The Charity of the Poor

We’re about one-third of the way to our goal for this end-of-year fund drive. I thank all of you again who responded so quickly and generously. But we need more of you – still many more at this point – to join us with your prayers and financial support. David Warren tells a beautiful tale of the generosity of the poor in today’s column. And it’s profoundly true. As in most Christian communities, there are not many of us who are wealthy or powerful. But it’s from the small efforts that we make that large effects flow. The Catholic Thing appears 365 days a year, around thirty articles every month. If you add them up, it’s a good size, 30,000-word monthly magazine that we assemble here. We provide it to all comers for free and even help subsidize our partners abroad who translate our material into foreign languages. If we were just a secular operation, what do you think that would be worth? Whatever you think that is, we’re offering you a chance to participate in helping to disseminate authentic Catholic teaching and Catholic–informed views everywhere we possibly can. I myself will be on National Public Radio on Monday to try and clarify some of the misconceptions that have sprung up about the Church under Pope Francis. We get these opportunities partly because of the work we do here. If you think that effort worthwhile, please make your own personal contribution, whether it’s $25 or $250, to defending and promoting the Faith, today. – Robert Royal 


Answers to the “social questions” depend on one’s angle of view, and therefore partly on where one lives. Pope Francis has been trying to make this point, especially to his priests and bishops, though also to the public at large. It was something he took to heart, when he lived in Buenos Aires and habituated its more down-market districts.

There are two reasons, I think, why the mass media may misunderstand him. One is straightforward mistranslation, from Spanish to English. Of this we are becoming increasingly aware, and should note that much of it is unintentional. Translators with minds already formed to accommodate the ideological clichés of our time, translate what they hear into what they understand. But what if the pope is not mouthing ideological clichés?

Which takes us to the other point. What if he is speaking from experience, and not from commonly received theory? A great deal of confusion arises, in our highly “virtual” and “theoretical” environment, when non-virtual realities are encountered.

Let me try to explain this in personal terms.

Asked, sometimes a little anxiously, whether it is true that I live in the (down-market) Parkdale district of Toronto, by those who command real estate in the (smugly plush and reliably liberal) Annex or Rosedale districts, my standard reply is, “Yes, in Parkdale, where everyone would live if they could afford it.” Alternatively, and more flippantly: “if they were properly armed,” or whatever.

Downward mobility might be my actual excuse, but over the near-decade I have occupied my Parkdale digs, as a refugee from the “middle classes,” I have come to love the neighborhood even more than I hate it. Toronto is no Detroit, and our downtown has not been burnt out since a little incident in the War of 1812. (We got you back by torching the White House, incidentally.) Even Parkdale has expensive houses, and once had more. It’s a multi-ethnic, racial melting pot that includes some classic “white trash” ingredients. The crime rate isn’t really all that bad.

But the poor we always have with us, including lately the severely welfare dependent, to say nothing of numerous outpatients from the province’s largest “mental health” facility. It has been something of an honor to live among such people. I mean this seriously.

“The poor are different than you and me,” if I may misparaphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald. To which the imaginary Hemingway replies: “Yes, they have less money.”

I make this tawdry little joke to a purpose. We take our Godless Marxism so much for granted, that we cannot see through the class system. “Capitalists” and “socialists” alike have come to subscribe to Marx’s most original error. As Roger Scruton observed: “It was to Marx that we owed that first and disastrous attempt to organize society on economic principles alone.”

   Christmas in Parkdale

The poor can do all seven deadly sins, which perhaps no one will dispute; but they are also capable of the virtues. The interesting thing, here, is that they can do them with little or no money, and can be seen to be doing them from time to time in ways that might shame their betters. This includes acts of charity in the narrowest sense of giving things away to the needy – of quite spontaneously providing for each other at the humblest levels of shelter, clothing, food, candy, alcohol, and cigarettes.

Let this not become sentimental; for sentimental Marxism is the most debilitating kind.

A more basic act of charity consists of human solidarity – of being there, and toughing it out with the lonely and luckless – and poverty seems almost to confer an advantage in this regard. I’ve seen it, for instance, in the emergency ward of a local hospital, where the poor seldom arrive alone, and I’ve been moved to reflect that, “the rich send cards.”

Conversely, at a local nursing home, one sees the remarkable number of formerly middle-class people – the majority, I’d say – warehoused and never visited, even by surviving immediate family. This cannot be a money thing, for someone found the money to dump them in there, out of sight and mind, if only via power-of-attorney. It is nice they were not left in the street, but one can imagine nicer.

What I’m getting at here, purposely by flashing the red Marx card, is the notion that, like everything else in society, charity comes down to money relations. We see this about equally in arguments from the Left and Right. The Left demands more state spending, and to “make the rich pay.” The Right moans that free markets are required, to make the rich capable of paying. And this is because according to a free-market myth, charity requires wealth, in the hands of rich “donors.”

In other words, if we overlook the instinctive totalitarianism of the Left, the two sides might be interchangeable.

A lot of money did in fact pass through the hands of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, and must necessarily be raised to support any kind of organized eleemosynary operation; and there are few excuses for a tight fist. But at the front line it is hand-to-hand warfare, which cannot be reduced to money. For the work has no cash value. On perfectly free-market principles, it could be entirely dispensed with.

Big checks earn big tax deductions, and seek (whether or not they find) big public praise. This is why anonymous donors impress me, including the myriad of whom I become increasingly aware, who do not fuss with tax receipts, but pay for what is immediately necessary directly from their own pockets. In this way, they “deduct” only the bureaucracy.

Aristotle said, of “the magnificent man,” that he does not count the cost; and this is true of many who would count “below the poverty line” in arbitrary statistics. They grasp instinctively, in defiance of economics, whether public or private, that money is the means to the end, and not the end we are serving. They, often better than we.


David Warren is a former editor of the Idler magazine and columnist in Canadian newspapers. He has extensive experience in the Near and Far East. His blog, Essays in Idleness, is now to be found at: