As I confronted the barrage of charitable solicitations assaulting my mailbox this past December, a grumbling question repeatedly crossed my mind: Who do they think I am, Melinda Gates? The pleas overwhelmed both the Christmas cards and the bills. Save the children, save the puppies, save the whales. Support public television, combat racism, and eradicate cancer. The Syrian refugees desperately require help—but so do the hurricane victims in Puerto Rico. And while you’re at it, your college marching band need new uniforms and your law school needs, well, nothing really—but give anyway. And last but not least, don’t forget Commonweal. The testimonies of need and pleas for succor left me feeling simultaneously depressed, resentful, guilty, and paralyzed.
How should people who don’t have Gates’s fortune, but do have more than a widow’s mite, think about allocating their charitable donations? Is it solely a matter of need? Should Christians direct all our charitable giving to the refugees and hurricane victims, while leaving the band and Commonweal out in the cold? What does it mean to give to charity, from a moral and religious perspective?
As New Year’s Eve approached, I continued to ponder these questions. I came to the conclusion that the big problem is the tax code itself. We need to resist its conceptual framework, which presses us to equate “charitable giving” with writing a tax-deductible check to a not-for-profit corporation organized in conformity with section 501(c)(3) of the code.
First, this equation is misleading. The framework encourages us to prioritize economic efficiency. But in some cases, it may be morally preferable to give $1000 in after-tax dollars directly to a needy family in your parish rather than make a $1500 donation to a registered charity. For many people, much of the time, the most urgent and generous type of charitable giving does not show up on their list of itemized deductions.
Second, the tax code’s framework distorts our understanding of the act of charitable giving. It is tempting for givers writing end-of-the-year checks to see themselves as nothing more than financial conduits moving money from one bank account (yours) to another (theirs). Viewed in this way, making a charitable contribution is impersonal and solitary—not all that different from paying bills.
But in the Christian tradition, acts of charity are meant to be the donor’s expression of solidarity with the recipient, and, more broadly, with the human family. It is a personal sign of gratitude for the material and spiritual blessings the donor has been given, which have enabled her to bless others in turn. An act of charity is meant to be a virtuous act, shaping and being shaped by the character of the person who makes it.
If we see making a charitable contribution as the giver’s uniquely personal act of solidarity, things start to fall into place. We can think of charitable giving as falling into three categories, which roughly correspond to the three theological virtues (faith, charity, and hope) and their related divisions of time (past, present, and future). Our donations can be balanced across these categories because our moral lives are balanced in the same way. This balancing act takes discernment.