Justice and Charity


A Fence or an Ambulance

'Twas a dangerous cliff, as they freely confessed,
Though to walk near its edge was so pleasant;
But over its crest had slipped a duke
And full many a peasant.

So the people said, "Something has to be done,"
But their projects did not at all tally;
Some said, "Put a fence 'round the edge of the cliff,"
Others, "Better, an ambulance down in the valley."

The mayor who profited from ambulances well,
Lobbied hard across that long city,
"Isn't it most the fallen and hapless,
That draw from our hearts such pity?"

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

So day after day, as these mishaps occurred,
And quick forth would the rescuers sally
To pick up the victims who fell off the cliff,
With ambulances down in the valley.

A young visitor remarked: "It's a marvel to me
That people give far more attention
To repairing results than to 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 people of sense, stop to put up a fence,
When our ambulances work in the valley?"

Better close up the source of temptation and crime
Than deliver from dungeon or galley;
Better put a strong fence 'round the top of the cliff
Than an ambulance down in the valley.

So I encourage you now with purse, or with pen,
Let witless philanthropists dally,
Scorn the sham and pretense, go erect a strong fence
on the cliff that hangs o'er the valley.


- adapted from a poem by Joseph Malins (1895)



The old adage, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, seems relevant.  And yet, relief organizations confirm both the relative ease of getting people to donate to emergency appeals and the great difficulty motivating the same people to support efforts to confront the economic and political structures which so often cause so much human tragedy.  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 Love in 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.