A recent dustup in my little corner of cyberspace concerns whether Catholic Relief Services is complicit in distributing contraception and abortifacients to the people they're supposed to be helping. The Lepanto Institute has cast doubt on their Catholic credentials, and they've responded, in a way that sounds convincing to me. Lots of lives hang in the balance. I don't claim to know for sure who's right. But the question is: Should I donate to them, or not?
Or is it?
Here's another one: Should I give money to the homeless guy at the freeway entrance, knowing that he might spend it on the drugs or alcohol that have contributed to his present misery? Or is it kinder to drive on by? That is the question.
Or is it?
Finally, the world is full of migrants in desperate circumstances, but by opening our borders to them we risk putting our country in danger. Given the danger to law-abiding citizens, do we let them in, or do we keep them out? That's what we need to ask ourselves.
Or is it?
Donate to this charity, or not? Help this homeless man, or not? Open our doors to migrants, or not?
But it's a trap. There's something fatally wrong with the question, which in each case comes down to: Should I do this particular work of charity, or should I do no work of charity at all?
And if I decide on no work of charity at all precisely because my conscience won't allow it--isn't that even worse than neglecting the needy out of sheer sloth and self-centeredness? Not only am I doing nothing, I'm appealing to my own moral purity, weighing myself down with self-righteous pride on top of who knows how many sins of omission. I'd like to help, but what can I do? My conscience won't let me!
Well and good, but then what are we supposed to do? Naively finance abortion, addiction, and terrorism, out of ignorance, or willful blindness?
No, of course not! Please keep reading!
Here's what my pastor used to do when he was supposed to take up a collection for a charity which he (after serious research) had his doubts about. He would announce the collection (he wasn't a bishop, and he had no authority to simply cancel it), explain his doubts, and then set up means for people to contribute to it or to other, specific good causes that there were no doubts about.
Here's what my friend Clare did when she was pondering the question of how to help the homeless. She decided she wanted neither to give cash nor to do nothing, so she arranged for a bunch of local families to get together and create kits for the homeless: food, shaving cream, warm socks, and so on. Again, this was after diligent research into what would actually help.
And then there's the refugee question. Well, you and I have no power to singlehandedly shape the nation's immigration policy. But we can be honest about admitting there are two sides to the question, and we can look for ways to help immigrants that don't even remotely involve aiding and abetting terrorism. My friend organized a coat drive for Syrian refugee children. My brother is looking into getting certified as a medical interpreter. And on an institutional level, too, there are plenty of charities that help refugees with immediate needs and aren't trying to influence foreign policy one way or the other. Your conscience can't possibly object.
As Pope Emeritus Benedict puts it in his encyclical on hope, the point is to go from the "informative" to the "performative"--to get beyond gathering information and on to acting on the truth.