Thursday, June 3, 2010

The difference between charity and justice.

In "Walking in the Footsteps of Jesus" (an excerpt of a booklet produced by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops), there is a helpful distinction between charity and justice:

  • Focuses on the needs of people
  • Looks at individual situations
  • Meets immediate needs
  • Ameliorates symptoms of social problems
  • Relies on the generosity of donors
  • Focuses on the rights of people
  • Analyzes social situations and structures
  • Works for long-term social change
  • Addresses underlying social causes
  • Relies on just laws and fair social structures
Charity is the work of individuals working to relieve the immediate needs of others. Justice is more comprehensive: It goes beyond, for example, giving aid to the poor and looks for ways to reduce poverty. It is also more collective, since it requires a greater number of people working together for change.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church gives priority to justice: "The demands of justice must be satisfied first of all; that which is already due in justice is not to be offered as a gift of charity." If I understand this correctly it is saying that charity is no substitute for justice. If an unjust situation exists it is not enough to relieve the symptoms by offering charity. Justice must be satisfied.

These unjust situations are the result of "structures of sin". Individual sins aggregate and create sinful situations and institutions which, in turn, perpetuate and enable further sin. These structures of sin cannot be destroyed through charity, only collective working for justice.

The document offers a model for living this out, "The ART of Catholic Social Teaching":


"Act" is the initial charitable action to relieve immediate needs. "Reflect" asks what causes the need. What structures of sin lie behind the needs addressed by charity and how are those sins addressed by Christian teaching? "Transform" is the effort to destroy those structures of sin which are the root cause of suffering in the world. In the words of the World Synod of Bishops:
Action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world fully appear to us as a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the Gospel, or, in other words, of the Church’s mission for the redemption of the human race and its liberation from every oppressive situation. ("Justice in the World", 1971).
Walking in the Footsteps of Jesus (pdf)
Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, a collection of primary source material on Catholic social teaching.

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About Me

I'm Rachel's husband and Darcy's daddy. I'm a Hoosier, an accountant, and an Episcopalian. Politically, I'm a progressive who believes in the preferential option for the poor. I use the blog as a sort of journal - to interact with my reading and sketch out ideas.