One of the rewards of great literature is that each new reading reveals aspects that were somehow previously hidden. This idea struck me recently as I was re-acquainting myself with Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, and I noticed the similarities between Bob Cratchit and Lazarus.

Both poor men hoped for the scraps of rich men—Lazarus awaited crumbs from the rich man’s table, while Bob Cratchit’s paychecks consisted of the fifteen shillings per week that somehow escaped Scrooge’s tight fist. Bob Cratchit had six children—one of whom was dying, which, as the story makes clear, was a direct result of his poverty. Lazarus had no family; he died alone—a result of the rich man’s indifference.

The rich men were not alone in their fault, nor was apathy confined to the upper class: no one else seemed to notice, either. Others could have helped Lazarus: surely they saw the dogs licking his sores. Others could have helped Bob Cratchit: did no one else take note of Tiny Tim’s well-worn crutch?

Maybe they had more important things to do, but maybe there’s an even more insidious explanation: maybe everyone thought that Lazarus and Cratchit received exactly what they deserved. Let me explain. There can be a common view—even in a place as enlightened as modern-day America—that studying hard at school, working hard, and making smart choices inevitably lead to financial success. We might call this the idea of “radical meritocracy.” Problem is, not only is radical meritocracy verifiably inaccurate, but it plants lifelong seeds of self-doubt or pride. After all, if hard work leads to success, and I’m not successful, there is no one to blame but me. On the other hand, the successful often go so far as to call themselves “self-made,” which has an eerie Luciferian ring to it.

But worse than all this—and this is where it affects Cratchit and Lazarus—the creed of radical meritocracy establishes a culture of blame. Why the plight of Cratchit and Lazarus? Clearly, Cratchit and Lazarus don’t work hard enough. Thus, they don’t deserve our help, understanding, or affections, right? I wonder how many of us have been guilty of such dismissive judgmentalism. Or maybe it’s just me.

Last month, I wrote a piece that outlined why socialism was so inherently destructive, to which some readers pondered why I had failed to condemn capitalism as well. There’s a great reason: I follow Pope Saint John Paul II on the matter. Asking in Centissimus Annus whether capitalism is “the path to true economic and civil progress,” he answered:

The answer is obviously complex. If by "capitalism" is meant an economic system which recognizes the fundamental and positive role of business, the market, private property and the resulting responsibility for the means of production, as well as free human creativity in the economic sector, then the answer is certainly in the affirmative, even though it would perhaps be more appropriate to speak of a "business economy", "market economy" or simply "free economy". But if by "capitalism" is meant a system in which freedom in the economic sector is not circumscribed within a strong juridical framework which places it at the service of human freedom in its totality, and which sees it as a particular aspect of that freedom, the core of which is ethical and religious, then the reply is certainly negative.

In short: true economic liberty is good.

Creation is good. Materials are good. Gold is good. But if we melt that gold into the form of a calf and worship it, the problem is not with the gold; the problem is with us. And so it is with a free economy. In modern parlance, there are those who believe that the “invisible hand” of capitalism will not only produce economic efficiency, but best produce economic justice. In fact, some people reject all ideas to the contrary. Case in point: even though the popes have taught through their social encyclicals that employers must pay not only a “market wage,” but a living wage, that magisterial teaching is often dismissed in deference to the mechanistic workings of the free market.

What’s the essential difference between a market wage and a living wage? The survival of Tiny Tim.

If we refuse to recognize the fundamental dignity and worth of others, all we’ve done is melted down the good things God gave us and formed them into handcuffs, with which we forge links to false gods.  

This winter, we will see others in need. For many of us, the primary challenge will be in not getting hung up on questions of how they came to such dire straits. They may have done plenty wrong; they may have done nothing wrong. Does it matter? God will not judge us on our ability to determine how good or bad the choices of others have been in the past; He will judge us on our own choices in the present. He will judge us on how clearly we can see the face of Christ in the countenance of strangers. And they will know we are Christians by our love.