Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business! … Why did I walk through crowds of fellow-beings with my eyes turned down, and never raise them to that blessed Star which led the Wise Men to a poor abode! Were there no poor homes to which its light would have conducted me!
― The remorseful ghost of Marley, A Christmas Carol
A few months ago, a CBC article caught my eye: “Canadians a charitable lot despite economic woes”. Though this title implies that we owe ourselves a pat on the back, I was frankly shocked at the numbers I found therein. Contrary to the CBC’s opinion, it appeared to me that we are woefully remiss when it comes to sharing our wealth. Nor is this a matter of small moment: Christian tradition would condemn us in surprisingly strong language.
Looking at the Numbers
Before reviewing Christian doctrine on alms-giving, let us have a look at the figures in Canada today. The article cites statistics released by Statistics Canada for 2010. In that year, the average Canadian gave $446 to charitable and non-profit organisations. In the same year, the average disposable income (i.e., the amount left over after all taxes) was $29,707. This means that, on average, Canadians give a mere 1.5% of their disposable income to charity.
Moreover, the median amount Canadians gave to charity in 2010 was only $123. By definition, this means that half of Canadians gave more than $123 and half gave less. In effect, it indicates that the average amount of $446 is due to a small percentage of people who give a lot more than their compatriots, while the great majority of Canadians give less than $446.
All of this suggests that for most Canadians, giving money away is not a high priority. This is made evident if we compare how much they spend on other things. In 2010 the average Canadian spent roughly 10% of his disposable income on food, alcohol and tobacco, 4% on clothing, 7% on furniture and 10% on entertainment. With charitable donations at 1.5%, this means that we Canadians tend to spend more than six times as much entertaining ourselves than we do helping those in need.
Our Excess Wealth Does Not Belong To Us
The right to private property has always been upheld by the Church. It is proper to a person’s dignity that he be able to provide for himself and his dependants from his own possessions. As Pope Leo XIII once cleverly pointed out, if there is no right to private property, then the tenth commandment―not to covet your neighbour’s possessions―makes no sense.
At the same time, the resources of the earth are for all people, not just for some. The right to private property is not absolute, but rather exists in function to the universal destination of goods. A society in which only some enjoy the use of its wealth, while others lack the means to live with dignity, has perverted this right. Those who have an abundance of possessions have a moral obligation to ensure that those without enough are redressed.
Thus, giving out of one’s abundance is not an act of generosity but of basic justice. Not to share our surplus wealth with those who are in need is an act of theft, for we are depriving them of bounty that is meant for all.
If I help the poor out of my surplus, I have no reason to pat myself on the back and think that I have done something extraordinary, as the CBC article suggests. Rather, our attitude should be closer to the humble servant of the gospel: “When you have done all you have been commanded, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants; we have done what we were obliged to do.’” (Luke 17: 10) Of course, this is not to say that we should give alms with long faces, “for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Cor. 9:7). But our good cheer should not be vainglorious.
A Clear and Constant Tradition
It is by no means a novel or fringe idea to equate refusing to share excess wealth with theft. In fact, it is an ancient doctrine of the Church which is maintained up until this day.
The doctrine is certainly supported by Sacred Scripture, but what may come as a surprise to some is the stark vigour with which it was taught by the Church Fathers. To quote just three:
“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.” (Pope St. Gregory the Great)
“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.” (St. John Chrysostom)
“You are not making a gift of your possessions to poor persons. You are handing over to them what is theirs. For what has been given in common for the use of all, you have arrogated to yourself. The world is given to all, and not only to the rich.” (St. Ambrose of Milan)
This teaching has been continually repeated in modern times as the Magisterium has developed its rich social doctrines over the past century. For example:
“Whoever has received from the divine bounty a large share of temporal blessings, whether they be external and material, or gifts of the mind, has received them for the purpose of using them for the perfecting of his own nature, and, at the same time, that he may employ them, as the steward of God's providence, for the benefit of others.” (Pope Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum)
“A person’s superfluous income, that is, income which he does not need to sustain life fittingly and with dignity, is not left wholly to his own free determination. Rather the Sacred Scriptures and the Fathers of the Church constantly declare in the most explicit language that the rich are bound by a very grave precept to practice almsgiving, beneficence, and munificence.” (Pope Pius XI, Quadragesimo Anno)
“No one is justified in keeping for one’s exclusive use what one does not need, when others lack necessities.” (Pope Paul VI, Populorum Progressio)
“Love for the poor is even one of the motives for the duty of working so as to be able to give to those in need.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #2444)
A Matter for Personal Discernment
The foregoing clearly demonstrates that those who enjoy an excess of wealth have a grave responsibility to share it with the more needy. But what does this mean practically?
Those who like clear-cut formulae will be disappointed. The Church does not specify with exactitude what “excess” means, nor what it means to “sustain life fittingly and with dignity”. To do so would be foolish, since conditions vary so much across the world and even in our own country. Every Christian household―in fact, every household of goodwill, since we are treating a principle of natural law―must discern for itself how it is justly to use its wealth.
Though the ancient practice of tithing, or giving away ten percent of one’s produce, often functioned more as a sort of tax rather than alms proper, it might be a good baseline for many when starting their discernment. Of course, ten percent could be far too much for a family which is barely making ends meet, or it could be too little for a six-figure income: this illustrates exactly why there can be no prescription. But for many, it is probably a not-unrealistic target.
C. S. Lewis offered another metric which should make us feel sober, and it was one that he himself lived by. When deciding how much we ought to be giving away, he counsels: “I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare … If our charities do not at all pinch or hamper us, … they are too small. There ought to be things we should like to do and cannot do because our charitable expenditures excludes them.”
Perhaps the most important thing is to plan. When the household is budgeting, is alms-giving given serious consideration? Is money regularly budgeted for charity as it is for food, shelter, entertainment, travel and retirement? What are the sources of excess or waste in the household’s lifestyle that could be channelled to those who are in need?
There is Always More
At the end of the film Schindler’s List, the title character asks aloud how many more people he could have saved if he had sold more of his possessions. He realises that if he had sold his car or even his Nazi membership pin, he could have saved more people from death.
What more can we do? It is a question we will always have to wrestle with, no matter how much of our wealth we share. As I write this, I am painfully aware that when I was a layman and had my own disposable income, I certainly could have been more generous with it. And throughout this article, I have not even considered the question of other important ways that we can contribute to the common good, such as volunteering time.
If our consciences are overcome by scruples in this regard, perhaps we do well to remember Jesus’s words to his disciples. When they hear that a rich man cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven, they respond in astonishment, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus reminds them that salvation is not accomplished by us alone. He says, “What is impossible for human beings is possible for God.” (Lk. 18:26)
In the end, though, it is how we treat those in need that is the measure of our charity. “If someone who has worldly means sees a brother in need and refuses him compassion, how can the love of God remain in him?” (1 John 3:17)