Today the Feast of Pope St. Gregory the Great provides for a very important lesson taught by the social doctrine of the Church. That lesson is that there is a grand difference between justice and charity and that what you might think is mercy is actually justice.
In the discussion I’ve had over the years on the question of just wage or other issues of social doctrine, very often the more conservative friends of mine make the point that the State and/or the Church cannot impose acts of charity upon business owners or the wealthy in general. Like faith, once charity is required, it is no longer charity. The voluntary nature of charity, of mercy is part of the very essence of what it means to be merciful.
Therefore, so they argue, while we might all have responsibilities to go about and do good for the poor, so long as we are not breaking any laws, there is nothing the State or the Church can positively require us to do. It is all prudence. It is all subjective, in a sense.
Well, this is true to a point. Prudence in the care for the less fortunate is necessary, but Pope St. Gregory the Great, whom we celebrate today, reminds us of a very important truth. He teaches us that when we give to someone from our own wealth what is necessary for them to live, we are not being merciful. We are being just. Here is what he writes in his Pastoral Rule Book III, chapter 21:
Vainly, then, do those suppose themselves innocent, who claim to their own private use the common gift of God [i.e. their property]; those who, in not imparting what they have received, walk in the midst of the slaughter of their neighbours; since they almost daily slay so many persons as there are dying poor whose subsidies they keep close in their own possession.
Let’s note something right from the start here. What Pope St. Gregory has given us is the social doctrine principle known as the Universal Destination of Goods. This principle tells us that what the good God gives us is a common gift and never really just for us. Everything that we have is a gift from God. That is at the heart of the Christian life. Nothing is truly ours. This world is fleeting, and we “can’t take it with us.” All of our wealth, our holdings, our investments are temporary gifts given to us by God so that we might do the most good with them.
Next, says the sainted Pope, as we walk amongst the poverty of our neighbors, if we fail to share the “common gift” given to us by God with those in need we “slay” them. We are responsible for their position in life. This is also an expression of the principle of solidarity, the notion that all are responsible for all, and every aspect of all. The Holy Father continues:
For, when we administer necessaries of any kind to the indigent, we do not bestow our own, but render them what is theirs; we rather pay a debt of justice than accomplish works of mercy….
When we give to the poor what they need to live we are not giving them what is ours, we are giving them what theirs, what God desired for them to have in the first place. And who can deny that? Do we believe that God did not want them to have what is necessary for life? Of course not. This is the very definition of justice, namely to to provide what is due to another. Is not every human person – barring some extreme circumstance – due the necessities of life?
The difficulty in our day and age is that while we recognize that our good and loving God does of course desire that all have what is necessary for life, we think it charity for us to make sure that happens. In other words, somehow it turns into charity when we are “burdened” with the responsibility of making it happen. We believe somehow that by passing on the goods which God gives us for the sake of the poor, we are “going out of our way.” We behave like the adolescent who insists that their parents leave them alone because, hey, they’re not doing drugs or anything – as though the bare minimum of respect for a parent’s authority were now the greatest of self-effacing sacrifices.
For, having first mentioned bounty bestowed upon the poor, he would not call this mercy, but rather justice: for it is surely just that whosoever receive what is given by a common Lord should use it in common. Hence also Solomon says, “Whoso is just will give and will not spare” Proverbs 21:26. They are to be admonished also anxiously to take note how of the fig-tree that had no fruit the rigorous husbandman complains that it even cumbers the ground.
For a fig-tree without fruit cumbers the ground, when the soul of the niggardly [calm down – it means greedy] keeps unprofitably what might have benefited many. A fig-tree without fruit cumbers the ground, when the fool keeps barren under the shade of sloth a place which another might have cultivated under the sun of good works.
Now note something very important here. Pope St. Gregory says “keeps unprofitably.” What if the wealthy man wishes to use his wealth for the sake of starting a business? Then one could employ the poor and thus give them even greater dignity, for being able to work for one’s food better than just being given it. This would be a good use of the “common gift” of God. It is being profitable. It is like the good steward in Jesus’ parable who doesn’t just bury the talents but invests them in order to gain more for his Master.
At this point someone might say that their buying the latest iPod or a third house or the extra car keeps people employed. So isn’t that using the “common gift” profitably? Well no. At that point one is just consuming and not creating. One is not “cultivating” anything “under the sun of good works.” One is just picking the fruit from the tree.
This way of looking at our wealth is very challenging. Indeed, as St. Gregory says, not living up to it could mean jeopardizing our very chance for salvation:
But these are wont sometimes to say, “We use what has been granted us; we do not seek what belongs to others; and, if we do nothing worthy of the reward of mercy, we still commit no wrong.” So they think, because in truth they close the ear of their heart to the words which are from heaven. For the rich man in the Gospel who was clothed in purple and fine linen, and feasted sumptuously every day, is not said to have seized what belonged to others, but to have used what was his own unfruitfully; and avenging hell received him after this life, not because he did anything unlawful but because by immoderate indulgence he gave up his whole self to what was lawful.
It was through “immoderate indulgence” that the rich man ended up in the fires of hell, looking up to heaven and the bosom of Abraham to ask for the mercy of Lazarus. Does this mean that you can never go out to eat at the fine restaurant to celebrate? No. Does this mean that you can never take that nice trip? No. But, friends, and I say this with all due reverence to your consciences, I think it must mean that wealth spent on whims of fancy for the sake of indulging ourselves when that same wealth could have been spent on the poor is very dangerous ground. And though I certainly do not make oodles of money, I could accuse myself in all this as well.
These are hard sayings, but they ought not engender in our hearts a motivation from guilt. This is poison, and I want to be very clear about that. The other day I was speaking with someone about getting people involved in social justice. They thought it a good idea to start young people off by having them work with the poor, which is of course not a bad thing. But then, instead of allowing the melody of the Holy Spirit’s grace to sing within their souls and to motivate them towards love, rather this person suggested we guilt our young people to think of the poor the next time they buy a pair of sneakers.
Maybe I’m a softy, but I don’t believe that is the way to win hearts and minds to the hard teachings of the faith. I share with you these words from today’s saint not because I want to plant a seed of guilt in anyone. Rather, I hope to encourage us all to look at our own wealth, our stuff, as what it truly is, which is God’s. It is not the 10% that is our Lord’s. It is everything. It is all of us and every part of us. It is my property and also my mind, my heart, my daughter’s blue eyes, my son’s disarming smile, my wife’s tender care, yes, even the cheap gin in the cupboard…it all belongs to Him…and so it is all subject to be prudentially shared.
There’s that word again, “prudence.” I’m quite sure good Pope St. Gregory the Great would remind me to mention the central virtue of prudence. We are allowed to save for our futures, and to secure ourselves, particularly when we are responsible for the lives of little ones. We are allowed to enjoy the beauty of life and art and good food. But we must never forget that Christ sits outside the door in the person of Lazarus, who wants simply to eat.
I know I shall pray to Pope St. Gregory the Great today to help me remember that, as well as to have him remind me to stop complaining. Pope St. Gregory, pray for us.