A Rant About the C-Word (No, not that c-word)

I loathe the word “charitable” with the fury of a million supernovas.

Let me clarify that I do not hate charities, those non-profit organizations that exist for the purpose of helping and bettering society. Nor do I have a problem with charity, or the practice of giving to those in need. It’s people who use charity and its many related terms as a mask for their own hypocrisy that gets on my nerves.

Theoretically, charity is supposed to be the “most excellent” of the Christian virtues, the embodiment of loving one’s neighbor as yourself. It consists of engaging in good works and of wishing the best for your neighbor. The Catholic Encyclopedia entry on the subject claims that the notion of charity is what separates (Catholic) Christianity from all the other, presumably inferior, religions:

The spirit of the Gospel as regards charity is for superior to that of any of the other great religions. Its excellence appears in the following points: love of the neighbour is akin to love of God; the neighbour is to beloved even as the self; men are brothers, members of the same family; the law of charity extends to the whole human race, thus making all persons equal; men are obliged to love even their enemies; the neighbour is not merely a rational creature made in the image and likeness of God, but also the supernaturally adopted son of the Father, and the brother of the Father’s Only-Begotten Son; finally, the Gospel presents the supreme exemplification of brotherly love in the death of Christ on the Cross. In no other religion are all these characteristics found; in most they are totally wanting.

Although I’m not sure if the relative levels of charity and/or love could be adequately quantified for comparative analysis, I remain skeptical that Christians, regardless of the flavor, are really that much more loving than their peers in other religions. Conservotrads might counter this by pointing out that conservatives give more to charity than liberals. However, closer examination reveals that when religious conservatives give to charity, they tend to give to religious organizations, where the money is used towards the further existence of said religion (e.g., clergymen and administrative salaries, building and upkeep, social media presence, publicity), not to the poor:


If you want to tithe your income to your religious body, that’s up to you, but don’t claim that it’s providing any sort of replacement social service net.

In my experience, the term “charitable” is thrown around in conservotrad circles as a way to insult someone in passive-aggressive way (“I don’t want to be uncharitable…BUT I think women wearing pants to mass is immodest and a sign of irreverence to Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament.”) or as an equally passive aggressive way to shut down the conservation (“It’s uncharitable to inquire too deeply into the clerical sex scandal. Just don’t think about it.”) For a real world example, during the Fr B drama at St F, I tried to ask some of the other young adults (whom I later found out were part of the anti-Fr B faction) what was happening, the only response I received was, “Oh, I can’t say anything. That would be uncharitable.” Really? They had no problem engaging in gossip and slander amongst each other, but didn’t want their duplicity known to outsiders. Later on, I had the misfortune to go to lunch after mass with some of these people, where they let loose with their plans to “get Fr B,”  casually interspersed with the insistence that things not get too “uncharitable” (I was so unnerved by what I witnessed, I hightailed it out of there without finishing my lunch).

I’m tempted to lump this behavior in with the “Bless your heart, I hope you die” type of attitude you find in Southern church culture in general, as filtered through a Catholic sensibility, but I think something else is at play here, given how much the words “charitable” and “uncharitable” show up in online Catholic discourse. I’ve noticed that many conservotrad Catholics have no problem with being “uncharitable” to groups whom they perceive to be ideological opponents — progressive Catholics, political liberals, nonbelievers, feminists, LGBT people — but will insist that their own heroes and pet projects be spoken of “charitably.” So much for loving one’s enemies.

While charity is supposed to be about doing what’s best for one’s neighbor, it doesn’t take into account that the neighbor in question might have different values or preferences than the person who is trying to exercise this virtue. For example, medieval Christians thought they were acting in love by keeping their Jewish populations locked up in ghettos and subjecting them to unsolicited preaching, since they thought there was no other way to save Jewish souls. However, the Jewish perspective views these actions as anti-Semitic, not loving. In the modern context, we see religious conservatives claiming that they are acting out of love/charity by opposing LGBT rights, a claim that actual LGBT people would not agree with. As a rule, if the object of your charity doesn’t perceive your actions to be loving, you might not really be acting in love.

To me, the fact that Christians, Catholic, Protestant, or Orthodox, do not seem to be any more loving or charitable than the general population discredits Christianity more than the numerous discrepancies or the battle between faith and reason. I’ve concluded that Christianity has as much to do with love as Islam has with peace, which is not much.