Charity or Justice

Resolving the Problem in the Light of the Social Teaching of the Church, with Special Reference to the Society of St. Vincent De Paul 

by Msgr. Peter Elliott

The relationship between charity and justice from the social teachings of the Church, and the practical examples

In the last years of her life, Mother Teresa of Calcutta was denounced by some journalists. They accused her of not getting to the root causes of poverty, of ignoring the great issues of social justice. They claimed that she only put band-aids on social problems because all she offered was charity.

Is there a conflict here? Does justice clash with charity? Are they alternatives? Need we set these two principles or virtues against one another?

A Pope Responds

Speaking to representatives of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul gathered in Rome in 1983 for the 150th anniversary of the founding of the Society, Pope John Paul II responded to this problem, with words familiar to many of you:

“Justice and charity…cannot be opposed. Ozanam himself praised daring measures for the betterment, in justice, of the living conditions of the rising working class. He was one of the great precursors of the social movement which culminated in the Encyclical Rerum Novarum. But he knew also that charity does not wait: it comes to the aid of the individual man who is suffering today. No doubt there are some people who think that the charity you practise runs the risk, with its little, individual acts of relief, of hindering the process necessary for creating a human society entirely renewed and liberated from injustice. This should not trouble you.”

These wise words of the Holy Father invite us into the question of how we can reconcile charity and justice.Some general observations are based on experience. Charity without justice is vulnerable and ultimately futile. But justice without charity can be cold, ruthless, even self destructive. Charity and justice need one another, like love and marriage.

We find the link between charity and justice in the social teaching of the Church, teaching derived from the Gospels where Jesus Christ himself proclaims and lives the good news of charity and justice for the poor. It is interesting to note how in the ground-breaking encyclical Rerum Novarum, Pope Leo XIII, introduced the concept of justice by first outlining the Church’s work of charity. Later Pope John XXIII included “charity” in the subtitle of his proclamation of human rights and justice, Mater et Magistra. Pope Paul VI in Populorum Progressio 74 pressed the need for a universal charity in the service of development, evident when young people serve others in aid projects. There is also a point in our more recent social teaching where I believe that charity and justice converge, as a principle and in action, but I will discuss that later.

First it is important for us to clarify the distinctively Christian meanings of these two words using the Scriptures as our guiding source.

Charity, “Tough Love”

When we use the word “charity” we are bound to reflect on its deeper scriptural and supernatural meaning. The Latin word for “charity” is caritas in turn derived from a Greek word, found in the New Testament, agape. This is translated in modern versions of the Scriptures simply as “love”, and we teach the meaning of charity to the children in our schools as love. But “love” has many meanings in English. What kind of love are we talking about when we use the word “charity” or agape? This is a unique kind of love, not a mere feeling, sensation or sentiment. It is what some would call a “tough love”, the love derived from the cross, that is, a self-giving love, a selfless love, a love without self-interest, a love that seeks to gain nothing, the love of the crucified Lord Jesus.

In his New Commandment he tells us to “love one another as I have loved you” (John 13: 34-35). The New Commandment hinges on the cross, for that is where Jesus shows us how he has loved us. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in its Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation (March 2, 1986) precisely in a chapter devoted to his New Commandment, tells us that there is no gap between love of neighbor and a desire for justice.

This love can be further understood in the light of an Italian form of expressing affection: “Ti voglio bene.”, meaning literally, “I wish you well”. But that may have deeper implications, for it can mean, “I wish you everything good – simply because of who you are in yourself….” What a marvelous reverence we find for the human person in those words. This is an affirmation of the value of every person, unique, unrepeatable, created in the image and likeness of God. This language leads us towards the ultimate love of the Heart of Christ. And it is here, in that furnace of self giving, that the agape of Jesus radically transforms the mutual love of wife and husband as they live the spousal sacrament of life and love each day. It is here that family relationships can be healed and transformed. It is here that the mission of the men and women of this Society of St. Vincent de Paul and other Christian “works of charity” is transformed into a grace-filled service of others.

Saint Paul is clear that this love is not a human effort, but a gift of God, or as the theologians say, an infused virtue, imparted by the Holy Spirit, indeed the very presence of the Spirit dwelling in our hearts (cf. Romans 5:5).

We thus distinguish charity from purely human affection, or from other forms of love, sexual or parental love, friendship or patriotism. But we should never separate charity, agape, from these human forms of love which all need to be refined by the power of grace, each in turn being elevated, redeemed, enriched and transformed by caritas or agape of the Lord Jesus, poured into human hearts by the Holy Spirit.

The word “charity” has been debased in modern English. It has come to mean doing one’s public duty, a kindly civic action, charitable work, what the “good guy” or the “fine woman” is expected to do, for example working in a charitable auxiliary or giving to a charitable appeal. And the objects of this benevolence are described, in slightly condescending terms as, “living off charity”, or in less polite terms as “bludgers”. Yet even that limited meaning of “charity” contains much that is good, and it too can be transformed once it is vitalized by opening the human heart to divine love, caritas or agape. Without faith, without prayer, without the grace of the sacraments, you cannot have the divine gift of God’s love in your hearts and you cannot serve others with its grace.

Justice and Goodness

Likewise, we should place the word “justice” in a true perspective, which means freeing it from a purely juridical or legal meaning of being just or fair in dealings and rulings.

The “just person” in the Scriptures is a good person. God’s justice is also sheer goodness, uprightness, freedom from guilt, and this is what we receive in Baptism when we are “justified” by the grace of God, grace restored in the healing moments of the sacrament of Reconciliation. Through living faith and good deeds we are made just in God’s sight, and not merely acquitted by God but inwardly transformed by his own goodness and holiness, by the Spirit dwelling within us.

Justice in this sense is also described as “righteousness”, and the Greek word diakaiusthene is translated as such in various versions of the Scriptures. But here we bump into the problem of modern English – “self righteous” has negative connotations, implying hypocrisy, delusions etc. It is also an antiquated term, and we constantly need to prune our religious language of dead wood.

This deeper kind of justice as goodness also builds on our innate sense of right and wrong, of what is fair and unfair, in the great Australian tradition of giving everyone a “fair go”. So God’s gift of justice as goodness is related to the juridical or legal meaning of justice. Our social teaching also maintains the classical view that justice is what we ought to grant to all people. They deserve it for who they are, because they are all persons, unborn or born.

But justice in action also needs a distinct grace to go with it, and the word for that grace is another wonderful concept from our Judaeo-Christian heritage – mercy. I take another illustration from Italy. Over the gates into the law courts in Rome there is an inscription telling us that this is a tribunal not simply of justice but of “Grazia et Giustizia” – “Grace and Justice”, and the grace referred to here is mercy. The ideal of mercy tempering justice is a strong tradition in the interpretation of law around the Mediterranean, obviously influenced by a realistic and compassionate Catholic understanding of human weakness. Crimes of passion are often treated in a human way in this tradition. This is also one of the healthy currents running through the prudent interpretation of the Canon Law of the Church.


There is a distinctly compassionate dimension to charity – mercy. To be merciful is not being condescending or patronizing. It is not “my lady bountiful” descending on the starving villagers in a cloud of scented taffeta. Merciful charity is what the Society of St. Vincent de Paul puts into action every day all around the world, in a down to earth realistic way. This service of others reveals the mercy of God, the divine mercy of the Heart of Christ.

There is much talk in the Church of the “charism” of holy founders of religious orders, congregations and new spiritual and apostolic movements in the Church. This seems to mean the unique gift that a heroic man or woman passes on to those attracted by a specific mission and spirituality in the Church. How then, in the light of great words such as charity, justice, goodness and mercy, can we define the charism, for example, of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul?

Taking up my theme, let me suggest that your charism is merciful charity tempered by justice. It can also be summed up in plain English as compassion plus common sense. It is the charism of Blessed Frederick Ozanam himself.

Charity and Justice as Solidarity

However, we can still learn from the social teaching of the Church, for example, summarised so well in the Catechism of the Catholic Church nos. 1877-1942. Here we find the strong concepts, based on Natural Law, that guide us in working for justice with charity or carrying out a ministry of charity with justice. But, as I hinted earlier, there seems to be a point where charity and justice do converge. This is solidarity. In his Enclyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, 40, Pope John Paul II points out that solidarity is a Christian virtue that shares many points of contact with charity, the distinguishing mark of Christ’s disciples.

When we stand in solidarity with the poor and the marginalised, we identify with them, we do not only stand up for them, rather, we join them. This solidarity is obviously derived from the God who identifies with us, who became one of us, as the Second Vatican Council teaches in Gaudium et Spes, 32. The Incarnation, God becoming our brother in the flesh, is the source of true Christian solidarity. When God took our flesh from blessed Mary the Virgin, that was the greatest act of solidarity, completed on a cross where God in our flesh even entered into the very experience of our fragile mortality.

Solidarity unfortunately is not always well understood. Some years ago, I was represented the Holy See at a Conference of European Ministers of Social Security, in Lugano, Switzerland. The English Minister, whose portfolio covered social security, was rather outspoken. His political career later crumbled due to certain “indiscretions”, as they would say in “Yes, Minister”. But he shocked the other Ministers and especially the delegation of the Holy See, by his dismissive words about the family, claiming that the family is merely “a private matter”, so that pro-family legislation or social policy is not needed. Then this ardent Thatcherite went on to quibble about the word “solidarity”, which he had heard used frequently during by his peers from other European nations. Again there was a shocked reaction.

At some slight risk to U.K.-Vatican relations, I later took this pleasant gentleman aside and presumed to explain the real meaning of solidarity. I suggested that whenever he heard “solidarity” he thought of striking miners waving red flags and shouting the word, whereas whenever we heard it we thought of a key concept in Catholic social teaching, inseparable from justice, in fact, putting justice into action. Of course in his little secularized world, neatly sealed off by the English Channel, the notion that the Catholic Church could really influence social and political thought was unthinkable, so I saw his eyes glazing over at my polite but firm onslaught. Yet in Europe, Catholic social teaching, much of it born in the mind and work of your holy founder, has penetrated to all levels of society and seems to be coming into its own again after the demise of Communism. That the Polish workers chose the word “solidarity” to proclaim their struggle for freedom was no accident.

Charity bears with it the impartial justice of being available to all, without distinction of sex, race, colour, creed or class. And it is here that we find solidarity as the point where charity and justice intersect. Let me add another effect of solidarity, the marvelous friendship that you have for one another in this Society, that sense of unity in a common cause transcending differences.

Some Counsels

In the light of the above, I offered some counsels on current issues to the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, celebrating their Tasmanian centenary in Launceston in 1999. In giving this advice I tried to preserve and maintain the balance and interaction between charity and justice, which is not always easy.

This Society of St. Vincent de Paul should stand for justice but avoid playing politics. Its is not political. Charity remains central to your work. But that does not mean remaining silent in the face of injustices to the poor and the marginalised. For example, a complex issue such as the G.S.T. raised tangible problems in effectively serving poor and disadvantaged. The Pope’s words to this Society in 1983 may guide us: “To be sure, we must join forces against injustice, and precisely in order to afford long-term protection to the poor and the deprived for whom you show so much concern.”

There are times when the voice of the SVDP must be raised in the face of injustices, when the poor can only speak through those who know them closely. But there are times when others can and do speak better for them because that is their charism, because they are called to a different role, focussed more on the mission of justice than charity.

Do not seek to rely on “public relations”. The only “public relations” the SVDP needs is the charity of Jesus Christ extended to all our sisters and brothers. This speaks for itself. There is no need for television spots and big posters because people know who the “Vinnies” are, whether they are people in need or benefactors and friends. There is no need to seek publicity – except to spread the good news of Jesus Christ and his Church. The work of true charity should not be trailed across the media, for this inevitably ends up descending to a self-congratulatory level.

Always maintain the voluntary principle. In Europe there is much discussion at the level of government and major social service bodies of this voluntary principle. During my years working in the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for the Family (1987-1997), I regularly came across debate as to what extent the care of the needy, the vulnerable and the marginalized (especially in the family context) is best carried out by unpaid volunteers. Is it not better, some argued, for professional “trained people”, experts in the social sciences, to carry out this work?

Certainly, the SVDP will continue to use good professional services when necessary, for example in providing financial advice, or for research projects and areas requiring specific expertise. But the genius of this Society is what some would ignorantly describe as its “amateur status”. That would be an ignorant definition of what the “Vinnies” do. When an activity is voluntary, that is, unpaid, that in no way makes it less “professional” than working for remuneration. The experienced man or woman in the Society of St. Vincent de Paul is more “professional” than many professionals, and so often these professionals have to come and learn from the voluntary sector what the realities are and how to tackle them.

The voluntary principle is the glory of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. It embodies the will or the free choice of giving oneself, and that is the very basis of true charity, a freedom derived from the self-giving of the Lord Jesus on the cross. Note how in Saint John’s Gospel Jesus lays down his life freely, by choice, because love requires freedom.

Let me add a less theological comment on this question. Charity is like sport. It seems to lose something when it becomes professional.

The SVDP must draw on the energies and ideals of our Catholic young people. I speak now as a religious educator. There are immense energies of good will and sheer physical vigor out there among our young Catholics. They have a sense of justice and this is cultivated well in our schools. They do want to serve others and they have a growing social conscience. Of course their lives get cluttered up with consumerism, distractions, egotism, and all the crises and adventures of growing up. But many of them seek spirituality. They want to pray, and not in the ways middle-aged people like myself may imagine (for we are so often locked in theories from the ‘Seventies). Today young people want silence, symbols, meditative prayer, space and freedom to be with God. They can be shown that this prayer is not divorced from life and from the service of others, as Mother Teresa’s charism revealed.

These same young people are supposed to be “turned off” by the institutional Church. I believe that is a glib generalization, for if you open doors into the real heart of the Church they will respond positively and with generosity. That is precisely what this Society of St. Vincent de Paul offers the young Catholic – a door into the heart of the Church, that is, into the compassionate Heart of Christ. Therefore the junior conferences are so important in the building or rebuilding of the faith of our young people.

May the day come when we will see a junior conference in every Catholic secondary school in this nation. All the work our dedicated teachers and catechists are trying to accomplish needs to be taken into a living charity, a living justice, so as to make the teaching of Christ and his Church a concrete reality in our lives.

The SVDP needs to weigh up the advantages and pitfalls of the privatization of welfare and care. We are well into the age of privatization and everyone knows that one spin-off in this trend is the reduction of government involvement in welfare and in caring services. As this trend accelerates more demands are placed on the major agencies of charity, welfare and care, such as the Society of St. Vincent de Paul.

The privatization of welfare, or of care itself, is a trend we need to understand better. The positive side could be the revival of the voluntary principle, mobilizing people to rise above the welfare-state mentality that someone from the government will be there. This could foster a sense of social responsibility, that you and I are responsible for our sisters and brothers in need. On the other hand, the negative side could be the commercialization and debasement of care, such as we have seen, regrettably, in some aged care institutions. Care of the aged is the test case area because it is a growing industry in our kind of prosperous Western society with its aging population and precarious birth rates.
Privatization need not pose a problem to the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul if it maintains the voluntary principle, seeing personal contact as essential, and not setting up vast bureaucratic structures, that is, resisting the temptation to imitate commercial interests.

Value being “small”. Remember the Holy Father’s reference in 1983 to “little, individual acts of relief”. God does not march with the grand battalions. He is the God of the little ones, of the most vulnerable and helpless. Those who seek to serve these folk must in some sense adopt a “little way”, if I may adapt the language of Saint Therese of Lisieux, Doctor of the Church. It is in the small acts of kindness that true charity flourishes, for these are personal, intimate, hidden, and the God who sees into our hearts looks for what the world sets aside as of little account because in his eyes it is purest gold.

The SVDP should try, in gentle ways, to help defuse the fear of the poor that haunts our rich consumerist society. Many people really are frightened of the poor. We see this expressed in zealous campaigns to stop poor people having children, especially in other countries that are deemed to be “underdeveloped”. But we may also detect it in hidden ways in our midst. The poor are a rebuke to the neatness, the efficiency, the gloss and glitter of the society being built on economic rationalism. They should not be there! Let us look away. Yet, in quiet and thoughtful ways, our “preferential option for the poor” invites people to look the poor in the face, to stop and think and to let hearts of stone be softened and changed.

The SVDP should never lose sight of the evangelizing charism of this Society. Bl. Frederick Ozanam was well aware of the fact that Jesus first spoke of bringing “good news” to the poor, and Bl. Frederick lived in Nineteenth Century France, in a nation where revolutions, war, atheism and vice had undermined the faith of millions, accompanied by massive social degradation and exploitation. In the light of this dimension of his vision, the minimal emphasis placed on the Catholic literature apostolate in some sectors of the St. Vincent de Paul family is a tragedy. In an age when the Pope calls us to evangelize, to a “new evangelization”, it would be a scandal for the Society to ignore his call.

Some former St. Vincent de Paul literature men have formed a little association in Melbourne, dedicated to St. Peter Canisius. They are trying to keep up this work of publishing and distributing solid and simple Catholic material, booklets pitched at a level that people can understand, invitations to faith. But why did they have to go off and do that? As the author of not a few Australian Catholic Truth Society booklets, I leave that question open.

Members of the SVDP need to keep up the prayer and cultivate a eucharistic spirituality – a work of charity without prayer can soon cease to be true charity because it is cut off from the source, from God. The Eucharist is the great source of charity and the great sign of justice: the Eucharist we celebrate, the Eucharist we offer, the Eucharist we receive, the Eucharist as the abiding presence of Jesus among us.

Here we can all learn from Mother Teresa’s sisters, that adoration of Jesus hidden in the Blessed Eucharist is the best way to lead us to him hidden in the poor. Every Thursday afternoon I am privileged to be with those sisters in Fitzroy for an hour of eucharistic adoration. This happens to be part of their “day off”, the time when they “recharge their batteries” with the Lord so they can go out for the rest of the week working hard among the poorest of the poor. The Tasmanian centenary celebration was concluded by adoring him and receiving his eucharistic blessing in benediction. How appropriate this was, because a eucharistic spirituality should be at the heart of the work of charity and justice.

“Being there”

Christian love and justice as solidarity is all about being there, which means being with, being for people. That is precisely what we the Society of St. Vincent de Paul does, and will continue to do, pray God, until time turns into eternity.

“At the evening of our life we shall be judged on our love” wrote St. John of the Cross If we reflect on Our Lord’s familiar words in Matthew 25: 40, “ you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me”, we can expect that he will put this question at the day of judgement: “Were you there when I was hungry, thirsty, naked, homeless, in prison, abandoned…were you there?” May we answer, “Yes, Lord, we were there.” because that sums up the meaning of the point where charity and justice converge, not merely in our Catholic social teaching, but in life itself, and that is what real solidarity is all about.

Mother Teresa did not enter into debate with her critics. Her silent reply was simply to keep right on to the end, to keep on simply “being there” for others. When the chattering media was all for committees, programs, political parties, legislation, demonstrations and revolutions, her sisters were simply “there”, always there, because as the Holy Father puts it “charity does not wait”.

Can that poor woman dying on a pallet wait for a State committee to allocate a bed for her? Can that starving child hold on until the revolution loots the shops? Shall the battered mother fold her hands and expect government officials to flock around her? Someone else has to be there, for Jesus, someone has to be there to serve Jesus in his poor. Someone has to be there, to be Jesus for the poor. And we are called to be that “someone” – to be there.


© Msgr. Peter Elliott 2001