – even of average (not poor) Europeans today.

This does not mean they are free from stress or hardships of one form or another. There will always be material needs to be met with good cheer, but in our context of general material abundance, Rector asks: what is poverty anyway? The retired British doctor Theodore Dalrymple pondered that same question a number of years ago, in light of conditions he and foreign-born colleagues experienced around the world versus those found in the modern British welfare state. His ultimate diagnosis: “I and the doctors from India and the Philippines have come to the same terrible conclusion: that the worst poverty is in England – and it is not material poverty but poverty of soul.”

This is precisely why Catholic charity – the spiritual and corporal works of mercy marching in lock step – is needed so much more than ever escalating material maintenance programs. The one thing Catholic charities should not be, Benedict emphasizes, is “just another form of organized social assistance.” The latter may guarantee modest job security – not in itself a bad thing in this languishing economy. But let’s not pretend it is the measure of true charity.

Matthew Hanley is, with Jokin de Irala, M.D., the author of Affirming Love, Avoiding AIDS: What Africa Can Teach the West, which recently won a best-book award from the Catholic Press Association. His latest report, The Catholic Church & The Global AIDS Crisis is now available from the Catholic Truth Society, publisher to the Holy See in the U.K.

The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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Comments (7)Add Comment
written by athanasius, January 24, 2013
I am of the opinion that government should do less and private citizens should do more. If federal income taxes are lowered, people can afford to give more to charity. What's more, the charities would have to be more persuasive that they are serving the real good rather than politically correct goods.

My brother-in-law does not like my idea because he is afraid that people simply will pocket the money and not give. He prefers coercion to persuasion. And of course, his priorities are the ones that should be coerced.

Perhaps he is partly right about people not giving all of the tax savings, but surely they will give some. And it will be a true act of charity rather than a coerced one.
written by Bill Field, January 24, 2013
I've been concerned about the dependence of CRS on gov't funding for some time; so concerned that I have chosen to contribute to non-Catholic alternatives. Does anyone know of any Catholic charities working in poor countries, paying modest salaries to their executives, having minimal administrative and fundraising costs, and having a policy of avoiding gov't funding?
written by Bangwell Putt, January 24, 2013
The described contrast between the two facilities for ill/aged patients reminded me of a long ago comment from Malcolm Muggeridge in, if I remember correctly, "Something Beautiful for God".

Mr Muggeridge writes that the deveoped photographs he had taken of Mother Teresa's clinic for the dying contained an element that was not visible to his unaided vision (although it may have been inwardly sensed. A light, a luminous field appeared over the sisters as they strove to comfort the dying.

Love was, so to speak, made visible to a person with eyes to see.
written by WSquared, January 24, 2013
Spot on. All of it. Catholics, and not just Catholic charities, need to know, if not re-learn, what charity and poverty actually are, to say nothing of that spiritual virtue known as the Spirit of Poverty-- i.e. detachment from the things of this world. There has been so much dumbing-down of charity to mere materialism as the contrast between the two nursing homes illustrates.

"The one thing Catholic charities should not be, Benedict emphasizes, is “just another form of organized social assistance.” The latter may guarantee modest job security – not in itself a bad thing in this languishing economy. But let’s not pretend it is the measure of true charity."

Yes. Because "the spiritual and corporal works of mercy marching in lock step" also have a theological dimension. If we disregard that dimension, then any such charitable effort will become truncated and fall far short (and thereby illustrating Christ's warning: "without Me, ye can do nothing").

Where talk of "preferential option for the poor" and "social justice," either in politics or outside of it, often tends to run aground or get de-fanged or hollowed out completely is that the language has already been co-opted and manipulated by dissidents, and a lot of faithful Catholics are already seen as too closely linked to the American religious right. So many electioneering tactics, too, seem to revolve around "caring"-- namely, "WE care, THEY don't." All of that presents a challenge to the counter-cultural practice of the Catholic faith.

Catholicism must know what it is and must be itself, and dare any of us presume to "share the love of Christ with others" if we don't even know Who He IS? And dare any of us claim to care for the poor without realizing that the full dignity of the human person is closely connected to our belief that human beings are made in the image of God (and also closely related to our belief in the Incarnation; the next time somebody snarks about bishops calling for better catechesis and caring about the liturgy "instead of helping the poor," hit them with that one, and see what response you get...)? The importance of that last question was obvious from this last election and its results. And as this article aptly demonstrates, that very issue is always inherent whenever anyone claims to speak for or help the poor.

Also on point is the observation of getting one's priorities in order as per the Sisters of Charity, as well as Catholic Charities accepting government mammon being dependent on "talking the talk": the problem with talking the talk sometimes obscure the very fine line between engaging the world (while being not of it) and knowing which side your bread is buttered on (though a Catholic thinking philosophically and theologically might well notice that that only begs the question of whom we allow to butter our bread in the first place). It can be a hard balancing act, a fallen world being what it is. Still, however, that distinction should always be kept in mind, because it's about what's truly at stake. And thus it's something that must be vigilantly prayed about. The organization of a Catholic charity, after all, is not a mere matter of business, and it seems that corporate identity also raises the issue of bodies and being embodied: which Body do we mean?
written by lucky louise, January 25, 2013
Many years ago, I saw an interview of a religious sister in Forbes Magazine. She had established a charity for poor women addicts/former addicts in Chicago. From the start, she rejected government funding and she explained this philosophy in said interview. It was a revelation to me. I began to explore the concept and found that financially-solid charities that reject government funding largely are better-run and have better Christian principles in operation than the others. Not always, but largely. Since then, I have donated almost exclusively to organizations that reject government funding, whether expressly Christian or secular. There is no lack of need or of government-funding-free people working to meet that need. Until the big guns (CRS, CC, etc) change to a non-government-dependency model, they're not getting one thin dime from me. And I tithe on my gross income.
written by Bill Field, January 26, 2013
Louise, I'd appreciate it if you would name some well-run charities that reject gov't funding.
written by link for familycare (FCF), February 06, 2013
It can be such an honor to have the opportunity to join the discussion of this fantastic weblog web website! I desire to extend my thanks for this. God Bless Always.
link for familycare (FCF)

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