Rorate Caeli

A letter on charity from conservative publisher Neil McCaffrey, February 1977

(Rorate thanks Roger McCaffrey for permission to publish this letter written to him in 1977 by his father Neil, a noted conservative publisher and political commentator, who for many years ran the Conservative Book Club and assisted with PR for National Review. Needless to say, the content of the letter is astonishingly timely, as we shiver our way through a second postconciliar winter.)

February 23, 1977

Dear Roger,

The problem of true charity is—the problem. Some random thoughts.

There can be no charity without justice, in this sense: charity may go beyond justice, but never at the expense of justice.

Von Hildebrand makes a useful distinction between injuries done to me and injuries done to God; the latter either directly or indirectly [because] to others. I cannot forgive an injury done to God, or to another.

We owe charity to our leaders in the Church, yes. But this does not extend to forgiving what in fact we cannot forgive, their offenses against God and the souls in their care. We should pray that they acquit themselves of these sins, but we do them no charity by pretending that their sins are virtues. Indeed, we do them the gravest disservice with such lies; and a worse disservice to those they harm.

We delude ourselves, and insult God, when we act as if God can be served by suppressing the truth, or by lying. This is an amazingly crude notion, but widespread. God is truth.

We may hold ourselves to a high standard of truth, and still offend if we lack charity. “The greatest of these is charity.” So we must somehow find a way to serve truth and charity.

It is a commonplace that charity doesn’t oblige us to like someone. We must treat him as we would want to be treated, do him no harm, wish him well.

Pseudo-charity is a kind of cowardice and damages both subject and object. All lies do.

There is also a place for righteous anger, especially anger at offenses against God or our neighbor. This, surprisingly, is also an aspect of charity. But it is also tricky, and can easily deteriorate into personal anger.

Nothing, nothing in the way of charity can be accomplished without God’s help.

Terrible sins are committed in the name of charity.

Newman insisted on charity—and insisted equally on measures that should be taken against bad people: ostracism, avoidance, censure, etc.

The motive for charity is imitation of and union with God. His life is love, and he lives it not only with Himself but with His creation. If He loves His creatures, we should and must, if we are to imitate Him and become His.

We can judge objective evil—objective guilt if you will—with great accuracy, if we use God’s norms. As to subjective guilt, we can make informed guesses but can never really know. It is in that sense that we “cannot judge.” Hell, we barely know ourselves, let alone others. Who but God can know, in this sense? But in the former sense (objective guilt), we can judge, and indeed our Lord instructs us to, often. He even tells us: “By their fruits [ye shall know them]…” He tells us to watch out for false Christs, to shun evildoers, etc. What are all those but commands to judge? Judging, after all, is the pristine act of the intellect. It is a sham piety that would have us act contrary to our very nature. Sure, we must rise above nature to reach heaven; but in that process we are to use nature, not do violence to it.

Those of us who have some grasp of the truth yet yield little fruit are barren, I’m pretty sure, because and to the extent that our charity is cold. Prophets, remember, are men of God.

One point Newman insists on: that false ideas of religion harm people. Of course. Otherwise, why Revelation? Faith is no mere adornment. It is the way.

Be patient. Every individual has his own rhythm. Grace too has its own tempo. That is why converts are made—but often over long periods. It took Augustine and Newman about a decade each.

I wish I knew more about charity.


P.S. The classic Gospel and Epistle remarks on charity refer mainly to our fellows, not to Church authorities. Although charity must obtain here, too, the governing problem deals with good shepherds, scandal, etc. “Charity” should not distract from the real issue—which, paradoxically, is charity. But charity rightly understood: the charity owed to the faithful, not the mock charity bestowed by feeble Christians on feeble shepherds. This false charity, in other words, is a device of the Devil to distract from the real charity being denied to the faithful.

Ponder the Pharisees in light of today’s hierarchy. The parallels are overpowering. Was our Lord charitable to the Pharisees? Of course He was—and He excoriated them. So we see that charity must subsist with righteous indignation, contrary to what the caricaturists of charity like to pretend.

Rog—Read First Corinthians, chapter 5, in the Jerusalem Bible translation. It gives the rules for how we are to treat bad Catholics. And we are right. Moreover, Catholic tradition follows St. Paul. Today’s practice is the aberration. Dad