Charity and Charities
FREE Catholic Classes
In its widest and highest sense, charity includes love of God as well as love of man. The latter kind of love is so closely connected with, and dependent upon, the former, that neither it nor its fruits, under the Christian dispensation, can be adequately set forth without a brief preliminary glance at the relations existing between the two kinds.
As a virtue, charity is that habit or power which disposes us to love God above all creatures for Himself, and to love ourselves and our neighbours for the sake of God. When this power or habit is directly infused into the soul by God, the virtue is supernatural ; when it is acquired through repeated personal acts, it is natural. If, in the last sentence but one, for the words, "power or habit which disposes us to" we substitute the words, "act by which we", the definition will fit the act of charity. Such an act will be supernatural if it proceeds from the infused virtue of charity, and if its motive ( God lovable because of His infinite perfections) is apprehended through revelation ; if either of these conditions is wanting the act is only natural. Thus, when a person with the virtue of charity in his soul assists a needy neighbour on account of the words of Christ, "as long as you did it to one of these my least brethren, you did it to me", or simply because his Christian training tells him that the one in need is a child of God, the act is one of supernatural charity. It is likewise meritorious of eternal life. The same act performed by one who had never heard of the Christian revelation, and from the same motive of love of God, would be one of natural charity. When charity towards the neighbour is based upon love of God, it belongs to the same virtue (natural or supernatural according to circumstances) as charity towards God. However, it is not necessary that acts of brotherly love should rest upon this high motive in order to deserve a place under the head of charity. It is enough that they be prompted by consideration of the individual's dignity, qualities, or needs. Even when motivated by some purely extrinsic end, as popular approval or the ultimate injury of the recipient, they are in essence acts of charity. The definition given above is at present scarcely ever used outside of Catholic religious and ethical treatises. In current speech and literature the term is restricted to love of neighbour. Accordingly, charity may be popularly defined as the habit, desire, or act of relieving the physical, mental, moral, or spiritual needs of one's fellows. (See ALMS AND ALMSGIVING.)
The obligation to perform acts of charity is taught both by revelation and by reason. Under the former head may be cited the words of Christ: "thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself"; "as you would that men should do to you, do you also to them in like manner"; and particularly the description in St. Mathew (xxv) of the separation of the good from the bad at the Final Judgment. Reason tells us that we ought to love our neighbours, since they are children of God ; since they are our brothers, members of the same human family ; and since they have the same nature, dignity, destiny, and needs as ourselves. This love, or charity, should be both internal and external. The former wishes the neighbour well, and rejoices in his good fortune; the latter comprises all those actions by which any of the needs are supplied. Charity differs from justice, inasmuch as it conceives its object, i.e. the neighbour, as a brother, and is based on the union existing between man and man ; whereas justice regards him as a separate individual, and is based on his independent personal dignity and rights. The spirit of the Gospel as regards charity is for superior to that of any of the other great religions. Its excellence appears in the following points: love of the neighbour is akin to love of God ; the neighbour is to beloved even as the self; men are brothers, members of the same family ; the law of charity extends to the whole human race, thus making all persons equal; men are obliged to love even their enemies; the neighbour is not merely a rational creature made in the image and likeness of God, but also the supernaturally adopted son of the Father, and the brother of the Father's Only-Begotten Son; finally, the Gospel presents the supreme exemplification of brotherly love in the death of Christ on the Cross. In no other religion are all these characteristics found; in most they are totally wanting. The charity inculcated by Judaism is of a very high order, but it falls considerably below that of the New Testament. Although both love of the neighbour as one's self ( Leviticus 19:18 ) and care of the poor ( Deuteronomy 15:4, 11 ) are strictly commanded in the Pentateuch as duties to God, the neighbour meant only the Jews and the strangers dwelling within their gates. It did not embrace all mankind. The writes of the "imprecatory" Psalms, for example xvi and liii, rejoice in their enemies misfortune. Indeed, hatred of enemies was so generally regarded as lawful that Christ proclaimed His injunction of love of enemies as something new and unfamiliar. While the Jewish religion taught and still teaches the Fatherhood of God, this doctrine is much less attractive than the Christian conception of the same truth. Besides, it embraces only the children of Israel . The Hebrew idea of the brotherhood of man is correspondingly restricted. Among the other religions, Buddhism probably has the highest form of caritative doctrine, but the motives of its charity are cold, utilitarian, and selfish. It does not command its followers to love their enemies, but merely to refrain from hating them.
The charitable achievements of the non-Christian religions have exhibited all the limitations of their defective first principles. Among the Greeks and the romans the human person had no inherent worth. He was of importance only as a citizen. The majority of the subjects of these two great powers, being slaves, were without any legal rights. The poor, whether slaves or freemen, were treated by even the noblest and wisest of the Greeks and romans with contempt or at most with pity which is akin to contempt. Owing to its doctrine that the emotions should be suppressed and that pain should be borne with indifference, Stoicism had the practical effect of discouraging sympathy with, or charity towards, the unfortunate and the indigent. Human wretchedness was regarded as a minor evil or as no evil at all. Gifts to beggars were few, and usually from motives entirely selfish. Although the assertion is sometimes made that Athens and Rome possessed hospitals, the weight of evidence seems to show conclusively that no public institution for the regular treatment of diseases existed anywhere before the coming of Christ. The rich citizens of Rome annually distributed large sums of money among their clients and dependents, and the Government regularly provided for the needs of thousands upon thousands, but neither of these practices was intended to benefit any of the poor who were not citizens. The dominant motive of both was political — to secure the goodwill and civic influence of the crowd. In Athens the subventions of public money to the poorer artisans were similarly restricted and directed to the same ends.
Hebrew charity was of a much higher order, being motivated by obedience to God and genuine pity for the unfortunate. One of its ideals was thus expressed in the words of Jehovah : "there shall be no poor or beggar among you". Owners were warned that their possessions were from God, and that they were but stewards. The widow, the orphan, the blind, and the lame, were objects of special compassion and assistance. The poor were permitted to gather up for themselves the gleanings left in the field by the reapers, and to take possession of everything that grew spontaneously in the year of the Sabbath. Those who lent money were forbidden to take interest from their fellow-Hebrews or from the strangers within their land. The fact that labour was held in honour went far towards making the condition of the lowly much less hard than among the heathen peoples. Nevertheless, Jewish charity was essentially national, for it took no account of the alien dwelling without. Interest, and frequently exorbitant interest, was exacted from the latter. In the later centuries of their existence as a nation, the Chosen People departed to a great extent from both the letter and the spirit of their excellent legislation on behalf of the poor. Hence Christ's frequent condemnation of their leaders as hypocrites, self-seekers, oppressors of the poor, and givers of alms in order to be seen of men. While the Koran strongly enjoins the duty of almsgiving, and while the Mohammedans seem to be fairly charitable towards their coreligionists, their treatment of non-believers has been uniformly devoid of either charity or justice. The acts of oppression, cruelty, and murder which they have perpetrated against other peoples, show that Mohammedans have no conception of charity in the Christian sense. It is true that Christian nations have frequently been cruel towards one another and towards unbelieving races, but not in the consistent, unmitigated, and unlimited fashion of the followers of Islam.
Since the body of this article is to be occupied with a somewhat detailed account of the charitable activity of the Church, only a word need now be said concerning its general superiority over that of Paganism, Judaism, and Mohammedanism. This word cannot be more effectively uttered than in the following sentences of Lecky: " Christianity for the first time made charity a rudimentary virtue, giving it a leading place in the moral type, and in the exhortation of its teachers. Besides its general influence in stimulating the affections, it effected a complete revolution in this sphere, by regarding the poor as the special representatives of the Christian Founder, and thus making the love of Christ, rather than the love of man the principle of charity . . . . . A vast organization of charity, presided over by bishops, and actively directed by the deacons, soon ramified over Christendom, till the bond of charity became the bond of unity, and the most distant sections of the Christian Church corresponded by the interchange of mercy" (History of European Morals, II, 3rd ed., 79, 80).
HISTORY OF CHARITY IN THE CHURCH (1) The Apostolic Age
The conception of love and of brotherhood which Christ brought into the world obtained ample expression and development in the Acts of the Apostles and in the Epistles, particularly those written by St. Paul. There is no longer any distinction of Jew and Gentile, Barbarian and Scythian, bond and free; but "Christ is all, and in all" ( Colossians 3:11 ). Even those who are not of the household of the Faith are to be loved and assisted ( Romans 12:14-20 ; Galatians 6:10 ). In the sight of God the slave is the equal and the brother of his master (Phil., 16). Labour is no longer dishonourable, but the normal condition of livelihood ( 2 Thessalonians 3:10 ). "Religion clean and undefiled before God. . . Is this: to visit the fatherless and widows in their tribulation" ( James 1:27 ). While the church has especial solicitude for widows and orphans, she is not to be burdened with those who can be supported by their own relatives ( 1 Timothy 5:8, 16 ). Persons who seek to become rich are exposed to many snares and temptations, "for the desire of money is the root of all evils " ( 1 Timothy 6:9, 10 ). Fraternal charity done in the spirit of Christ effects an equality among all the members of the Christian family, for the material gift of the giver is balanced by the love and prayers of the receiver ( 2 Corinthians 8:13, 14; 9:11-12 ). Even the poor can and should contribute their mite ( 2 Corinthians 8:11, 12 ). The rich should give to the poor in the spirit of Christ who became poor for our sake ( 2 Corinthians 8:9 ). Hence charity is not to be performed as under the compulsion of law, but freely and spontaneously. The gift should be from the heart, for " God loveth a cheerful giver" ( 2 Corinthians 9:7 ).
These doctrines were carried into the everyday life of the new believers. In Jerusalem, "the multitude of believers had but one heart and one soul ; neither did any one say that aught of the things which he possessed was his own; but all things were common unto them. . . . For neither was there any one needy among them" ( Acts 4:32, 34 ). As soon as the Apostles realized that their spiritual mission was impeded by personal attention to the material works of charity, they appointed as their representatives the seven deacons to serve the tables and provide for the widows ( Acts 6:1-6 ). Thus the caritative function of the Church became specialized. Both the spirit and the deeds of charity were exemplified in the agapæ, or love feasts, where rich and poor partook of a common meal to which all had contributed according to their means. (See AGAPE.) When some rich Corinthians introduced the practice of consuming their own contributions before the poor had arrived at the place of the meal, they were reprimanded by St. Paul (I cor., xi, 21, 31). Each congregation had a treasury for the relief of its own poor, and many of them shared their stores with other congregations in times of unusual distress. During a famine in Jerusalem assistance came from the Church at Antioch, and from the Gentile Churches ( Acts 11:29 ; Galatians 2:10 ).(2) The Age of the Persecutions
As compared with their numbers and resources, the charity of the Christians of this period seems to have surpassed anything that the world has witnessed since. The explanation is to be found in four principal causes: (a) the principles that were kept constantly before the minds of the faithful; (b) the social and political conditions surrounding them; (c) their excellent administration of charity; and (d) the manifold sources from which it was provided.
(a) At the basis of all giving was a thorough grasp of the truth that the human possessor of goods is only a distributor and steward for the supreme owner, who is God. The rich believer recognized his obligation to give to the needy all of his resources that were left after his own wants had been supplied. And he was taught that his own wants were to be interpreted rather strictly, that he was to forego luxuries, and even unnecessary comforts and conveniences. Like other believers, he was to be distinguished from his pagan neighbours by his life of contentment, simplicity, and moderation. Clement, Cyprian, and Tertullian describe minutely the complex and luxurious life of the heathens, and denounce it was wholly unworthy of imitation by Christians who really love their poor neighbours (Ratzinger, "Armenflege", p. 85 sq.; Uhlhorn, "Christian Charity in the Ancient Church ", p. 129 sq.). And their interpretation of simple and proper Christian life seems to have been adopted by substantially all the believers. In this respect the latter were far in advance of the Christians of modern times. This duty of distribution was discharged by placing the gifts on the altar, whence they were received and dispensed by the bishop. Through this practice the rich were impressed with the truth that they were merely making a return to God, while the poor were taught to look upon what their received as gift of God. Moreover, they were enabled to accept it without injury to self-respect, and in a spirit of gratitude both to God and to the human giver who was only God's instrument. By praying for the latter they made an equitable return, were in truth dispensers of charity themselves. Two important consequences of this method and this view of charity were: first, the faithful gave so freely and spontaneously that no specific definitions of the duty or penalties for the neglect of almsgiving were formulated by the Church during this period; and second, no contributions were accepted from unbelievers, public sinners, extortioners, unjust possessors, or persons engaged in sinful occupations.
FREE Catholic Classes Pick a class, you can learn anything
(b) The second cause to which the superabundant charity of the early Christians has been attributed was their social and political environment. Refusing to accept the authority of the Roman State in matters of morality, worship, and religion, they were brought under the displeasure of the civil power. Refusing to offer sacrifice or to take oaths in the name of false gods, they were shut out from the everyday life of the field, the market-place, the social gatherings, the theatre, and the forum, as well as from most of the gainful occupations. Forced to live a life apart, they easily became objects of misunderstanding, suspicion, and calumny. Then came that long and frightful series of persecutions, which they met with a uniform policy of non-resistance. The important consequence of all these conditions was that the normal life of the Christian became one of sacrifice and suffering, of prayer, fasting, and chastity. A very large proportion of them looked forward complacently to martyrdom for themselves, and to the near approach of the end of the world for all. In these circumstances the possession and enjoyment of earthly goods could have very little attraction and very little meaning. Almsgiving, and almsgiving in abundance, became one of the ordinary activities of the earnest Christian who had anything in excess of his own simple needs.
(c) In the third place, the administration of charity was under the immediate and exclusive direction of the bishop. The details of the work, as investigating and registering those in distress, and distributing the amount of relief which the bishop deemed proper in each case, were attended to by the deacons, and in the case of needy women by the deaconesses. The latter were either unmarried women or widows of mature years. Assistance was given only to persons unable to earn their living and in real need, and to these only in so far as was strictly necessary. Centuries of subsequent experience, combined with the latest theoretical knowledge, have neither produced a better system nor achieved more satisfactory results than this primitive Christian organization of charity. In the words of the Lutheran Uhlhorn, "never has she [the Church ] more highly reverenced the poor, more kindly and lovingly treated them; never also has she been farther from fostering beggary, and making life easy to idlers" (o. Cit., p. 180).
(d) Among the sources of the material relief dispensed by the Church during the age of the persecutions, the most important seems to have been the oblations of natural products placed upon the altar at the time of the Eucharistic Sacrifice. All the faithful who could do so participated in this offering, since it was regarded as an element of the religious service. The names of the contributors were announced to the congregation. Distinct from the oblations were the collectæ , which were likewise natural products, but which were handed in on certain fast days immediately before the reading of the epistle. Another source consisted of money contributions to the church treasury, to the corbona or arca . These were usually given secretly. Extraordinary collections were taken up from the richer members, and large sums were obtained from those who on the occasion of their conversion sold all their goods for the benefit of the poor. In their capacity as collegia, or corporations, some of the churches may have taken dues from their members which helped to swell their resources for works of charity. Finally, the needy of all classes received a great deal of assistance directly from individuals. Heads of families were obliged to care not only for their children and other dependent relatives, but for all the members of their household, both bond and free. So cheerfully and so generously did the Christians give, so generally did they part with all the superfluous revenues for the benefit of the distressed, that the Church was not called upon to determine the duty of charitable contributions by any precise ordinance or law. The imposition of tithes did not begin until after the victory of Constantine in 312 (Ratzinger, op. cit., pp. 71, 72).
The results produced by the four factors just described were remarkable not only in the material order but also in the realm of thought. Assistance was afforded to the clergy, to widows and orphans, to the destitute, the aged, the sick, the persecuted, and imprisoned, and the stranger; and decent burial was given to the neglected dead. Although the clergy had the first claim upon the charity of the faithful, only those were assisted who were unable to support themselves from their own resources or by their own labour. Indeed, it was through the latter means that the greater number obtained their livelihood. The claims of the widows and orphans were recognized as second only to those of the clergy. Children abandoned by the pagans received support from the Church. In general all members of the community who were wholly or partially incapable of self-maintenance were given the measure of assistance that they needed. Owing to the frequent pestilences, sickness was one of the very important forms of distress, and it received from the charity of the Christians all the care and comfort that the knowledge and resources of the time made possible. Material and moral aid was extended to the victims of persecution. Prisoners were visited and comforted, especially those condemned to inhuman conditions of life and toil in the mines. Succour was frequently brought to the latter from a distance of hundreds of miles. Christians were compelled, through economic conditions or on account of the persecutions, to seek shelter or a livelihood far from home, obtained abundant hospitality from their fellow-Christians. Another form of charity practised by the faithful at this time, and a most necessary one in view of the indifference of the pagans, was the burying of the dead. Although their charity was organized on congregational lines, it was not confined to parochial needs. Aid was given to other congregations, even to those at a great distance. Thus Carthage came to the relief of Numidia, and Rome to the assistance of Cæsarea. Even the Pagans and the Jews were not forgotten; witness touching instances furnished by the Christians of Carthage and Alexandria (Ratzinger, op. cit., p. 84).
Another beneficent work of Christian charity in the material order consisted in transforming the attitude of men towards labour, and the relations between masters and slaves. Freemen who had hitherto been ashamed to work, and who had led a mendicant and parasitic life, became self-supporting and self-respecting. In the Christian workshop master and servant regarded each other as brothers instead of enemies, and the worker performed his task freely instead of under compulsion of the chain and the lash. In the pagan view and in Roman law, the slave had no rights, neither to humane treatment nor to marriage nor to life. He was not a person, but a thing. Christianity taught the master that the slave was his brother in Christ, and his equal both in the Christian assemblies and in the sight of God. It commanded the master to treat his slaves with mildness and humanity, to grant then freedom from toil on Sundays and holidays, to permit them to live a family life in the same conditions of privacy, security, and indissolubility that ought to mark his own marital relations. It enjoined upon the slave the duty of respecting himself as a man and a brother of Christ, and bade him obey his master not out of fear but out of regard for the social authority of Christ. It permitted him to aspire to the highest honours in the Church. While the church made no effort during this period towards the emancipation of the slaves, her attitude in this respect was dictated by motives of the greatest kindness and the truest charity. Socially and economically the Christian slave was no worse off than his persecuted fellow-Christians, whereas if he obtained his freedom he would be unable to find an occupation compatible with a moral life. The agapæ not only helped to feed the poor, but promoted the doctrine of equality and brotherhood. Here the poor man and the slave sat down with the rich man and the master to partake of a meal to which all had contributed according to their means; and the wealthy and the powerful were strikingly reminded that possessions and authority were relatively insignificant in the eyes of the common Father of all. Abuses did, indeed, gradually creep in; in many places the love-feast took on the character of a sumptuous banquet, or was wholly provided by some rich man as a meal for the poorer Christians only; but these changes were largely due to the increase in the size of the congregations, and to the dangers of meeting openly during the time of persecution.
Help Now >
The most notable achievement of Christian charity in the world of ideas sprang from its teaching concerning ownership, and concerning the intrinsic value of the individual. It was in large measure owing to the thoroughness with which the Christians put into practice the truths that God created the earth for all the children of men, and that the human owner is merely the steward and distributor of his possessions, that they were so soon able to triumph over a hostile civilization which was built upon force and selfishness. In reproach of that civilization Tertullian could proudly exclaim: "All things are common among us except women ". The Christian preaching and exemplification of the truth that not merely the roman citizen, but every human being is clothed with the dignity of personality, brought about at length the end of slavery, and exerted a considerable influence upon legislation even before the victory of Constantine. Trajan encouraged the emancipation of slaves ; Hadrian deprived the masters of the right to put them to death ; Plutarchy and Epictetus held far more humane views concerning the claims of slaves than did Cicero and Cato. Nerva and Trajan extended public assistance to the needy children throughout Italy, instead of confining its benefits to the idlers in the city of Rome, after the manner of all their predecessors. Uhlhorn maintains that as soon as the Church had freed herself from the heresy of Montanism, the Christians began to lose their grasp of the higher motives of charity, and to lay stress upon the distinction between the counsels and the Commandments (op. Cit., p. 205 sq.). For the majority, who aimed only to comply with the Commandments, the duties of charity became, like all other duties, less rigorous. The motives of their charitable activity also degenerated into the desire to obtain personal merit in the supernatural order, and release from their sins. According to Uhlhorn, these doctrines first found definite statement in the works of Hermas, Cyprian, and Origen ; but they soon became the prevailing views of the Church, and so continued until Reformation, when a return was made to the primitive teaching (pp. 397, 398). These, however, are the facts: whatever diminution of charitable work occurred is explained by the change in the political and social conditions surrounding the Christians ; the distinction between counsel and precept was originated by Christ Himself ( Matthew 19:11, 12 ); the meritorious character of almsgiving was likewise taught by Him ( Matthew 25:31 — 46, and frequently elsewhere); and both these doctrines, together with that of almsgiving was expiatory of the temporal punishment due to sin (not of sin itself), are found in all the early writers, as well as in the liturgy of that age (cf. Ratzinger, op. cit., pp. 89-92).
(3) From Constantine to Gregory the Great
As a result of the freedom and social importance which the Church obtained through the victory of Constantine, she was called upon to relieve the distress not merely of her own children, but of the whole population. The universal corruption, cruelty, and extravagance of the civil officials, the relentless and grinding usury of the money-lenders and the almost continuous invasions of the barbarians, combined to produce a greater amount of wretchedness than had ever before existed in the empire. Over the three classes just mentioned the Church had very little influence, since none of them became fully Christianized until long after Christianity had become the established religion. Among the means available to meet this distress there remained the oblations at Mass, the collections on fast days, and the extraordinary collections. But none of these was relatively as fruitful as in the age of the persecutions. Hence exhortations to almsgiving become much more frequent, and towards the end of the sixth century the law of tithes makes its appearance. A new source of charitable relief was created by the contributions of the emperors, and of the powerful and wealthy generally. Many of the latter were converted on their death-beds, and endeavoured to atone in their wills for previous neglect of the duty of almsgiving. The bishops not only condemned this postponement of a grave Christian obligation, but refused to accept money which was acquired through dishonesty or extortion, even when it came from the hands of kings. As in the preceding period, the relief of the poor was recognized as a primary function of the Church, and all her revenues even the sacred vessels, as subject to the demands of charity. Hence arose the custom of referring to the possessions of the Church as "the patrimony of the poor ". In the interests of security and system, the church revenues were divided into four parts, of which one went to the bishop, another to the clergy, a third to the maintenance of worship, and the fourth to the relief of distress. This practice became quite general in Rome during the fifth century, whence it gradually extended over the whole Christian world (cf. Ratzinger, op. cit., p. 116 sq.). The administration of charity remained in the hands of the bishop, assisted by the oeconomus , who was usually a priest. The latter was in turn assisted by the deacons, subdeacons, and deaconesses. In every episcopal city, and in other places of importance, were houses called diaconiæ , at which and from which assistance was given to the poor, the sic, and the aged. A new institution of chrity appears in the xenodochia , hospitals, which originated during the reign of Constantine. They were primarily intended for the reception of strangers, but soon undertook the care of the sick, the homeless poor, widows, abandoned children, and other helpless classes. In brief, they performed the tasks that are now divided among hospitals, hotels, almshouses, and asylums. Towards the end of the fourth century they increased very rapidly and by the time of Gregory the Great were to be found in almost every city of the empire. They were all under the control of the bishop, and were maintained by landed endowments, the general revenues of the Church, and special contributions from the faithful. A form of charity which in the latter half of the Middle Ages became the dominant one, came into existence during the period now under consideration. This was the monastic system of poor relief. The precept of labour, which occupied a primary place in the rules both of Basil and Benedict, was the means of providing a most striking and most beneficent example to an age that had not yet learned the dignity and value of work. And a large share of the product of the industry of the monks was distributed among the poor. The monasteries supplied physicians for all the sick of the neighbourhood, maintained hospitals for all classes of the distressed, reared and educated the young, and during the fifty century were about the only places of refuge for persons whose homes lay in the path of the devastating barbarians. On the other hand, the present period witnessed the decay of the once important agapæ. More and more they became repasts for the poor provided by the rich, until at length they degenerated into display of the lavish generosity of their providers, and came under the condemnation of the Church. Among the practices of charity by private individuals were: alms given to those of the poor who had permission to solicit aid at the doors of the churches; large donations of property for the endowment of hospitals, such, for example, as those made by Fabiola, Pammachius, Demetrias, Zoticus, Pulcheria, and Olympia; the direct distribution of ll their goods to the poor by many of the wealthy ; and many other forms and practices which have necessarily been overlooked by the historian.
In the preaching of the Church at this time the fundamental truths of Christian charity were constantly applied to the different social needs and institutions. The bishops protested strongly and frequently against the excessive taxes and the harsh methods employed in collecting them; against the landowner's oppression of his tenants, and the extortion practised by the usurer ; against the forcible enslavement of freemen, the tyranny of civil officials, and the injustice of the courts; against the inhuman treatment of slaves, and in favour of emancipation. In opposition to the almost universal selfishness of the age, they incessantly proclaimed the duty of almsgiving, the stewardship of wealth, and the solidarity of mankind. To those possessors who refused to distribute their superfluous goods among the needy, some of the Fathers applied the terms "robber", "thief", "extortioner". And they regarded as superfluous all that remained after the reasonable needs of the owner had been supplied. They exacted a restitution for the benefit of the poor of all the proceeds of extortion and usury. Nevertheless they all defended the principle of private ownership. Finally, they kept constantly before the faithful the doctrine that almsgiving is an offering to God by the rich, and a gift from God to the poor. The results of the Church's preaching and practice of charity during this period were that widows, orphans, abandoned children, friendless young women, prisoners, the sick, the helpless poor, and the victims of the barbarian invasions, received all the care and assistance which their condition and the available resources permitted. In fact, the unrelieved poverty of that day seems to have been less appalling than is the pauperism of our own time. The vigilance of the deacons and deaconesses seems to have been fairly successful in preventing a waste of charity upon beggars and idlers. While the church was not able to bring about the abolition of the manifold social abuses of the time, she was directly instrumental in modifying them to a considerable degree. Thus, the bishops gave a humane example by their treatment of the tenants of the lands owned by the church, punished the murder of slaves by excommunication, frequently emancipated their own bondmen, and demanded for the slave as well for the freeman the privilege of Sunday rest. The civil legislation of the time granted this demand, abolished the gladiatorial sports and the right of life and death which the father had possessed over his children, conceded the right of asylum to the Christian churches, recognized the duty of the State towards all the poor, prohibited indiscriminate begging, and made the bishop president of a court for the trial of cases which concerned the poor, the widow, and the orphan. The bishop's title, "father of the poor and protector of widows and orphans ", was recognized by the State as well as by the Church. No doubt the more frequent stress now laid upon the supernatural rewards of charity does indicate a decline from the fervour of the preceding age, but there is no evidence that the change in the generosity of the faithful was as great as many historians assume. And it is sufficiently explained by the more heterogeneous character of the Christian population after the danger of persecution had passed. Failure to preach the meritorious character of almsgiving would not only have been an injury to the poor, but would have shown contempt for the teaching of Christ.(4) The Middle Ages
The first important event in the world of charity after the reign of Gregory the Great was the deterioration that it suffered in Gaul under the Merovingians. Owing to the anarchic social and political conditions of the time and the resulting demoralization of the clergy, the poor were all but forgotten, and institutions of charity either disappeared or were diverted to other uses. Although the monasteries discharged their duties fairly well during the early part of the Merovingian period, they became involved later on in the general disorder, worldliness, and negligence which reached a climax under Charles Martel. Then came the great law-giver, Charlemagne, who effected a manifold and far-reaching reform. He recovered the church property that had been misappropriated, and re-established the law of tithes, the fourfold division of church revenues, the oblations during Divine service, and other offerings to the priest for charity, and the custom of regarding all the goods of the Church as primarily the patrimony of the poor. According to his legislation, the bishop was to remain the supreme director of charity administration, but in the beneficed parishes the immediate control was in the hands of the person who occupied the benefice. Every form of genuine distress was to be relieved, but idlers, beggars, and vagabonds were to be turned away and compelled to work. The feudal lord was charged with the duty of caring for all the needy among his own vassals. This provision was merely an application to feudal conditions of St. Paul's injunction that everyone should maintain the dependents of his own household. It continued in force, theoretically at least, throughout the whole of the Middle Ages. The monasteries, too, were required to resume their former practices of charity and their more important function as centres of industry, religion, morality, and civilization for all the surrounding populations. Thus it came about that the work of civilizing and Christianizing the Germanic peoples was for the most part accomplished by the monks of St. Benedict and the monks from Ireland (cf. Ratzinger, op. cit., pp. 216-218).
A great impetus was given to charitable activity by the discipline of penance, according to which fasting, prayer, and other forms of penitential exercises were, to a considerable degree, replace by almsgiving. The amount to be contributed was proportioned to the offence; for some of the gravest sins the penalty was total renunciation of one's possessions and entrance into a monastery. Especially large donations to charity were required of those who had neglected the corporal works of mercy. The bishops and other Christian teachers of the time of Charlemagne frequently reminded the kings, princes, and lords that all earthly power was from God, and that their subjects were their equals before God and their brothers in Christ. Through this teaching Germanic slavery (which, indeed, had never been so general nor so deep-rooted as among the Greeks and the Romans) was mitigated into ser
- Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary
- Unfailing Prayer to St. Anthony
- The Rosary in English
- Come Holy Spirit
- Hail, Holy Queen
- Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary
Copyright 2021 Catholic Online. All materials contained on this site, whether written, audible or visual are the exclusive property of Catholic Online and are protected under U.S. and International copyright laws, © Copyright 2021 Catholic Online. Any unauthorized use, without prior written consent of Catholic Online is strictly forbidden and prohibited.
Catholic Online is a Project of Your Catholic Voice Foundation, a Not-for-Profit Corporation. Your Catholic Voice Foundation has been granted a recognition of tax exemption under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. Federal Tax Identification Number: 81-0596847. Your gift is tax-deductible as allowed by law.