On Being Charitable
by Dennis McInerny
Charity, as St. Thomas Aquinas loves to remind us, is the most basic of all the virtues their “mother,” as he puts it. And charity “is the mover of all the other virtues,” the seminal cause of whatever level of genuine goodness we might manage to gain for ourselves in this vale of tears. As believers, we all know that charity should be the governing factor in our lives, guiding and shaping everything we do. Without charity, as St. Paul effectively tells us, we are, in spiritual terms, nonentities.
But while we would all acknowledge the centrality of charity, and readily agree to the imperative of always being charitable in our dealings with others, we are not always as clear as we could be as to the precise nature of charity and the obligations it lays upon us. The confusion that attends this matter frequently comes down to this: a failure to make the critical distinction between being charitable and being nice. Specifically, we too often make the mistake of thinking that being charitable really involves nothing else than being nice, and by that we do a great disservice to charity, and to ourselves. While being charitable and being nice may on the surface seem to be similar, they are in fact essentially quite different.
The world in which we live puts great store in being nice. Now, being nice, taken in itself, is not necessarily bad, so long as we don’t overdo it, but neither is it, as some would have us believe, the most admirable and valuable of human achievements. Well, what is at issue here? What does being nice essentially amount to, at least in the minds of its most ardent advocates, those who are prepared to hold it up as the chief of the social virtues? Being nice means, at bottom, being consistently and impeccably inoffensive in everything that one says and does. The number one rule for someone who is dedicated to the ideal of being nice at all times and in all places is this: Never offend. Offensiveness is the number one moral sin against niceness.
A nice person is universally and indiscriminately tolerant, meaning that he is comprehensively non-judgmental, meaning that he is a de facto subscriber to moral relativism. None of his words, none of his actions, are such that would ever give offense. He is a veritable virtuoso of inoffensiveness, because, among other things, he has trained himself to be super-sensitive to all the reigning super-sensitivities of our day. He is positively fluent in the sanitized language of Political Correctness. And because the nice person never offends anyone by anything he says or does, he is, not surprisingly, warmly liked and approved by all. Everybody likes the nice person, and he is welcome wherever he goes.
But here is the problem: the nice person is ineffectual. And his ineffectualness is the direct result of his inoffensiveness. What the nice person has seemingly never learned is that sometimes it is necessary to be offensive, not for the sake of being offensive, mind you, but for the sake of truth, goodness, and beauty. Charitable people, in contrast to nice people, have no compunction about being offensive when they see a pressing need for it. They understand that sometimes it is necessary to offend others, for their own good.
A nice person could never be confused with a true friend. The truest friend you would ever want to have is a charitable person, for he would always act toward you out of charity, which means that it is your good, your genuine good, which he always has first in mind. He thinks of you before he thinks of himself. As St. Thomas puts it, “we love our friends, even if nothing might come of it for us.”
What then is this charity which motivates the true friend? It is of course one of the theological virtues, which means that it is an infused virtue, a totally gratuitous gift of God. Charity, in its essence, is simply sanctifying grace, which is a sharing in, a co-living of, the very life of God. And this is what leads St. Thomas to say that charity is simply the life of the soul, just as the soul is the life of the body. What is more, charity is a habit, which means that it actually enables the person who possesses it to act according to its sublime dictates.
To be charitable is to have authentic love for others, which means to will what is really good for them. And what is really good for any human being? It is that good for which each of us was created, the Supreme Good, who is God Himself. If I truly love another person, I want for him what I want for myself true human fulfillment, the achievement of his final end, the realization of his very reason for being. And this is nothing less than beatitude, eternal union with God.
If a charitable person sometimes acts towards others in ways they would find offensive, it is because he has their genuine welfare at heart. Like the conscientious physician, he knows that it is sometimes necessary to hurt in order to heal. Totally committed as he is to the truth, it is no concern to him whether or not he is liked. Could not each of us recount, with gratitude, at least one critical turning point experience in our lives, when we were saved from going over the precipice by someone who cared enough for us to offend us? The offense came as a singular blessing, for it was just the kind of shock we needed to awaken us from our moral stupor, make us aware of the disastrous path we were following, and then take the necessary steps to straighten out our crooked ways.
As in everything else, in this matter too Our Lord is our great model and guide. Let us study Him and His ways. In all that He said and did, He acted with exquisite, supreme charity. Little wonder, for He is Charity Itself, as St. John reminds us. (Deus caritas est: “God is charity.”) But Our Lord was often anything but nice, at least not according to the understanding of niceness described above. Indeed, He was often quite the opposite of being nice, and He offended a great many people by His teaching. For example, some found the doctrine of the Eucharist very offensive, and left His company for that reason. The scribes and Pharisees and doctors of the law made it a veritable point of honor to be offended by just about everything He said and did. But He never made the least effort to modify His message to mollify His enemies. His auditors were offended because they had hardened themselves against the truth. They had eyes but saw not, and ears but heard not. Our Lord was trying to break through their callousness for the sake of their immortal souls. They found Him offensive, but offensiveness was the very means the occasion called for. Niceness would not do. Charity alone was sufficient for so important a task, because and no one knew this better than Our Lord for those to whom He was addressing His words, literally everything was at stake.
This article originally appeared in the June 2009 issue of the North American District Fraternity Newsletter. To receive our newsletter by mail, simply sign up on our newsletter subscription page.