The Personalist Project

Accessed on September 26, 2023 - 5:00:20

Why we need fraternity maybe even more than charity

Katie van Schaijik, Nov 11, 2014

Pope Francis upset many on the political right a few months back, when he said that "inequality is the root of social evil." They took him to be calling for socialist-style wealth-redistribution. I heard something different. I heard a deeper (true) point about human relations. 

Since the fall in Eden, all human relations have been menaced by the master/slave dynamic. Instead of the "communion-of-love" that characterized our original way of being together, all of us are now constantly tempted to relate to each other according to power dynamics. The strong and rich are tempted to "lord it over" the weak and poor, and the weak and poor are tempted to slavishness and resentment.

Sometimes the dynamic is blatant, as when we use violence or military force to impose our will or take what we want, regardless of whether we have a right to it. Sometimes it's more discrete, as when we use our wealth to win undue infuence or flatter a more powerful person to win favors.

I said in a post a while back that it's even possible to participate in the master/slave dynamic in the very act of being charitable. It happens whenever our charity includes an element of condescenion. "I, in my virtue and beneficence, am doing something for you, who are poor and needy." In this way, we establish our superiority.

Today's Magnificat makes the same point. First Fr. John Baptist Ku, O.P., recounts the famous story of St. Martin of Tours (whose feast it is).

On a freezing winter day, Martin met a beggar, shivering terribly, at the gate of the city of Amiens. No one paid the beggar any attention. All Martin had was his clothes and weapons. So, he drew his sword and cut his cloak in two pieces, giving one half to the poor man. 

The author draws a lesson from the story [emphasis in the original].

[In] giving the beggar half his cloak, Martin established a bond of fraternity that he would not have, had he given him the whole thing. Had he simply given him the cloak—a perfectly charitable act—the dynamic would have been I can take the cold, but you can't—whether that's because I'm stronger or because I'm willing to die.

Or it could have been I give you my cloak because I can get another one from my abundant resources, which you don't have. You're needy, and I'm not. I'm ministering to you: I'm giving, and you're taking.

But the dynamic of sharing the cloak is different; it is one where We're brothers; it's very cold...Your problems are my problems; we suffer together.

I propose that this is the basic spiritual aim behind Pope Francis' acts and gestures. He is trying to open our eyes to the myriad ways even religious Catholics have yet to live from that "dynamic of sharing", that "true spirit of fraternity" with one another. He wants us to look at the poor or the suffering and think, "Your problems are my problems." He wants it, because that's the deep truth at the heart of personal existence. 

St. Martin of Tours, pray for us.