Why Do Americans Emphasize Charity Over Justice?

By Rose Marie Berger 05-27-2010

Recently I came across Walking in the Footsteps of Jesus: Catholic Social Teaching at Work Today that's a great "cheat sheet" on Catholic Social Teaching and the biblical issues of charity and justice. It's part of the basic catechism of the Catholic church and one of the greatest gifts we Catholics have to offer the rest of the world. It's a great thing to hand out at church. Here's an excerpt:

CHARITY AND JUSTICE

There are a number of ways that we can walk in the footsteps of Jesus today. We can help in a soup kitchen, visit someone in prison, or help resettle a refugee family. We can contact legislators, work for peace, or support a local community organization that empowers low-income people to address issues that impact them. These examples illustrate two distinct yet complementary ways to put Catholic social teaching into practice: charity and justice. These two types of responses have been called the two "feet" of Christian service. We need both feet-charity and justice-to walk the walk in the footsteps of Jesus.

Catholic social teaching calls us to both charity and justice. Charity meets the immediate needs of persons and families; but charity alone does not change social structures that attack human dignity, oppress people, and contribute to poverty. Pursuing social justice helps us change oppressive social structures; but we cannot ignore the urgent needs of persons while we work for social change.

Charity and justice are incomplete without each other; they are two sides of the same coin. Charity calls forth a generous response from individuals; justice requires concerted communal action to transform institutional policies, societal laws, or unjust social situations. With our emphasis on individualism, we Americans tend to emphasize charity over justice. The challenge for Catholics is to appreciate the demands of both charity and justice.

Catholic Social Teaching is often referred to as the "best kept secret" in the Catholic Church. It's even a secret from Catholics and many priests! But it provides some of the most strenuous theological ethics available to all Christians for teaching values, ethics, and moral reasoning. While many denominations -- including Catholics -- teach church goers the "do's and don't's" of Christian morality, too few teach the roots or values behind the "law." And in moral quagmire of today's world -- where the decision of one individual can have global consequences -- it is more important than ever to teach moral reasoning, not just moral outcomes.

Read the whole piece here.

Rose Marie Berger, an associate editor at Sojourners, blogs at www.rosemarieberger.com. She's the author of Who Killed Donte Manning? The Story of an American Neighborhood (Apprentice House, April 2010).

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