Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Personal Nature of Charitable Giving

My in-laws were up from Florida visiting for the week and I got to spend quite a bit of time with my father-in-law. I have often referenced my father-in-law on this blog; he is an fundamentalist Protestant and often provides me with a lot of fodder to delve into on here. This weekend, however, as we went out to breakfast at a local diner, we had a really great conversation in which we were both in general agreement. This conversation was about the state of charitable giving in America, both Protestant and Catholic.

My father-in-law was pointing out that, in the parable of the Prodigal Son, the son is enabled to live a licentious lifestyle so long as he has money to blow:

The younger son, gathering all together, went abroad into a far country: and there wasted his substance, living riotously (Luke 15:13).

However, it is only when his money is gone, and furthermore, when nobody was found that would give to him, that the son repented and returned home:

And he would fain have filled his belly with the husks the swine did eat; and no man gave unto him. And returning to himself, he said: How many hired servants in my father's house abound with bread, and I here perish with hunger? I will arise, and will go to my father (Luke 15:16-18).

Notice how it is immediately following the statement that "no man gave unto him" that the son returned to his senses? My father-in-law took this and made the case that perhaps when we give to the poor we are actually enabling their poverty by creating dependency. Perhaps, he said, it would be better to not give to them, or to only do so conditionally, and to allow them to get to the point where "no man gave unto them" and hopefully bring about a conversion.

Well, I could not fully agree with this line of thinking, which to me sounded too much like changing the Gospel to suit the palate of American conservatism.

I pointed out that the command to feed the poor is universal and without restraint, even if you are taken advantage of ("If someone takes your coat, give him your cloak as well"); furthermore, I reminded him that the parable of the Prodigal Son is meant to be a story about the Father's forgiveness and mercy, not a blueprint for how we are to treat homeless people. The command to reach out and help the poor trumps any concerns we might have about the social impact of charitable giving. Certainly there are prudent and imprudent ways to give, but everybody agrees that we must give. Also, who are we to decide when someone "needs" to hit rock bottom? I leave that to God.

He agreed with these qualifiers, I think, but it got me to thinking about the nature of charitable giving, dependency, cycles of poverty (especially in light of our current President and the looming welfare state he endeavors to establish). Even though I don't adopt my father-in-law's thinking here, I agree with him in that I think the manner in which charitable giving is carried out can breed dependency and a welfare mentality.

Almost all of our major charitable giving today, in the Church or the world, is carried out by institutions; St. Vincent de Paul, Salvation Army, Meals on Wheels, Charity Motors, Purple Heart, etc. These institutions exist because they can gather resources and distribute them to the poor with much greater efficiency than could any one individual.

Though this is in itself a good, it leads to two negatives: (1) Christians end up not giving to the poor directly but giving to an organization which then gives to the poor (2) The process of charitable giving becomes institutionalized; i.e., it becomes subject to the same shortcomings as any bureaucracy, because it is no longer people giving but a "system" which is "distributing" aid.

Consider this: all of the corporal works of mercy in the Scriptures are very personal acts. Feeding the poor; clothing the naked; giving drink to the thirsty; visiting the imprisoned, etc. These are all very human acts that require person-to-person contact and an element of compassion. Perhaps we are giving in a bit too much to our American pragmatism and focusing too extensively on the end alone: "Who cares how they get the aid? The important thing is that they get it!"

But is the end really all the matters in charitable giving? When Christ commands us to succor the poor, is He saying this simply because it is the most expedient means of getting aid to poverty stricken persons, or is there perhaps another reason for this, one that has to do with the compassion and person-to-person interaction involved in any work of mercy?

When we perform a corporal work of mercy, we see the humanity of the other - we make a real human connection. In doing so, if we are spiritually minded, we can also discern the presence of Christ. This is very valuable; almost as important as the actual deed itself. Caring for the poor is an extension of the command to love all men and is meant to be an act of compassion and personal charity.

In other words, the command to care for the poor is about us as much as it is the poor.

How does this change when we run our giving through an organization? Well, the poor may still get the aid, but the human element is completely siphoned out. Now you never see the poor person, or the hungry person. You write a check from your kitchen table, pop it in an envelope and get a nice bi-monthly pamphlet explaining how your money is being put to work. That's better than nothing, but have you really learned compassion as much if, say, you would have had to literally clothe a naked person or feed the hungry physically? The human-contact element is gone.

This also puts the giver in the dangerous place of feeling like he has fulfilled Christ's mandates because he has written some checks. I'm not saying the checks aren't important, but I am asking whether or not charitable giving through third parties kind of sucks the spiritual value out of the act somewhat - while the poor still get fed, we don't get to interact with them on a personal level.

In the old days, the medieval kings used to fill their halls with beggars and feed them or sometimes (as is told of St. Louis IX) personally put a gold coin in each of their hands. The modern scoffs and asks, "How does giving one beggar a gold coin address the underlying issues of poverty?" I say, "By reminding the king that he, too, is but a man, equal in dignity with the very least." At least much more so than a president ordering a grant for $1 billion to some UN fund or something...

Once I had a friend who was hurting financially. He needed assistance with his mortgage payments. We were talking with a third friend about the problem, when my third friend pulled out his checkbook and wrote the man a check for $500, no strings attached. My friend was flabbergasted that another just so easily handed him a check, with no means of expecting it back. He was profusely thankful, and I think my other friend won some serious treasure in heaven for the act.

Not everybody can do that - but how different is that from what could have happened: my friend could have pulled out a business card and referred the other to some aid organization where his "case" would have been processed bureaucratically: fill out these forms, interview with this "case worker," get some contact info, start your "file", etc. etc. Everything spiritually vivifying about the work is lost.

One more thought: third party giving can turn the charitable works into bureaucratic systems, and like any system they are capable of being "played." Sometimes these organizations do create a dependency in people, as they go from organization to organization, knowing they can get their weekly ration of bread and noodles here, their soaps and hygiene products there, their free dinner over at that place, etc. We all know of people who have played the charity system this way. Because they are coming to get their food not from a person immediately but from an institution who disburses it, there is less gratitude and no chance for the giver to make a connection with the poor.

If we all simply watched out for one another and took the corporal works of mercy to be models for behavior in a very personal and immediate sense, I think things would be a lot different. Sure, we need big organizations to get food and aid to out of the way places, but we can't let these organizations exhaust our charity - nor can we think of giving solely in terms of sending money to some group who then disburses it at their discretion. To do so promotes unhealthy dependence on charity and makes what is supposed to be a very personal act into another administrative action of some bureaucracy.


Christian said...

Wouldn't you say that organized charity can also be an occasion of sin for both parties, for the poors who are tempted to abuse this faceless bureaucracy, and for the givers who are tempted to despise the poors for abusing it? It seems that only individuals and the Church can give to the ones in need without inducing temptations. For me, it's clear that you can't have true peace, charity and love outside of Christ. Even good intentions produce evil results when Christ is not present. Without him, "we can't do anything."

Boniface said...


I would say you are right that they can be an occasion of sin for both parties, for the reasons you elaborated. I don't think this need be the case, or that organized third-party giving is necessarily bad or anything - it is just not as good as direct giving. Also, there are many people who do not abuse the system, and many workers in the system who genuinely care about the other.

Nevertheless, I think the critique I made in the post remains valid.

Jeffrey Pinyan said...

Regarding the human interaction in caring for the poor, I recently re-read Pope John Paul II's Salvifici Doloris, where he says, among other things:

Here we come to the enormous importance of having the right attitudes in education. The family, the school and other education institutions must, if only for humanitarian reasons, work perseveringly for the reawakening and refining of that sensitivity towards one's neighbour and his suffering of which the figure of the Good Samaritan in the Gospel has become a symbol. Obviously the Church must do the same. She must even more profoundly make her own—as far as possible—the motivations which Christ placed in his parable and in the whole Gospel. The eloquence of the parable of the Good Samaritan, and of the whole Gospel, is especially this: every individual must feel as if called personally to bear witness to love in suffering. The institutions are very important and indispensable; nevertheless, no institution can by itself replace the human heart, human compassion, human love or human initiative, when it is a question of dealing with the sufferings of another. This refers to physical sufferings, but it is even more true when it is a question of the many kinds of moral suffering, and when it is primarily the soul that is suffering. (SD 29)

He draws from the Good Samaritan and the Sheep and the Goats to point out, as you did, that in ministering to the poor (or any one who is suffering), we are ministering to Christ and fulfilling Christ's call to us to be neighbor to the suffering.

CO said...


Very good.

Don't forget that charity has both a "feed the poor" and a "teach to fish" component. Involuntary "charity" satisfies neither while actively harming the latter.


sarahraegraham said...

Have you read Marvin Olasky's The Tragedy of American Compassion? Much more political than spiritual, but it espouses the same general ideas. I'm currently pursuing a degree in social work, however I have no intent on working for an institution or state agency. I hope to use the knowledge and internship experiences to help me live the Gospel call in everyday life, not for the purpose of employment. While the argument can absolutely be made that institutions are, if not necessary, at least valuable, I believe they have begun to do more harm than good. The more we become aware of the widespread and global nature of the social ills of our time, we want to help, but we can't help everyone, so we allow these institutions to do the job to assuage our guilt, even if subconsciously. That's my opinion, anyway. I'd rather get back to the "little way". I think there's much more good to be done, at least with eternity in mind.

Unknown said...

I live in Brazil.When I first came here I was a typical soft-hearted European and gave money to everyone that asked. I also employed a maid. One day a perfectly able-bodied beggar came to the door and I gave her some money and my maid was furious with me saying that her life had also been extremely difficult but she worked for her money and didn't beg or steal. This shocked me and I began to question my assumptions
After this I only give money to physically handicapped people .
Many beggars receive more money than people who work. The difference is that the people that work are ashamed to beg. Am I wrong in refusing to give shameless, able-bodied adults money? Am I wrong to refuse to give to feckless women who have lots of children outside marriage and then use then to ask for money?
Didn't Jesus specify many times to give to widows and orphans who presumably had no other means of sustenance? I thought St. Paul had said that those who didn't work shouldn't eat.
I would compare this with the Welfare State . My father was a miner and he had 7 children but he would have died rather than go on the dole. Now many people in Britain have absolutely no shame about living on benefits and there are people who have not worked for three generations. It has come to the stage where you are regarded as an idiot for working.
Didn't St.Paul say we should work for what we eat? Didn't Boaz leave Ruth the gleanings but she had to gather them herself. I remember reading somewhere that the worse thing you could do to the dignity of a man was give him money without him working for it.
I have a small business and I took the risk and invested my own money which I could easily have lost and worked all hours to get the business started. I have provided 8 direct jobs and I don't know how many indirect jobs for people. I pay my employees the market rate and all the social security payments and a months holiday a year.
Surely, what I have done is just as beneficial so for society than giving away other peoples money ?
My employees have been able to build their own houses,raise their children, pay for studies because I took risks and thanks to God's Divine Providence I was successful. I am not rich by any means.

Boniface said...


You're giving is just what we need - personal giving, not funding for organizations and agencies who distribute aid in a mechanistic, impersonal and bureaucratic way. Everybody has to follow their own conscience about whom to give to, but I would submit to you that just because a man may be "able bodied" doesn't mean he is "refusing" to work - St. Paul was referring to Christians living in the community who were intentionally mooching off the charity of others, not homeless people. Some are healthy enough but just cannot find work - and can you tell them apart from the moochers when they stop you on the street? It is very difficult, and probably easier to just be charitable to all - "Give to all who ask of you," says our Lord. God will judge them if they ask amiss.

Hans Georg Lundahl said...

I have the principle not to ask when I can get money for something I do and do well. While my singing voice functioned (before flues), and in places where I found a place worth singing in, I sang.

I write essays and compositions, with the hope of being printed and played. A hope that is not exclusive motive, nor as bright as it used to shine.

I have made dispositions so that juridically anyone can already print and sell my essays or print out and play my scanned scores.

= short links for conditions.

Now, I live among Catholics some of whom agree too much with your Protestant Father in Law, and think they are, excepting soup kitchens, doing me a favour by not giving and by pretending my writings and conditions were no work, just so much idiocy and excuses for begging, and hoping when no ones gives "I will get to my senses" from being "alcoholic", "drug addict", "porn addict", "internet addict" (whatever that means), "freedom fetishist" (whatever that means), et c.

Perhaps they count me as a pedophile for saying 14/12 is still an appropriate age for marriage and for hoping myself to get a much younger girl than myself (though not exactly 12).

Perhaps they count me as mad or a bad joker for considering Geocentrism to be no disobedience to §18 of Providentissimus Deus, and a better explanation for some miracles.

Either way, I could use someone abroad to break the dead-lock and start either printing my essays or playing my music for money and sending me some.

Unfortunately this is not an April Fools joke, since I already had mine on a FB status as saying "let's celebrate atheism".

You might enjoy some stuff on this blog somewhere else.