Our Obligation to the Less Fortunate

In 07 Observations on 2012/08/11 at 9:11 AM


Two stories in the news recently caught my eye. The first was an economic piece stating that after World War II there were many good paying jobs for blue collar workers in the United States because demand for goods was strong. Today, however, those jobs are not so attractive because we are now a more service oriented society and those with a college degree are typically much better compensated than those without. Also, the unemployment rate is significantly higher for those with less education. The second item was the announcement that in 2011, there were more births to what we typically call “minorities,” than to the “majority,” the latter meaning non-Hispanic whites. Minority here refers to those who are black, Latino, Asian, or mixed race. This is a remarkable development but it is also sobering, because in the aggregate minorities attend college at a far lower rate than Anglos, and thus their economic prospects are generally not as good.

Demographics are very predictable, and we know that given current birthrates, there will be more and more “minorities” in the future and fewer Anglos. Given that, and a continuation of the college education disparities, we will likely see a large segment of the population facing economic difficulties. As a society, and especially as Christians, what is our obligation to help remedy this economic inequality? The broader question is, how should we work to remedy social problems in general?

Even a casual reading of the scriptures shows many, many passages in which God tells us to serve the disadvantaged, including the poor, outcasts, prisoners, the sick, widows, and orphans. Looking at the Old Testament, Psalm 41 says “Blessed are those who have regard for the weak”; Psalm 72 states “May he [the king] defend the afflicted among the people and save the children of the needy”; 1 Samuel 2 says “He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap; he seats them with princes and has them inherit a throne of honor.”

How did Jesus address the social problems during His time on earth? In Matthew 19, He says to the rich young man “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” Luke 14 tells us what Jesus said to the Pharisee: “… when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed.” Jesus spent much time with people who were looked down on in that society. So, it’s clear that He is ordering us to help the less fortunate and He set an example of doing so.

What about Church teachings? The modern Catholic tradition of social ethics has consistently insisted that the needs of the poor must take priority. The encyclical Rerum Novarum, written in 1891 by Pope Leo XIIIwas perhaps the first Church document in the industrial age dealing with our obligations to those less fortunate. The document stated, “there underlies a dictate of natural justice more imperious and ancient than any bargain between man and man, namely, that wages ought not to be insufficient to support a frugal and well-behaved wage-earner.” Rerum Novarum was written as a result of the problems resulting from the industrialization of the United States and workers taken advantage of by unscrupulous business owners.  While it spoke of the obligations of workers, it condemned unrestrained capitalism.

Closer to our own time, in Octogesima Adveniens (1971), which marked the eightieth anniversary of Rerum Novarum, Pope Paul VI told us of our obligation and the spirit in which we should give. “In teaching us charity,” he wrote, “the Gospel instructs us in the preferential respect due to the poor and the special situation they have in society: the most fortunate should renounce some of their rights so as to place their goods generously at the service of others.”

So, Sacred Scripture and Catholic teaching consistently stress our obligation to help the disadvantaged, but don’t say specifically how to do it today. There are two general methods: government programs and private giving. Almost all would agree that some combination of the two is justified, but the difficult decision is, what should be the proper proportion of each? Some say the best way to meet these needs involves adopting tax policies designed to stimulate economic growth, along with increased amounts of private charity. Others emphasize public programs and increased government intervention. Political parties fight sometime savage battles over a difference of a few percentage points in tax rates and spending and increases over time.

There are good points on both sides: overly generous government programs reduce the incentive to work and can undermine a society’s values. This is evident in some cases in the wealthier countries of Europe and even in the United States. On the other hand, while in the ideal world enlightened business practices and private charity would be the best way to remedy all social ills, they cannot always cover all those in need and some people slip through the cracks. So, a balance is required.

One thing is clear: there are no easy solutions and anyone who claims they have one is mistaken. This is certainly true regarding the difficulties facing many of those with less than a college education. Nevertheless, here are some suggestions for us as Catholics in dealing with social issues:

1.      Stay well informed. Be aware of issues regarding the less fortunate in our community, our country, and our world.

2.      Participate in the political process by supporting candidates and policies in line with Catholic teaching regarding the disadvantaged. Bring your faith to your politics, not the other way around.

3.      Donate generously to worthy charities, commensurate with your financial situation. Give until it hurts, following the example of the widow in the scriptures. Ten percent of income is a good goal.

4.      However, don’t just give money, volunteer. Follow Jesus’ example of personally serving the less fortunate.

5.      Do the right thing in your personal life and set a good example for others. Don’t underestimate the benefit of living a virtuous life and the effect it would have on the disadvantaged if all of us who are more fortunate would do that.

Deacon John Kopfle serves at St. Vincent de Paul Church in Charlotte, North Carolina.  Re-printed with permission from the Catholic News Herald of the Diocese of Charlotte.


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