Over at the National Catholic Register, Mark Shea has a piece entitled “Against Punishing the Poor.” It criticizes city officials of Norton Shores, Michigan, for considering amendments to two ordinances in order to limit soliciting money at traffic intersections and other locations. Although Shea is right about the importance of helping the poor–who can argue with the words of Jesus on this topic, which Shea quotes in his piece?–I think he is being a little too moralistic here.
Here is part of his commentary on the proposed amendments:
It is *so* important make sure the poor are well and truly punished and humiliated for being poor. So, so important. Also any filthy do-gooder who tries to help them.
This is surely unjust. If you read the news story that is the point of departure for his piece, you will find that none of the city officials or citizens who are quoted talk as if they want to humiliate and punish poor people. The worst you could say about them is that they find such begging an inconvenience and an embarrassment (especially in a community that depends to some extent on tourism). This is perhaps not a generous attitude, but neither is it the kind of depravity of which Shea accuses them. Of course, maybe some of them really are secretly as hateful as he suggests, but there is just no evidence of it. Shea does not cite anything to support such a characterization, and since he cannot read minds it would be better altogether to take these people at their word.
He is also wrong, I think, to frame the whole issue as a naked choice between doing right by the poor versus wickedly trying to prevent anyone from helping them. A poor man has a right, even a duty, to ask for help. And a person who gives him help does a meritorious deed. It does not follow, however, that it is wrong for a community to regulate the where, when, and how of this with a view to public order. A person begging at a busy traffic intersection, and the people who stop to give to him, might well impede the movement of vehicles to an extent that the community has a legitimate right to prevent. It’s a question of prudence, and even a very pious Catholic could be in favor of such an ordinance.
Of course, in a simpler time you might not even need such a law. Seeing someone begging from cars at an intersection, a police officer might approach him, tell him to move along, and inform him where he could get help. But in the age of the ACLU and activist judges, such a police officer might be in the wrong, and the community in danger of an expensive lawsuit, if the officer is not actually enforcing a written law.
Here’s another example. It is a very good thing to start a homeless shelter. But someone who does it in his home, in a residential neighborhood, right next to his neighbors, is arguably making a nuisance of himself. At least, there are ordinarily zoning ordinances against this kind of thing, and I believe in most instances the Church simply complies with them as reasonable regulations, rather than denouncing them and the people who support them.