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(Greek eleemosyne , "pity," "mercy").

Any material favour done to assist the needy, and prompted by charity, is almsgiving. It is evident, then, that almsgiving implies much more than the transmission of some temporal commodity to the indigent. According to the creed of political economy, every material deed wrought by man to benefit his needy brother is almsgiving. According to the creed of Christianity, almsgiving implies a material service rendered to the poor for Christ's sake. Materially, there is scarcely any difference between these two views; formally, they are essentially different. This is why the inspired writer says: "Blessed is he that considers the needy and the poor " ( Psalm 40:2 ) -- not he that gives to the needy and the poor.

The obligation of almsgiving is complementary to the right of property "which is not only lawful, but absolutely necessary " (Encycl., Rerum Novarum, tr. Baltimore, 1891, 14). Ownership admitted, rich and poor must be found in society. Property enables its possessors to meet their needs. Though labour enables the poor to win their dally bread, accidents, illness, old age, labour difficulties, plagues, war, etc. frequently interrupt their labours and impoverish them. The responsibility of succouring, those thus rendered needy belongs to those who have plenty (St. Thomas, Summa Theol., II-II, Q. xxxii, art. 5, ad 2am), For "it is one thing to have a right to possess money, and another to have a right to use money as one pleases." How must one's possessions be used? The Church replies: Man should not consider his external possessions as his own but as common to all, so as to share them without difficulty when others are in need. Whence the Apostle says: Command the rich of this world to give with ease. This is a duty not of justice (except in extreme cases), but of Christian charity -- a duty not enforced by human law. But the laws and judgments of men must yield to the laws and judgments of Christ the true God, who in many ways urges on His followers the practice of almsgiving (Encyclical, Rerum Novarum, 14, 15; cf. De Lugo, De Jure et Justitiâ, Disp. xvi, sect. 154).

Scripture is rich in passages which directly or indirectly emphasize the necessity of contributing towards the welfare of the needy. The history of the Church in Apostolic times shows that the early Christians fully realized the importance of this obligation. Community of goods ( Acts 4:32 ), collections in church ( Acts 11:29 sqq. ; 1 Corinthians 16:1 ; Galatians 2:10 ), the ministry of deacons and deaconesses were simply the inauguration of that world-wide system of Christian charity which has circumscribed the globe and added another testimony to the Divinity of that Church which directs her ministrations towards the alleviation of human misery in every shape and form (Lecky, History of European Morals, II, 100, 3d ea., New York, 1891).

The Fathers of the Church frequently and unequivocally inculcated the necessity of almsgiving.

  • To this matter St. Cyprian devoted a complete treatise (De Opere et Eleemosynâ, P.L., IV, 601 sqq.).
  • St. Basil recounts how St. Lawrence distributed the treasures of the Church to the poor. Questioned by a pagan governor regarding the treasures which he had promised to transmit, Lawrence pointed to the poor, saying: They are treasures in whom is Christ, in whom is faith.
  • Contrary to the envy of the Arians, St. Ambrose lauds the breaking and selling of sacred vessels for the redemption or captives (De Officiis Ministrorum, xxviii, xxx, P. L., XVI, 141 sqq.).
  • The more effectively to urge the precept of almsgiving, the Fathers teach that the wealthy are God's stewards and dispensers, so much so that where they refuse to aid the needy they are guilty of theft (St. Basil, Homil. in illud Lucæ, No. 7, P.G., XXXI, 278; St. Gregory of Nyssa, De Pauperibus Amandis, P.G., XLVI, 466; St. Chrysostom , in Ep. I ad Cor., Homil. 10, c. 3, P.G., LXI, 86; St. Ambrose, De Nab. lib. unus, P.L., XIV, 747; St. Augustine, in Ps. cxvii, P.L., XXXVII, 1922).
  • Discretion in almsgiving is counseled in the Apostolic Constitutions : "Alms must not be given to the malicious, the intemperate, or the lazy; lest a premium should be set on vice " (Const. Apost., ii, 1-63; iii, 4-6).
  • St. Cyprian asserts that adherents of other religions must not be excluded from a share in Catholic charity (De Opere et Eleemosynâ, c. xxv, P. L., IV, 620).
After the Patristic epoch the teaching of the Church regarding almsgiving did not vary throughout the ages. St. Thomas Aquinas has admirably summarized this teaching during the medieval period (St. Thomas, Summa Theol., II-II, QQ. xxx-xxxiii, De Misericordiâ; De Beneficentiâ; De Eleemosynâ). No writer of modern times has so admirably epitomized the position of the Church as Leo XIII (Encyclicals, Rerum Novarum , 15 May, 1891; Graves de Communi, 18 Jan, 1901). In so much as the obligation of almsgiving is coextensive with the obligation of charity, everyone falls under the law. The donor, however, must be entitled to dispose of what he contributes, because almsgiving usually implies that the beneficiary acquires a title to whatever his benefactor gives. Ecclesiastics are bound in a special way to observe the precept of almsgiving, because they are constituted fathers of the poor, and are besides obliged by their example to lead the laity to entertain correct views concerning the importance of this duty.

As a general rule, the indigent of every class, saint or sinner, countrymen or foreigners, friend or foe, have their claims upon the charity of those competent to give alms ( Proverbs 25:21 ; Romans 12:20 ; Sylvius, Summa, II-II, Q. 32: art. 9; De Conninck, Disp. 27:Dub. 6, No. 70). The conjunction of genuine indigence in the poor and ability to minister relief in the rich, is necessary to concrete the obligation of almsgiving (St. Thomas, op. cit., II-II, QQ. xxxii, art. 5, ad 3am).

The character of the obligation

Diversity of actual conditions circumscribing the needy, specify the character of indigence. Where the necessaries of life are wanting, or where imminent peril threatens vital interests, indigence is extreme. Where the absence of aid leads to serious reverses, in goods or fortune, indigence is serious or pressing. Where the quest for the necessaries of life involves considerable trouble, indigence is common or ordinary. The obligation of almsgiving extends to this triple indigence. Scripture and the Fathers speak indiscriminately of the poor, the needy, and the indigent without restricting the obligation of almsgiving to any particular species of indigence. Nearly all theologians adopt this view.

Nevertheless, the better to determine the character of this obligation in the concrete, it is necessary to consider the character of temporalities in those who hold property. In the first place, property necessary to maintain vital interests is indispensably necessary. Property without which vital interests are not jeopardized is considered superfluous thereunto. Property required to maintain social prestige, i.e. to live in keeping with one's position in society, to educate offspring, to engage domestics, to entertain, etc., is considered equally indispensable from a social standpoint. Property without which social prestige is not endangered is reputed superfluous thereunto. Accordingly, there is never any obligation of using the necessaries of life for almsgiving, because well-regulated charity ordinarily obliges everyone to prefer his own vital interests to those of his neighbour. The only exception occurs when the interests of society are identified with those of a needy member (Müller, Theol. Moralis, II, tr., i, sect. 30, 112).

To a neighbour in extreme indigence relief must be ministered by using such commodities as are superfluous to vital interests, even though such should be required for social advantages (St. Thomas, Summa Theol., II-II, Q. xxxii, art. 6; St. Alphonsus Liguori, Theol. Moralis, III, no. 31). For charity demands that the vital interests of an indigent neighbour should supersede personal advantages of a much lower order (Suarez, De Charitate, Disput. vii, sect. 4, no. 3). The transgression of this obligation involves a mortal sin. Nevertheless no one, however wealthy, is obliged to take extraordinary measures to assist a neighbour even in direful straits, e.g. a wealthy citizen is not bound to send a dying pauper to a more salubrious clime, or to bear the expense of a difficult surgical operation for the betterment of a pauper (Suarez, loc. cit., sect. 4, no. 4). Nor is a wealthy individual obliged to imperil his social standing to aid a neighbour in extreme need (La Croix, Theol. Moralis, II, no. 201). For charity does not bind anyone to employ extraordinary means in order to safeguard his own life (St. Alphonsus, op. cit., III, no. 31).

To a neighbour in serious or pressing indigence, alms must be given by using such commodities as are superfluous in relation to present social advantages. Nay, more likely in the more acute forms of such indigence those commodities which may in some measure tend to future social advantages must be taxed to succour this indigence (Suarez, loc. cit., no. 5; De Conninck, loc. cit., no. 125; Viva, in prop. xii, damnatam ab Innoc. XI, no. 8). The transgression of this obligation likewise involves a grievous sin, because well-regulated charity obliges one to meet the serious needs of another when he can do so without serious personal disadvantage (St. Alphonsus, H. Ap. tr., iv, no. 19).

In the ordinary troubles confronting the poor alms must be given from such temporalities only as are superfluous to social requirements. This does not imply an obligation of answering every call, but rather a readiness, to give alms according to the dictates of well-regulated charity (Suarez, loc. cit., sect. 3, nos. 7, 10). Theologians are divided into two schools regarding the character of this obligation. Those holding that the obligation is serious seem to espouse a cause in harmony with the teaching of Scripture and the authority of the Fathers (St. Alphonsus, op. cit., III, no. 32; Bouquillon, Institutiones Theol. Moralis Specialis, III, no. 488). At all events, such affluent individuals as always fail to give alms or harshly repel mendicants indiscriminately are unquestionably guilty of grievous sin. Whoso is actually obliged to relieve extreme or pressing indigence must give whatever is necessary to ameliorate existing conditions. It is not an easy matter to determine what amount must be given as alms to those labouring under ordinary indigence. St. Alphonsus, whose view in this matter is shared by many modern moralists, holds that an outlay corresponding to two per cent of temporalities superfluous to social prestige suffices to satisfy the obligation, because were all concerned to adopt this method ordinary indigence could easily be remedied. At the same time it is not always practical to reduce problems depending so largely on moral appreciation to a mathematical basis (Lehmkuhl, Theologia Moralis (Specialis), II, ii, no. 609).

Furthermore, all either contributing spontaneously to public and private charities, or paying such taxes as are levied by civil legislation to support the indigent satisfy this obligation to some extent (Lehmkuhl, loc. cit., no. 606). Physicians, attorneys, artisans, are bound to render their services to the poor unless provision is made for them at public expense. The extent of services to be rendered and the character of the obligation binding thereunto depend on the kind of indigence and the inconvenience which such ministrations impose on physicians, attorneys, or artisans (Lehmkuhl, loc. cit., no. 609). Though the notion of almsgiving embodies the donation of commodities necessary to lighten human misery, moralists admit that it is sufficient to lend an object whose use alone serves to meet a neighbour's need (St. Alphonsus, op. cit., III, no. 31; Bouquillon, op. cit., no. 493). Moreover, common sense repudiates almsgiving to those in need simply because they will not labour to escape such need (St. Ambrose, De Officiis Ministrorum, xxx, no. 144).

Qualities of spiritually fruitful almsgiving

In addition to its innate characteristics, almsgiving should be vested with qualities tending to garner fruitfulness for giver and receiver. Hence, almsgiving should be discreet, so as to reach deserving individuals or families ( 2 Thessalonians 3:10 ; Sirach 12:4 ); prompt, so as to warrant opportuneness ( Proverbs 3:28 ); secret and humble ( Matthew 6:2 ); cheerful ( 2 Corinthians 9:7 ); abundant (Tob., iv, 9; St. Thomas, Summa Theol., II-II, Q. xxxii, art. 10). The harvest of blessings to be reaped by almsgiving amply suffices to inspire noble-minded Christians "to make unto themselves friends of the Mammon of iniquity". First of all, almsgiving renders the donor like unto God Himself ( Luke 6:30, 36 ); nay more, it renders God Himself debtor to those giving alms ( Matthew 25:40 sqq. ). Moreover, almsgiving adds special efficacy to prayer (Tob., iv, 7), tends to appease divine wrath ( Hebrews 13:16 ); liberates from sin and its punishment (Ecclus., xxix), and thus paves the way to the gift of faith ( Acts 10:31 ). Daily experience proves that those lending a helping hand to stay the miseries of the poor frequently prepare the way for the moral reformation of many whose temporal misery pales before their spiritual wretchedness. Finally, almsgiving tends to guard society against turbulent passions whose fury is often checked by almsgiving.

The phases of almsgiving

The various phases of almsgiving may be reduced to two chief classes: individual or transitory , and organized or permanent.

Transitory almsgiving

Such cases of indigence as frequently fall under the eye of sympathetic observers constitute the subject-matter of transitory almsgiving. Though charity organizations have multiplied their sphere of usefulness, special cases of indigence, more readily and effectually reached by individual attention, will always abound. Moreover, experience proves that the conduct and conversation of private benefactors frequently dispose their beneficiaries to reform their ways and lives and become useful members of the Church and State. For this reason there will always be a wide field for individual almsgiving.

Organized almsgiving

At the same time, many worthy poor people are too sensitive to appeal to private persons, while many undeserving persons assume the role of professional mendicants to extort aid from those whose sympathy is easily moved, and whose purse strings are loosened to answer every call. Moreover, how much better to forestall than to relieve indigence. To render the poor self-reliant and self-supporting is the noblest achievement of well-regulated charity. Sound religious and secular education, means and opportunities for labour, more than almsgiving will facilitate the realization of this lofty object. This is why various organizations have been established to alleviate the different forms of corporal misery.

To the Church belongs the credit of taking the initiative in promoting systematized effort for the welfare of the needy. So abundantly have her labours been blessed that her success has evoked the admiration of her sworn enemies (Encyclical, Rerum Novarum, tr., 18). The history of yesterday and the experience of today prove that the Church is still the poor man's friend.

Organized charity is furthered by the concerted action of persons in their private capacity or by the official proceeding of those whose position binds them to seek the temporal well-being of all classes in society. The various corners of the globe are studded with institutions of divers kinds, reared and maintained by the generosity of private parties. Human misery in its various stages, from the cradle to the grave, finds therein a haven of consolation and rest, while the prayers of inmates, legion in number, call the blessing of Him who is the Father of the poor, upon the heads of those whose liberality proves that the charity of the brotherhood defies limitation.

Though admirable and far-reaching in its influence, privately organized charity is incapable of effectually coping with the divers forms of misery. This is why civil governments shape their legislation to make provision for such subjects as fail in their efforts in the struggle for existence. Various institutions destined to provide for needy citizens of every class are conducted under State patronage. Directors are appointed, attendants installed, visiting and inspection required, reports submitted, and appropriations annually made to meet the exigencies of such institutions. Encouragement and opportunity are not denied those disposed to ambition, self-respect, and self-support.

Noteworthy indeed are the associated charities inaugurated by the government to promote organized charity. Throughout cities, bureaus are established, and officials deputed, to examine the actual condition of mendicants, so as to discriminate between worthy and unworthy appeals. To this end friendly visiting is encouraged. Proseletyzing is discountenanced, so much so that in many localities Catholics and non-Catholics join hands in the work of organized charity. Movements along these lines are to be found in England, Scotland, France, Italy, and Canada. Those best qualified to speak authoritatively in this matter are eloquent in their expression of the good feeling between Catholic and non-Catholic workers, and equally eloquent in summarizing the admirable results attained through this union of forces. These movements represent the culmination of noblest effort to concrete almsgiving in its fulness, so that givers themselves may share in affection, sympathy, and thought with receivers, thereby animating almsgiving with a human, nay, more, a Divine element, tending to ennoble the poor in healing their misery.


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