Bishop Tobin's Cautious Advice About Panhandlers Shakes Up the Internet

Bishop Tobin believes that the best way to help the indigent is not to encourage begging, but rather, to find new solutions to the problem of poverty.

Bishop Thomas J. Tobin of Providence
Bishop Thomas J. Tobin of Providence (photo: File Photo/CNA)

On Tuesday, March 28, the Internet lit up after Bishop Thomas J. Tobin posted a message on Facebook, encouraging people not to give to panhandlers.

Bishop Tobin, spiritual leader of the Diocese of Providence, was responding to a vote by the Cranston (R.I.) City Council to crack down on soliciting in the city. According to WPRI Eyewitness News, the ordinance, which was approved in a 5-4 vote, “...forbids a person from entering or standing in the road, or a median to receive money from drivers. This applies to panhandlers, student athletes raising money, firefighters 'filling the boot', etc. ... Proponents argued that soliciting in the streets causes car crashes and other safety hazards.”

In his Facebook post on Tuesday, Bishop Tobin wrote:

Three Reasons Not to Give to Panhandlers

1) Throwing some loose change at a panhandler while passing by is demeaning of his or her human dignity. While it might make us feel better, in fact it sustains a very unhealthy and degrading lifestyle. Our community has legitimate and structured means of helping the poor and needy. We should support those.

2) It can be a very real safety hazard, endangering the individuals on the curb or in the street asking for help, as well as for passing motorists and pedestrians.

3) It is a practice that enables a few dishonest individuals to prey upon the compassion of others to ask for money, even when they don't have legitimate needs.

Pope Francis has said, “The great danger, or temptation, when aiding the poor, is falling into an attitude of protective paternalism that, at the end of the day, does not allow them to grow. A Christian's obligation is to integrate the most deprived into the community in whatever way possible, but definitely to integrate them.”

Bishop Tobin's Facebook post has been widely shared, and drew more than a hundred comments; a quick count revealed that a majority of respondents disagreed with the bishop's perspective. Some critics asserted that the bishop's view was “un-Christian” and cited the Biblical story of the Good Samaritan. An Associate Press story pointed to Pope Francis, who was asked last month by an Italian magazine for the homeless

“...if it is right to give alms to people who ask for help on the street,” according to a transcript of the interview posted on the Vatican website. He replied that there are many arguments to justify not giving money, such as being concerned the person will go buy himself wine. But, Francis said, “Help is always right.”


Fact Check:  Is Bishop Tobin Really “Un-Christian”?

But in fact, Bishop Tobin has a heart for the people of God, and has been active in helping those unfortunate persons in many ways. Perhaps the critics who complain that His Excellency “hasn't read the Bible” or “is rejecting those in need of assistance” should pause to consider the many ways that this generous leader has reached out to help the needy.

Immigration: Lending a Voice to the Stranger Among Us – After the Governor of Rhode Island signed an executive order targeting undocumented individuals, the Bishop joined with other faith leaders to share stories of widespread fear throughout the immigrant community. The executive order, coupled with immigration raids in the surrounding area, led the Bishop and pastors that serve the immigrant community to call for a moratorium on such raids.

In March of 2011, Bishop Tobin was the keynote speaker at a conference hosted by Brown University entitled ’Immigrants and Immigration in the 21st Century.’ The purpose of the conference was to bring together academics, political leaders, business people and the advocacy and social services world in a constructive discussion of immigration issues.

Home Heating: Lending a Hand to Those With No Place Left to Turn – In response to escalating home heating costs in the Fall of 2005, the Bishop established the ‘Keep the Heat On’ program. This donor and Catholic Charity Fund supported program provides heating assistance to those who exhaust all other public and private forms of assistance. Since its inception, ‘Keep the Heat On’ has provided more than $2 million to more than 9,300 Rhode Island individuals and families with no place left to turn for help for oil, gas and electric assistance.

Under the Bishop’s leadership, the Diocese enacted a number of programs during the economic downturn that provided immediate assistance to those in great need. Some of these programs include the RIPTIKS bus ticket program, free help wanted ads in the Rhode Island Catholic, child care scholarships and much more.

Respect for Life – Bishop Tobin has staunchly defended Church teaching with regard to respect for life. Shortly after he was installed, Bishop Tobin established the Human Life Guild, a group of individuals who have an unconditional commitment to human life and are willing to promote and defend human life at every stage, in every condition, through thought, word, deed and prayer. The Bishop has led members of the Human Life Guild on peaceful, prayerful vigils at abortion clinics in Rhode Island and through this group, urges elected officials to promote life-friendly initiatives.

In short, Bishop Tobin is a compassionate leader who seeks the good for all people.


A Matter of Prudential Judgment

The fact that Bishop Tobin agrees with the Cranston City Council and discourages panhandling is not evidence that he is “not Christian” or that he has somehow turned his back on the example of Scripture. How to best help the poor and needy is a matter of prudential judgment. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (no. 1806) says:

Prudential judgment is the application of moral principles to a particular case in order to do good and avoid evil. It is a recognition that we live in an imperfect world, in which achieving pure goodness is not always possible, but the Christian must constantly strive to move toward a more perfect world.

Prudential judgment is not a way to simply justify one's own interest, or to rationalize a political calculation. On certain difficult issues – helping the poor, opposing abortion and defending life, integrating immigrants while protecting American citizens – there is more than one way to approach the problem; and a Catholic is called upon to exercise judgment, while at the same time respecting Church teaching. A Catholic must, in deciding what is the best way to solve a problem, put aside any personal motives, partisan preference, or individual gain that might cloud his judgment.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, in their document “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship (No. 19), said,

“The Church fosters well-formed consciences not only by teaching moral truth but also by encouraging its members to develop the virtue of prudence, which St. Ambrose described as 'the charioteer of the virtues.'”

Bishop Tobin believes, with many others, that the best way to help the indigent is not to encourage begging, but rather, to find new solutions to the problem of poverty. Those solutions may include addiction treatment, counseling, job training, housing assistance, or many other social programs.