The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Great Philanthropist

When I was about eight or nine years old I joined my parents and older brother at the funeral of a family acquaintance who it seems was quite wealthy. I have a vague recollection of him and his wife coming to dinner at our home once, but that's about it. I can't even recall his name. Although my father and the deceased were not close friends, Dad thought it important to attend the funeral Mass which was being celebrated at a Catholic church in a neighboring town. The church was packed with people and those who arrived a few minutes late were forced to stand. I remember my brother, Jeff, observing that our father's friend must have been a very important man to attract so many people to his funeral. Dad simply said, "He helped a lot of people. He was a philanthropist." And then he told us to be quiet.

I, of course, had never heard the word before and so later that day I asked my older, smarter brother, "What's a philanthropist?" At that point in our lives, Jeff didn't have a lot of time for his kid brother and just replied, "It's a guy who gives his money away." Now this was a definition I could understand. Indeed, that very week all of us public school kids who attended the religious education program on Wednesday afternoons at our local parochial school had taken part in a fundraising drive for the foreign missions. My mom received several monthly publications from missionary orders and I had always enjoyed looking through them. The missions seemed so exotic and life as a missionary appealed to my adventurous nature. And so when Mom suggested I contribute half of my allowance (money earned for chores I had to complete each day) to the drive, and I had happily done so.

From that moment on, I considered myself a philanthropist, and began to refer to myself using that term. I suppose I did this rather frequently, probably 20 or 30 times a day. Philanthropist was, after all, a rather impressive, large word and a neat sounding word too. I enjoyed saying it. This particular habit lasted only a few weeks since it really irritated the rest of the family and I was finally and clearly told to cease and desist. Backed by the threat of physical harm, Jeff had bluntly said,"You're not rich enough to be a philanthropist so stop calling yourself one or I'll stuff you in the window seat." This comment enhanced my understanding of the word. A philanthropist now became a rich person who gave his money away.

A few years later, when the TV show, The Millionaire, became a hit, I knew immediately that the shadowy, unseen man who gave a million dollars to someone during each week's episode was a philanthropist. After all, he was rich and gave his money away...a perfect fit. I suppose most people agree with this basic definition and would include Andrew Carnegie, J. Paul Getty, Bill Gates, various Fords and Rockefellers and Vanderbilts, Warren Buffet, and many other wealthy folks among the world's philanthropists.

But then, at some point in my education, I discovered what the word really means. Quite literally, philanthropist means a lover of humanity, and focusing on this definition can lead to a whole different understanding of philanthropy. For example, I recently read an article about Melinda Gates who, along with her husband, Microsoft's Bill Gates, founded the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Under her guidance the foundation is spending over $4 billion to distribute abortion-inducing contraceptives (the so-called morning after pill) to over 120 million women worldwide. This effort has received a great deal of publicity in the press and almost every article mentions that Ms. Gates is a "practicing Catholic." Indeed, the press often makes a point of describing how she openly defies the Church's teaching on sexual morality.

My question is, how can someone who promotes the destruction of human life be considered a lover of humanity, a philanthropist? Giving is good, but only if the end of that giving is also good. Human beings, whether wealthy or not so wealthy, have only limited material resources which they can share with others. To me it's not how much one shares but to what end those resources are shared. Melinda Gates is giving away billions but it's going to serve an intrinsically evil end, the destruction of innocent, unborn human life. Who is, then, the greater philanthropist, she or the child who gives a dollar of her allowance to the missions? Which is the true lover of humanity, the one who does God's work in the world or the one who defies God's law and His Church?

There's really only One true Philanthropist, only One true Lover of humanity, only One who has unlimited resources and gives of them freely to those whom He loves. God, who created us in His image, is the Great Philanthropist. He and only He is the great Lover who brought all of creation into being out of love. We can either support Him by doing His work for His greater glory, or in our arrogance we can turn away from Him and watch as our works turn to dust.

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