The Catholic definition of charity

Archbishop Cushley meeting inhabitants of Chipolomba village including Mary Jackson, in the yellow jumper

Last week I met Mary Jackson. She is a wife, a mother of four, and lives in the village of Chipolomba in southern Malawi. The change of climate in recent years means that for farmers like Mary the once predictable annual rains are now difficult to anticipate. Sometimes the rains are too heavy. Sometimes they don’t fall at all. Mary’s life changed for the better, however, when the Scottish Catholic International Aid Fund (SCIAF) arrived in Chipolomba three years ago.

A SCIAF project has now given Mary training in improved ways of farming. I witnessed the result upon a visit to her field of maize, the staple foodstuff of Malawi. Whereas the surrounding farmland had stalks that had grown to only three feet, Mary’s maize was lush, green and over six foot high.

SCIAF grew out of St Columbkille’s parish in Rutherglen, Lanarkshire, back in 1965. The founders were Monsignor John Rooney, the parish priest, John McKee, a Glasgow school teacher and Bishop Michael Foylan of Aberdeen. Fifty years on, it seems timely to ponder how successful we currently are in remaining faithful to our foundations. What are the hallmarks of an authentic Catholic approach to development?

SCIAF is part of a family of Catholic aid bodies known as Caritas Internationalis. Based in Rome, it is a confederation of more than 160 relief, development and social service organisations operating in about 200 countries and territories. The name is quite intentional. Caritas. Charity. Not the narrow definition of charity as it has come to be understood in the contemporary western world, the charity of philanthropic hand outs from on high. No. The Catholic understanding of charity is best summed up by St Paul: Caritas Christi Urget Nos, the love of Christ urges us on (2 Cor 5:14). Our good works are the overflow of a life in communion with Christ.

As Benedict XVI acutely observed 2011, a Catholic development agency must have a “transcendent foundation” that appreciates man’s eternal destiny, adding that without that firm mooring such bodies risk drifting from their Catholic ethos and identity.

Thus an authentic Catholic understanding of development should view caritas as nothing less than the love of Jesus Christ. This is our best motive for helping people. It is our faith and love in Jesus Christ that inspires us. It is our respect for our fellow man and woman and child that motivates us. Each person – including Mary Jackson and all those I met in Malawi – are made in the image and likeness of God. Thus we have to do all we can to give them the dignity that is already theirs – and in doing so we will regain our own dignity.

Pious platitudes? No. These principles also work in practice. I’ve seen it for myself in Malawi. Indeed, it is this approach that has made the Catholic Church, I would suggest, the greatest force for good the world has ever known.