Just before He ascended into heaven, Jesus gave his followers the Apostolic Commission to “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations.” Many Christian rulers would interpret this as a command to use the power of government to enforce the faith. Imprisonment, banishment, and execution could not compel genuine faith in God, but they could enforce acts of faith such as being baptised or attending Mass. Using the law to enforce acts of faith became known as “conversion by the sword.”
In our own time, many Christians have become increasingly attracted to what might be called “Charity by the sword.” They correctly point out that Scripture calls us to charity and then insist that Christians are bound by Scripture’s call for charity to support various forms of government redistribution. Of course, the law cannot compel genuine charity any more than it can compel genuine faith. But it can compel acts of charity.
Support for charity by the sword has been ecumenical. In 2008 the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development released a criticism of the federal budget stating “A budget is a moral document reflecting the priorities of the nation. . . . Scripture gives us the story of the Last Judgment (Mt. 25) and instructs us to put the needs of the poor and vulnerable first.”
Protestant authors such as Tony Campolo have advocated for charity by the sword in a more directly partisan manner. “I buy into the Democratic Party,” he wrote, “. . . because there are over 2,000 verses of Scripture that deal with responding to the needs of the poor.”
The Second Vatican Council declared in Dignitatis Humanae the objective evil of conversion by the sword. The council made it clear that neither the Apostolic Commission nor any other scriptural exhortation could be used to excuse coercion, for “the right to religious freedom has its foundation in the very dignity of the human person as this dignity is known through the revealed word of God and by reason itself.” The Church did not condemn conversion by the sword because it was ineffective, but because to coerce acts of faith is inherently evil.
The Church does not, of course, condemn all acts of government coercion. As Thomas Aquinas wrote, “the law is an expression of what is just,” and so it is assumed that the state properly enforces (or coerces) acts of justice, such as the repayment of stolen property. But does the government’s obligation to enforce acts of justice mean that it can legitimately enforce acts of charity?
In his encyclical Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict XVI clearly defines the difference between these two virtues: “Charity goes beyond justice, because to love is to give, to offer what is mine to the other; but it never lacks justice, which prompts us to give the other what is his.” The purpose of the government’s power, the power of the sword, is to establish justice, to ensure that the other receives what is his. It is not necessarily to establish charity.
Charity, the third theological virtue, receives very similar treatment in Sacred Scripture to the first theological virtue, faith. When Christ gives the greatest commandment, it is not to love God with the whole of your neighbor’s heart, soul, and mind. When He gives the second commandment it is not to love your neighbor with your other neighbor’s goods. The widow in the Gospel does not give away someone else’s two coins.
The Gospel of Luke exhorts us to invite the poor, crippled, and lame “when you give a banquet,” not to bring them uninvited to someone else’s banquet. Christ never proclaimed that whatsoever you make someone else do to the least of your brethren, that you do unto Him. Scripture calls us to practice the theological virtues, not to enforce them by the sword. Charity, to give what is mine to the other, is demanded by God along with faith, but both faith and charity are outside the legitimate authority of law, “an expression of what is just.”
Individual politicians can and should be motivated by charity, a phenomenon that Pope Benedict refers to as “the political path of charity.” As Aquinas wrote, “it is charity which directs the acts of all the other virtues.” This does not, however, alter the fundamental difference between acts of justice, which the government is obligated to compel, and acts of charity, which like acts of faith cannot be compelled without violating human dignity. A policy of charity by the sword is no more legitimate than conversion by the sword.
This is not to say, however, that all government redistribution is illegitimate. Justice sometimes demands redistribution due to what is commonly called “the right of necessity,” both in common law and in moral theology. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states “The appropriation of property is legitimate for guaranteeing the freedom and dignity of persons and for helping each of them to meet his basic needs” (§ 2242).
Genuine need legitimizes (i.e., justifies) coercive redistribution, but this remains a matter of justice, not charity. Clearly some of our government’s redistribution programs, such as those that provide food or shelter for people who would otherwise have none, are required to guarantee “the freedom and dignity of persons and for helping each of them to meet his basic needs.”
It is equally clear that some of our other redistribution programs, such as the recently enacted program in Massachusetts to provide the poor with automobiles, do not meet this standard. This standard of justice, not charity, is the standard by which Christians must judge compelled redistribution if we are to uphold “the very dignity of the human person.”
Charity by the sword violates the dignity of the human person regardless of democratic governance. Winning an election does not give a political faction the right to enforce almsgiving any more than it gives them the right to enforce Mass attendance. Long after the rise of representative government the Second Vatican Council stated in Dignitatis Humanae “men cannot discharge these obligations in a manner in keeping with their own nature unless they enjoy immunity from external coercion.”
Conversion by the sword has come to be universally recognized among Christians as a terrible violation of human dignity. It was a gross misunderstanding of the gospel with a perverse effect on the political and evangelistic activity of many Christians.
In time, charity by the sword will similarly be recognized for the horrible mistake that it is. The day will come when the notion that the federal budget must reflect the gospel’s call to charity will seem as absurd as we now find the suggestion that baptism should be a prerequisite for American citizenship.
James Kerian is a mechanical engineer and small business owner in Grafton, North Dakota.