My husband and I never give to street beggars or people who come to us asking for a handout, and, except for a few cases involving relatives and friends, we have not responded to individuals’ pleas for financial help.
We have various reasons for this policy. We recognize that people struggling with problems they have brought on themselves deserve help, but we often suspect that a handout would simply support deliberate idleness or perpetuate habitual misbehavior, such as compulsive gambling or the abuse of alcohol or drugs. Even when the money would be put to better uses, those seeking help may be lying about their situation and needs, so that helping them would encourage them and others to continue defrauding people. In this country, people with serious, legitimate needs usually can get help from a public agency. No one can investigate every request and identify the few cases in which his or her money would meet a real and urgent need that otherwise will go unmet. Moreover, since donations to individuals are not tax deductible, one can help more needy people by giving exclusively to qualified charitable organizations.
That is what we have been doing. Since the last of our children got out of high school, I have been selling real estate. I do well at it, and my husband’s income as a certified public accountant also has grown over the years. As our income grew and our expenses shrank, we substantially increased our donations to the parish and diocesan collections, especially those to help the poor. Then, thinking that many people in poorer countries are far more in need of the things money can buy than almost anyone in this country, we looked for other channels, and started donating to organizations that help people abroad: Catholic Relief Services, Catholic Near East Welfare Association, Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity, and Aid to the Church in Need.
This year we will donate a little over thirty percent of our income before taxes and other deductions. I am not saying this to boast; we live quite comfortably and probably should be giving more. My point is that our practice of not responding to personal requests for money has been based on the reasons stated, not on unwillingness to give.
Last month we went on a retreat that focused on the corporal works of mercy. The conferences were based on St. Luke’s Gospel and the writings of some of the Church Fathers. One central idea, which we agreed with, was that the Christian way of dealing with wealth and poverty is neither Marxist revolution nor the welfare state, but voluntary cooperation between materially needy people and those with excess wealth. The point was stressed that political approaches at best redistribute wealth in a depersonalized way, while the Christian approach transforms people and their relationships, making strangers into neighbors. It is important that the needs of the poor be met from the resources of the wealthy, the retreat master explained, but it is far more important that the poor person and the wealthy person be Christ to each other and respond to Christ in each other.
What he said next seemed to be aimed directly at us. Even Church-affiliated organizations that collect and distribute money, he said, turn charity into an impersonal financial transaction. He contrasted their methods with scriptural teaching about almsgiving in which the immediate personal relationship is uppermost. Is not the sacrifice God prefers “to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?” (Is 58.7). Refusing a face-to-face request, he said, hurtfully rejects the person making it: “Do not grieve the hungry, or anger one in need. Do not add to the troubles of the desperate, or delay giving to the needy. Do not reject a suppliant in distress, or turn your face away from the poor” (Sir 4.2–4). The retreat master also argued that it is better to be cheated occasionally, or even often, than to risk refusing someone in need: “Many refuse to lend, not because of meanness, but from fear of being defrauded needlessly. Nevertheless, be patient with someone in humble circumstances, and do not keep him waiting for your alms. Help the poor for the commandment’s sake, and in their need do not send them away empty-handed” (Sir 29.7–9). Then too, he quoted from several Church Fathers who excoriate those who refuse to help the needy person who encounters them along the road or comes to their door.
Have we been doing the right thing in rejecting personal requests and channeling our donations through organizations?
This question concerns a proposed norm requiring—or, at least, favoring—charitable giving that involves an immediate personal relationship. The Church’s practice and teaching, beginning with St. Paul, do not support the view that it is wrong to channel donations through organizations while rejecting most personal requests. The apparent support that view has in the tradition can be accounted for. Thus, the questioners’ reasons for channeling donations through organizations are acceptable, and they need not change their policy. Still, when directly responding to personal requests contributes to an immediate personal relationship, it can yield benefits unavailable or less available from giving alms to distant recipients through charitable organizations.
Few people donate as large a percentage of their income as you to charity, but probably many who are similarly sincere, though perhaps not so generous, have wondered about the question you pose. So, though people who are merely looking for an excuse to refuse personal requests do not deserve encouragement, I am happy to explore this matter.
As Jesus warns, almsgiving can be perverted by bad motives so that it is not really an act of charity (see Mt 6.1–4). Sometimes people less interested in helping others than in obtaining tax deductions assume that all the poor they meet are undeserving; on that basis, they prefer impersonal almsgiving. Occasionally, a crying need demands an immediate response (see Lk 10.29–37; Jas 2.15–16), and certain types of needy people, such as pregnant women who might be pressed to have abortions, should not be abandoned to public agencies.
But organizations that collect and distribute money to needy people do not ipso facto turn charity into an impersonal financial transaction. Organized relief has a long Christian history. Disciples in Antioch—the first people to be called “Christians”—organized a collection for the relief of believers living in Judea, and St. Paul and St. Barnabas delivered the proceeds (see Acts 11.25–30). Later, Paul organized much more extensive collections of alms from Gentile converts for delivery to Jerusalem (see Acts 24.17, Rom 15.25–28, Gal 2.10, 1 Cor 16.1–3).
In appealing to the people of Corinth for contributions, Paul makes it abundantly clear that helping distant recipients through an organized effort can be a genuinely religious and charitable act (see 2 Cor 8.1–9.15).296 He characterizes as a divine grace the Macedonians’ contribution to this organized effort (see 2 Cor 8.1; cf. 9.15), and says he administers the grace of this project for the Lord’s glory (see 2 Cor 8.19). Contributing “not only supplies the needs of the saints but also overflows with many thanksgivings to God” (2 Cor 9.12). Paul also says the collection is a “ministry to the saints” (2 Cor 8.4, 9.1) in which the donors themselves benefit (see 2 Cor 8.4–5). Contributing is an act of Christian koinonia (participation or fellowship) (see Rom 15.26–27; 2 Cor 8.4, 9.13). The collection will test and prove the Corinthians’ love, and Paul makes clear the sort of love he has in mind by referring to the supreme act of charity: Jesus’ self-sacrifice for us (see 2 Cor 8.8–9, 24).
The Church has continued what St. Paul began.297 In an encyclical calling on his brother bishops to solicit their people’s prayers and alms for the Irish people, who were afflicted with famine and disease, Pius IX asserts that he is following the example of many predecessors; he also regards as relevant, and quotes, the praise of several Church Fathers for almsgiving.298 This sort of organized charitable giving to distant recipients is regularly carried on in the Catholic Church today by various means: the Peter’s Pence collection, earmarked for charitable distribution by the Holy See, and many organizations, including those you mention, operating either directly under ecclesiastical authority or with papal and/or episcopal approval and encouragement.
Much of the Church’s modern social teaching bears on the activities of governments, businesses, and other organizations. When it deals directly with the activities of individuals and families, it encourages charitable help for people in need, and certainly does not exclude those who personally seek one’s help. But I have not found any Church teaching to support the view that charitable giving must involve an immediate personal relationship. Treating the place of almsgiving in a Christian democratic society, Leo XIII looks back to postapostolic times, when “those who embraced Christianity originated that wonderful variety of institutions for alleviating the miseries by which mankind is afflicted,” defends against socialist criticism the practice of almsgiving to alleviate immediate need, and commends as an appropriate work of charity the “establishment of permanent institutions” to help the poor.299
Therefore, though the retreat master is right in saying that meeting people’s needs for material goods is less important than that the parties be Christ to each other and respond to Christ in each other, he is mistaken in claiming that this requires an immediate personal relationship. What it requires is that alms be given to meet genuine needs and that both the giving and the receiving be acts of charity. For an organization to collect and distribute alms need not impede charity, and can in fact facilitate it, as St. Paul’s teaching makes clear.
The retreat master’s argument that refusing a face-to-face request hurtfully rejects the person also is unsound. Refusing a request, whether made face-to-face or not, rejects the one who made it only if the refusal violates love for that person—either because the request should have received a favorable response, or because the refusal is motivated by hatred, or because the manner of refusing is discourteous. However, one can decline a face-to-face request for help without violating love, and then the person is not rejected. Indeed, in refusing face-to-face requests, one sometimes can affirm those making them—for example, by directing them to some agency that can evaluate their needs and provide appropriate help.
The retreat master also seems to have misunderstood one of the Scripture passages you quote, namely: “Many refuse to lend, not because of meanness, but from fear of being defrauded needlessly. Nevertheless, be patient with someone in humble circumstances, and do not keep him waiting for your alms. Help the poor for the commandment’s sake, and in their need do not send them away empty-handed” (Sir 29.7–9). This passage’s first verse is not about almsgiving but lending, and it acknowledges the reasonableness of concern about possible fraud. The latter two verses, which are about almsgiving, assume that the need to be met is evident, so that concern about fraud is irrelevant.300
This passage and the two others you quote from the Bible do focus on direct help to someone who is present, and no doubt many passages from the Church Fathers and other reliable Christian writers have the same focus. However, such passages say nothing about almsgiving through an organization, perhaps because there were few such organizations in those days. Since they do not compare the two kinds of cases, they should not be taken to mean that almsgiving without an immediate personal relationship is defective.
Of course, various factors can give someone who personally asks for help a special claim on one’s charity. Most obvious is the special claim of family, friends, and others to whom one should be grateful for past benefits. One of the Scripture passages you quote mentions “kin,” and, other things being equal, one should prefer relatives to others when giving alms (see LCL, 309–10). Similarly, any other bond of community provides some reason for people to help one another, and that reason will be decisive when other things are equal. But other things are almost never equal. As you point out, most people in poorer countries are far needier with respect to material goods than nearly anyone in our country; and people here prepared to donate money hardly ever are directly asked for help by anyone with a need as great and urgent as that of many people who might be helped through organizations.
Moreover, in times past, factors now seldom present often made it more reasonable to respond to personal requests. Many people knew very little about the needs of anyone outside their locality; the modern media of communication have changed that. Many needy people had no recourse except to private charity; public relief and welfare programs have changed that. Most people with surplus resources regularly encountered people in evident, urgent, and desperate need; economic and social developments in affluent countries have changed that. And when most people lived in rural areas and small towns, those personally asked for help usually were acquainted with those seeking it and either knew or could verify their need; urbanization, mobility, and the complexity of the modern economy have changed that.
Then too, there could be morally bad reasons for limiting giving to persons with whom one has an immediate personal relationship. For instance, the motive might be a selfish desire for condescending emotional gratification or relief from the embarrassment and annoyance of saying no. Then too, when the needs of people far away are much greater than those close at hand, responding to the latter rather than the former can be a grave violation of one’s strict duty to make right use of one’s resources. The relative anonymity of those who receive alms from an organization also can help maintain their self-respect.
In sum, one certainly can give with genuine charity to people with whom one does not have any immediate personal relationship, and people living in affluent nations today often can reasonably judge that the greater need of poor people abroad prevails over any special claim others might have on their charity. Your reasons for not responding to personal requests for help are grounded in contemporary conditions, which differ from the conditions in times past reflected in many Christian statements that focused on direct help to someone present. Under current conditions, your policy is reasonable. So, in my judgment, you have not been doing something wrong.
Still, by directly responding to personal requests, one can achieve benefits that you and those you help through organizations entirely or largely miss out on. When a transaction establishes or enhances a worthwhile personal relationship, that bond’s specific qualities have their own, irreducible value. The direct communication facilitates the parties’ cooperation, so that the intended help can be more appropriate and effective, and therefore more satisfactory to both. The giver’s emotional involvement is likely to motivate greater generosity, not only in the quantity of goods bestowed but in their variety. The recipient is more likely to make good use of what is given and to respond with appropriate gratitude. Insofar as the relationship involves a greater exchange of spiritual goods, the giver of alms profits more and the recipient is ennobled by contributing more. Thus, the parties’ emotional bonds can stimulate and encourage their mutual good will, and so dispose them to more perfect charity.
Therefore, I suggest that you and your husband consider looking for, and even inviting, some deserving personal requests for help. In your work and other activities, and in conversations with relatives, friends, and neighbors, be alert for evident or verifiable cases of need that your help can meet and that are likely to go unmet otherwise. You could obtain the tax deduction on your help by channeling it through an appropriate qualified entity, which in some cases might be your parish or diocese. Or you might tell your pastor that you will welcome requests to help people who otherwise might do grave wrongs—for example, women who might get abortions—and donate to the parish to meet at least some such needs. Again, you might both donate to a local relief agency and participate as volunteers in its work, so that you would come to know those helped by your money.301
An alternative would be to continue directing virtually all your donations to needy people abroad, but to give through only one organization for some ongoing program in a particular place. You could then learn about that program and involve yourselves in it, beyond donating money. Eventually, you might visit the place where the program operates and develop a personal relationship with those who manage it and some of those it serves.
Provided you pursued only the genuine benefits of immediate personal relationship and avoided condescension, either of these approaches could offer most of the advantages, while avoiding most of the disadvantages, of the approach you have been using and the alternative advocated by the retreat master. However, even if you continue, and appropriately increase, your donations without in any way modifying your present policy, you can be doing genuine acts of charity. The essence of such acts is doing what is necessary to meet others’ real needs by carrying out a good intention and choice, which themselves are gifts flowing from the love of God. The immediate personal relationship that seemed not to exist in this life will perhaps be revealed later. For, as Jesus suggests, those who do good to others benefit him without realizing it: “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?” (Mt 25.37). Through the Lord we can hope to enjoy intimacy with those we love now at a distance and help through organizations.
296. On this passage, see Victor Paul Furnish, II Corinthians: Translated with Introduction, Notes, and Commentary, The Anchor Bible, 32A (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1984), 398–453.
297. Regarding this history, see M. Scaduto, “Charity, Works of,” New Catholic Encyclopedia, 3:480–97.
298. See Pius IX, Praedecessores nostros, Acta Pii IX, I, 1:32–37, PE 41.
299. See Leo XIII, Graves de communi re, ASS 33 (1900–1901) 391–93, PE 154.15–17.
300. See Alexander A. DiLella, O.F.M., The Wisdom of Ben Sira: Introduction and Commentary, The Anchor Bible, 39 (New York: Doubleday, 1987), 370–71.
301. John Paul II, Salvifici doloris, 29, AAS 76 (1984) 246, OR, 20 Feb. 1984, 8, teaches: “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.” However, though everyone should personally help others who are suffering and doing so sometimes requires almsgiving, this obligation very often is best fulfilled by personal services rather than by giving money.