Why We Give

This is the time of the year when almost everyone has gift-giving (if not gift-getting) on the mind. We also hear the usual series of warnings against making Christmas too materialistic. That is, of course, completely appropriate when animated by a desire to remind us of the belief that “veiled in flesh” it is the Godhead we see — as one of the more theological carols teaches us. But when some people imply that buying or giving gifts is somehow sinful and goes against the spirit of Christmas, this is another matter all together.

After all, the tradition of gift-giving is rooted in the gift that God offers to the world in His Son who comes in the appearance of a frail babe. Likewise, the Magi, the Wise Men, who came from the East, brought the Christ-child exotic gifts to celebrate His Advent.

There is another, perhaps more practical aspect of the giving of gifts that is worth pondering which was brought to the fore by Arthur Brooks, author of the 2006 book “Who Really Cares: America’s Charity Divide — Who Gives, Who Doesn’t and Why It Matters.” Brooks investigated the American habit of giving and what he found surprised some, irritated others and confirmed some suspicions that I have had for some time. Among his findings was that the general profile of the gift-giver is one who has a strong family life and who attends church regularly.

Yet, there is another aspect to Mr. Brooks’ research worth noting, especially at this time of the year and in the midst of these troubling economic times. At a recent conference in Rome, Brooks said that his research revealed that “when people give they get happier, and when they get happier, they are more productive and become richer.”

Brooks, who will shortly become the new president of the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute, contends that there is a kind of interconnected relationship between generosity, prosperity and happiness.

Now, no sensible person would encourage people to become generous with what is not theirs; certainly there is no virtue in buying things for others that we ourselves cannot afford by going into debt in order to be generous. But to have a general spirit of gratitude for the innumerable gifts which surround us, yes, even in these difficult and uncertain times, is to increase a positive sense of the world. In this we see a hopefulness of spirit which in turn enables us to look around us and see the great potential that the world holds in store if we will only keep our eyes open.

And isn’t this what we celebrate in the days leading up to Christmas as we wait in hope for Redemption?

This is not merely mind-over-matter thinking. On a merely economic level, we know that the very nature of enterprise and entrepreneurship is the ability to see what others have not yet seen and to be able to discover what others have not yet discovered. And all of this requires a belief that there is, indeed, something out there that can be discovered.

On a more sublime level, we look for that which gives ultimate meaning to our existence, which is never merely material: the light in the midst of the darkness that penetrates our world — and our souls. The words of the well known prayer of St. Francis, that in giving we receive, have been confirmed by the social sciences. Of course, St. Francis was way ahead of us all, wasn’t he?

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  • jiminycricket

    I think Fr. Sirico’s article is a good read. A number of times I have heard people say (myself included), let’s do away with the gift-giving and just celebrate the birth of our savior. I’m sure that is well-intentioned, but reflects a “minimalist” approach. Balance and the recognition that we are giving, through faith, because we were given to is the approach to take.

    On another note, Fr. Sirico has the following in his article:
    “Now, no sensible person would encourage people to become generous with what is not theirs”

    This, quite frankly hit me like a brick. Isn’t that how we often see our election results? Don’t we encourage gov’t to do this and don’t we do it under the guise of supporting social programs, quite possibly so we don’t have to get involved personally? I wonder if our country would be happier, more productive, and richer, if we had a massive change in the way we support social programs. I.E., if we, the people, were performing such great acts of charity instead of pushing it off on the govt’, our hearts may be filled with the joy of Christ, making us happier in our homes, our work place, and our communities and maybe it could become contagious.

  • goral

    The direction of your comment, jiminycricket, interests me.
    I also see a grave injustice in the way social programs are handled.
    First of all dispensing someone else’s wealth is thievery.
    Secondly if there is a mandate for that “sharing” than it must be done responsibly under grave penalties for misappropriation.
    Thirdly that assistance can never be open-ended.
    It is a collective sin and a national disgrace when the income of the working middle class is being redistributed to lower class welfare at one end and upper class bailout assistance at the other. All of it under the crafty guise of
    Pro publico bono.
    Entitlements are evil and destroy societies.

  • Mary Kochan

    I don’t know that we can make that blanket statement Goral, but there are certainly grave problems with the current system. One of the problems is that the Church is so tied into the current tax and entitlement system in this country. We should be able to fund Catholic charities directly through the Church/bishops and out of true generosity. Instead, what happens with a lot of Catholic programs is that the bishops support confiscatory tax rates so that a significant part of our income is taken from us by force by the government.

    Then it is doled out through the government entitlement system to the Catholic charities, schools, hospitals, etc. through government grants. This causes our “forced charitable donations” (i.e. taxes) to support a huge government bureaucracy in addition to the actual charitable purpose they have. Meanwhile the bishops are in distress over government rules regarding how this money can and cannot be used and what they have to permit on the premises of Catholic schools and hospitals in order to jump through goverment hoops. All of which is only going to get worse under Obama’s administration.

    The solution is to go to a flat tax based on sales/consumption, not income. Federal taxes should not be used for charity at all, with the exception of disaster relief when only the fed has the resources needed to manage a problem, like Katrina. But all administration of charity should be local and we Catholics should be able to directly support Catholic charities without government middlemen. The Catholic Church in this country needs to get itself untangled from the government and support tax relief for its Catholic people. Right now the way the Church in America behaves, it seems that the bishops trust the government more than they trust their own Catholic people. They trust the government with our money, but they don’t trust us. They trust the secular government to take care of our poor or sick neighbors, but they don’t trust us in whom the Spirit of God dwells. This is very messed up.

  • Quote: “…it seems that the bishops trust the government more than they trust their own Catholic people…”

    I’m not sure that “trust” is the problem. it’s more like FEAR – of the Church losing its 501(c)(3) tax exempt status, and the Church then having to pay taxes like any other corporation (not to mention that donations would no longer be tax deductible, and would therefore plummet!). We have all forgotten the words of our Lord: “Give, and it will be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For the measure you give will be the measure you get back.” (Luke 6:38)

  • Mary Kochan

    But the bishops wouldn’t have to worry about that tax status if the tax code were changed. They always support conficatory taxes and never support decreases to federal entitlements. Under a flat tax based on consumption, one’s donations would have no effect either way on one’s taxes.

  • goral

    I make that statement, Mary Kochan, based on the following logic:
    None of us are entitled to anything based on our condition or situation.
    We ask for help, we may even demand assistance and it could or should be given to us.
    To say that I’m entitled to it is tantamount to saying that I own the right to it. Denying me what is rightfully mine is therefore wrong and an injustice.

    That of course is a lie; the system that perpetuates that notion is lying, weakening and manipulating people.
    Is the source of all of that good? Is it neutral?
    No! I dare say once again that the source is evil and the results are as you say, a mess.
    The Church’s relationship with Caesar results in the state telling the Church hospitals to perform abortions and dispense contraceptives,
    telling Catholic agencies to allow gays to adopt,
    dictating immoral or at the very least indifferent mandates on Catholic institutions.

    Who is the father of lies and the merchant of solely worldly well being?

  • Mary Kochan

    But the Church does teach that the poor have a “right” to a just share of the worlds goods, Goral. The problem is not entitelment per se. The problem is the manner in which it is all done.

  • Cooky642

    I’m more than a little late to the party, here, but wanted to add a thought. I read recently (and can’t tell you when or where) about a study that found that, when taxes are low and entitlement programs are dimished, Christian people give greater amounts of money and time to the poor; conversely, when taxes are high and entitlement programs are at full bore, Christians give less. The conclusion of the study was that Christians “step up to the plate” when there is a genuine need, but back way off when they perceive the government doing it for them.

    Interesting thought, huh?