Just Charity
The Role of Giving and Receiving in a Flourishing Life

Frank J. Moncher
March 21, 2013
Reproduced with Permission
Culture of Life Foundation

This essay will show how the dual concepts of giving and receiving are foundational for human growth and development. The latter notion is easy to understand: humans need to receive certain basics - food, clothing, shelter, medical care, proper rest, and appropriate social services - in order to flourish. Pope John XXIII, in his 1963 encyclical, Peace on Earth, noted that a person "has the right to be looked after in the event of ill health, disability stemming from his work, widowhood, old age, enforced unemployment, or whenever through no fault of his own he is deprived of the means of livelihood." While many survive under less-than-ideal circumstances, challenging natural barriers to growth, success, or achievement often develop. It is difficult to excel at school, at work, or at home when hungry, fatigued, or in pain. Therefore, if society is to give any real meaning to a Constitutional right to life, these basics must be provided. Furthermore, when this aid is received with a spirit of gratitude, research suggests that beneficiaries obtain psychological, as well as material, benefits.

While the need for the less fortunate to receive basic care cannot be understated, more paradoxical, perhaps, is how important to a fully-developed personality is the act of giving. Pope John Paul II argued that a sincere gift of self to others allows for true self-discovery. What does this mean? In psychological terms, people are healthier, less depressed, and less anxious (etc.) when they adjust their balance to focus more on the needs of others and less on self. For example, in the family context, psychologists have found that spouses function better and experience greater fulfillment when they give to each other. Evidence in the workplace also suggests that collaboration among employees is related to more creativity, more effectiveness, and greater work satisfaction.

Finally, society at large also establishes a healthy community when it protects basic human rights, distributes goods in a just manner, and anticipates that each person meets their responsibilities. These actions reflect two related principles from social justice teaching: solidarity and subsidiarity. Solidarity is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good. It notes that all society is interconnected and interdependent, both collectively and individually. Subsidiarity is a fundamental principle of social philosophy, that one should not withdraw from individuals and commit to the community what it can accomplish by its own enterprise or industry. The United States bishops have declared that under the principle of solidarity, the government "should undertake only those initiatives which exceed the capacities of individuals or private groups acting independently," and that it "should not replace or destroy smaller communities and individual initiative." Pope Benedict XVI later confirmed this point, stating that "subsidiarity respects personal dignity by recognizing in the person a subject who is always capable of giving something to others." All people, therefore, have not only a right, but also a duty, to participate in society, seeking together the common good and well-being of all, but especially the poor and vulnerable. People often overlook that the rights and duties to give and receive belong to both benefactor and beneficiary. Pope John XXIII wrote:

In human society one man's natural right gives rise to a corresponding duty in other men; the duty, that is, of recognizing and respecting that right... Hence, to claim one's rights and ignore one's duties, or only half fulfill them, is like building a house with one hand and tearing it down with the other.

Efforts to assist the poor and vulnerable often fail to recognize how self-giving is an essential component of human self-realization. Instead, benefactors or administrators implicitly communicate that beneficiaries cannot and should not be expected to respond in any reciprocal manner. Such acts of charity do not encourage change or growth. In psychological terms, this is referred to as "enabling," as it enables recipients - intentionally or not - to repeat lifestyle choices in the same way as before without experiencing natural consequences. In some cases (though certainly not all), these choices are part of the problem, hindering a fuller, more flourishing life. Decreased motivation is another psychological problem associated with enabling. Lack of motivation challenges one's sense of self-worth and leads to an increased risk of depression spectrum disorders and other mental health issues. The American Psychological Association has delineated the emotional costs of underemployment and unemployment in documents (e.g., here and here) that support the establishment of a national commission on employment security.

Many persons, through circumstances beyond their control, face physical, psychological, social, economic, or other hardships that place them at a disadvantage. Society often unjustly fails to respect the dignity of those born into poverty or other innocent victims of neglect or tragedy. Unconditional charity, therefore, hinders the recipient from working and loving, fundamental acts associated with psychological health. Although their ability to love is not directly impacted, feelings of self-consciousness or a poor sense of self-worth may hamper relationships, and the recipient of help, support, or assistance may consequently feel less able to give to others. Furthermore, these persons will have decreased motivation to seek work or volunteer in the community. A respectful reciprocity and mutual responsibility helps both benefactors and beneficiaries to recognize their interdependence, enhancing the entire community. Finally, these healthy interpersonal encounters provide each person the psychological benefit of deeper connectedness that represents another step in moving towards a flourishing life.