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What Does it Mean to be Charitable?

June 2, 2023


If someone were to ask you what it means to be charitable, what would you say? Lying on my bed, staring at the ceiling, I found this question ringing in my head after watching B.J. Novak’s 2022 film, Vengeance. This thriller-comedy follows a renowned podcaster’s investigation into the death of a West Texas woman, Abilene, and the film ever so slyly comments on many problems with modern culture. Although there are many scenes that subtly comment on modernity, two short lines in one particular scene between the podcaster and a potential suspect struck me.

Suspect: “Why do you care so much?”
Podcaster: “Why do you care so little?”

This quick exchange pointed towards a deficiency in the modern world’s approach to what it means to care for one another, and therefore, with its approach to the virtue of charity. Still striking is the fact that even though these two men have polar opposite views, they both feel fully justified in their position. The suspect is confused why someone who barely knew the victim would go to such lengths to uncover the truth, while the podcaster is confused why someone could be so bitter and careless about another human. Ultimately, I started asking myself the same questions they were asking one another: What does it mean to care for another, and more fully, what does it mean to be charitable? 

A quick Google search for what charity is will provide a starting place full of predictable definitions. It means that we assist those in need, judge others favorably, and are kind and tolerant toward others. As predictable—and even accurate—as these definitions are, they are also dangerous. They are dangerous in the sense that they only provide a partial view of what it means to embody the virtue of charity while failing to capture the most critical part of it, God. 

If the definitions of virtues are stripped of God, we are left to perish in the subjective wasteland of modernity

Looking now to the Catechism of the Catholic Church for some more guidance, we find a fuller definition. A charitable person is not someone who just cares for others, but someone who “love[s] God above all things for his own sake, and our neighbor as ourselves for the love of God” (CCC 1822). So while a charitable person is someone who assists those in need, judges others favorably, and is kind and tolerant to others, there is more to it. As the definition states, a charitable person first and foremost loves God above all things. The charitable person understands that for this to be true, they must properly orient their lives and set God as the foundation and objective of their lives. We then see that the foundation of charity, and all virtues for that matter, must be God himself. Seeing as God is being itself, he not only embodies the virtues, but he is the virtues. 

This approach to life is quite countercultural. Modern culture would say that you should aim to be a “good person” and stop there. With this new approach rooted in God, we find that only he is a sufficient aim, and we are no longer to aim for just being a “good person” but a person likened to him. When we fail to orient our sights properly as the Lord calls us, we fail to aim at anything substantial and end up with a skewed view of what it means to be charitable. God is the origin, source, and foundation not only for charity but all virtues. If the definitions of virtues are stripped of God, we are left to perish in the subjective wasteland of modernity. 

If we are to accept the modern approach to life where our aim is to be a “good person,” rather than God himself, we fall into the sin of Adam and Eve. We strip God of his proper place and attempt to become gods ourselves. From our throne, we can now define our own terms of what it means to be good and evil. Like Adam and Eve, however, we find that this approach has led our world into a state of confusion and sadness. Yet, there is hope. Just as the Catechism provides an alternative to the world’s definition of charity, we may provide an alternative to the world through our own lives. 

We have the freedom to choose if we wish to order our lives as the world suggests or as God intends for us—with him as the foundation and objective. If we are to choose that which is of God, all that we do must be oriented and directed towards the goal of becoming like him. Seeing as he is the source of being and virtue, the closer we are to him, the more perfectly we may imitate and reflect him. The closer we are to the source, the more like the source we become. 

I came to a realization as I lay awake in my bed. I realized that Google and even the Catechism cannot fully provide me with the answer my heart desires. As with any piece of information, definitions only go so far if you are unaware of how to apply what you have learned. We can study and labor over what it means to be charitable or virtuous, but the fullest answer can only be revealed through a personal relationship with God. It is when we properly orient our lives toward him and allow his love to penetrate our hearts and inform the way we encounter the world that we finally discover the true essence of the virtues. This intimacy with the Lord is the one path that will enable us not only to know the definition of what it means to be charitable and virtuous, but how to actually be charitable and virtuous.