The true meaning of charity


Sir, – Fintan O’Toole is his opinion column of April 27th (“Catholic Church’s charity towards Irish people is a corrosive myth”) has seriously distorted Catholic doctrine on charity, He understands charity to mean giving alms and relief to those in want. It is pure beneficence which is totally reliant on the goodwill of the giver. He goes on to claim that because the receiver has no right to the charity as such, charity can be used to control and create dependency.

This, however, is a seriously flawed presentation of the Catholic doctrine on charity. Pope Benedict emphatically points out that “justice is inseparable from charity and intrinsic to it. Justice is the primary way of charity ... On the one hand charity demands justice: recognition and respect for the legitimate rights of individuals and peoples”.

With such an understanding, it is clear that an ethic based on charity clearly transcends the limitations of an ethic based on human rights. The former will be imbued with a spirit of compassion and empathy, and will ensure that the dignity of the person is always respected even when the person may not have any entitlements or may have abused their rights. Charity has impelled agencies of the church to champion the recognition of rights (such as socio-economic rights) which are not recognised by our State but which must be respected if the dignity of individuals is to be upheld. This is the vision that has inspired many congregations such as the Sisters of Charity to devote their lives to the care of the less fortunate in our society through the provision of such services as counselling for those on low income, providing housing for the homeless, countering trafficking, and supporting immigrants and refugees.

O’Toole uses his flawed understanding of the doctrine of charity to make such outlandish claims that the church fought ferociously to prevent the development of any form of healthcare and educational system it did not control. He cities the examples of the destruction of the non-denominational school system in the 19th century and the opposition to the mother and child healthcare system in 1951.

Garret FitzGerald, in an article published in 2010, reminded us that the board of commissioners set up in 1831 to establish a new national school system invited joint applications for the establishment of such schools. But while the Catholic hierarchy had accepted this new interdenominational system, it was opposed by the Protestant religious authorities.

Concerning the mother and child scheme in 1951, the church’s opposition was based primarily on the fear that it might negatively impact on the freedom of citizens. In a correspondence to the Government, the bishops’ conference argued that in this scheme, “the State arrogates to itself a function which the vast majority of citizens can fulfil by individual initiative and lawful association”. In hindsight, this viewpoint must be judged negatively. But the intervention was not motivated by any desire to control.

Finally, in relation to the proposed co-location of the new national maternity hospital, we do not have answers as to why it was agreed that ownership of the site would remain under the control of the Sisters of Charity. Until this question is answered, it is vexatious to attribute nefarious motives to the parties involved. – Yours, etc,


Parish of St Joseph

and St Benildus,