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Question 96: Should a man donate to the very poor rather than to a college?

This has been an extraordinary year. In January, my wife began having problems that turned out to be symptoms of brain cancer. She died in August, leaving me to raise our six children, the eldest fifteen and the baby just over a year old. I have been making a decent living selling insurance, but the cost of hiring good help seemed to dictate a drastic cut in our standard of living. Suddenly, though, I am a wealthy man, winner of the ten-million-dollar jackpot in the October state lottery. They will pay me a half million every year for twenty years. When I learned I had won, I took a week off and went on a retreat to think about what to do. By the end of the retreat I had reached some decisions. Among them is that I will give fifty percent of each annual payment to charity. I think it only right to share this windfall with others, and, anyway, the tax collectors otherwise would take about half of it.

My first thought was to help the poorest of the poor. Most poor people in this country receive some sort of assistance, and donations to individuals and foreign charities are not tax-exempt, so I began looking into agencies based in the U.S. that help the very poor in other countries. So far, Catholic Relief Services (CRS) looks like the best channel for my purpose. It appears from an initial discussion that by working through them I could save many children from death and hopelessness by providing some extremely poor families with basic necessities and helping their children get a start in life. I would not have to pledge to continue donating to CRS year after year, but could review the matter each year and find an alternative if I had doubts about how they were using my donations.

But there is a complication. I graduated from a nearby Catholic college, to which I also plan to send my children. When the president asked to talk with me about the school’s plans for development, I agreed to see him, and he visited me a few days ago. I told him what I am thinking of doing, and he acknowledged that it would be good, but he urged me instead to help build the school’s new auditorium. Today he brought me architect’s drawings, a description of the project, and a formal request for the donation, together with documents ready for me to review and, he hopes, sign. Some funds already have been raised for the project. If I make an irrevocable commitment to donate the quarter-million dollars annually for twenty years, the college could get advantageous financing and start construction in a few months.

The school does need the new auditorium. The gymnasium makes a poor auditorium; and many guest lectures and some other events have been in the chapel, but the new chaplain says it should not be used for anything but liturgy, devotions, and sacred music. An auditorium with proper lighting and backstage facilities also would make it possible for the college to expand its performing arts programs and related extracurricular activities. There is no similar facility in the area, so the auditorium could be rented out often enough to cover its operating costs and maintenance.

Having kept in touch with the college over the years, I know that, while far from perfect, it has stayed more Catholic than most. This president has made a number of changes for the better. For instance, he replaced the dean of students and tightened the rules for dormitory life. He also got the bishop to appoint the new chaplain, a middle-aged priest who is orthodox but personable, extremely hardworking, and very good with young people. The president even has managed to get rid of several nontenured faculty members, including two in theology who openly dissented from the Church’s moral teaching and whose replacements openly support it.

The idea of giving the money for the auditorium appeals to me. If I commit to it, the project can be completed within three years, by the time my eldest child begins her first year at the college, and the building would be dedicated as a memorial to my wife. I also would be given a seat on the college’s board of directors. Still, I am not sure what to do. An auditorium, no matter how needed it may be, will not save anyone’s life, and it seems I would be paying for an auditorium at the cost of human lives. Jesus told us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and shelter the homeless, not provide facilities for colleges whose students are not and never have been hungry, naked, or homeless.

You will appreciate that I’ve never confronted anything like this before. What do you think I should do?


This question calls for the derivation and application of a norm regarding the use of surplus resources to meet others’ needs. Anyone with such resources should select a beneficiary who cannot meet a genuine need without help and whose need will not be met excessively with the help to be given. The possibility that hoped-for benefits will not be realized also should be considered. In light of these considerations, the questioner might conclude that he ought to try to help the very poor rather than the college. If not, his concern that the subsistence needs of the very poor may demand preference over others’ need for education is not decisive. Therefore, if he judges after due inquiry and reflection that giving to Catholic Relief Services and to the college would both be good, he must discover which God is calling him to do by discerning which is more appropriate for him—though it might be even more appropriate that he develop an option for simultaneously helping both the college and the very poor.

The reply could be along the following lines:

Despite your conscientious effort—unusual, but entirely appropriate—to discover your responsibility for using the lottery prize, someone might argue that, lacking true charity, you are ungenerous and selfish in being concerned about the tax implications of the possible donations and about your personal connections with the college. In fact, however, the former concern shows that you really care about the well-being of those in need, to whom you would have less to give if you paid more taxes than you must. Only if one believed the government likely to make better use of one’s surplus money than those to whom one might give it would it be reasonable to ignore possible tax breaks, and in that case one should donate all one’s surplus wealth to the government. As for your concern about your involvement with the college, far from evidencing selfishness, it is entirely compatible with genuine charity toward those to whom you are closely bound. To disregard such special ties, especially those with your family, would be incompatible with charity (see LCL, 309–10).

While your problem is unique, anyone with surplus resources that should be used to meet others’ needs faces a similar problem. Resources are limited, and apparent unmet needs are virtually endless. To identify suitable beneficiaries, several questions must be answered.

Is an apparent need genuine? People do not have genuine needs for everything they want or think they need. Genuine needs are marked out by the basic human goods, which are intelligible reasons for action, considered as the object of a will toward integral human fulfillment (see LCL, 801). So, genuine needs refers not only to the basic necessities but to the less obvious yet real needs for religious, moral, and cultural goods. What genuine excludes are mere objects of emotional desire and anything that would be obtained, used, or enjoyed sinfully. On this basis, one should not meet needs artificially created by advertising or a revolutionary’s need for weapons to be employed in terroristic attacks on innocent persons.

Could the need be met adequately by the effort and parsimony of the individual or group who will be benefited? One should help those who cannot sufficiently help themselves, not those whose need results from ongoing unwillingness to do what they can and should be doing. On this basis, St. Paul points out: “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat” (2 Thes 3.10).

Will the help one might give meet the need adequately and moderately, or more than adequately and, perhaps, extravagantly or luxuriously? Adequacy and moderation are specified by the precise need to be met. Concerns about comfort and convenience can lead to excess, and the influence of mixed, nonrational motives often results in extravagance and luxury. For instance, one should not supply a few hungry people with choice and expensive food rather than many with a palatable diet or provide one institution with sumptuous facilities rather than several with serviceable ones.

Plainly, the needs of the very poor that you could try to meet by donating to Catholic Relief Services are genuine; even with your help, those needs would be met only moderately. The needs of the college’s students and others for education also are genuine. The auditorium’s intended uses presumably would help meet those needs, though some incidental uses of the building probably would be bad ones. Presumably, too, the students and their parents, who would be the main beneficiaries of your donations, cannot afford the whole cost of the students’ education. Your judgment is that the auditorium really is needed, and presumably it would be serviceable, not sumptuous.

Of course, on further inquiry and reflection, you might come to think that most of the genuine needs to be served by the auditorium probably could be met, though less conveniently and pleasantly, with existing facilities or improvements to them funded by a tuition increase. By contrast, the needs to be met by Catholic Relief Services might come to seem more exigent and the potential beneficiaries more clearly deserving of your help. Moreover, committing yourself irrevocably to giving the college money annually for twenty years would involve considerable risk. The present president may not remain in office; laws affecting religiously oriented colleges may change; and for these or other reasons the school might deteriorate in respect to its Catholic commitment or otherwise, perhaps so drastically that you would rather not support it or send your children to it. Considering all these things, you might conclude that, with people dying of hunger and malnutrition, building the auditorium either would be an indulgent extravagance or would offer insufficiently certain benefits or both. If that is your conclusion, it would be unreasonable to accept the president’s proposal in place of your tentative plan to help the very poor.

But perhaps, having carefully considered all the relevant facts, you will conclude that both sets of needs are genuine, each project would attempt to meet needs moderately, both potential sets of beneficiaries are deserving, and the risk involved in donating to the college is acceptable. In what follows I shall respond on the assumption that you will reach that conclusion. Also, I shall take it for granted that fairness and Christian mercy require using surplus resources to meet others’ genuine needs (see LCL, 780–82, 789–92, 800–806, 811–14).

But does any reason require you to prefer trying to meet the needs of the poorest of the poor? It might be argued that subsistence needs should take priority over others, such as the needs for education and wholesome entertainment, and you therefore should prefer to donate to Catholic Relief Services. Indeed, you articulate that argument in tentatively judging that you would be financing the auditorium’s benefits at the cost of human lives, and you theologically support that tentative conclusion by invoking Jesus’ teaching.

Subsistence needs sometimes do deserve priority, because remaining alive is a necessary condition for participating in many other human goods. Thus, an individual has a strong reason to try first to meet his or her own subsistence needs, and a family or other tight-knit community whose members are united in solidarity by biological ties or other close bonds, has an analogous reason for preferring to meet its members’ subsistence needs. For example, suppose a family expects to meet many religious, moral, and cultural needs of all its members, provided all survive, but a famine threatens the very survival of some. In such a case, everyone in the family should put aside other concerns for a time and devote the family’s resources to ensuring the survival of all.

Sometimes, however, subsistence needs do not deserve priority. For example, meeting in moderate ways the religious, moral, and cultural needs of one’s own children takes priority over feeding someone else’s, even if the latter are starving; parents are not free to be merciful at their children’s expense. Moreover, Jesus defended the action of a woman who anointed him against criticism that the costly ointment should have been sold to help the poor (see Mk 14.3–9), and Christians surely may support missionary activity rather than feed the starving. In all such cases, the fundamental reason why other needs may be preferred is that meeting diverse genuine needs contributes in incommensurable ways to the well-being and fulfillment of persons, so that the choice to meet any genuine need is the willing of at least some person’s good—which is an act of love—and the meeting of any one sort of genuine need is not in and of itself better and more loving than the meeting of another.

Moreover, even if the money you could donate to Catholic Relief Services would save the lives of people who otherwise would die, you will not finance the auditorium’s benefits at the cost of those lives by giving the money to the college instead. You neither will have willed those people to die—for example, by choosing to kill them as a means to some other end—nor judged their lives of less worth than the benefits of the auditorium. You only will have reluctantly accepted their deaths as a side effect of promoting the other good. And, provided you can choose that other good fairly, you need not be unreasonable in choosing it—not as better, but simply as the irreplaceable good it is. (This is on the assumption—I repeat—that you have concluded after careful consideration that both sets of needs are genuine, that each of the projects would attempt to meet one of them moderately, that both potential sets of beneficiaries are deserving, and that the risk involved in donating to the college is not too great.)

True, Jesus taught about meeting the subsistence needs of the poor, not about providing facilities for colleges. But colleges as we know them did not exist in New Testament times. The opportunities for advanced education, which were quite limited, generally were available only to the wealthy. The charitable works Jesus mentions are clear-cut examples relevant in every culture and historical epoch. But tradition has not regarded Jesus’ list as exhaustive or exclusive of other possibilities, so that, besides meeting the bodily needs of the poor, Christians have been exhorted to perform so-called spiritual works of mercy, including instructing the ignorant (see CCC, 2447).

Still, the Golden Rule requires that, other things being equal, one use surplus resources in ways that more clearly and certainly will meet genuine needs of deserving people in a moderate way. In my judgment, then, one reasonably donates money, other things being equal, to a trustworthy agency to feed the starving rather than to a college to add to its facilities.

Other things are not equal, however, in the alternatives you are considering. You already have some special ties with the college; you are an alumnus and hope to use it for educating your children; the building would be a memorial to your wife; and your appointment to the board, in response to your donation, would enable you to participate in directing the college toward its good purpose. Though these considerations could appeal to mere sentiment or even to vanity, they also refer to intelligible goods, and your clearheaded reflection and evident desire to make the right choice indicate that you regard these goods as reasons for accepting the president’s proposal.

Therefore, on the assumptions explained previously, you could rightly choose to donate the money for the new auditorium, just as you certainly also could rightly carry out your tentative plan to donate it to Catholic Relief Services. If both options would be morally good choices for you, however, nobody can say you should choose this one or that. To learn God’s will, you must consider both options prayerfully and discern which is appropriate for you (see LCL, 291–93).

But I suggest you also consider some additional options. For example, you might divide your donation, evenly or unevenly, between Catholic Relief Services and the college. That might not make it possible for the college to start building the auditorium at once, but it would help with the project or otherwise provide students with significant benefits.

Again, you might consider giving the whole donation to the college, not for an auditorium, but for one or more programs that also would help the poor: a new program of studies to prepare generous and dedicated young people to carry out some kind of service to the poor, or a fund to help some very needy, academically promising young people attend the college. You probably could help the college in ways like these while making it more likely that your donations would bring about genuine benefits for deserving individuals in a moderate way. Indeed, you probably could become acquainted with those whose studies your donations subsidized, and you might be able to give them your personal, fatherly guidance and encouragement. Such an option also might have the advantage of not involving any irrevocable commitment to continue your donations, regardless of changes in the college. And your contribution could still serve as a memorial to your wife, and perhaps would still bring you a seat on the board, which I trust you would use, not for mere self-aggrandizement, but to promote the college’s continuing improvement.