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The Catholic practice of charity

Stewardship involves not just deciding which charity to support financially but also encouraging more Catholics to give of their time, talent and treasure

by F. Douglas Kneibert, OSV Newsweekly

Let’s assume you have decided to start laying up treasures in heaven by practicing the charity that the Catholic Church has always encouraged, in keeping with your financial means. You take 10 percent of your pre-tax income and divide it two ways, with five percent going to your parish and the other half to charities of your choosing.

For funds in the latter category, where do you begin? The answer isn’t an easy one, as there are hundreds of charities out there clamoring for your money — and not all of them are deserving of it. In May, the Federal Trade Commission charged four alleged cancer-research charities with fraud, but only after they had bilked donors out of more than $187 million.

While outright fraud is rare, many charities fail to measure up to generally accepted standards applied by organizations that monitor them. Among other attributes, sound charities should be financially accountable, transparent and not have a high overhead that cuts into funds for the causes they espouse. (See sidebar on charity-evaluation services.)

My mail in any given week includes appeals from Catholic colleges, various missionary groups, veterans’ organizations, marriage-support groups, youth programs and aid agencies to the Church in troubled lands, to mention only a very few. Since most of us don’t have the financial resources to contribute to all who ask, a culling-out process is needed.

Pray and prioritize

Start with prayer. Ask God to lead you to the charities that are a good fit for you. As you shuffle through all the letters you get asking for money, perhaps one will grab your attention, leading you to look into it more thoroughly. That might be one of the charities you are being led to support. If so, you will sense an interest and a desire to do so. Another person may be led in a totally different direction, for that’s how the Holy Spirit works.

Before you break out your checkbook, you might try prioritizing the most pressing needs of the Church as you see them (there’s no shortage). Such a list will vary from person to person and will need to be periodically updated. Here’s my list in broad categories:

— My parish and diocese

— Christian law firms specializing in religious freedom cases

— Maintaining a Christian presence in the Holy Land

— Opposition to abortion

— Aid to the suffering Church and the poor

— Promoting sound Catholic education and supporting Catholic media loyal to the Church.

I am an occasional donor to other charities, but the above list constitutes the core. As circumstances change, some new charities might be added and others relegated to a lower priority.

Spirituality of giving

Charity Ratings
Three charity-rating groups dominate the field. They are:
 

My charitable giving is a mere drop in the bucket when one considers the overwhelming needs in our world. But we should guard against discouragement, for God can, in his mysterious ways, multiply our gifts many fold. Recall that Jesus’ feeding of the 5,000 began with only two fish and a few loaves.

Among the gifts of the Holy Spirit that St. Paul lists, he includes the gift of contributing, or giving (Rom 12:8). That is a special charism that, like all gifts of the Spirit, is given to certain individuals for the good of the Church. But that doesn’t let the rest of us off the hook. Each of us is expected to do our part in building up the kingdom of God on earth.

The Church recognizes three theological virtues, those that relate us most directly to God: faith, hope and charity. Although he lists it last, St. Paul says charity is the greatest of all the virtues (1 Cor 13:13). While “charity” is a common word, it has a specific meaning for Christians. The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines it with admirable brevity:

“Charity is the theological virtue by which we love God above all things for his own sake, and our neighbor as ourselves for the love of God” (No. 1822).

The charity we show to our neighbor is where our money comes into the picture. It’s not really ours, however. The psalmist writes that “beasts by the thousands” belong to the Lord (Ps 50:10). Today we might say that the Fortune 500 corporations belong to him.

Stewardship

This brings us to the important principle of stewardship. A steward is someone who is put in charge of another’s goods and is responsible to that person for the job he does. We see this in Jesus’ parables about money and other things of value. The nobleman who gives his servants gold coins to invest anticipates a return (Lk 19: 11-27). We see the same pattern in the next chapter of Luke, where a man leases his vineyard to tenant farmers, from whom he expects the produce. None of these men own anything — they are merely caretakers of another’s wealth, for which they must give an accounting. We also are entrusted with certain abilities and financial resources, and Jesus will require an accounting from us as well.

St. Paul was making the same point when he asked the rhetorical question of the Corinthians, “What do you possess that you have not received?” (1 Cor 4:7). The honest answer to that question, of course, is nothing. Even if we are very good at making money, that also is God’s gift. Our giving back to God is one way we can express our thankfulness to him.

Catholic giving by the numbers

If Catholics would allow this principle to settle in their souls, the Church’s badly out-of-kilter stewardship picture could be greatly improved. You don’t have to serve on any fundraising or financial committees of your parish to realize something’s not right. Actually, it’s worse than you thought.

The Dynamic Catholic Institute (DCI) has done some groundbreaking research into Catholic parishes, with special emphasis on the differences between what it calls “highly engaged Catholics” and those who are “disengaged.” It expected to find the usual 80/20 breakdown (80 percent of effects from 20 percent of causes) that seems to be almost the rule in virtually every type of organization.

But what it discovered was even more startling: In a typical Catholic parish, only 6.8 percent of members donate 80 percent of the money, and 6.4 percent perform 80 percent of the volunteer hours. There was an 84 percent overlap between the two groups.

If that strikes you as hard to believe, think about your own parish for a moment, and how you always seem to see the same people doing what needs to be done. We may resist the conclusion, but it must be faced: A shocking number of Catholics seem content to sit back in their pews and let others carry their load, financial and otherwise.

The DCI also sought to determine what motivates highly engaged Catholics. Of those interviewed, 89 percent pointed to a conversion-type experience in their lives that turned them in a different direction and led to a more intimate relationship with God. This is the most promising avenue to explore in seeking to turn disengaged Catholics into highly engaged ones, which would reap benefits for the Church in all sorts of areas, not just the financial. To put it another way: There’s no better place to practice the New Evangelization than the Church itself.

Promises of generosity

While our giving to God should be free of self-interest (the “loving God for his own sake” part), numerous Scripture verses attest to how he returns our gifts with interest. Perhaps the best known is found in the Book of Malachi, where God urges his people to “put me to the test” by tithing “and see if I do not open the floodgates of heaven for you, and pour down upon you blessing without measure” (Mal 3:10).

It appears from this verse and others like it that God wants to encourage charity by promising that those who practice it will not lack for resources. The Book of Tobit even goes so far as to say that those who are generous with God will see his salvation (Tb 4:10).

In summary, the case for practicing charity is airtight, its benefits eternal and inexhaustible. So what are you waiting for?

F. Douglas Kneibert writes from Missouri.

This article comes to you from OSV Newsweekly (Our Sunday Visitor) courtesy of your parish or diocese.

 

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