Jesus was undeniably a charitable person. His heart was troubled when he saw the crowds who were like sheep without a shepherd. His instinct was to feed the multitude in the wilderness rather than send them home unnourished. He was touched by the plight of the widow at Naim about the loss of her beloved son.
He responded to the crippled, the deaf, the mute, the leprous, and, as in today’s Gospel, the blind. Jesus’ practical charity certainly surpassed that of his impatient disciples who would silence the blind Bartimaeus rather than put themselves out to heed his needs. In spite of the sizeable crowd that St. Mark deliberately notes, Jesus makes time for this blind beggar on the streets of Jericho. Christ listens to him, speaks to him and cures him. So clearly, Jesus had altruistic feelings and was not hesitant to act upon them.
Christ’s Church, for its part, has continued this ministry of personal charity down through the ages. Whether it be St. Martin of Tours splitting his cloak to share it with a beggar; St. Benedict writing a stipulation for hospitality into his rule for the monastic life; St. Peter Claver tending to the physical and spiritual needs of African slaves recently arrived in South America; or Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin opening meal sites in lower Manhattan, the church’s involvement with the physically needy and the spiritually impoverished is rightly celebrated.
In recent years these traditional methods of Catholic charity have been sometimes criticized as answering only immediate needs rather than addressing long term goals. Even Mother Theresa was disparaged on occasion for being more interested in warm clothing and hot meals than she was in systemic change within the world’s governments and economies. Certainly the larger picture should be taken into account and effective remedies proposed. Theory should guide practice. Truth should direct charity. While lamenting the Catholic Church’s sad involvement with the now discredited community organization known as ACORN, one blogger from Greater Washington astutely observed that some socially active Catholics have “big hearts but small brains.” But then the writer went on to give credit where credit is due: The Catholic Church is the largest and oldest social welfare organization in the world. Catholics practically or actually invented hospitals, soup kitchens, schools, shelters, etc. As such, the “social teaching” of the church has always been a very high priority, and the execution of the corporal works of mercy is a necessity to salvation.
Pope Benedict XVI’s third encyclical, “Charity In Truth,” addresses this very situation of the need for charity to be both practical and correct. Charity, as St. Paul writes, “rejoices in the truth.” And those who would do charity have an obligation to research and appreciate the truth. Nowadays the church comes under much criticism for its stands on many issues, especially on sexual morality. Pope Benedict has been publicly denounced as a murderer because of the church’s prohibition of condoms in Africa. The church is thought insensitive in its stand against same sex marriage:
“If two people love one another. …” The Catholic community is seen as naïve if it thinks it can win couples away from artificial birth control to Natural Family Planning. The church appears heartless in forbidding artificial insemination, surrogate motherhood and in vitro fertilization to childless couples. Embryonic stem cell research seems too quickly dismissed by the church. The Catholic Church is called reactionary in its total ban on abortion – even resulting from rape and incest. Yes, the church can seem overwhelmingly out of step with the moral tendencies of the day. Yet, as Pope Benedict wisely suggests, the initial responses to life’s problems, the first reactions to history’s challenges, do not always reflect the fullness of truth. If difficulties with fertility and sexual orientation and marital obligations – as well as all the other predicaments society faces — were probed more with an eye to the fullness of truth than with a desire for instant gratification, humanity would be much better served. “Big hearts but small brains” applies not only to Catholic social workers. It applies to the economic and scientific and political worlds that are satisfied with hasty resolutions to civilization’s long range problems.