Justice and Charity

A Fence or an Ambulance

'Twas a dangerous cliff, they all freely confessed,
though to walk near its edge was so pleasant;
But over its rim by foot and by car

had gone many an aristocrat and peasant.


So the people did protest, "Something has to be done!"
but their projects did not at all tally;
Some said, "Put a fence at the rim of the cliff,"
Others, "Better, to keep an ambulance down in the valley."

The mayor who profited from ambulance sales,

lobbied hard across his concerned city,

"Isn't it those who have fallen,

that fill our hearts with such pity?"


"For the cliff is all right, if you are careful.
And, even if folks slip and are dropping,
It isn't the slipping that hurts so much, you know,
as the shock down below when they're stopping."

So day after day, as these mishaps continued,
and quick forth would the rescuers all sally;
to aid the victims who fell from the heights,
with the ambulance poised in the valley.

A young visitor remarked: "It's a marvel to me
that you give so much more of your attention
to repairing the results than stopping the cause;
why, you'd much better tend to prevention."

"He's a fanatic," the others rejoined,
"Don’t we care for the fallen, liberally?
 Why should busy people stop to put up a fence,
when the mayor's ambulance works in the valley?"


So I encourage you now with pen and with pence,

speak out with truth and fervor daily.

Scorn the sham, go erect a strong fence,

leave to rust the ambulance down in the valley.

-adapted from a poem by Joseph Malins (1895)


Malin's application of the old adage, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, seems just as relevant today.  And yet, relief organizations confirm the relative ease of getting people to donate to emergency appeals and the great difficulty in motivating those same people to support efforts to confront the economic and political structures which cause the very same human tragedies.  As Dorothy Day once observed, "When I fed the poor they called me a saint.  When I asked WHY they were poor?, they called me a communist." 

In November 2009, at the U.N. sponsored global food summit, Pope Benedict XVI reaffirmed that there is enough food produced to feed everyone in our world.  It is the way we do business that produces so much of the scandalous food shortage that exists throughout the world.  He quoted his encyclical "Caritas in Veritate" stating that "what is missing is a network of economic institutions capable of guaranteeing regular access to sufficient food and water."  The scale of human suffering calls for a redoubling of our efforts in both charity and justice. But, many people are less familiar with how to work for justice.  For those who wonder how to begin consider the Two Feet of Catholic Social Action or Practical Ways to Get StartedIdentify your Legislators and Contact your Legislators to voice your concerns on behalf of those in greatest need. 

Another way to start is to ponder a brief reflection from Pope Benedict's encyclical Caritas in Veritate:

"Charity goes beyond justice, because to love is to give, to offer what is “mine” to the other; but it never lacks justice, which prompts us to give the other what is “his”, what is due to him by reason of his being or his acting.  If we love others with charity, then first of all we are just towards them.  Justice is inseparable from charity and intrinsic to it." - Pope Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate, 2009.  Suggested Action:  Read the prayer the Magnificat, Luke 1:46-55 and ponder what Mary would teach us today about charity and justice.


"On the one hand, charity demands justice:  recognition and respect for the legitimate rights of individuals and peoples.  It strives to build the earthly city according to law and justice.  The earthly city is promoted not merely by relationships of rights and duties, but to an even greater and more fundamental extent by relationships of gratuitousness, mercy and communion." - Pope Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate, 2009   Suggested Action:  During this busy season, ponder and be aware of how you are building relationships of “gratuitousness, mercy and communion” in order to “build the earthly city according to love and justice”. 


Read a statement of the U.S. Bishops regarding justice and charity.  A Place at the Table is a good start.

For more support regarding work on behalf of justice, contact Colleen Seminara who coordinates public policy for Catholic Charities, 741 Delaware Ave., Buffalo, NY 14209, 716-218-1450 ext. 207, Office of Pro-Life Activities, or the Office of Parish Life.

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