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On Charity: A Sunday Rumination

     Imagine the following conversation:

Charitable Canvasser: Give me money.
FWP: Why?
CC: I need it.
FWP: And why should that concern me?
CC: Because I’ll use it for charity.
FWP: Meaning what?
CC: I’ll use the money you give me to do good things for others.
FWP: What good things?
CC: Good things! You know, stuff to help others.
FWP: That’s rather non-specific.
CC: Don’t worry, it’s stuff you’d approve of.
FWP: Could I do those things?
CC: Well, yeah. Some of them, anyway.
FWP: Then why should I pay you to do them?
CC: (Stalks off unhappily)

     Perhaps the above isn’t a perfect schematic of the “charitable canvasser’s” appeal. After all, there are some good things I can’t do for others, by virtue of my limited resources and geographic reach. But what are they? Aren’t others attending to them? If not, why not?

     Quite a lot of money flows into charities each year. The flow intensifies as the end of the year approaches, for reasons we need not discuss. They who donate are surely hoping (at least) that some of their gifts will be used to “do good things for others.” But the percentage that actually goes to such purposes is always less than 100%. Often it’s a lot less. Moreover, the things done are not always good things.

     It doesn’t matter whether the importuning organization is religious or secular. Both are capable of squandering your donation, and both are capable of misrepresenting their activities and intentions. Neither should be presumed to be doing good things just because it claims to do so. Both are likely to be doing things that are other than good as well, whether or not you know about them.

     As your esteem for the charitable organization rises, the danger that it intends to do something it shouldn’t do – indeed, something that shouldn’t be done — rises in proportion.


     I can sound like a hardass when I tee off on this topic. Yet I’m quite sincere about it. Indeed, I consider unwise charitable giving to be one of the more important plagues – material and spiritual – of our time.

     First and foremost: While it is a Christian duty to act as the Good Samaritan did when an occasion for charity presents itself, there are conditions upon that duty.

  • You are not required to harm yourself.
  • Your obligations to your dependents must not be stinted.
  • You must not impair anyone else’s obligations to his dependents.
  • You must do no harm to anyone else.

     Much of what organized charities do is of dubious value to anyone but the organization’s paid staff. Gifts to such organizations might be used in part to help someone who needs and deserves help, but it’s virtually guaranteed that much of the money will be wasted...and some of it will cause harm to undeserving others.

     The best charity is personal. It goes to Jones, who through no fault of his own faces a significant, demonstrable need that he cannot meet out of his own labor and resources, and comes from Smith, who is a neighbor – i.e., one who is near – to Jones. Therefore Smith knows Jones’s circumstances, and can ensure that his gift will do good rather than harm.

     That highly condensed schematic of “the best charity” hides some potential complications. Quoth David L. Burkhead:

     The truth is, there are some people–not everyone, perhaps not even most, but some–who, if you provide them enough for even a basic living without their having to earn it, will accept that and make no attempt to improve their lot through their own efforts. Oh, they may complain about how hard they have it, but that complaint doesn’t motivate them to go work their way out of their situation. If anything, it’s intended to influence you to provide more of that “basic living” they’re not having to work for.

     Avoiding the creation or perpetuation of dependency is one of the desiderata of any charitable situation. Yet government “welfare” programs have turned millions into enduring dependents. While the incentive structures of private charities are unlike those of governments, the warning there should be heeded. Private actors can create dependency too. They’re most likely to do so in the absence of personal connections between benefactors and beneficiaries.

     Unwise charity is easier to fall into than one might think.


     This is on my mind just now because my parish is in the midst of a “commitment campaign.” Not to put too fine a point on it, this is a campaign to guilt-trip parishioners into putting a larger amount in the collection basket each Sunday. This is a yearly event. Seldom are the intended uses of the hoped for increase in funding made plain and specific to the private communicant.

     I’m against blindly accommodating such a call for more money. There are things the clergy and paid staff of a Catholic parish must do: promulgate the Gospels; teach the Catechism; administer the sacraments; keep watch over the more vulnerable parishioners. These jobs need not be expensive in dollar terms. There are also things the clergy and paid staff should do: foster the sense of a community of men of good will, united by our faith in Jesus Christ; encourage parishioners to be welcoming toward new arrivals; generally keep parishioners aware of local and regional developments important to themas Catholics. No more are these items that require heavy funding.

     Beyond those things lies the realm of personal initiative: what individuals can and should do as individuals for other individuals. If concerted action is desirable, the parish can provide a locus for organization. However, those who are capable are those who must act. To “hire it done” is not Christian charity. If anything, that would foster the sense that “it’s not my problem:” i.e., that by giving cash we can distance ourselves from what’s actually going on at the “sharp end.”

     Remember this Gospel event?

     Which when Jesus had heard, he retired from thence by boat, into a desert place apart, and the multitudes having heard of it, followed him on foot out of the cities. And he coming forth saw a great multitude, and had compassion on them, and healed their sick.
     And when it was evening, his disciples came to him, saying: This is a desert place, and the hour is now past: send away the multitudes, that going into the towns, they may buy themselves victuals.
     But Jesus said to them, They have no need to go: give you them to eat.
     They answered him: We have not here, but five loaves, and two fishes.
     He said to them: Bring them hither to me. And when he had commanded the multitudes to sit down upon the grass, he took the five loaves and the two fishes, and looking up to heaven, he blessed, and brake, and gave the loaves to his disciples, and the disciples to the multitudes.
     And they did all eat, and were filled. And they took up what remained, twelve full baskets of fragments. And the number of them that did eat, was five thousand men, besides women and children.

     [Matthew 14:13-21. Emphasis added, as St. Matthew was weak in HTML.]

     After Jesus blessed the disciples’ offering, He returned it to them for distribution. He wanted the offering to come from their hands, not His. And so it is with the charity Christians should do in His year of 2019.

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