DAVID REYNOLDS: The zombie idea of charity is a lifebelt to many even in the welfare state 

The saga of the ownership and governance of the National Maternity Hospital has generated much heat and contributed to a further dimming of the light – particularly in magnifying the distaste that exists for anything with a religious association. The direct victims of this – both through political posturing and media manipulation – have been the Sisters’ of Charity themselves, victims of a repudiation of religion that has engulfed the Republic of Ireland over the last twenty years. But there has also been the collateral damage of ideas.

In the Irish Times, on June 22nd, Fintan O’Toole describes charity as a ‘zombie idea’ that stalks the land and the minds of people of Ireland, and a ghost that the government of Ireland is unable to exorcise. He is not the first person to point the finger at charity and consider it a bad thing.

There are many, including charitable institutions themselves, who turn their backs on the idea, instead preferring to be known as social justice or human rights organisations. They think being identified as a charity something to be rejected – although at the same time they receive charitable donations from the public in order to carry out their work. They do not want to be solely dependent on State to carry out their human rights work.

But this is not Fintan’s argument. He gives a nod to charity: ‘There is, of course, nothing wrong with private charity’. He doesn’t go as far as saying charity is a virtue, however. It is not objectionable, to him, if you want give some of your money to someone else. He even admits that it is better than nothing when delivering public welfare.

Indeed it is – asking the millions who receive charitable assistance across the world for a multitude of reasons. His reasons for taking a swipe at charity is when it is a substitute for the State’s responsibility to meet its basic obligations to its citizens, to provide services and welfare. It is worse than the welfare state because, he claims, it makes people supplicant to the whims (rather than humanity and generosity) of others whereas when the State is providing the services and the welfare, the citizen can assert these rights against the State, and lo, they will receive.

This is a nice theory, and in an ideal world, this would be the case. The unlimited State, with its unlimited bounty, unlimited benevolence and omnipotence, will provide for the needs and rights of all of society. This is utopian – and there are plenty of examples of where utopian idealism leads to.  But it also points to the danger of such thinking.

If the State is the sole provider, the controller and monopoliser of services, the ‘little platoons’ of society can no longer exist. Whether these are charitable institutions, run by religious organisation, not-for-profit service providers or small-to-large civil society groups, they all make up for a healthy and pluralistic society, where the individual is not left exposed to the whims and power of the State.

Fintan may be right that an individual in need may be at the mercy of someone else’s benevolence, or that there may be a time where circumstance calls for a ‘figurative tugging of the forelock’, of asking for help, but to assume that the State, in anything less than its ideal manifestation, will always be there to provide each and every citizen with what s/he needs is delusional – but also dangerous because any failure of the State, in Fintan’s world – will mean that there is no civil society, there are no charitable institutions, even no private entities, that are there to fill the gap.

For one individual in need, in Fintan’s world, if the State fails to deliver, then there is no safety net.

But this is not the only problem with Fintan’s argument – he mistakes the designation of charitable status for the St Vincent’s Holding CLG, as implying – and he creates this picture – that the hospital is run in a partisan, capricious manner, with the Sisters picking and choosing who may or may not receive their beneficence. In the same manner, he creates the impression that the schools under the patronage of the Catholic Church are run in some similarly. Yet, he never raises the fact that other school patronage bodies, other hospital Trusts, also have a charitable status – which indicates they operate on a not-for-profit basis, and implement their governance in line with the Charities Regulator.

Like other institutions, they are funded by the State to provide services, where the State chooses not to set up its own competing institutions. Many may like to see the State just step in and squash the Church institutions and take over their land and their buildings. This is the kind of State that Fintan’s ideal State would become.

Although he claims that charity makes the citizen a supplicant, and at the mercy of someone’s judgment of what’s best for them, he fails to recognise that the State can do exactly the same thing. And if the State were to be given the monopoly on welfare that he would like, then there would be no alternatives. Fintan’s republic would be the death of pluralism.

‘L’etat, c’est moi’ is what Louis XIV declared of France. For Fintan, as the State is in line with his philosophy, it is him also. But what of a State that does not align with Fintan’s outlook on life? Would he be content with a monopoly then? Is it only Fintan’s preferences that are to be funded with the plurality of taxes that the State collects? because ‘L’etat, c’est tout – pas seulement les laics’.

Rights are easy to exert when the State is willing to give them. When the State cannot be bothered – and there are no shortage of cases where the State has absconded, abdicated and failed, by both omission and commission – yet it always manages to shake off the shackles of its historical disasters and start afresh with no baggage. Elections are a great purifier.

Magnus McFarlane-Barrow, the founder of Mary’s Meals, a Scottish charity, outlined the deep importance of charity in a very practical way – for both the giver and the receiver – in a beautifully and perfectly titled book: ‘Give: Charity and the Art of Living Generously’. Charity is not a zombie idea. It is a virtue, and it can be beautiful.

O’Toole could do well to read Pope Benedict XVI’s understanding of the interaction of charity and justice/welfare. He does not deny the role of the State, – stating ‘It is true that the pursuit of justice must be a fundamental norm of the State and that the aim of a just social order is to guarantee to each person, according to the principle of subsidiarity, his share of the community’s goods’.  However, he understands that no matter how loud the rhetoric about justice and welfare, a fully just society is not possible while man remains free, as man qua man, and that charity is far beyond justice.

“Love – caritas – will always prove necessary, even in the most just society.  There is no ordering of the State so just that it can eliminate the need for a service of love.  Whoever wants to eliminate love is preparing to eliminate man as such.  There will always be suffering which cries out for consolation and help.  There will always be loneliness.

There will always be situations of material need where help in the form of concrete love of neighbour is indispensable.  The State which would provide everything, absorbing everything into itself, would ultimately become a mere bureaucracy incapable of guaranteeing the very thing which the suffering person – every person – needs: namely, loving personal concern …  In the end, the claim that just social structures would make works of charity superfluous masks a materialist conception of man: the mistaken notion that man can live “by bread alone” —a conviction that demeans man and ultimately disregards all that is specifically human.”

Charity does not come only from religious institutions, it comes from caring people who support charitable entities in the form of not-for-profit groups who they think do good work in fighting for the rights of those whose Government lets them down, of civil society groups who give voice to the voiceless or simply fight the corner for their own community, of Trusts who preserve what some in society thing valuable as a cultural heritage.

Those religious institutions, their members, for decades – even centuries – did the work, and did it for a long time with money from individuals before the State was even in a position to contribute. A fair reading of the Mother and Baby Homes report will point toward the failing not just of State run institutions, but the failure of the State to be even bothered to fund the institutions. The mistake that many like O’Toole make is in thinking that once the State steps in to fund these entities, that it somehow acquires a right to usurp them in a place where it did not exist before, instead of supporting them in the work they have been doing on behalf of citizens of the State already.

Charity is not a zombie idea. A state without charity would become a zombie state. The taxes a citizen pays are his/her contribution to the common good and to the welfare state, but that is not to assume that the citizen wishes those taxes to be delivered solely through the monolith of the State bureaucracy and with the State ideology.

 


 

David Reynolds

 

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