Pope Francis: Give Without Expectation

In an interview with an Italian magazine (see also here), which is staffed by writers and editors who are homeless or otherwise socially excluded, Pope Francis says that in thinking about almsgiving we should not think. At least we should not worry about what the money will be used for.

The pope says that far too often such “concerns” about using the money for drinking or drugging—we might also include the “vast conspiracy of panhandlers” argument—are evidence not of real concern but of patronizing self-concern. He asks those who justify not giving to beggars, “What do you do on the sly?” In other words, do I tell myself that because I “have my act together,” I am justified in having a drink, splurging on a meal, or going on a vacation to the beach? He also points out that in suburban, white-collar neighborhoods, the same malaise of drug-addiction or alcoholism occurs, bur under the surface.

It is interesting that the first three comments on the reporting of the pope’s interview over at America are all reactionary, implying that the pope is economically or socially naïve. It strikes me that the pope’s comments are not some economic calculus (see also this), but rather manifest a liturgical logic of gift and compassion. I give as a return gift to God because God has given to me even as I continue to fail.

Pope Francis EucharistWhich of us is worthy of receiving Eucharistic grace? Of course we should be free of mortal sin upon approaching the altar, but which of us does not have the proclivity to squander God’s gifts after we participate in the sacraments? Yet, God continues to give.

It strikes me that Pope Francis’s fervorino about almsgiving is not unconnected to the suggestion in Amoris Laetitia (footnote 351) that pastoral discernment should govern the reception of communion by the divorced and remarried. Of course, that footnote earned the pope a loud-but-small minority formal objection, which he has wisely ignored. In both cases, Pope Francis suggests that a checklist of worthiness—especially when its makes just too much sense—can be evidence of a hardness of heart. Reflecting upon his time in Argentina, in which he interacted with a homeless family regularly who was near the chancery, he said, “Someone told me, ‘They’re making the chancery filthy,’ Well, the filth is within.” Once again, the abundance of God’s gifts cannot be measured by our ability to live up to them. Just ask the older son in Luke 15. And the pope reminds us how easy it is to find the speck in my neighbor’s eye while ignoring the plank in my own. And while we’re making connections to Francis’s entire vision, it is not mere coincidence that in the same interview Pope Francis discussed questions about hosting refugees—another issue for which we have a penchant for mere cost-benefit analysis.

These words from Cardinal Wuerl on his official blog seem particularly applicable to the question and offer a nice Lenten reflection:

Pope Francis is challenging all of us to move into a far more Gospel-identified mode of living and being Church than we may have been comfortable with. We need to ask ourselves if perhaps the Church has not become too identified in the minds and hearts of many people with the politics and power struggles of the moment. Have we failed to persuade others of the significance of the Gospel message, so that they create the culture that reflects those values? Have we become too comfortable with announcing aspects of the Gospel but not necessarily witnessing its full demands?

Beggar's HandsAside from the thinking about what this person might do with the money, on how might it reflect upon the Church to have the divorced and remarried receiving communion, on how a very small minority of immigrants and refugees commit crimes, Pope Francis drives us back to the gospel with the reminder that every encounter is an encounter with a person. And giving to beggars must be done “by looking them in the eyes and touching their hands.”


  1. Well, after giving money to a panhandler over 25 years ago on Boston Common in the company of a close friend, which friend then told me “I just pumped his stomach out last night – you did that for your guilty conscience, not for his good – if you did it again, I would want to punch you” – I also realize that our motivations in not seeming judgmental can also be self-serving to our own egos and sense of self.

    The poor and needy do not have to earn our generosity through their character or behavior. That’s always important to keep in mind, and I think that is consistent with the Pope’s insight. But we do have a responsibility of making sure what we do for them is not disguising self-serving behavior on our part and at least has a reasonable chance of being actually helpful to them. Sometimes, that means saying No to what is requested (you cannot work long with the poor and not come to understand that), but trying to find a But Yes to something that may be more helpful – not as a judgment of “their* worthiness but as a practice of thoughtfulness. It may mean preferring to give to local low-overhead charities (St Vincent de Paul, food banks, daytime shelters that include men, who are on the bottom of the shelter totem pole).

    And yes there are people whose “career” is panhandling. If you live or work near a highway exit ramp, you would know that. It’s not a conspiracy, but a fact.

  2. Thanks for your thoughts, Karl. That’s a helpful point about the self-serving on both sides–this is what I think Pope Francis is challenging us to avoid. Though he sees it as operating much more often in the other direction.

    I think that the “conspiracy theory” is that “I know what no one else knows: this is what most beggars do because they want to do it.” Of course, there are those for whom begging occupies much of their time and even something that folks might find preferable to other work (if so, what does that say about available wages and job conditions?), but the idea that this is a kind of get-rich-quick scheme is what I find to be disingenuous.

    However, a thought experiment: If we grant that this is someone’s job. And that the money received is compensation for that job. Then, I wonder does your logic apply to an employee who is an alcoholic? That is, should the employer rightly withhold a paycheck if the employee leaves work and gets so snookered that the employee needs to have a medical procedure? Following your friend’s logic, does that employer deserve a punch in the face?

    Obviously a difference here involves who the work benefits (the employer benefits from the work of the alcoholic employee), but I’m not so sure that such a point should be the overriding one, especially in thinking about the gospel and the liturgical life that flows out of it.

    I wonder if this example demonstrates what Pope Francis points to as the double standard based on class and “worthiness.” It seems to me that an employer would be acting justly to pay the employee for a day’s work. The employer might also be described as ethical and compassionate if that employer took additional steps to find further help for the alcoholism. Of course, most employers simply fire the employee if they discover the alcoholism. Hence, the cycle of homelessness. Or maybe they only fire the employee if it affects job performance or employee reputation.

    What do you think?

  3. Well, beyond issues of substance dependency are the much more horrifying (to bourgeois fears) issues of mental illness, cognitive limitations and innumeracy, and neurological atypicality (which is only “pathological” in the sense that our culture is so geared to wring out inefficiency as to make atypicality nearly non-functional). In my active years of doing case intake and making recommendations for a SVdP conference, I learned a lot and also learned to make much space for “haven’t a clue”; for chronic requests, we did have a Vincentian guide against cultivating dependency, which turned us towards evaluating sustainability of situations (classic example: paying for the moving costs to a more sustainable abode rather than underwriting what was clearly no longer a sustainable abode – there was of course a bulge of this during the most recent depression, but Terrible Times happen to all sorts of people in all times). I cannot even begin to describe the panic of poor clients whose overdraft privileges vanished on September 30, 2008 without time for the mail to get to them, and how their rent checks bounced and they nearly committed suicide in stark fear of eviction (which, in reality, would have taken many months, but that’s not even cold comfort to a person with limited cognitive skills) because they could no longer rely on it for the 3-day overlap between rent-check- out and support-check-in.

    First practical rule of detachment: it’s never about playing hero – and it’s never about us – so we have to wring out our own ego dramas from it.

    Second rule: observing the first rule allows us to attach in more fruitful ways to others.

    Third rule: relationships are not syllogisms. So thinking too linearly about them is misdirected. Even in rational terms, they are *much* more about premises and assumptions (which can’t be argued fruitfully) than about propositions.

    1. Karl at #3: “Well, beyond issues of substance dependency are the much more horrifying (to bourgeois fears) issues of mental illness, cognitive limitations and innumeracy, and neurological atypicality (which is only “pathological” in the sense that our culture is so geared to wring out inefficiency as to make atypicality nearly non-functional).

      It’s important to remember that the survival of a person with “neurological atypicality” rests squarely on the financial abilities of the “sufferer”. I was born well-off, so I have had access to top physicians all my life as well as my run of the pharmacy. Surprisingly, I actually did very well in college despite wasting my study time in the town coffeehouse. Were I not to have these financial advantages, I would have been on the street at nineteen as a junkie or nose candy addict. I only pass through the filters of bourgeois sensibilities because I have been socialized (domesticated), I know which meds to take, and I make sure I have enough cash to pay the psychiatrist. Were any other “atypical” given the same advantage, she would be as protected from the raw wind of the world as I am.

      1. @Jordan Zarembo:
        indeed. And, at some point, it can become a very sticky wicket to avoid blasting support that cannot be provided private. And, in the USA, it matters very much which state you live in. VT or MA versus AZ, for example. In some states, you may get assistance. In other states, prison is the primary “system” (especially states with strong private correction industries).

  4. I typically have dodged the concern of “What’ll they do with the money?” by not giving money.

    That is, I offer to buy the person food. Or bring them clothes. Or whatever. In my experience, the folks working a racket balk. The folks wanting help appreciate whatever you can give.

    1. @Shaughn Casey:
      Bingo. It’s a bigger sacrifice to give of your time, but it is much more effective and I would argue more Christ-like to do that. In fairness, though, I don’t think the Holy Father is saying we should just give money – and frequently money is needed – but more that we should not attach strings to our giving and assume a negative about the person on front of us.

  5. “Give without expectation,” says this post.

    “Give without worry” was the NYT’s take.

    I would’ve just gone with “Just Give.”

  6. “And yes there are people whose “career” is panhandling. If you live or work near a highway exit ramp, you would know that. It’s not a conspiracy, but a fact.”

    Or near subway stations. It’s a wretched, precarious life, and i’d like to see more evidence that there’s a vast conspiracy of panhandlers than you’ve given there.

    I’m grateful for Frarcis’ guidance. Co-incidentally or otherwise, i’m reading Populorum Progressio, which quotes Ambrose: “You are not making a gift of what is yours to the poor man, but you are giving him back what is his.” Me, I tend to offer food when I have it on me. It’s always accepted.

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