As a locally well-known professional person active in civic affairs, I often am asked to support various charities, including some sponsored by Protestant and Jewish groups. Usually the request is simply for a donation, an ad in a program, or something of that sort. Sometimes, though, I am asked to lend my name to an appeal or even to participate in directing some charitable undertaking or fund-raising effort.
Before Vatican II, I said yes to such requests only in a very limited way. For example, I made small donations when that seemed warranted to keep or win the good will of clients and potential clients. I had two reasons for this policy. First, although in supporting non-Catholic groups’ charities one does not directly support their religious activities, support of the former inevitably helps them carry on the latter, and so spread their beliefs. Second, I thought that as a loyal Catholic I ought to give most of my support to our own charitable activities, particularly those in mission territories, which help spread the faith.
In recent years, however, while continuing to devote the greater part of my charitable donations and efforts to various Catholic charities, I have lent more support than before to those sponsored by non-Catholics. For several years, for instance, I have served on the board of a shelter for homeless people sponsored by a Lutheran church, because this shelter has been meeting an urgent need which no Catholic organization here has addressed. In general, moreover, I have decided whether or not to support non-Catholic charities on the basis of the merit of their cause rather than for the sake of good will.
Still, I sometimes wonder whether I may have become too loose in this matter. Talking it over with various priests and thoughtful lay people, I have not found any clear and helpful guidelines. What do you say?
This question concerns the criteria Catholics should use in selecting organizations to which they donate money. The point of donating is to use one’s surplus wealth to benefit others. Some organizations both benefit and harm people. One might consider donating to them for the sake of the good they do, and only materially cooperate with their harmful activities. But such material cooperation always can be avoided by donating to other organizations. So, Catholics should not support non-Catholic activities that involve partly false religious instruction. Other non-Catholic charitable activities bear witness to the faith of those sponsoring them, but materially cooperating with this partially mistaken witness can be justified. Duties of kinship, friendship, and neighborliness can provide the justification; so can the urgent and serious needs of some members of a community for whom help otherwise is unavailable.
Since you speak only of charities with specific religious ties, whether Catholic or not, and make no mention of the many organizations unaffiliated with any religious body, I shall not explicitly deal with a Catholic’s responsibilities regarding the latter. Though they do not pose the specific problem you raise about supporting religiously based non-Catholic organizations, they sometimes pose other important problems, as some of my examples will indicate.
Also, your question presupposes a more basic one: How should people use wealth and possessions beyond those required to meet their own and their dependents’ genuine needs? The answer: to meet others’ genuine needs (see LCL, 780–82, 789–92, 800–806, 811–14). That can be done in various ways, including donations to so-called charities. I say “so-called,” since for many donors appropriate contributions to such causes are a way of meeting a duty of strict justice. That is so when the alternatives are to amass unneeded wealth and to use one’s resources for luxuries. Given your conscientious concern to choose carefully among possible recipients of your donations, however, I assume you are disposing of as much of your wealth as you should.
There are three reasons why a so-called charitable organization should not receive one’s support. You probably already take all of them into account, but I shall mention them in case you do not. Sometimes an organization, due to the erroneous beliefs and/or defective values of those who control it, does nothing but harm people rather than meeting any of their genuine needs—Planned Parenthood is an example. Sometimes an organization is fraudulent inasmuch as its activities and resources are not entirely—or, perhaps, not at all—directed toward its purported purpose. Sometimes an organization, even if directed toward a good and honest cause, is so inefficient that it would be wasteful, and so unreasonable, to use it as a channel for meeting others’ needs. Since even a Catholic organization can err in one or more of these three ways, one cannot assume that every Catholic charity may be supported.
What about the many honest and efficient organizations that, while meeting some genuine needs, also harm people, not only incidentally to doing their good work, but through putting into practice partially erroneous beliefs and/or false values? (Examples would be a shelter that helps young people in difficulty but also counsels them to practice “safe sex,” an association that assists people suffering from birth defects but also counsels abortion if the defect is discovered before the baby is born, a fund that mainly helps the poor but sometimes finances terrorism, or a church sponsored program to feed the hungry that also seeks to evangelize them with a mixture of true and mistaken beliefs.) One might contribute to such organizations intending to support the good they do and only accepting as an unwanted side effect one’s contribution to the harm. Still, in my judgment, contributing to the harm is not justified, for there always are ways to put surplus wealth and other resources to work meeting others’ genuine needs without contributing to anything one recognizes as bad.
In considering what charities to support, even if one excludes all non-Catholic organizations and any Catholic organization one has any reason to exclude, there remain many worthy potential recipients. One must discern among them. In discerning, one should resist irrelevant emotional factors, such as good feelings aroused by flattery, while taking a number of factors into account. Is the charity tax-exempt? What is the likelihood other people will meet various needs if one does not? Will supporting an organization promote goods to which one already is specially committed? Can one ensure that the contribution will be used well? Will one’s involvement in an organization engage and so benefit oneself more than merely writing a check would do? Will involvement somehow build up communion between oneself and those who will benefit by one’s contribution? What will be the witness value of one’s contribution? In considering all these matters, as in discerning any subordinate element of personal vocation, one should compare the feelings aroused by one’s informed awareness of alternatives with one’s feelings related to and integrated with faith and one’s prior commitments implementing it (see LCL, 291–93). Then one should allocate donations in whatever way seems fitting.
Turning to your specific question, I believe it is clear that one should not support non-Catholic charitable activities commingled with partly false religious instruction—for example, a summer camp program for indigent children that will include evangelization and catechesis partly at odds with Catholic faith. Though one might intend only the genuine good the program will do, one’s contribution will support the inculcation of error as well as truth and inevitably will suggest that the doctrinal content of the religious instruction is a matter of indifference. This is likely to lead people astray.
Even if an activity sponsored by a non-Catholic religious body involves nothing at all unacceptable in itself, it seems to me that, in sponsoring charities, religious bodies always bear witness to their faith. Thus, insofar as a sponsor falls short of the truth of Catholic faith and/or diverges from it, a Catholic contributing to the charity it sponsors incidentally lends support to its partially false witness. Still, doing that may be justified if you have a special reason to contribute to a non-Catholic charitable activity that involves nothing unacceptable in itself. Your earlier practice of making small donations to non-Catholic charities when necessary to obtain or retain the goodwill of clients and potential clients was for public relations rather than charity, and perhaps was justified by your obligation to build up your professional practice, both for the sake of the service you render and to earn a living. Duties of kinship, friendship, or neighborliness toward persons involved in non-Catholic charitable activities also can require a Catholic to contribute something to them. Similarly, Catholics can owe support to non-Catholic activities that benefit members of the community who need help otherwise unavailable or less adequately provided.
When a worthwhile charitable project sponsored by a non-Catholic religious body involves nothing at odds with Catholicism, Catholics called upon to participate significantly in it might reasonably ask that its official sponsorship be broadened, if possible, since joint non-Catholic and Catholic sponsorship would better reflect the reality of the cooperation to be carried on, promote ecumenism, bear witness to the shared body of truth and values, and perhaps attract broader support for the good cause.
Probably you should take this approach in your collaboration as a director of the shelter for homeless people. Of course, if that project involves anything inconsistent with Catholicism, you should not help direct it. But if every element of the project is acceptable in itself, you rightly support it in meeting a need otherwise unmet in the community. Still, you and any other Catholics who share in the activity also should share in its value as a witness to our faith.
May I offer one final suggestion? Perhaps you already contribute your services in helping to direct some Catholic charitable activities. If so, it seems to me you would do well to contribute heavily to them. But if not, unless you judge you ought to put your time and energy to other uses, consider taking a special interest in some particular Catholic activity, sharing in its direction, and making it a major recipient of your surplus wealth.