A while back, when I was a correspondent at CBS News, a colleague and I had just finished shooting an interview and were walking down the street in midtown Manhattan when we stumbled onto a common site in many of our big cities. A panhandler asked us for money.
I was prepared to just keep walking, but my friend, a Catholic who took his religion seriously, stopped to give the guy some money — a dollar or two as I recall.
You know there’s a very good chance he’s just going to spend it on booze or drugs, I told my friend. Yes, he told me, he knew, but he felt it was the right thing to do.
But you’re not helping him, I said. And I added, politely, I think you gave him the money to feel better about yourself. He acknowledged that was part of it.
I thought about that encounter the other day when I heard what Pope Francis said about helping panhandlers.
Giving to the needy “is always right,” he said, and he challenged those who make excuses for not giving money to people on the street.
Questioning my CBS News friend is one thing, but questioning the wisdom of the pope, especially when I’m not a member of his flock, is something else. But here goes, anyway: Giving money to a wino is not always right. In fact, it may always be wrong.
My reaction wouldn’t surprise Pope Francis. Because in his interview that was published in a Milan magazine, the pope acknowledged what I, and many of you, I suspect, are thinking: “I give money and then he spends it on drinking a glass of wine,” the pope said. But if “a glass of wine is the only happiness he has in life, that’s OK.”
Really? How does that work? The guy on the street is an alcoholic, we give him money, he buys some garbage that will rot his insides, and “that’s OK” because “a glass of wine is his only happiness in life”?
“Instead,” the pope continued, “ask yourself what do you do on the sly? What ‘happiness’ do you seek in secret?” And we should realize that we “are luckier, with a house, a wife, children.”
Well, one of the reasons we are “luckier” than the alcoholic or drug addict begging for money is precisely because we’re not alcoholics or drug addicts. I realize that it’s not the thing to say in polite company but we made one set of choices and the addict made another.
That doesn’t mean the panhandler doesn’t deserve help or compassion. But is it really compassionate to help some poor soul continue down a path that leads to still more destruction?
Let’s get the obvious out of the way: The pope is a good man. His heart is in the right place. He cares about the less fortunate among us. And so should we all.
But isn’t this the same old paternalism liberals are famous for? Isn’t this the same kind of thinking that created and perpetuated the welfare state here in America – the same kind of compassion that in too many cases left generation after generation no better off than when the supposed compassion started.
Liberals may genuinely think they’re helping, but they’re not the ones paying the price for their compassion.
And it’s no surprise that the pope got a big thumbs up from the Bible of liberal American journalism, the editorial page of the New York Times.
“New Yorkers, if not city dwellers everywhere, might acknowledge a debt to Pope Francis this week. He has offered a concrete, permanently useful prescription for dealing with panhandlers.
“It’s this: Give them the money, and don’t worry about it.”
How liberal of the New York Times to instruct us not to “worry about it.” Why should we? Even if our generosity doesn’t make the wino feel better – we’ll feel better about ourselves. And that’s really important too, isn’t it?
The Times editorial also tells us that, “You don’t know what that guy will do with your dollar. Maybe you’d disapprove of what he does. Maybe compassion is the right call.”
Or maybe buying the poor guy a tuna fish sandwich and handing that to him instead of a dollar bill is the right call. Maybe buying a bunch of cheap blankets then handing them out to people on the street in the dead of winter would be the right call, and more compassionate than simply tossing him a few coins or a few dollars and continuing on our way.
In Proverbs 14:21 we’re told that, “blessed is the one who is kind to the needy.”
Yes, but it’s not kind to contribute to the ruin of a human being already tottering on the edge – even if our compassion makes us feel better about ourselves.