TOC Previous Next A+A-Print


Question 39: May a gangster’s sister accept his money for her college expenses?

There are no Catholic schools where we live, but our parish director of religious education, Mrs. Lindsey, has been taking my class through the Catechism of the Catholic Church during the past two years. She has been telling us how much better it is than the teaching that is common in most Catholic colleges and schools. The Catholic university where Mrs. Lindsey got her master’s degree is one of the few, she says, where Church teachings are treated with the respect they deserve. I want to go there to college after I finish high school this year. I think the Lord may be calling me to try to do for other teenagers what Mrs. Lindsey has been doing for me.

Money is the problem. I am the fourth child, and the first girl, in a family of eight. My parents never finished high school, and we are not well off. Everyone works who is at home and old enough, but we just get by. We have no savings, and my parents will not be able to help me with college. My high school record and test scores are very good, but the university has few full scholarships. The financial aid office has put together a package for me, but even with the grants and loans, a partial scholarship, and the maximum I can earn under the work-study program, it still falls almost five thousand dollars short of what I need for the first year.

Paul, my eldest brother, belongs to some sort of criminal organization. The police have arrested him many times but never held him long. We do not know exactly what he does. In high school he worked part time at a trucking company, and soon after he graduated he said the company’s owner had given him a much better job. Suddenly Paul had plenty of money—a thick stack of hundred dollar bills that never seemed to get thinner. Dad and Mom were happy at first, but they soon began to worry about how he could be earning so much. They caught on when some men demanded that Mom’s sister pay protection money for her pizza shop; Paul told her he’d take care of it, and the men didn’t come back. Mom asked him if he had become a racketeer; he always had trouble lying to her, and didn’t deny it. Dad tried to talk him into quitting and looking for an honest job, but he refused and moved out. Since then, Mom and Dad have not accepted or let us accept anything from him except the small presents we’ve always exchanged for birthdays and at Christmas.

Still, Paul keeps in touch, and I often chat with him when he calls. He is proud of how well I’ve been doing in school, and he asked me about my plans for college. I probably should not have told him about my money problem, but he had more or less figured it out. When I said I would need almost five thousand dollars for the first year alone, he said he would give me six, so that I would have some spending money.

Dad and Mom don’t want me to take any of it, and I would not disobey them. But I talked with Mrs. Lindsey, and she came over and talked with the three of us. She thinks the question for me is not obedience but conscience—I must judge for myself whether it would be right to take Paul’s money. Since Dad and Mom respect Mrs. Lindsey and think she is a good person, they accepted what she said about obedience. But while Mrs. Lindsey is not sure what I ought to do, Dad and Mom are still sure none of us should take Paul’s money.

If it would not be wrong for me to take it, I think I should. But would it be wrong? Also, if I should not take it as a gift, could I accept it as a loan that I would pay back when I could? Mrs. Lindsey advised me to pray and seek advice, and she mentioned two people, one of them you. I have been praying. Can you help me figure out what to do?


This questioner’s problem is similar to a problem about cooperation, though accepting her brother’s money would not involve cooperating with his wrong-doing. Not knowing exactly what her brother does, the questioner might be justified in taking money from him if she were in dire need. But she is not. Despite having a genuine need for the money offered by her brother, the prospective bad moral side effects strongly argue against accepting it. The bad effects would be somewhat mitigated if she ruled out future gifts and accepted only the money her brother now offers. If she does accept money from him, she probably should not treat it as either a loan or a simple gift, but as money for her to use temporarily but eventually to donate to charity.

The reply could be along the following lines:

If you knew Paul was offering you stolen or extorted money, you could not accept it to keep or spend, but only to return to those from whom it was wrongly taken. Not knowing exactly what your brother does, though, you cannot know that the money he has belongs to others, and you could not return it if it does. Still, you know it comes from immoral and illegal activities, perhaps including homicide, traffic in drugs, stealing, prostitution, smuggling goods and persons, and illicit gambling. You know he ought not to have the money and should stop doing whatever he does to get it.

Even so, it would not be wrong to accept money from Paul under certain circumstances. The evil he does to get it has been done. He will do something with the money, and he could use it in more wrongdoing, which would be worse than giving it to you. If you were in dire need—for example, if your very life depended on it—you would have a compelling reason to accept his tainted money and might well do so blamelessly.

You certainly have a good reason for wishing to go to college at the university you have selected—doing that would be an appropriate response to what you think is your vocation. You have a genuine need for the five thousand dollars, and I agree that, if you may accept Paul’s offer, you should. But since your need for the money is not overwhelming, your question really is difficult.

Why not take the money you need from Paul? For his sake, your own sake, your other brothers’ sake, and your parents’ sake.

You ought to be encouraging Paul to repent—not necessarily by harping on repentance, but by making it clear that, while you will always love him as your big brother, you disapprove of his life of crime and hope he will give it up. But how can you do that if you accept his money? You would be helping him rationalize: “What I do is helping my sister get an education, and I certainly could not do that, and other good things I shall do eventually, if I gave up my present source of income. Besides, by helping my sister prepare to serve the Church, I am paying the taxes I owe God on my ill-gotten income.” Now he will have a sense of righteous purpose to confirm him in his wrongdoing, and he will be less likely to heed, or even experience, the salutary pangs of conscience that might move him to repent.

Taking his money also would be dangerous for you. You should hope his crimes and those of his associates will be detected, proved, and punished, since that at least would limit the injuries they do to many individuals and society at large. And you should wish Paul to repent and be ready to do what you can to encourage that. But how could you hope for these things if you accept his money? The danger to you would be especially great if you accepted it not once but repeatedly, since looking to him to meet your ongoing need for money would motivate you to will that he could do it—to will that he continue committing whatever crimes he is being paid to commit. That would not make you his legal accomplice, but in your heart you would be his moral partner. Besides, those involved in organized crime seldom give anyone something for nothing. Eventually, Paul or his associates might well demand that you become an accomplice in some wrongful activity.

Taking his money would be bad for your other brothers. It would make Paul’s way of life seem less bad and more attractive. It would blur the alternative you should offer them: a life of perfect integrity, rooted in faith and confidence in God, who takes care of those who seek first his kingdom and righteousness.

These reasons for not taking the money are, no doubt, similar to or part of your parents’ reasons for refusing to accept, or allow you and the other children to accept, anything from Paul except small presents. By their silent admonition, which speaks loudly because of the family’s need, they have powerfully expressed their horror at Paul’s wrongdoing, and done their best to move him to repent. They have kept themselves clear of that wrongdoing, maintained their own integrity, and protected you and your brothers from the lure of evil. They are convinced you should not take Paul’s money. While I agree that you do not owe them a child’s obedience in this matter—you no longer are a child and you would use the money for your education as an adult—you do owe your parents a family member’s support (see LCL, 714–16). But how supportive will you be if you depart from their policy?

I think the four preceding considerations, taken together, will convince you it would be wrong to plan to get—or wish to receive—money from Paul, year after year, until you complete your education. But what about accepting his offer just this once? Firmly excluding ongoing aid would mitigate the bad consequences of taking his tainted money, but not eliminate them. Nor would it be likely to solve your problem; unless you find some other source of support, you still would not have enough to continue your education beyond the first year. Then too, you very likely would be tempted to go back on your resolution and accept Paul’s money again and again.

If you nevertheless come to the contrary conclusion—that you may (and so should) accept Paul’s money just this once—it seems to me you should not take more than the five thousand dollars you need, and should not accept even that as either a simple gift or a loan. True, accepting it as a loan would mitigate some of the bad consequences of accepting it as a simple gift. But repaying Paul probably would not help him unless his criminal activity had ceased. Rather, if you accept anything from him, I think it would be preferable to tell him, and firmly commit yourself to it, that you will not regard the money as your own but will pass it on, as soon as you reasonably can, to some appropriate charity. In this way, the bad consequences of taking his money would be mitigated still more, while the money would thus become alms, which you could offer with prayers for Paul’s repentance and the well-being of those injured by his crimes.

If you conclude, as I am inclined to think you should, that you must not even once accept from Paul the money you need, try to get it elsewhere. The president of the university or dean of the college you wish to attend probably has some fund that could be used to meet your need. I suggest you meet with them or at least write to them, and ask them for the five thousand dollars. Give them the reasons to respond favorably: your motives for wishing to come to their school and your money problem. Again, you could approach your pastor or someone else who might have the money or know how to get it. The request for help would not be unreasonable, particularly since you hope to be a catechist—that is, to exercise the ministry of religious education, which is vital to the Church.

If you fail to get the money despite your best efforts, do not give up on continuing your education. Perhaps you could begin your college work, at least on a part-time basis, at a local community college or nearby campus of the state university. And perhaps Mrs. Lindsey could provide you with reading lists and other helps to continue your Catholic intellectual formation. Or perhaps you could find full-time work for a while, and even work more than one job, so that you could contribute to your family and save enough to go to college eventually.

No matter what, continue to pray, and do not suppose you cannot fulfill your vocation. God never asks the impossible, and he always can make possible what he wants of us. If you do your best but moral considerations prevent you from doing what you thought God wanted, be sure he did not want it and your vocation lies elsewhere. Humbly seek it, meekly accept it, faithfully live it. That will bring you to heaven, where the poor will enjoy well-gotten wealth.