A member of the Secret Info Club writes:
I’ve been a Bible-believing Protestant for thirty years and I am seriously looking at becoming Catholic. I have an important question regarding the Catholic Church’s teaching on wealth and giving.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states:
2446 “Not to enable the poor to share in our goods is to steal from them and deprive them of life. The goods we possess are not ours, but theirs. The demands of justice must be satisfied first of all; that which is already due in justice is not to be offered as a gift of charity.”
“When we attend to the needs of those in want, we give them what is theirs, not ours. More than performing works of mercy, we are paying a debt of justice.”
Jimmy, would you please clarify what the Church’s teaching is? My wife and I give a lot to the poor and to ministries, but I also belong to a golf club and we have cable TV and sometimes take a vacation and stay in a hotel.
Is the Catechism teaching that Catholics should not have these “goods,” that it is wrong to have luxuries like being a member of a golf club or cable TV? If I don’t give away all my superfluous goods, anything above what is needed, to meet the needs of the starving, am I in mortal sin? Or is this talking about personally seeing a starving man and turning away from him?
I’ll be happy to do what I can. Let’s get started . . .
A Debt of Justice
Let’s start by the Catechism’s statement that in performing works of mercy like giving to those in need we are paying a debt of justice.
The basis for that statement involves the fact that God gave the earth and its resources to mankind to care for our needs. The Church refers to this as the “universal destination” of the goods God has given us.
He has also structured human nature so that we are social beings who are meant to care for one another. If someone is in need, the rest of us have an obligation to do what we can to help him out.
It therefore would be contrary to human nature and to the universal destination of the goods God has given us to knowingly and deliberately allow a person to starve to death when we can reasonably prevent that. (The same applies to allowing other basic needs to remain unmet, but let’s stick with starving to death, because it is a clear case.)
Because it would be contrary to human nature and God’s universal destination for the resources of the earth, it would be unjust to just let someone starve to death.
Since death is a grave matter, to knowingly and deliberately allow it to occur when it could be reasonably be prevented would amount to a mortal sin. (Grave matter and adequate knowledge and deliberate consent being the conditions needed for mortal sin.)
Thus it is reasonable to describe helping starving people as a debt of justice and to describe failing to do so (under the conditions specified) as a mortal sin.
But let’s dig a little deeper . . .
What Counts as Reasonable?
You’ll note that I specified that letting someone starve to death whe it could be reasonably prevented. This is because there are some situations in which there is no reasonable way to prevent it.
For example, if the only way to prevent one person from starving to death were to take food from another person so that he starves to death then there is no reasonable way to prevent the first person from starving.
We are not obliged to save one person from starving at the price of causing another person to starve.
So we must ask the question of what counts as reasonable.
Here there can be a temptation toward what the Church refers to as scrupulosity, or excessive worry about whether something is sinful.
It is easy for us to imagine doing more than we are to help the poor. We can, for example, imagine working super-hard, making lots of money, keeping for ourselves only the amount needed to barely ensure our survival, and donating every spare penny to the relief of the poor.
Are we obliged to do this?
Here’s one way to show that , , ,
The Rule Cannot Be Generalized
If a rule cannot be generalized to everyone then it cannot represent a general obligation that everyone has.
So what if everyone tried to obey the rule just proposed? What if everyone worked super-hard to make money, kept only a survival-level amount, and donated the rest? What would happen?
For a start, if everyone tried to do this, how would we be making money in the first place? Where would the money come from? Suppose your skill is making widgets. In order to make money, you need to sell widgets. But if everyone is buying only the amount of necessities that they absolutely need to survive, then you will only be able to sell subsistence-level amounts of widgets–if the widgets you seel are even necessary for survival. If not, you won’t be able to sell any widgets.
The market for widgets (and all goods and services) would shrink dramatically–catastrophically–thus stopping you (and everyone else) from being able to make the money that you want to donate to the poor.
Trying to apply the proposed rule would thus effectively destroy the economy and reduce those who are not presently poor to a state of poverty.
What would happen to the former poor?
They would receive a short-term infusion of cash (or food, or other goods and services), but then this resource would dry up as the former world economy crashed.
Without economic infrastructure in place in the developed world, the former poor would not be able to manage the wealth suddenly transferred to them or instantly get a new economy going to replace the former one.
And there are a host of other bad effects that would result as well. In fact, every large-scale sudden transfer of wealth (such as sometimes happens as part of political revolutions) tends to go disastrously.
Law or Counsel?
This means that the idea that everyone in the developed world is neither obligated to adopt the donate-every-spare-penny rule nor should they.
Some people might choose to do so. It might even be very good for them to do so. They might even lay up treasure in heaven by doing so. But they are not obliged to do so.
This points to a distinction that the Church makes between a law and a counsel. Laws are things that we are obliged to do. Counsels deal with things that are good to do but that are not obligatory in ordinary circumstances.
Thus Jesus on occasion invited individuals to sell their property and follow him, living a life of evangelical poverty, but he did not expect everyone to do this. (After all, if everyone did it, who would buy all the property being put on the market?)
A More Generalizable Way
While evangelical poverty may be appropriate at times, it is not the way for the whole of society to operate. There is a better way to promote the common good–including the good of the poor–than the donate-every-spare-penny strategy.
This plan involves incentivizing people to work by letting them enjoy the fruits of their labors.
As has long been observed, if you provide positive incentives for a particular behavior, people will engage in more of it.
So if you want to cultivate the earht’s resources in a way that the needs of all people are met, you need to incentivize that cultivation.
Historically, the most successful way of doing that has involved the protection of private property and providing economic opportuity to individuals.
Giving people the opportunity to use their talents and then enjoy the fruits of their labors will lead them to do so, and thus increase the cultivation of the earth’s resources for their good and the good of others.
Thus the Catechism says:
2402 In the beginning God entrusted the earth and its resources to the common stewardship of mankind to take care of them, master them by labor, and enjoy their fruits. The goods of creation are destined for the whole human race. However, the earth is divided up among men to assure the security of their lives, endangered by poverty and threatened by violence. the appropriation of property is legitimate for guaranteeing the freedom and dignity of persons and for helping each of them to meet his basic needs and the needs of those in his charge. It should allow for a natural solidarity to develop between men.
2403 The right to private property, acquired by work or received from others by inheritance or gift, does not do away with the original gift of the earth to the whole of mankind. the universal destination of goods remains primordial, even if the promotion of the common good requires respect for the right to private property and its exercise.
Historical experience has showed that this model more effectively assures the cultivation and distribution of the earth’s resources than alternative models. It is thus a more generalizable rule–one that can be put in practice on a large scale in a way that promotes the common good.
This leads to . . . the best way to help the poor, which we’ll deal with in my next post.
The takeaway from today’s post, however, is that the donate-every-spare-penny strategy is not obligatory. There are situations in which donating is obligatory–such as when I know that a person will starve if I don’t assist him and when I have the ability reasonablly to provide that assistance. But this is not the usual circumstance.
One More Thing
I mentioned at the top of the post that the gentleman who asked the question is a member of the Secret Info Club, and as he notes, he’s not presently Catholic. This reveals something that may not be obvious, which is that the Secret Information Club isn’t just for Catholics. It’s for anyone who likes the kind of information I put on the blog and who would like to receive additional information by email.
For example, right now I’m preparing a message on book recommendations by Pope Benedict.
Like many of us, Pope Benedict takes a vacation in the summer to rest, recuperate, and catch up on projects.
Like the rest of us, he finds himself looking for things he can profitably read during this time.
So does Pope Benedict have any thoughts about what people might profitably read during this time?
That’s why I’ve prepared a special “interview” with Pope Benedict on just this subject that I’ll be sending to members of the Secret Information Club on Saturday, August 18th.
To find out what Pope Benedict recommends for summer reading (and it’s not big heavy theological works but stuff anybody can read–sometimes in an hour or less), sign up at www.SecretInfoClub.com or use this handy form:
Just email me if you have any difficulty.