When Pope John Paul II arrived in Saint Louis on January 26, 1999, one of the first things he did was to praise Americans for their spirit of compassion and generosity and to thank them for “the countless works of human goodness and solidarity” that have marked the United States from its beginnings. In many ways, this praise is not surprising. Though this pope continues to worry—out loud and often—about the erosion of America’s larger moral foundations, he knows that in many ways Americans may be the most spontaneously generous people in all of human history. And he has called for a “new sense of solidarity among the peoples of the continent” that will build on our old religious and social virtues to confront the challenges we will face in the new millennium.
Indeed, in the document on the “Church in the Americas,” which he formally released in Mexico City just prior to the St. Louis visit, John Paul notes that it has largely been Christian charity that has inspired such wonderful concern for others on these shores, fostering a “commitment to reciprocal solidarity and the sharing of spiritual gifts and material goods with which God has blessed them. . ..”
Though John Paul has called for an end to corruption, exploitation, marginalization, and economic injustices in the Americas, it is no small matter that he continues to emphasize the necessary role of Christian charity and of voluntary “charities” in creating the good society he envisions. During the 1997 Roman synod of bishops and experts from all over the Americas, a massive event that lasted over a month and produced the document John Paul promulgated in Mexico City, Bishop Ivan Marin-Lopez of Colombia warned America’s Catholic leaders that they were in danger of thinking the ancient Christian concept of charity obsolete in their passionate concern for “social justice.” From the social justice perspective, charity is often regarded as a mere Band-Aid approach, when what is really needed is revolutionary restructuring of society and economics. Marin Lopez argued, with noticeable reaction among his fellow bishops, that after all the emphasis on political action in recent decades, the Catholic church today needs to clarify and elucidate the contemporary importance of charity.
In the United States, we have come to take for granted the social contributions of our religious institutions, so much so that they sometimes seem largely invisible. But people from other parts of the world are astonished by what we have built here. As another Colombian bishop noted, the Catholic Archdiocese of New York alone has a larger budget than does the entire government of Colombia.
Agent of Last Resort
John Paul may be emphasizing older notions of charity because even the kind of solidarity of which he approves is often distorted in current debates. In Catholic social thought, solidarity has many meanings. Secular proponents of solidarity, often of a socialist bent, see the term solidarity and think only of expansive state action. John Paul, like most people, certainly believes there is a legitimate role for state action in supporting the poor and integrating the marginalized into society. But in Catholic social thinking, the state is usually the agent of last, not first, resort for such matters. Which brings us to another notion subsidiarity, which points to the fact that “subsidiary” entities—from individuals to churches to lower levels of the public sector—are a more human context for the practice of solidarity and charity.
The history of this century had made it necessary to introduce the balancing notion of subsidiarity into Catholic social thinking. Not only Communism, but Fascism and Nazism had put forward mistaken notions of social cohesion that led to tyrannies created, ironically, out of supposed concern for the people. It was precisely in the 1930s, when all three movements were in the ascendancy in Europe, that Pope Pius XI first included the idea of subsidiarity in a social encyclical to warn that, however attractive and effective it might appear, calling on the state to perform functions better left to other social actors was not only politically suicidal, but threatened the very essence of human nature: “[I]t is an injustice, a grave evil and disturbance of right order, for a larger and higher association to arrogate to itself functions which can be performed efficiently by smaller and lower societies.”
In this vision of subsidiarity, there remain some functions that only the state can perform. But John Paul has emphasized, even more than any of his predecessors, that the “acting person” and the social formations in which he flourishes are the origin and goal of social activity.
Philosophically, the idea of the acting person combines elements of the Catholic school of social thought known as personalism with this pope’s studies in modern continental philosophy, especially the movement known as phenomenology. These may seem abstract and impractical terms, with little relevance to contemporary philanthropy, but they have quite definite and useful consequences.
Personalism is an idea little-known in the United States, but it offers some solutions to contemporary dilemmas. “Person,” in this context, is not merely a word that enables us to avoid having to use gender-specific language like “men” and “women.” It refers instead to a human individual with intelligence and will who cannot have his life reduced to the goals of a collective. At the same time, however, a person is not an atomized individual as in the modern liberal understanding. Persons only come into full possession of their powers when they have been given the proper contexts for development in the right kinds of families, small communities, and larger political and economic systems.
From Paternalism to Personalism
Concretely, this leads to all sorts of practical initiatives. For example, in John Paul’s views on compassion and generosity, it has meant that instead of paternalistic forms of charity, he has encouraged the creation of both a just economic order and social assistance, whether by states or private groups and individuals, that will allow people, as much as possible, to participate in what he calls the “circle of production and exchange.”
In Latin America, where both political liberty and the philanthropic tradition are much weaker and narrower than in the United States, this has meant not only an attempt to free economies from their old statist ties, but to make sure that political and legal systems function impartially to protect those who may be harmed by globalization and the new impetus given to laissez-faire economics.
On a more personal level, churches have been encouraging wealthy Catholics and others to start programs like micro-loans: in Mexico, a Catholic group that raised a mere $100,000 of seed money has already helped more than 30,000 families to establish independent and self-supporting businesses. Not surprisingly, the steady return on the loans has also multiplied the capital available by several times for still further entrepreneurial activities by even larger numbers of people.
Not every situation allows people to enter the central economy immediately. For those cases, ongoing charitable support, public or private, is the only remedy. Internationally, the kind of spontaneous outpouring of aid from both government and charitable groups in the United States that is rebuilding the hurricane-damaged nations of Central America fits right in with John Paul’s call for Americans to “open wide your hearts to the ever increasing plight and urgent needs of our less fortunate brothers and sisters throughout the world.” Amid the frequent complaints about U.S. dominance in the global economy, there are few other nations in which the Holy Father could have made such a plea—and known that the request would not fall on deaf ears.
For some hearers, his words may only have sounded like the usual use of religious platitudes to encourage people to give more to others in need. But interwoven with such encouragements, John Paul discerned something central to a proper understanding of the American enterprise. Reminding his hearers of the courage and intrepidity of Lindbergh and the historical role of the city of St. Louis in opening up the frontiers to the West, he ended his remarks on arriving in this country with the observation that “the spirit of compassion, concern, and generous sharing must be part of the ‘Spirit of St. Louis.’ Even more, it must be the renewed spirit of this ‘one nation under God, with liberty and justice for all.’” In this, the pope seems profoundly right. Opening up new territories for charity may require as heroic an effort and even greater human ingenuity than were needed to push back mere geographical frontiers in this country.
Robert Royal is vice president for research at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.