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Larger principles underpin Pope's beggar belief

  • 09 March 2017


We often find ourselves invited to respond to people who ask us for money on the street. Beggars, homeless people, buskers and charity collectors, and so on.

We can respond in different ways: give them something, decline as a matter of course, decline as a matter of principle, not notice them, establish a set of principles that dictates to whom we shall give or refuse, keep a few coins to give to people who ask, intend to give coins only to discover that we have only notes, or act randomly depending on how we feel.

The most common principles that may lead us to decline have to do with the probability that what we give will feed addiction, and that other people will have to deal with its human, social and environmental consequences.

Whether we give or decline, we then have the choice of looking in the eye the people who ask us and so making our response personal, of entering into conversation with them, or of giving our money almost furtively with eyes lowered. When we walk on we can think no more about the encounter or we can wonder if we have done rightly and chat with friends about how best to respond.

Last week Pope Francis entered the conversation, as always with a challenging point of view. In an interview for what would once have been thought a decidedly unpapal forum — Scarp de 'tenis, the Italian equivalent of the Big Issue — he recommended always giving coins to people who ask for money on the street.

Dismissing the most common reason offered for refusal — that the money will only be spent on alcohol or other drugs — he asked how we spend our own surplus money.

He added that the most important part of giving to the poor is to engage the recipient personally and to enter imaginatively into their situation. He also spoke of the duty of society to provide for shelter and the basic needs of all its members, and to make migrants and refugees welcome.

Francis' advice recalled the legendary Melbourne Archbishop Mannnix's practice of walking into the city each morning and giving coins to people who asked.


"Any principles that shift our attention away from the human being before us are evasions of responsibility. It is dehumanising for us as well as for the person who begs from us."


To many it will seem to be too categorical. The more