How can I contribute to every charity that asks?
Q: I receive solicitations from many religious organizations with pictures of saints etc. I cannot not afford to give donations to all, so I trash them. I hope it's not a sin to throw away those pictures of saints? My priority is my contribution to our parish and other areas that the church gives donations. (Location withheld)
A: One of the five "precepts of the church" -- i.e., big-picture rules Catholics are obliged to follow -- is to provide for the material needs of the church. This is reflected in canon 222 of the Code of Canon Law, which states: "Christ's faithful have the obligation to provide for the needs of the church, so that the church has available to it those things which are necessary for divine worship, for apostolic and charitable work and for the worthy support of its ministers." You are fulfilling this obligation by contributing financially to the support of your parish. However, in discussing this obligation, the Catechism of the Catholic Church clarifies that members of the faithful are to provide material support for the church "each according to his own ability." (ccc 2043) That is, rather than demanding a specific percentage of our income, the church leaves the dollar amount of our charitable giving up to our own good-faith discernment of what we can realistically afford.
Similarly, can. 222 §2 tells us that besides supporting the administrative needs of the institutional church, the faithful -- being "mindful of the Lord's precept" -- are to also "help the poor from their own resources." But here, too, the church's law would only expect us to give insofar as we are truly able.
An overarching principle in the church's law is that nobody can be bound to do what is impossible, and for most Catholics it would be impossible to give to every charity that sends us a mailing. Additionally, it is often a matter of justice towards the wider community to use our resources to prudently ensure that our own material needs are met -- because if we don't attend to our needs, somebody else will have to. In some cases, we might justly decline to give to a charity soliciting a donation because we are on a strict budget, a fixed income, or even because we need to save that money for emergencies or retirement.
Finally, our charitable giving is a matter of prudence and discretion on our part. Not all charities are created equal. For example, some charities are better than others at keeping their administrative overhead costs low (meaning that different charities will use different percentages of the donations they collect in directly helping the population they serve). So even if you were a billionaire and could give to everyone who asks for donations, it would still be perfectly reasonable to be selective in which charities you choose to support.
In any case, even if you don't give to a charity, it's fine to keep and use whatever free gift they send you.
If you don't want to keep all the saint images (and holy cards, rosaries, medals, etc.) that come in the mail, generally we say that devotional items should be disposed of in a reverent way, such as burning or burying. But perhaps the best thing to do with the unwanted pious knick-knacks that come in the mail would be to pass them along to someone who can use them. Many parishes have something like a "free table" where people can leave, share, and swap these kinds of small religious articles.
- Canonist Jenna Marie Cooper is a consecrated virgin, a practicing canon lawyer, and columnist for OSV News.