The National Catholic Review
Image

You won’t find many points of similarity between Charles Darwin and me, but recent events have me once again pondering one common attribute: an acute sense of wonder.

I have never investigated precisely what led Darwin to conduct the research that produced his masterpiece, On the Origin of Species, but I imagine him taking particular delight in the amazing variety of plant and animal life and resolving to gain new insights into the mechanisms responsible for so many species. Wonder at nature’s diversity prompted the scientific labors of the Darwin of my imagination.

I have often been gripped by the same powerful appreciation of diversity, although it is the diversity of human activity that enthralls me. Nothing against hummingbirds, tortoises and finches, but I have always marveled at the varied motivations that prompt human behavior in all its richness.

As a child observing commuters rushing off to work, it struck me as amazing that all these people had found meaning in a staggering number of different professions and work experiences. Even if each Dashing Dan or Danielle did not consider his or her current job a satisfying endpoint of a quest for the perfect career, they found sufficient motivation and interest to take up and sustain that type of work, at least in the short run. The proliferation of majors and fields of study on any university campus is a similar testimony to the dizzying diversity of interests among people, as if God planted in us the seeds of a bewildering array of inclinations, abilities and tastes.

Anybody who observes the hundreds of hobbies, thousands of magazines, even the stunning array of niche cable channels available today, might be struck by the same impression. There is someone drawn to every imaginable activity.

Lately I have been experiencing this sense of wonder anew. This summer I took up a position (as dean of a graduate school of theology and ministry) that prompted me to study up, for the first time in my life, on the world of philanthropy. No institution in our country seems to be able to make ends meet teaching theology at the graduate level, since our alumni are highly unlikely to earn enough to contribute substantially. So leaders of seminaries and theology centers will forever be on the lookout for potential donors.

Thank goodness, then, for the human proclivity for diverse interests! It seems that God has planted in some affluent and generous souls an ardent desire to make substantial sacrifices to support schools of theology and ministry. Of course, it is still a challenge to identify enough of these donors to keep such schools afloat; but my point here is that this is not altogether impossible. Despite all the odds, somebody out there feels drawn to care.

When I am not thinking about the challenge of my own mission to keep my institution solvent, I ponder the plight of needy organizations and individuals who struggle to eke out an existence even farther down the food chain of philanthropy. Sure, God created a remarkable number of people with commendable interest in funding the arts and prominent social causes, throwing some money toward their alma mater or fighting a specific disease that may have claimed a loved one, but what about the remaining urgent causes that fall through the cracks?

In moments of dramatic crisis, like Hurricane Katrina in 2005 or the Asian tsunami of 2004 or the Haitian earthquake of 2010 (to cite some crises of the past decade), generous giving for emergency relief efforts is deeply encouraging. But ordinary grinding poverty is rightly characterized as “a natural disaster in slow motion.” Unmet human needs for adequate food, shelter and health care are unlikely ever to present a broad enough appeal to prevent the human tragedies of homeless families and lives ruined by preventable disease and malnourishment, here and abroad. Just ask the heroes who run Catholic Charities and Catholic Relief Services, who struggle every day with the grim arithmetic of rising needs and diminishing resources.

It would be great if God graced the world with another Einstein or Picasso or even another Darwin, but I most ardently hope that God will fashion a few more people of means with an innate proclivity to care for the poor.

Thomas Massaro, S.J., is the dean of the Jesuit School of Theology of Santa Clara University, in Berkeley, Calif.

Comments

Joseph J Dunn | 11/3/2012 - 3:42pm
Father Massaro marvels at the amazing variety of occupations and professions that people pursue, and the variety of charities and institutions that sramble to gather funds for their good works. As he points out, many wealthy people do support universities, the arts, medical research, etc. The continuing unmet needs for food, shelter and health care rarely make headlines, but those needs are real, and the writer hopes for a few more people of means with an inate proclivity to care for the poor.

A few years ago I volunteered to write some grant applications on behalf of a local homeless shelter serving people in northern Maryland and Delaware. The main kitchen needed complete rebuilding and expansion, and the expense would far exceed the center's available resources. Fortunately, a number of foundations provided grants which not only made the project feasible, but encourged additional gifts from area businesses and a few wealthy families. I later learned that one of the foundations was largely funded by various members of the DuPont family, though the nothing in the foundation's literature proclaims this. 

As I searched further for available "deep pockets," it became evident that many of the huge 19th and 20th century fortunes are being recycled back into society through foundations and other quiet philanthropies. Some focus on the arts, some on education, etc., some focus more on the general needs (including aid to the poor) of particular states or cities, others have global reach. 

Many of those people scurrying to so many diverse jobs are the very ones who respond to charities and churches. A few of those professionals and executives become very wealthy (one percent, or fewer) and it is often those very same people who provide the leadership gifts that every dean, president or executive director prays for. And, as my research led me to understand, business profits and wealth (accumulated profits) find their back into society. This process may not be as fascinating as Darwin's theory of evolution, but it is a process that anyone working to promote the common good, or to balance the scales of social justice, should come to know. That's why I turned my research into a book.

Joseph J. Dunn   Author of After One Hundred Years: Corporate Profits, Wealth, and American Society. 
Mike Evans | 11/2/2012 - 3:38pm
The answers lie not just in more philanthropy or arrogant instruction about how to grow and harvest food. There are stances even more important like good governance, fighting corruption and graft, exposing the diversion and stealing of gifts and aid to bolster private wealth, the equipping of armies of secret police and lack of even transparent justice to hold people down and make them afraid. We are more than providers of urinal candy or MRE's (Meals Refused by Everyone). People need more than just a meal for today, they need clean pipeline water for tomorrow, hygeine for their newborn babies, protection and honor for their women, safety from bandits, and a chance to make a life that is rewarding and satisfying. We and the rest of the U.N. have the opportunity to be an enormous influence and we so often blow our chances. The continuous sniping from conservatives about waste in government and the unworthy poor are also no help in shaping attitudes and responses. And the media have left unsung the heroic efforts of so many persons, organizations, countries and ministries that have indeed made a major difference in places that have suffered recent disasters. Tell the good news and the money and people and gifts will follow!

Recently in Columns