Wednesday, April 30, 2014

When God and Caesar collide

On Divine Mercy Sunday, April 27, 2014, I had to do something I never imagined I’d have to do: kick beggars off of church property.

A Hispanic woman and her two children were standing at the exit of our parking lot on the driveway median, mooching from the parishioners as they were driving out. Our pastor, Fr. George, is a lovely man, very good-humored and self-effacing. But you don’t want to be within fifty feet of him when he needs to delegate something, because he’s likely to grab the first unwitting soul available. He was discussing the issue with Bret, the Grand Knight of our Knights of Columbus council, when I stepped out of the church and went over to greet them.

“Ah, hello, Tony!” Fr. George exclaimed. As he reached out to give me a perfunctory handshake, he continued to speak to Bret: “Here we are, then; Tony can do this!” Herding me away from Bret and the building, he pointed out the beggars to me. “Go over there and tell them they cannot stand there; it’s illegal and dangerous. Make sure they leave.”

Moving the family on was fairly simple: I simply put my most pleasant face on and requested that they leave. And as I was walking back, one of the children, who unseen by me before had gone up to the church and was now walking back to the family, asked me, “Sir, do you think we’d be able to talk to someone at the church tomorrow at nine o’clock?” Yes, I agreed, someone should certainly be there.

Nevertheless, the irony of bustling poor people away from Christ’s church rather than bringing them in was too obvious. I can hear Jesus say, “I was hungry, and you gave me the bum’s rush” (cf. Matthew 25:42).

Observe, please, that I’m not calling into question whether it should have been my job to kick the indigents to another curb. Nor am I exactly criticizing Fr. George’s response. Here’s why:

Like other cities, Denton, Texas has laws and rules restricting begging. Every year, on Black Friday and Saturday, our Knights council collects money from passers-by on a major arterial; each Knight who participates has to fill out three different forms, one of which is a liability waiver, and submit Xerox copies of his identification to be legally authorized to beg. And while we’ve been doing this collection for over ten years, occasionally we’re still accosted by cops who look at our permits suspiciously, certain we’re pulling something over on them.

Even without such laws, any business or organization that owns property takes a liability risk when people use said property to solicit from cars’ occupants. The operating presumption seems to be that people are responsible for their own compliance with the law, but not for their own safety while breaking the law. Churches are tax-exempt but not liability-exempt, even when they do what most people expect them to do. And the Catholic Church, strictly speaking, isn’t in the business or the habit of indiscriminate lawbreaking, even in a good cause; we’re called to be subject to governing authorities, who are in their way servants of God (cf. Romans 13:1-7), and to “give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” (Luke 20:25).

And yet, the irony remains.

The most clunky and useless phrase ever introduced to the lexicon of American Catholicism is the post-Vatican II slogan, “preferential option for the poor”. In over twenty years of admittedly sporadic self-catechesis, I have yet to discern substantive content in this awkward jumble. We don’t have an “option” or a “preference” for the poor — we have positive duties to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, welcome the stranger, and give comfort to the sick and imprisoned: “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40). Nor can we ask whether the beggar is “deserving”: “charity to the deserving is not charity at all, but justice. It is the undeserving who require it, and the ideal either does not exist at all, or exists wholly for them” (G. K. Chesterton, “Paganism and Mr. Lowes Dickinson”, Heretics XII).

The beggar on the corner, accosting us as we go through our daily routines, is at once an individual challenge and an individual opportunity to live our Christian vocations. The fact that we have outreach ministries to fulfill these obligations as a community doesn’t relieve us of our individual obligation to do what we can. We can create soup kitchens and homeless shelters, but the poor can’t always get to them. To turn down a beggar on the grounds that “I pay plenty of good money for Church-run programs, so if they can’t be bothered to take advantage of them, it’s no fault of mine,” is not much better than to say, with Ebenezer Scrooge, “Are there no prisons? And the Union workhouses? They are still in operation? … I help to support the establishments I have mentioned: they cost enough: and those who are badly off must go there. If they would rather die, they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population” (Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol).

Time was when beggars would collect directly outside the doors of the church, knowing that congregants, fresh from being reminded of the corporal works of mercy (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church 2447), would give to the beggars outside what they hadn’t already surrendered for the upkeep of the church itself. What changed? Why, instead of shooing the beggars away like so many pesky dogs, do we not bring them inside the doors? What demon of respectability has got us more concerned with avoiding potential lawsuits than with alleviating human misery?

There are those who would say that charity as such merely prolongs poverty, that the poor would be better off if we directed our money to investments in job producers. From my perspective, only a foolish physician suspends treatment of the symptoms in the optimistic expectation that a cure for the disease is right around the corner. Do we really have that much more faith in free-market capitalism than we do in the teachings of the Church?

The Catechism recalls to our memory the thundering pronouncement of St. John Chrysostom: “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” (Homily on Lazarus, 2:5). As well, it recalls to us the words of Scripture, as God tells the Israelites, “For the poor will never cease out of the land; therefore I command you, You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in the land” (Deuteronomy 15:11).

Now, there may have been more to this episode than meets the eye; at least, Bret assured me of this in an email a couple of days later. And, again, I’m sure there was a good reason for Fr. George’s action.

But I can’t shake the conviction that, on Divine Mercy Sunday, we missed an opportunity to show mercy. God help us all.