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Charity to Match Our Poverty

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 [1]– 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 [2], 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 [3] 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’s new book, Determining Death by Neurological Criteria: Current Practice and Ethics, is a joint publication of the National Catholic Bioethics Center and Catholic University of America Press.