Christian charity is better than hot air


Fulminating against poverty only relieves the conscience of wealthy commentators, writes John Waters

ONE OF the most intriguing and unremarked aspects of the Celtic Tiger years was the emergence of the millionaire commentator who, though living in considerable opulence, carved a niche for himself in berating the community at large for its lack of consideration for the "most vulnerable". This odd phenomenon, though secretly loathed, is very often deemed in public discourse to be self-evidently well-intentioned and morally centred.

But what, other than relieving the consciences of the fulminators, does it achieve? Although these commentators are invariably of a secular-socialist disposition, there are interesting parallels to a certain type of cleric of times gone by. Their injunctions are directed outward, away from themselves, making no demands on their own resources or consciences, but displacing their disquiet on to the general psyche.

At least the priests who once upon a time berated us for lack of charity were speaking in human terms and demanding something we could actually manage: that we give something, by way of alms, as a gesture of Christian solidarity. But if you listen to the latter-day diatribes in the hope of hearing a coherent annunciation, you will listen in vain for anything other than banal repetitions of ideas that have been fruitlessly tried before.

In my lifetime, we have had more than a dozen governments, ranging in socioeconomic outlook from soft right to soft left. In that time, we have, collectively speaking, become exponentially richer. In that time, also, although the poor have not gone away, the hand-wringing about poverty has increased at roughly the same rate as the growth in prosperity.

If you apply the standards of the present day to the circumstances in which most of us grew up, you might well decide that, in the past, almost everyone was poor. As times changed, poverty came to be defined as a relative condition, characterised not by needs or objective circumstances but by comparison with societal averages and means. I don't say this way of defining poverty is necessarily wrong, but I do believe it leads to a misleading analysis of both human beings and economies.

In truth there is no such constant entity as the "most vulnerable". Poverty, as the St Vincent de Paul Society has recently been making clear, is a condition that moves around, affecting the most unlikely people at the most unexpected times.

There is no discrete entity that might be called "the poor", but only the ebb and flow of fortune in complex societies.

Although this is probably not the best time to be arguing this, it remains the case that, when it comes to the distribution of resources, capitalism is better than the alternatives, having at its core the unexceptionable idea that poverty is a curable condition. Economic ideology in our time has proffered two discrete and equally fundamental ways of seeing the world and its potential to achieve the happiness and comfort of the greatest number.

One was the standard pseudo-Christian/leftist analysis: that the world's resources belong equally to everyone and should be distributed regardless of input. The other is that the world's resources are not ipso facto the entitlement of anyone because they cannot be marshalled for anyone's benefit unless a sufficiency of humanity can be persuaded to get off its rear end.

It is all too easy to condemn capitalism for everything it has failed to achieve, while ignoring all its triumphs. The market, limitations notwithstanding, is a moral agent, seeking to disperse the creativity and energy of humanity for the maximum good of the greatest number. It doesn't always work, but it's worked better than any competing idea.

But we still need safety valves, and these in capitalist societies are provided not by systemic intervention but by charity and philanthropy.

Through the good times and the bad times in Irish society, for longer than any of us can remember, the Society of St Vincent de Paul has remained constant and true to its mission to relieve the distress of the poor and destitute by way of bearing witness to the love of Jesus Christ. This I understand. When I hear one of the usual left-wing suspects banging on about "greed" or the "super rich", I hear only envy and resentment or Oedipal rage coming out at a distance from its source. I listen hard for the solutions, but hear none that make sense. I look for evidence that these commentators have impoverished themselves in the interests of consistency, but see no such signs. I look to the Society of St Vincent de Paul and see something that transcends all this guff: people putting their time and resources where other people put their mouths.

Christian charity, we will be told, is not the answer to poverty. Perhaps, but it's better than hot air. So, when the V de P box is rattled under your nose this Christmas, dig a little deeper than you think you can afford. Next Christmas they might be collecting for you. And this Christmas they will offer you an opportunity to feel good about doing something far better than accusing everyone else.