What a surprise!

Charitable appeals have almost eclipsed Christmas cards this season. The sheer number of requests for donations can have a dampening effect on the season. The urge to chuck them in the rubbish is strong. Apparently many Americans overcome this desire to rid themselves of these appeals and give generously.

By international standards, Americans are known to be extremely generous. Americans’ habit of generosity is not evenly distributed. While 85 million households give money away to non-profit organizations, another 30 million do not. A recent study conducted at Harvard’s Kennedy Center of charitable giving has some surprising findings.

The short version is that weekly churchgoers are substantially more generous than non-churchgoers; that couples, particularly those with children, are more likely to give to charity than singles of the same income level; and those who claim to favor government action to “redistribute income” are themselves less likely to give to charity than those hard-hearted folks who resist high taxes.

Given the negative treatment regular churchgoers receive -- often lumped together with one unattractive “radical right” label -- the finding concerning their generosity should bring some cheer. As it turns out, those who attend church weekly are 25 percent more likely to give to charity than those who attend rarely or never. Most shocking, however, is the finding that they give four times as many dollars as non-churchgoers. They seem to be paying attention to those pulpit injunctions that it is better to give than to receive. They also are more generous with their time, volunteering twice the number of hours as others.

Religious believers do not give just to their churches. They are charitable to all sorts of nonreligious organizations. They make their dollar count on cultural issues. For instance, churchgoers are far likelier to give to post 9/11 related causes. On average they give 50 percent more to non-church welfare groups than secularists do.

Tellingly, the survey shows that people of faith are more likely to give to needy individuals, but are not as supportive as secularists of what are called “social justice” issues. Churchgoers appear to respond to tangible, flesh-and-blood needs, but are wary of some of these social justice issues. And well we should. “Social justice” has become one of those wonderfully ambiguous terms, which truly covers a multitude of sins. While many institutions cloak their appeals in terms of “social justice,” much of their social agenda is contrary to the religious agenda of the faithful. Under this dubious flag, babies are aborted, so-called “grief counselors” reduce the loss of life to a personal pity-party, “free” legal services make quickie divorces all too easy, and the age-old meaning of marriage is twisted pretzel-like to make a small group of people feel good about themselves. While much under this umbrella term, social justice, is important and good, much is part of a social agenda that runs directly counter to what our Church teaches. “Caveat emptor.”

Would one gather that churchgoers have less confidence in government agencies? Possibly. The key value on the General Social Survey shows people who give more have a perceived duty to take personal responsibility for themselves and others. In other words, government should have less obligation and the individual more. Despite the drumbeat from some quarters for more redistribution of private wealth, about two-thirds of Americans believe our government should not tax more to reduce differences between rich and poor. On the other hand, this group favoring less income redistribution donates four times as much money each year as the redistribution supporters. What a revealing divergence of attitudes and action.

Charity begins at home. The third dynamic affecting charity is family life. Couples -- given the same income as singles -- give more to charity. Maybe school develops the giving spirit. School children bring cookie sales and service projects home. Parents get involved because it is expected. Parents are used to sacrificing and giving. They are practiced at responding to need.

Another surprise is that charitable giving is not simply a matter of the rich and comfortable getting rid of their excess cash. One’s level of income is simply not a key factor in levels of giving. The working poor give away as large a percentage of cash as the affluent and way more than the middle class. Also, people who fail to give to charity are only a third as likely as donors to give money to friends, not to mention strangers.

Although celebrity charities have grabbed headlines, regular charitable giving doesn’t simply follow the pattern recently set by Warren Buffett and Bill Gates. The social surveys do not explain the Bill Gates-Warren Buffet pattern of giving. These financial titans have built their own organizations to serve their causes. Good for them. However, other than the African AIDS epidemic, it is not at all clear who will receive their charity.

The celebrity composer of the most famous work performed at Christmas set the example for charitable giving. George Frideric Handel, deeply in debt, donated the proceeds of his new work “Messiah” to charity. After the premier in Dublin on April 13, 1742 Handel conducted 30 more performances to benefit the foundling hospital whose board he had joined. The large amount of money raised for orphans led one observer to acclaim,

“Messiah has fed the hungry, clothed the naked, fostered the orphan more than any other single musical production in this or any country.” Another wrote “Perhaps the works of no other composer have so largely contributed to the relief of human suffering.” Handel is a fine example for Messrs. Gates and Buffett...and the rest of us.

Merry Christmas!

Kevin and Marilyn Ryan edited “Why I am still a Catholic” [Riverhead Books, 1998] and live in Chestnut Hill, Mass.