The Distinction Between Welfare and Charity

When I was a sweet, naïve freshman in college, I was inspired by a “liberal”, philosophy, namely, that if we all paid higher taxes, then fewer people would be poor. It seemed like such an easy and straightforward way to help so many people out, who could possibly be against that?

Slowly I began to realize that this philosophy was too easy. I knew lots of faithful Republicans whom I knew for a fact were definitely “pro helping poor people” and yet were opposed to this government philosophy. One day I was eating lunch with a notoriously Republican friend of mine, and on our walk back to the dorms, he stopped to give his leftovers to a man begging on the street. We had been debating politics and I asked in all sincerity, “If you Republicans really love the poor, why are you against the government helping them?” It’s a simple question, but it seems to be at the crux of a major divide in our country today.

I actually can’t remember his response, but as the years went by and I discerned my role as a Catholic in politics at a deeper level, I realized that charity, freely given out of love is what God asks of us. Charity that is coerced by punishment of law (through taxes) isn’t charity at all, it’s rendering to Caesar what is his.  Of course, rendering unto Caesar is important, we need a society with roads, bridges and stoplights. In fact, Jesus endorses this kind of giving, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesars, render unto God what is God’s”.

Being charitable is an exhortation from God to us! It so clearly belongs in the area of what we are to render unto God, Jesus asks us to see Him personally in all the poor. Do we really want to delegate that responsibility to Congress? Are we really going to trust Caesar with our personal responsibility to Jesus to be charitable? When I think about the myriad of presidents we’ve had, although some were great men, I would not trust the maintenance of my spiritual life to a single one of them!

When I see self-identified big government “liberals” and people who passionately fight for the so-called “welfare state”, I feel conflicted. These people are righteous in their desire to help the poor, which is a beautiful thing. They are seeking justice, and justice isn’t just one of God’s features, God is justice, He embodies all that justice is. And yet, these people with righteous intentions fail to take the logical step further. God rarely mentions politics in the Bible and emphasizes again and again the need for each and every individual person to be charitable (not just in matters of material goods, but charitable with all our talents) to His neighbor. God does not endorse any specific form of governmental regime and never mentions government as a way to help people. It should also be noted that “charity” is not synonymous with money. Sometimes what people need even more than a check is a hug or a listening ear, two things the government is not currently in the business of offering.

Charity comes from the Latin word caritas or virtue. Liberals seem particularly keen on preventing an establishment of religion, as they emphasize when anyone tries to bring up Jesus in a public classroom. They glorify this part of the First Amendment, tending to ignore the Free Exercise Clause. However, isn’t the imposition of a virtue by definition a mandated religion of sorts? If our government is going to be completely secular, and claim that it cannot endorse any kind of religious behavior, it is acting in an inconsistent way in compelling it’s citizens to exercise Christian virtue. God (and spiritual leaders) are the ones I humbly listen to with the purpose of living a more virtuous life. The government is merely an entity that takes too much of my paycheck each month.

It is Jesus whom we should be serving and in whom we have faith, not Congressionally formed agencies who enjoy gigantic budgets with the perk of minimal oversight. At the pearly gates, do we really think God will favor those who voted for someone who advocates charity or those who practice charity in their daily lives?

1 Comment

  1. Govt care for poor is prudential issue, men of goodwill can disagree on the best way to do so. Our church teaches that govts do have responsibility to provide for their people, or rather to make sure that their people can have basic needs: food, shelter, good health. The tension comes, I think, when charitable giving does not provide for the poor. How do we establish a more just society, and care for the poor in The meantime?