The Chaos Theory of Charity

680px-Mother_Teresa_WDCWeather, as we all know, can be unpredictable and unexpected. But is it so chaotic that a butterfly flapping its wings in one part of the world could cause a tornado somewhere else?

So suggests ‘chaos theory,’ the branch of mathematics that seeks to explain how seemingly small changes can—through an apparently random chain of events—have a big impact. Chaos theory has been used to explain everything from traffic jams to the functioning of the financial markets. It’s also inspired popular films like Jurassic Park and the upcoming thriller Welcome to Yesterday, in which time-traveling teenagers change their personal histories, unwittingly triggering major disasters in the present.

Chaos theory can also be a metaphor for charity.

Sometimes we see an immediate impact to our works of charity: a young unwed mother makes a choice for life, an addict goes sober, and a homeless person won’t have to spend another night cold and hungry. But just as often, our charitable efforts seems fruitless: the alcoholic continues his downward spiral, that life we tried to save is lost, the person to whom we extended a helping hand refuses it, and the person to whom we shared the gospel story does not accept the call to follow Christ.

Pope Francis gives voice to such frustrations in his recent apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium. While it may seem that our efforts are sometimes futile, the Holy Father reminds us that charity can never fail to bear fruit:

We may be sure that none of our acts of love will be lost, nor any of our acts of sincere concern for others. No single act of love for God will be lost, no generous effort is meaningless, no painful endurance is wasted. All of these encircle our world like a vital force. Sometimes it seems that our work is fruitless, but mission is not like a business transaction or investment, or even a humanitarian activity. It is not a show where we count how many people come as a result of our publicity; it is something much deeper, which escapes all measurement. It may be that the Lord uses our sacrifices to shower blessings in another part of the world which we will never visit.

Call it the chaos theory of charity: our works, while sometimes apparently falling on fallow soil, bear fruit elsewhere around the world. This belief is rooted in Scripture: “Therefore, my beloved brothers, be firm, steadfast, always fully devoted to the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58).

Traditionally, this belief has been expressed in the teaching about the ‘treasury of merits,’ the idea that the Church has access to a storehouse of merits—the works of Mary and the other saints joined to the infinite merits Christ won for us on the Cross. As the catechism explains:

In the communion of saints, “a perennial link of charity exists between the faithful who have already reached their heavenly home, those who are expiating their sins in purgatory and those who are still pilgrims on earth. Between them there is, too, an abundant exchange of all good things.” In this wonderful exchange, the holiness of one profits others, well beyond the harm that the sin of one could cause others. Thus recourse to the communion of saints lets the contrite sinner be more promptly and efficaciously purified of the punishments for sin. … We also call these spiritual goods of the communion of saints the Church’s treasury … [emphasis added].

That treasury, as the catechism goes on to explain, is “not the sum total of the material goods” amassed by the Church over time. Rather, it contains the “infinite value, which can never be exhausted, which Christ’s merits have before God.” Also within this treasury are the “prayers and good works” the Blessed Virgin Mary and all the saints, according to the catechism. (An apologetics side note: this metaphor of the ‘treasury’ is explicitly biblical and can be traced back to the words of Jesus in Matthew 6:19-21 and 19:21.)

It is from this ‘treasury of merits’ that the Church makes ‘withdrawals’ in order to issue indulgences. As the catechism explains, “An indulgence is obtained through the Church who, by virtue of the power of binding and loosing granted her by Christ Jesus, intervenes in favor of individual Christians and opens for them the treasury of the merits of Christ and the saints to obtain from the Father of mercies the remission of the temporal punishments due for their sins.” (Note that an indulgence does not annul the guilt of a sin, which is achieved through the work of Christ on the Cross, applied to us through the sacraments.)

Of course, the Church calls on us to make our own ‘deposits’ into this treasury, as Christ Himself urged His followers to do: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and decay destroy, and thieves break in and steal. But store up treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor decay destroys, nor thieves break in and steal” (Matthew 6:19-21).

How encouraging this is: our good works have a lasting, eternal value in heaven. And, as such, our charity not only can affect people we don’t know on the other side of the globe—they can also reach across time to touch as-yet unborn individuals.

One has to wonder: how is this possible?

This mystical bond of charity that connects us through space in time is, ultimately, the Body of Christ. “[L]iving the truth in love, we should grow in every way into him who is the head, Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, with the proper functioning of each part, brings about the body’s growth and builds itself up in love,” writes St. Paul in Ephesians 4:15-16. In Colossians 3:14, he calls love the “bond of perfection.”

Joined to Christ, our works of charity thus cannot fail to have an effect—maybe not in the here and now but somewhere and sometime. If a butterfly fluttering around can lead to a tornado, just imagine what we, who are rational souls made in the image of God, can do through the Body of Christ.

image: Mother Teresa, National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception/ Wikimedia Commons

Stephen Beale


Stephen Beale is a freelance writer based in Providence, Rhode Island. Raised as an evangelical Protestant, he is a convert to Catholicism. He is a former news editor at and was a correspondent for the New Hampshire Union Leader, where he covered the 2008 presidential primary. He has appeared on Fox News, C-SPAN and the Today Show and his writing has been published in the Washington Times, Providence Journal, the National Catholic Register and on and A native of Topsfield, Massachusetts, he graduated from Brown University in 2004 with a degree in classics and history. His areas of interest include Eastern Christianity, Marian and Eucharistic theology, medieval history, and the saints. He welcomes tips, suggestions, and any other feedback at bealenews at gmail dot com. Follow him on Twitter at

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  • Michael Starks

    Christ doesn’t tell us to have an effect. He tells us to give.

  • Myshkin

    Then you agree with Mother Teresa, who said that we are called not to be successful but faithful.