“I’m getting more and more ticked off about this stuff,” I said. “How’s that?” my youngest daughter replied.
“Day after day I get these direct mail appeals from religious groups.” I waved that day’s arrivals in the air. “No doubt some of them are good causes, and I assume that they all operate within the law. But the pitch that many of them make really does get under my skin.”
“How’s that?” the daughter asked again.
“Look at these.” I read from a couple of the envelopes. “’Enclosed you will find a medal that touched the saint’s relic.’ ‘Send us money and we’ll send you blessed oil — strictly as gift of course.’
“And this one is the absolute worst — a crucifix. If somebody wants a crucifix and decides to buy one, that’s just fine with me. But sending unsolicited crucifixes through the mail in the hope that pious people will send a few dollars back… What do you think a lot of people do with them?”
“Throw them away, I guess,” the daughter said, making a throwing-away gesture.
“Exactly. But a crucifix is a sacred symbol, a religious object with tremendous spiritual meaning. This whole business makes me sick.”
“Maybe it’s something else to write about,” the daughter suggested helpfully.
I pondered that. “You may be right.”
She was. I expect you’ve gotten the drift of this column by now. Religious groups are entitled to raise money, and to use direct mail if they wish. But sending cheap religious articles — medals, holy pictures, rosaries, statuettes — to people who didn’t ask for them crosses the line into a realm that can reasonably be called sacrilegious.
Here’s a real-life illustration of the human harm this practice can have. I used to know a pious Catholic woman, now deceased, who unfortunately was afflicted with scrupulosity. One form that took was the idea that she had to send money to every single religious group that sent her a piece of direct mail.
And so she did — send them all money, I mean. Now, she was not a wealthy woman, and I imagine she had to strain to come up with even a small check for every outfit that asked. This was a clear case of the religious groups exploiting a good person’s weakness for their own benefit.
The exploitation is even worse when the bait is an unsolicited religious article. In that case the sender counts on the recipient’s respect for religious symbols — more respect, I might add, than the sender shows.
Yes, some people welcome the religious articles they receive this way and are glad to make a donation. So here’s an approach that takes that into account while facing up to the problem I’m talking about.
Instead of sending religious articles indiscriminately to people who’ll want them and people who won’t, tell everyone who gets your mailing that they can receive the rosary or the medal or whatever it is simply by writing back and asking (free-will offerings gladly received of course). If someone objects that this takes guilt out of the picture (am I not obliged to pay for what I get, even if I didn’t ask for it?), I reply: Do you really imagine it’s okay to squeeze money out of simple, pious souls by making them feel guilty?
Religious groups that raise funds this way should stop exploiting people and causing scandal. Recipients should refuse to give in to psychological bullying. And Church authorities should speak up about an obnoxious practice that’s clearly gotten out of hand.
Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.