Is it a sin? Food Pantry staff ask food recipients to pray with them

In this blog, I frequently write about intrinsically evil acts — acts that are inherently immoral, in and of themselves, due to an evil moral object. However, there are three fonts of morality, three aspects of any knowingly chosen act that can make the act a sin:

1. intention
2. moral object
3. circumstances

Certain kinds of acts are not intrinsically evil; these acts have a good moral object, not an evil moral object. But a good type of act can still be a sin, even a grave sin, if the intention or the circumstances make the act incompatible with the love of God and the love of neighbor as self.

Almsgiving is not intrinsically evil; it is an inherently good type of act. Prayer is not intrinsically evil; it is an inherently good type of act. And yet Jesus taught that almsgiving and prayer can each be sinful, even gravely sinful:

{6:1} “Pay attention, lest you perform your justice before men, in order to be seen by them; otherwise you shall not have a reward with your Father, who is in heaven.
{6:2} Therefore, when you give alms, do not choose to sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the towns, so that they may be honored by men. Amen I say to you, they have received their reward.
{6:3} But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,
{6:4} so that your almsgiving may be in secret, and your Father, who sees in secret, will repay you.
{6:5} And when you pray, you should not be like the hypocrites, who love standing in the synagogues and at the corners of the streets to pray, so that they may be seen by men. Amen I say to you, they have received their reward.
{6:6} But you, when you pray, enter into your room, and having shut the door, pray to your Father in secret, and your Father, who sees in secret, will repay you.”

So prayer and almsgiving can become immoral, due to intention or circumstances. And this brings us to the main topic of this article.

In the state of Indiana, the director and the staff of a non-profit food pantry is asking everyone who receives food to pray with them. Community Provisions Of Jackson County, Inc. is run by Paul Brock.

Brock told that he never requires anyone to pray in order to receive nourishment they need. “We ask them if they want to pray with us; if they say no, then we just let them go on through,” Brock said. “We’re not a church. My job is to feed them and if I can pat them on the back and pray for them and lift them up somehow, that’s what I’m going to do.” Brock said 98 percent of those asked ultimately pray with Community Provisions volunteers. He said his First Amendment rights are being “trampled upon” by state officials.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture told in a written statement that religious activities by such organizations aren’t forbidden, as long as participation isn’t a condition of assistance. (Indiana congressman joins food fight after pantry loses federal items over prayer)

I don’t know whether this food pantry is violating a law or a regulation. But in my opinion as a Roman Catholic moral theologian, the director and staff of this food pantry are committing a grave sin. They are implicitly compelling persons in need of food to pray with them in order to receive food.

What do I mean by ‘implicitly compelling’? If they explicitly stated that anyone who receives food must pray with the pantry director or a staff person, this would constitute an explicit compulsion: “You may not have the food that you need, unless you submit to our demand to worship God by prayer, with us, in wording that we choose, according to our beliefs, not yours. You must pray when we wish, not when you wish, or you will be denied food.” This type of explicit compulsion to pray would be a grave sin.

By comparison, an implicit compulsion is not stated, but implied. And such is the case here. The director of the food pantry gives you the food that you need, and, as he is giving that food to you, he asks you if you would like to pray with him. He has power over you, because he is giving you food in your dire need. Even if he states that you may decline, there is a clear and immediate pressure for you to accept.

And the proof of this compulsion is found in the director’s own words: “Brock said 98 percent of those asked ultimately pray with Community Provisions volunteers.” If people are given an option to accept or to decline anything, and 98% accept, it is reasonable to ask why such a high percentage accept and so few decline. Are 98% of the persons who need food in that area of the same religion and denomination as Brock? No, they are not. And a significant percentage of the U.S. population is not particularly religious, and does not attend religious services regularly. Even those persons who are religious generally, do not choose to pray in supermarkets or restaurants. They prefer to pray privately (Mt 6:6) or in a church. The fact that 98% of persons agree to this “request” to pray indicates compulsion. Most persons would not do so without the implied pressure of food in exchange for compliance.

In addition, since the staff pray with the recipients of food (in 98% of cases), there is an implied compulsion on the staff to pray. If a staff person does not want to pray at work, or at a particular time, or with a particular person, he or she might fear the loss of his job. The prayer of the staff is also compelled.

Compelling customers or employees to pray is sinful because it contradicts the gifts of reason and free will given by God to each human person. People should pray out of love, faith, and hope. It is a grave sin to compel someone to pray in order to receive food or to keep their job. It is also a sacrilege against God because the prayer would in some cases be only a pretense in order to receive food or to retain employment.

If the type of implied compulsion practiced at Community Provisions Of Jackson County, Inc. is not illegal, it should be.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and
translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

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