"Purchasing is always a moral--and not simply an economic--act," said Pope Francis, quoting from Benedict XVI's 2009 encyclical Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth). But what happens when purchasing is the only thing keeping our morals in check?
That's the reality of the philanthropic trend known as "compassionate consumerism," a charitable giving model that allows people to be socially conscious while also acquiring a material good. For instance, the shoe company TOMS donates money to charitable causes using funds from consumer purchases. Products featuring the pink ribbon sometimes support breast cancer foundations. (RED) products claim to contribute funding to AIDS research. While these feel-good purchases aren't necessarily bad, they do beg the question of how Catholics should best practice acts of charity.
David Cloutier, a moral theologian at the Catholic University of America, says that Pope Francis has vividly communicated that the best way to be truly charitable is by face-to-face encounter with those who are struggling--and preferably in our own communities.
"Whenever possible, we should be charitable in and through organizations that embed us in genuine solidarity with others in need," Cloutier says. "I joke sometimes that the best way for a busy person to be charitable is to move to a poorer neighborhood. Your community will be right there at your door."
He says our biggest worry about charitable consumerism should be whether the donation actually does the good intended. For example, some companies tout giveaways of their products to people in faraway countries. Giveaways often have a perverse effect, he says. They compete with local producers and hamper the development of companies in the poor countries themselves.
"I think we have to be honest and ask whether we are giving permission to ourselves to fall into consumerism by telling ourselves it's OK because we are adding in a little dose of charity," Cloutier says. "Still, it is a good thing that people are thinking about others as they buy. I hope we can deepen our understanding of how to do that well."
While there's not necessarily shame in buying a pair of TOMS, this kind of purchase can open doors to even greater charitable opportunities. We checked out five popular consumer charities and dug up tips on how to further your post-purchase impact on each cause and, as Cloutier recommends, deepen your understanding of how to purchase well.
Sarah Butler is an associate editor at U.S. Catholic.