According to Paul Ryan and his ilk, an unfettered free market produces the most just distribution of wealth and resources, and private charity’s role is to make outcomes more tolerable for those who don’t fare well under the guidance of the Invisible Hand. It is based on the blind faith, impervious to all empirical facts, that nearly all those who work hard inevitably achieve economic success and stability. If we want a more just society, poor people need only work harder. And if we want everyone to have their needs met, it’s the responsibility of private charities to get the job done. Thus, a Republican Congressman has called out the Church for coming up short. At a recent House Budget Committee hearing, Rep. Reid Ribble (R-WI) went so far as to disparage the Catholic Church’s incredible efforts to alleviate poverty, arguing the Church must be doing something wrong for so much need to be going unmet.
Sister Simone Campbell countered these wrong-headed views and explained the Catholic understanding of charity and justice. For Catholics, voluntary philanthropy is not a substitute for justice. It is born of necessity and love, filling the holes left over from an unjust society—where a social safety net fails—until such time as those holes can be fixed. A just society is paramount for Catholics, as each person has dignity and worth and is thus entitled to life’s basic necessities. A just government, charged with the responsibility of establishing the common good, is one that ensures that each person has access to these necessities.
The resources of the Church cannot cover the costs of an irresponsible government, and systemic economic injustice is at the heart of the problem – a problem which has become so big that “there isn’t sufficient charitable dollars there.” It’s not even close. Sister Simone further went on to show that government partnerships with faith-based charities have a long history of successfully helping the most vulnerable in society and that the impoverished would certainly suffer tremendously if this partnership dissolved, to the detriment of society as a whole. Private charity is wonderful, but it does not eliminate the need to build a more just society.