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Charity and Charities

Love of God as well as love of man

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Charity and Charities. — 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 neighbors 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 neighbor 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 neighbor 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 motived 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 neighbor. 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 neighbor 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. Matthew (xxv) of the separation of the good from the bad at the Final Judgment. Reason tells us that we ought to love our neighbors, 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 neighbor well, and rejoices in his good fortune; the latter comprises all those actions by which any of his needs are supplied. Charity differs from justice, inasmuch as it conceives its object, i.e. the neighbor, 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 far superior to that of any of the other great religions. Its excellence appears in the following points: love of the neighbor is akin to love of God the neighbor is to be loved 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 neighbor 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 neighbor as one’s self (Lev., xix, 18) and care of the poor (Deut., xv, 4, 11) are strictly commanded in the Pentateuch as duties to God, the neighbor meant only the Jews and the strangers dwelling within their gates. It did not embrace all mankind. The writers 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 that 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 motived 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 labor was held in honor 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 toward 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).


(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” (Col., iii, 11). Even those who are not of the household of the Faith are to be loved and assisted (Rom., xii, 14-20; Gal., vi, 10). In the sight of God the slave is the equal and the brother of his master (Phil., 16). Labor is no longer dishonorable, but the normal condition of livelihood (II Thess., iii, 10). “Religion clean and undefiled before God…is this: to visit the fatherless and widows in their tribulation” (James, i, 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 (I Tim., v, 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” (I Tim., vi, 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 (II Cor., viii, 13, 14; ix, 11, 12). Even the poor can and should contribute their mite (II Cor., viii, 11, 12). The rich should give to the poor in the spirit of Christ who became poor for our sake (II Cor., viii, 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” (II Cor., ix, 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, iv, 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, vi, 1-6). Thus the caritative function of the Church became specialized. Both the spirit and the deeds of charity were exemplified in the agapae, or love-feasts, where rich and poor partook of a common meal to which all had contributed according to their means. (See Agape (Custom).) 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, xi, 29; Gal., ii, 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.

At the basis of all their 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 neighbors 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 as wholly unworthy of imitation by Christians who really love their poor neighbors (Ratzinger, “Armenpflege”, 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 they received as the 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.

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 marketplace, 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.

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” (op. cit., p. 180.

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 collectoe, 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 their 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. 71,12).

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, the 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 labor. 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 who 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 practiced 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 Caesarea. Even the Pagans and the Jews were not forgotten; witness the 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 labor, 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 them 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 honors 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 agapae 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.

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; Plutarch 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 Hernias, Cyprian, and Origen; but they soon became the prevailing view of the Church, and so continued until the 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 (Matt., xix, 11, 12); the meritorious character of almsgiving was likewise taught by Him (Matt., xxv, 31-46, and frequently elsewhere); and both these doctrines, together with that of almsgiving as 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 deathbeds, and endeavored 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, sub-deacons, and deaconesses. In every episcopal city, and in other places of importance, were houses called diaconue, at which and from which assistance was given to the poor, the sick, and the aged. A new institution of charity 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 labor, 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 neighborhood, maintained hospitals for all classes of the distressed, reared and educated the young, and during the fifth 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 agapae. More and more they became repasts for the poor provided by the rich, until at length they degenerated into displays 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 Fahiola, Pammachius, Demetrias, Zoticus, Pulcheria, and Olympia; the direct distribution of all 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 practiced 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 favor 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 on 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 as 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 alit he 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 fervor 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 reestablished 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 centers 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, replaced by alms-giving. The amount to be contributed was proportioned to the offense; 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 serfdom. Through the Christian teaching and example concerning the dignity of labor, there arose a class of artisans who were not ashamed of their calling, and who were therefore able at length to free themselves from subjection to the feudal lord. The doctrine that all superfluous wealth ought to be employed for the benefit of the poor, was as clearly proclaimed, at least by the great Christian teachers, such as Bede and Alcuin, as it ever had been; but it was not preached so generally nor observed so faithfully. After the death of Charlemagne his organization of charity fell rapidly into decay. Feudalism, all-powerful, haughty, belligerent, unscrupulous, acknowledging no claims but those of might, demoralized both ecclesiastical and civil order. The spiritual leaders of the people were to a very great extent incompetent, worldly, and avaricious. Clerics as well as nobles exploited their serfs and neglected the poor. From the middle of the ninth to the beginning of the twelfth century these deplorable conditions were general throughout Europe. In England, however, the demoralization did not reach its lowest depths until the second half of the tenth century; in Ireland it did not come until the eleventh. Nevertheless the doctrine of charity, as expressed in the documents accompanying charitable foundations, and in the writings of the great teachers like St. Bernard, was everywhere identical with that of the Scripture and the Fathers. The old truths about property as a trust, about the duty of distributing superfluous goods among the poor, about the supernatural rewards of almsgiving, and its value as expiatory of the temporal punishment due to sin—are all clearly taught. Owing to the relatively lower average of Christian fervor, the last two features assume a relatively greater prominence than they had in the teaching of the age of the persecutions.

During the three centuries following the death of Charlemagne, the work of relieving the poor was steadily and rapidly transferred from the diocesan clergy to the monasteries. The demoralization of the diocesan clergy, the misappropriation of church property and revenues by the clergy and the lords, the theory that the lords were to care for all the poor within their domains, the deflexion to some of the monasteries of tithes that formerly went to the parish clergy, the practice of giving landed endowments to the monasteries instead of to the parish churches, the humane treatment generally accorded to their tenants by the monks, and the fact that Christian life became more and more centerd about the monasteries—combined to effect this transformation. The new and dominant position of the monasteries is thus described by Ratzinger: “The energy of Christian life had gone over from the diocese to the monastery. The latter became the center for rich and poor, high and low, for innocent youth and repentant age. It provided in some measure a substitute for the primitive episcopal parish. In every district, alike on towering mountain and in lowly valley, arose monasteries which formed the centers of the organized religious life of the neighborhood, maintained schools, provided models for agriculture, industry, pisciculture, and forestry, sheltered the traveller, relieved the poor, reared the orphans, cared for the sick, and were havens of refuge for all who were weighed down by spiritual or corporal misery. For centuries they were the centers of all religious, charitable, and cultural activity” (op. cit., pp. 287, 288)—that is, until the end of the fifteenth century. The orders that took the most prominent part in the work of poor-relief were the Benedictines, Cistercians, Premonstratensians, Dominicans, and Franciscans. Through the portarius alms were daily distributed at the monastery gate. The needy who were unable to come for a portion of this received assistance in their homes. Connected with the monasteries were hospitals for the treatment and relief of all forms of distress. In addition to their material works of charity, the monasteries did much for the improvement of social conditions and ideals. They treated their tenants and servants a great deal better than did the secular lords, and in their schools maintained a genuine equality between the children of the rich and the poor. The teaching and example of St. Francis and his followers concerning the solid worth of holy poverty, recalled millions of souls from selfishness, luxury, and avarice to simpler and saner ideals of life, and as a further result not merely gave an immense impetus to charitable activity among all the people, but contributed not a little towards the abolition of serfdom in Italy (cf. Dubois, Saint Francis of Assisi, pp. 59-61). During the fourteenth and more frequently in the fifteenth century, however, many abuses got a foothold in the richer monasteries. Avarice, luxurious living, lavish entertainment of guests, favoritism towards relatives, and other forms of relaxation rendered these institutions unable and unwilling to attend properly to the relief of distress. Moreover, the mendicant orders withdrew in the later Middle Ages to the towns, where they devoted themselves almost exclusively to the contemplative life and to preaching.

Next in importance to the monasteries came the hospitals. As already noted, these institutions discharged the functions of guest-house, asylum, alms-house, and hospital in the modern sense. Many of them were managed by secular brotherhoods whose members lived a common life and wore a distinctive garb, but did not claim the privileges of a religious order. The first of these hospitals was established at the end of the ninth century, in Siena, by a certain Soror. Similar institutions in charge of similar brotherhoods soon made their appearance in many of the other cities of Italy. About the middle of the twelfth century the Brotherhood of the Holy Spirit was founded by one Guido in connection with his hospital at Montpellier. This association grew very rapidly. In 1198 Pope Innocent III took it under his special protection, and entrusted to it a large hospital which he had endowed at Rome. This was but one of the many hospitals established under the direction of that remarkable pontiff. By the end of the thirteenth century there was hardly an important town in Germany that did not possess one or more hospitals of the Brotherhood of the Holy Spirit. St. Elizabeth of Hungary founded three hospitals. The military orders, such as the Knights of St. John and the Hospitallers in Germany, whose existence is due to the spirit of service and self-sacrifice created by the Crusades, established and maintained hospitals in nearly every country of Europe. These orders did an immense amount of good while they remained true to their original spirit, but their usefulness had come to an end by the middle of the fifteenth century. In the later Middle Ages numerous hospitals were maintained by the free towns and cities. Every town in Italy and Germany had at least one, while the larger cities possessed several. They were superintended by a layman, but the attendants and nurses were members of religious associations. Akin to the hospitals were the leper houses and leper huts in which were sheltered the victims of that form of leprosy which the Crusaders brought back from the East. In the thirteenth century these institutions numbered, according to Matthew Paris, nineteen thousand (cf. Ratzinger, op. cit., p. 341). To meet this plague there arose in the twelfth century the military order of St. Lazarus. It spread rapidly over the whole of Europe, had charge of many hospitals, and obtained extensive landed possessions. Having finished its task and become somewhat demoralized, it was dissolved by Pope Innocent VIII at the end of the fifteenth century.

Several other religious communities and pious associations having for their chief object the relief of distress arose during the period which we are now considering. A group of women belonging to the Third Order of St. Francis, and under the patronage of St. Elizabeth of Hungary (now known as Elisabetherinnen in Germany and Grey Nuns in France), were formed into a community by Pope Martin V in 1421 Their work on behalf of the poor, the sick, and the distressed in Germany, France, Austria, and Italy, has been noteworthy in amount and quality. At the end of the twelfth century a lay sisterhood, called Beguines, was organized to care for the sick in the homes of the latter. Later on they gave instruction to poor girls, and shelter to poor girls and widows. They became quite numerous in the Netherlands and Germany, but failed to retain their early spirit, especially in the matter of respect for ecclesiastical authority. By the end of the sixteenth century their career had practically ceased. Among the other communities worthy of mention are: that of St. Anthony of Vienne, which arose in the second half of the eleventh century to minister to those afflicted with the disease known as St. Anthony’s fire, and whose period of usefulness lasted about two centuries; the Alexian Brothers, originally a lay association whose chief work was to bury the dead, but which soon undertook other charitable functions; they were formed into a religious congregation in 1458, and still exist in charge of hospitals; the Trinitarians, and the congregation founded by Raymund of Pennafort and Peter Nolasco, both of which appeared about the beginning of the thirteenth century, and in the course of the next five hundred years relieved an immense amount of physical and mental wretchedness by ransoming captives, particularly from the Mohammedans; finally, the “Fratres Pontifices” (Bridge Builders), who during the last four centuries of the Middle Ages made bridges and roads, erected inns for poor and sick travellers, and protected merchants and other wayfarers against the thievery and violence of highwaymen. Their diffusion was rapid and general throughout Europe, and their services to the social and commercial life of the period were incalculable. To the modern mind an organization bound by a religious vow to the avocation of bridge-building may seem fantastic, but it was merely a particular illustration of the general fact that in the Ages of Faith the Church was able to create an institution for the relief of every social need. (See Bridge-Building Brotherhood.)

A very important agency in the charitable activity of the later Middle Ages was that of pious foundations or endowments. They consisted of lands or other revenue-producing property, the income of which was to be expended for the benefit of the poor. In return for this charity the beneficiaries were expected to pray for the donor, or for the repose of his soul. Here we see the same conception of charity as an instrument of equality between rich and poor, which was enunciated by St. Paul and exemplified in the primitive oblations. Many of the foundations required that requiem Masses should be celebrated for the benefactor. The greater number were connected with monasteries and hospitals, although some were entrusted to the parish churches and, in the cities, to the civil magistrates. Besides their hospitals, the free cities gradually undertook other works of charity, until in the fifteenth century they either directly or indirectly discharged the greater part of the task of relieving the poor, the helpless, and the stranger. The guilds, which played such an important and varied role in the life of the cities, were not merely associations having charge of trade and industry; they were often mutual benefit societies which cared for all needy members and for the dependent families of needy and deceased members. As a result of the charitable activity of Church, municipality, guild, and other associations like the Calenderii in Germany and the Humiliati in Italy, there was practically no unrelieved poverty in the cities during the later Middle Ages. The spectre of the modern proletariat, wretched, debased, with no definite place in the social organism, and no definitely recognized claims upon any social group or institution, had no counterpart in the municipal life of that time.

From the fact that in the cities the care of the poor had for the most part been taken over by municipal agencies in the fifteenth century, and that the parish system of relief had ceased before the end of the eleventh, it is not to be inferred that the charitable activity and influence of the Church were restricted to the religious orders and religious associations. The whole structure of municipal charity was built up under her inspiration, encouragement, and direction. All through the Middle Ages the diocesan clergy continued to collect and distribute the means of charitable relief. In the cities they supplied the needs of those persons who had been overlooked by the monasteries, hospitals, and guilds. In the country the theory of feudal responsibility for all dependents caused the charity of the diocesan clergy to be confined to travellers and strangers. Moreover, Ratzinger maintains that in England the system of parish relief continued in full vigour and efficiency up to the time of the Reformation (op. cit., p. 421 sq.). Professor Ashley contends that it had disappeared before the twelfth century, but his conclusion is based on the presumption of similarity of conditions in England and on the Continent rather than upon positive arguments (English Economic History, II, 309 sq.). Then, there was the beneficent influence of the Church upon social and political institutions. Her prohibition of usury, which was also under the ban of the civil law, was a great boon to the poor and all the economically weak. For in those days money was nearly always borrowed to meet temporary and personal needs, and not as now for use as capital. While the theological proof that interest-taking was unlawful may not have been any better understood by the mass of the medieval population than by many of its modern critics, the doctrine itself, reinforced by the ecclesiastical and civil legislation, effectively taught men that gains ought to be the fruit of labor not of exploitation, and on the whole protected the economically weak against the economically strong (cf. Ashley, op. cit., II, 434 sq.). When the increased need for loans threatened to place large numbers of the people at the mercy of the Jewish usurers, the Montes Pietatis were established, mostly by the Franciscans, from which money could be borrowed on payment of a sum sufficient to cover risks and the cost of maintenance. Finally, the Church successfully inculcated what Dr. Cunningham has called, “a keen sense of personal responsibility in the employment of secular power of every kind” (Western Civilization, II, 104). King, prince, and feudal lord held their office from God, and were responsible to Him for the people committed to their charge. The poor, the weak, and the helpless were, in theory, and to a considerable degree in practice, objects of their special care. While the cultivators of the land remained, until the latter part of the Middle Ages, unfree, “bound to the soil”, they enjoyed security of tenure, and could claim the protection and support of the lord. The mutual duties and rights of lord and serf were in a high degree personal, and not reducible to any mere cash-nexus. The principles of charity expounded during the last three centuries remained the same as those found in the Scripture and in the Christian teaching of every age from the beginning. Only they were presented more precisely and systematically. Thus St. Thomas, whose treatment of the matter may be taken as typical, declares that charity towards the neighbor should have as its motive the love of God, and that almsgiving may be made meritorious of eternal rewards and expiatory of the temporal punishment due to sin. He insists that fraternal charity ought to be free, spontaneous, from the heart. When he speaks of it as a duty he has in mind moral duty, not the constraint of external law (cf. Summa Theologica, II-II, all of Q. xxxii). While he maintained that the contemplative life is in itself of higher moral and supernatural worth than the active life, inasmuch as it is more directly concerned with love of God, he also pointed out that a life of activity and labor may become strictly obligatory, and hence more meritorious than a life of contemplation—for example, in order to gain a livelihood, escape the moral dangers of idleness, or give alms to the needy (II-II, Q. clxxxii, aa. 1 and 2; Q. clxxxvii, a. 3). In spite of some occasional exaggeration of the contemplative, and disparagement of the active, life, the utility and dignity of labor have never been more generally recognized than in the second half of the Middle Ages. As to private property, St. Thomas taught that, while it was useful and lawful, all superfluous goods should be used for social purposes (II—II, Q. lxvi, a. 2). In no age has the conception of ownership as a social trust been put into practice by so large a proportion of the community as during this period. For proof we need only point to its innumerable and magnificent institutions, foundations, and expenditures for the glory of God and the service of mankind (cf. Ratzinger, op. cit., 392). p There are certain serious and oft-repeated criticisms of Catholic charity in general and of medieval charity in particular which may be conveniently noticed at this point. They are all reducible to the general assertion that the Church‘s teaching concerning the meritorious character of almsgiving led to so much indiscriminate charity as to raise the question whether Catholic work on behalf of poverty was not productive of more harm than good. With regard to this contention, the first observation to be made is that the Church did teach that charitable actions from the proper motive promoted the spiritual welfare of the giver, but that this was the teaching of Christ Himself, as well as of the Christian authorities in every age (cf. Ratzinger, op. cit., pp. 89, 160, 388). If the doctrine seems to have been more frequently and more strongly inculcated in the Middle Ages than in the first centuries of the Christian Era, the explanation is to be sought not merely in a lesser spirit of self-sacrifice, but also in the more developed and systematic presentation of the theory, as well as in the fuller accounts which history has handed down to us concerning the beliefs and deeds of the later time. In the second place, the contention, or assumption, that the Church, or any of her authoritative exponents, ever taught that almsgiving was meritorious regardless of the need of the recipient—in other words, that it is a good work to give the neighbor something which does him harm—is simply false. How could any sane and intelligent Christian defend the proposition that an act of injury to the neighbor would win the favor of God? To Him the welfare of one man is as dear as that of another. If this a priori consideration seem inconclusive, let us cite the admissions of the economic historian, Professor Ashley: “It is not difficult to adduce a long catena of passages from the Fathers and from the canons of Councils, which declare in the most explicit fashion the duty of investigation” (op. cit., II, 315). In this way, he says, “Ehrle is able to make a very effective reply to the exaggerations of Emminghaus” (p. 369). His conclusion is: “It must be allowed that so far as the theory of almsgiving is concerned, the medieval Church was free from the fault that has been imputed to it…” (p. 316).

But the important question concerns neither the motives nor the doctrine of medieval charity, but its effectiveness in the relief of poverty. Here are three typical answers to this question: “…in the sphere of simple poverty it can hardly be doubted that the Catholic Church has created more misery than it has cured” (Lecky, History of European Morals, II, 95, 3rd ed.). “For eighteen centuries the charitable and legislative efforts of society have been pauperizing instead of elevating men” (H. B. Adams, in Johns Hopkins University Historical Studies, fifth series, p. 319).

“This [private charity], like the charity of the Church, was wholly indiscriminating and, therefore, evil in its consequences” (Charles A. Ellwood, in Henderson’s Modern Methods of Charity, p. 167). In all probability these statements are a fairly adequate reflection of what is still the prevailing view outside the Catholic Church. As a matter of simple fact, this view has never been justified by evidence; all the available evidence tends to show that it is a gross exaggeration. It seems to be due partly to prejudice; partly to a priori inferences, and partly to hasty generalizations from isolated and inadequate data. That a large part has been played by the element of religious prejudice, becomes clear when we reflect that most of the descriptions of monastic corruption and incompetence which have formed the original basis of the theory under discussion, were written by men who were bitter opponents of the monks, their religion, and their institutions. In a considerable proportion of cases (v. g. the case of Fuller, who is quoted below, and of the King’s Commissioners of 1535, quoted by Fronde, II, 434) their object was not so much to write history as to discredit the old religion and the old regime. Careful historians of today recognize this, but popular writers on the history of charity have not yet given it sufficient attention. The other two causes of the theory, illicit use of the a priori method and hasty generalization, usually appear together, though now one, now the other, predominates. A very common misuse of the a priori method is seen in the contention that the amount of begging, particularly unjustifiable begging, in the Middle Ages was enormous. This charge is based not so much upon statistics—which are almost entirely wanting—nor upon authentic general descriptions, as upon two assumptions: first, that a good Catholic would give indiscriminately to all beggars for the sake of the supernatural merit attached to charitable actions; and second, that the practice of begging was made honorable by the mendicant orders, who employed it as their regular means of obtaining a livelihood. Again and again we meet with this form of argument.

Of course Catholics have never believed that almsgiving which is not beneficial to the receiver could be spiritually helpful to the giver. Consequently belief in the meritorious character of works of charity no more necessarily leads to indiscriminate giving than belief in the virtue of mercy involves indiscriminate condoning of crime. Secondly, the fact that certain religious orders got their living and performed their charitable functions through begging, no more sanctified unworthy begging (which was always under the ban of the Church) to the people of the Middle Ages than the solicitations of clergymen and charity organizations, both of whom live by a species of begging, justifies the general practice of mendicancy to our minds. Concerning generalizations from insufficient data, two instances will suffice. Emminghaus, whose work heads the list of authorities in many non-Catholic works, has, as Professor Ashley admits, misrepresented the position of the Church on meritorious almsgiving, apparently because he did not study sufficiently the sources. If he has been guilty of such a fault concerning the theory of Catholic charity, need we be surprised to find that his generalizations about the practice and results are likewise based upon insufficient acquaintance with the sources? Ratzinger calls attention to several instances of this, and declares that the conclusions of Emminghaus with regard to charity in the early Church are due to unpardonable ignorance (op. cit., p. 93). Professor Ashley writes thus: “There are strong reasons for believing that for a couple of centuries at least before the Reformation, the English monasteries had done but little for the relief of honest poverty; that, in the strong words of Fuller, ‘the Abbeys did but maintain the poor which they made'” (op. cit., II, p. 312). In proof of this statement, he quotes two passages from Ratzinger concerning the decline of the monastic system of relief on the Continent, and declares that the same thing must have occurred in connection with the English monasteries. In the first of the passages in question, Ratzinger says that grave abuses, such as avarice, luxury, and a diminution of love for the poor, got into the richer monasteries, and he intimates that to some extent in the fourteenth, and to a greater extent in the fifteenth, century, these abuses were no longer mere exceptions; but he adds that no other period can show as many foundations and works of benevolence (op. cit., p. 311). All that he tells us in the second passage quoted is that the multiplicity of charitable agencies—monasteries, hospitals, orders, and associations—without any centralized directions, was less effective than the old parish system, and was unable to overcome begging (p. 397). Obviously these limited and qualified statements are not equivalent to Professor Ashley’s sweeping assertion. It would seem that in spite of his usual fairness, he is here unable to emancipate himself from the long prevailing English tradition concerning all pre-Reformation institutions. Similar errors have no doubt been committed more frequently by writers who are less competent and less fair than Professor Ashley.

Assuming that the extreme view under discussion rests upon no sufficient foundation, what conclusion concerning Catholic charity in the later Middle Ages seems to be justified by the evidence? Notwithstanding the well-recognized danger of generalizing from historical facts, it seems safe to say that the amount of culpable waste and of unwise and indiscriminate giving to the poor was considerable; but that the amount of distress that went unrelieved was not, relatively to economic resources and standards of living, greater than the unrelieved want of any age since. The first part of this conclusion seems to be abundantly established by the investigations of Ratzinger (op. cit., pp. 311, 313, 315, 319, 323, 360, 362, 396-399, 437 sqq., and elsewhere). Justice, however, requires that we make some qualifications. The prevalence of begging during the fifteenth century was due not so much to misdirected charity as to the breaking up of feudalism and to the agrarian changes, such as enclosures and sheep-farming (cf. Ashley, op. cit., p. 352), which deprived immense numbers of persons of all means of livelihood. The fact that the duty of discrimination in giving was not so generally preached and practiced as today, is largely accounted for by a less developed appreciation of the evil of social dependency. This was inevitable in feudal society. In the third place, much of the inefficiency of the medieval agencies must be attributed solely to their lack of coordination and centralization. The second part of our generalization calls to mind the words of the Rev. Dr. Gibbins: “But poverty was neither so deep nor so widespread as it is now, nor as it soon became, and the monasteries and guilds (when they did their duty) were possibly quite as efficient as a modern Board of Guardians” (Industry in England, p. 195). Dr. Gibbins is not a Catholic. Dr. Ellwood maintains (Henderson’s Modern Methods of Charity, footnote, p. 167) that the dissolution of the English monasteries “revealed” rather than “caused” a large amount of pauperism and vagrancy. We may pertinently ask whether the Poor Law “covered”, i.e. relieved, these conditions as fully and as humanely as the monastic system which it supplanted. Some of its early provisions for the repression of begging constitute a foul blot on the history of English legislation. Cruel as they were, these measures proved ineffective. Speaking of European conditions generally, Ratzinger declares that it was precisely in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when the prohibition of begging was most severe, that the practice was most extensive (op. cit., p. 445).

After more than two centuries of variations, during which the defects of the Statute of Elizabeth had been corrected by the Settlement Law of Charles II, which, in the words of Dr. Ellwood (Henderson, op. cit., p. 173) was “disastrous to rich and poor alike”, the English Poor Law went to that extreme of indiscriminate liberality provided for by the Allowance System of 1782. So demoralizing was this measure that, to quote General Walker, “the condition of the person who threw himself flat upon public charity was better than that of the laborer who struggled on to preserve his manhood in self-support” (cf. Warner, American Charities, p. 15). Despite the great reform which the law underwent in 1834, and despite the intelligent administration which it ought to receive at the end of the nineteenth century, Mr. Thomas Mackay is constrained to write: “the Poor Law as administered throughout the greater part of the country is simply a disaster to the best interests of the poorer classes, and succeeds in maintaining a head of pauperism which, though it continues to decrease, is still a disgrace to the intelligence of the country” (The State and Charity, p. 137). Now, if the case be so with the English Poor Law, which represents the most systematic, determined, and long-continued endeavor to find an adequate substitute for pre-Reformation agencies; if not only in England but in every other European country, the amount of unrelieved want is still, relatively to national resources and standards of living, greater than it was in the Middle Ages; if, as even Uhlhorn admits, “no period has done so much for the poor as the Middle Ages” (op. cit., p. 397); if the possessors of wealth of those days were imbued with saner ideas as to its worth and a broader and more generous conception of its uses, we can bear with some complacency the knowledge that medieval charity is chargeable with much injudicious distribution and even with considerable misappropriation. Professor Patten, who is one of the leading authorities on economies and economic history in America, writes: “The economic aims of the Church were also fairly well realized. It provided food and shelter for the workers, charity for the unfortunate, and relief from disease, plague, and famine, which were but too common in the Middle Ages. When we note the number of the hospitals and infirmaries, the bounties of the monks, and the self-sacrifice of the nuns, we cannot doubt that the unfortunate of that time were at least as well provided for as they are at the present. If the workmen were well fed, warmly clothed, and comfortably housed, surely the economic aims of the age were fairly well realized” (The Development of English Thought, pp. 90, 91).

(5) From the End of the Fifteenth Century to the Present Time.

—The great increase of distress which followed so soon upon the Reformation was due in some measure to the rapid decay of feudalism and the agrarian changes, but in greater measure to the confiscation of the monastic and other sources of Catholic charity, and to the substitution of an extortionate set of secular landlords for the monasteries and the churches. The last factor was especially harmful in England (cf. Gibbins, op. cit., pp. 203-205), but its evil results were considerable in all the regions where the Reformation triumphed (Ratzinger, op. cit., pp. 456-463). Luxury and selfishness increased among the wealthy, while charitable contributions decreased among all classes. Uhlhorn admits that the purer motives of giving, which were the gift of the Reformation, did not lead to the expected results; “that our Church has in this respect also, and perhaps most of all in this, come short in practice of what has been given her in knowledge” (op. cit., p. 398). How far the practice of giving and the spirit of charity had declined since the advent of the new religion is sufficiently indicated by the bitter complaints of Luther (cf. Ratzinger, op. cit., pp. 457, 458). As a necessary consequence the relief of the poor fell more and more to the care of the civil authorities, national, provincial, and municipal. Municipal poor-relief did not, however, originate with the Reformation. As noted above, it had been quite general in the fifteenth century. In the first half of the sixteenth it underwent important developments in the cities of Belgium, beginning with Ypres (1524). The new ordinances of this city were, it seems, chiefly due to the ideas of the Spanish theologian and humanist, Vives. His work, “De Subvention Pauperism”, was written while he resided at the court of Henry VIII, and was published at Bruges in 1526 (cf. Ratzinger, op. cit., pp. 438 sq.). It was soon translated into Spanish, Italian, and French. In the second part, which deals with public charity, Vives declares that it is the duty of the civic authorities to care for the needy, and lays down provisions by which the work can best be accomplished. His most important recommendations are: that a census be taken of the indigent; that all who are able be compelled to work; that the authorities, if necessary, provide employment; and that begging be prohibited. These proposals aroused considerable opposition on the ground that they savored of Lutheranism, denied the natural right of man to beg, and were too harsh upon the deserving poor. The faculty of the Sorbonne, to which the controversy was referred for adjudication, decided that the recommendations of Vives were contrary neither to the Gospel nor the Fathers, but made the reservation that begging should not be prohibited unless the public resources were sufficient to relieve all the distressed. In the work of Vives, says Ratzinger, we find all the fundamental principles of every sound system of relief that has ever existed. And we might add that, as they were not due to the Reformation, but to the intellectual revival which preceded it, they would have been much more fruitful had their application not been hindered by the social, political, and religious disturbances for which the Reformation was responsible. In 1531 the proposals of Vives were embodied in a general law of the Emperor Charles V, with the proviso that the local authorities should have discretionary power to license certain persons to beg. The means of caring for distress under the new ordinances were to be provided by the hospitals and other foundations, and by voluntary contributions.

The Council of Trent laid down minute regulations concerning the administration of hospitals and hospital funds, and reaffirmed the duty of the bishops not only to enforce these regulations, but to examine and oversee all measures for the relief of the poor (De Reformatione, Sess. VII, XXII, XXV). In many portions of the Catholic world these ordinances soon bore considerable fruit, especially in connection with the reestablishment of the system of parish relief. The greatest name identified with this work is that of St. Charles Borronieo, Bishop of Milan. As a result of his boundless zeal and tireless activity, his diocese before long possessed a complete organization of charity which was worthy of comparison with that of the early Church, and surpassed any system of his own time. One of the most important features of the period now under consideration has been the rise of religious communities and other associations to relieve various kinds of distress. The Brothers of Charity, founded by St. John of the Cross in Granada, 1534, to care for the sick, soon spread over Spain, Portugal, Italy, France, and Germany: In North America appeared the hospital orders of the Brothers of St. Hippolytus (Mexico, 1585) and the Bethlehemites (Guatemala, 1660). A congregation whose members are at once priests and physicians arose in Turkey under the name of “Fathers of the Pestilence” The Daughters, or Sisters, of Charity, founded by St. Vincent de Paul about the year 1633 have become celebrated for their manifold works of mercy in every part of the world. St. Vincent’s work on behalf of foundlings, galley-slaves, and the wretched of all descriptions, makes ‘him the most remarkable worker in the field of charity that the world has ever known. The Piarists whose object is the instruction and care of poor children were instituted in 1597 by Joseph of Calasanza, and have become very numerous in Austria, Italy, Spain, and Poland. The Institute of the Blessed Virgin, the “English Ladies”, founded by Mary Ward in 1611, was intended to be chiefly a teaching order, though it also has orphan asylums, chiefly in Bucharest and Bavaria. The Sisters of the Good Shepherd devote themselves to the reformation of wayward girls. Their founder was a Frenchman, Father Eudes (1642). The Little Sisters of the Poor had their origin in the charitable work of a French servant girl, Jeanne Jugan, and received the approbation of the Holy See in 1854. Their splendid work on behalf of the aged, as also the rescue work of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd, is recognized by all classes in all civilized countries. Although the congregations just mentioned are among the most important that have been established for the relief of distress since the Reformation, they are in reality only a small part of the whole number (cf. Ratzinger, op. cit., pp. 508-536). By far the greatest lay association that has arisen during this period is the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. It was originated in 1833 by Frederic Ozanam and seven other Catholic students in Paris. At present, branches of the society, called conferences, are to be found in almost every country of Europe, North and South America, and in many parts of Asia, Africa, and Australasia. In 1905 the whole number of conferences throughout the world was estimated at six thousand, with a combined membership of one hundred thousand, or two hundred thousand, including the honorary members. The individual conferences of each city are usually combined into a particular council, the particular councils of a large locality, province, or country, are federated into a central or a superior council, while the superior councils of all the countries are represented in the council-general in Paris. The society does not confine its ministrations to direct material assistance, but in many places maintains nurseries, libraries, orphanages, schools, and employment bureaus, and strives everywhere to extend moral and religious aid and encouragement to those in need of these forms of charity. Owing to its religious spirit, its centralized organization, and its method of personal contact with the needy, the St. Vincent de Paul Society is, relatively to its resources, probably the most effective of all existing associations for the relief of distress.

Today the characteristic agencies of Catholic charity are: institutions in charge of religious communities, as monasteries, hospitals, reformatories, and asylums for homeless infants, for orphans, for the deaf, dumb, blind, aged, crippled, and insane; the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, and other associations of the same general character; and the parish, through the informal and unorganized, yet very important, work of the parochial clergy. In conformity with the regulations of the Council of Trent, all these are under the supreme direction of the bishop. Some statistics pertaining to France and the United States may be taken as fairly representative. In 1901 the number of persons assisted by Catholic societies in the former country was 107,400, or 83,000 children, 700 girls and women in refuges, 17,000 aged, and 6,700 insane persons. The total number of Catholic charitable societies exceeded 4000 (Henderson, Modern Methods of Charity, p. 527). In the preceding year the 1400 French conferences of the St. Vincent de Paul Society expended 440,000 dollars in relief work. According to the Catholic Directory for 1908, there were in the United States 272 orphan asylums with 42,597 inmates, and 1054 other charitable institutions. The Report of the Superior Council of New York for the year 1905 informs us that there were in the United States 443 conferences of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, whose combined membership was 7,423. Miring that year they assisted 19,193 families and expended 233,698 dollars.

If the charitable work of the Church since the Reformation seems to compare unfavorably with her record before the Middle Ages, and during the latter half of the Middle Ages, and if in some places and times it seems to have lacked energy, foresight, vigilance, and progressiveness—these appearances are almost wholly explained by the obstacles that have confronted her during that period. The most serious hindrance was, of course, the confiscation of monastic and other church properties from which the poor had been relieved. This occurred not merely in places where the Reformation triumphed, but in Catholic countries also, as in France and Spain during the eighteenth century, and in Italy during the nineteenth. Civil legislation in general has likewise been frequently obnoxious. A great part of the Church‘s energies both in Catholic and non-Catholic lands has been absorbed in defending the Faith. The policy of state support of the poor through taxation, which has everywhere been increasing its scope, has not only diminished the field of Catholic charity, but has inflicted serious injury upon the spirit of charity among all classes. The trend of political economy, especially in its popularized forms, during the greater part of the nineteenth century, was strongly against charitable activity, on the ground that compulsory self-reliance would in practically all cases best develop strength of character and capacity for self-support (cf. Warner, American Charities, ch. i). Finally, the materialistic theory of life, according to which the supreme good is abundant and diversified satisfaction of the senses, has produced an immense increase of self-love and selfishness, and a profound diminution of love of God and effective love of the neighbor. While these deplorable conditions have been most general among persons outside the Church, they have seriously affected a large proportion of the Catholic populations everywhere. Surveying the whole historical field of Catholic charity, we are justified in saying that, in proportion to her resources, the Church met the various forms of distress of every age more adequately than any other agency or system; that her shortcomings in charitable activity were due to the nature of the peoples and civilizations, and to the political, social, economic, and religious conditions in which she worked; that the instances of heroic charity which stand to her credit surpass by an immeasurable distance all instances of that class outside her fold; that the individual gifts to charity which she has inspired are likewise supereminent; and that, had she been permitted to reorganize and develop her charities without the interference of the Reformation, the amount of social distress, and of social injustice as well, would be much smaller than it is today.


—Before the Reformation all charities were administered by the Church; today most of them are under the control of the State. Nevertheless the field still open to Catholic charity is neither small nor likely to become smaller. The limitations and defects of public charity are well known: it is almost inevitably more mechanical and less sympathetic than private charity; it is more wasteful, not only because it is less carefully administered, but also on account of the readiness of many persons to claim public relief as a right; and, inasmuch as it supplants appeals to the individual conscience by the imposition of a tax, it inflicts a mortal injury upon the spontaneity of charity and the sense of personal responsibility towards the unfortunate. The inferiority of state-admistered charity, so far as outdoor relief is concerned, has received striking illustration in the achievements of Dr. Chalmers in Glasgow more than half a century ago, in the experiment of substituting voluntary for public relief in Whitechapel and Stepney, London, and in the policy of refusing public outdoor relief which prevails in Brooklyn and Philadelphia (cf. Bliss, Encyclopedia, s.v. Chalmers; Mackay, The State and Charity, pp. 164 sq.; and Warner, American Charities, pp. 162-176). The general principles underlying the whole problem of state charity would seem to be these: instead of assuring every person a living, the State ought so to regulate economic conditions that every person able to obtain a livelihood by labor should have that opportunity; that it should have charge of certain extreme forms of distress, such as virulent disease and insanity; and that in general it should cooperate with voluntary charitable agencies, and stand ready to relieve all serious want which is not met by them. At any rate, students and workers in the field of charity seem to be practically unanimous in the belief that the scope of private charity ought to be extended rather than restricted. In this field Catholic charity should occupy the foremost place, and do by far the largest and most effective work. The principles of Catholic charity, concerning the ownership and use of goods, the true equality and brotherhood of men, spontaneity in giving, and the motives for giving, are supremely great. Especially is this true of the motives. The neighbor ought to be assisted out of love of God. As the highest form of this is to love God for His own sake, so the highest form of fraternal charity is that which is motived by the thought that the neighbor is the creature, the image, the child of God, and the brother of Christ. Inasmuch as this motive points to a worth and sacredness in the individual which is higher than anything that he possesses when considered in himself, it is more effective and more comprehensive than the motive which is restricted to love of the neighbor for his own sake. Many needy individuals are in themselves repellent rather than sympathy-compelling. While the second form of fraternal charity for love of God, namely to obtain the spiritual rewards which God has annexed to this form of good works, is lower than the first, it is entirely natural, entirely praiseworthy, and has the approval, of Christ Himself. This motive appeals to multitudes who would rarely be able to rise to the higher one, and is occasionally effective in the case of the least selfish. Warner declares that, “of all the churches the one that still induces the largest amount of giving in proportion to the means of those who give is no doubt the Roman Catholic” (op. cit., p. 316). To a large extent this fact is due to the Church‘s practice of insisting upon both motives, and thus touching all the springs of charity in man’s complex nature. At the same time it is a patent fact that large numbers of men and women devote themselves and their means to works of charity solely out of love for the neighbor regarded in himself. This motive is likewise in harmony with the promptings of human nature. It is particularly effective in lofty souls who, lacking any positive religious faith, find in works of charity satisfaction of the desire to serve and worship something outside of themselves. While the number of such persons will in all probability be largely augmented in the near future, neither in numbers nor in achievements will they be worthy of comparison with those who come under the influence of the motives supplied by Christianity.

The second advantage possessed by Catholics in the work of charity lies in their ecclesiastical organization. Relief can be individualized by means of the parish, and centralized by means of the diocese. In many places Catholics are, moreover, cooperating with non-Catholics through the charity organization societies. This is entirely fitting, for two reasons: First, because the methods and purposes of what has come to be called organized charity—namely, investigation, attention to causes, specific treatment, self-help, record-keeping, and cooperation among the different charitable agencies in order to eliminate duplicated and misdirected effort—are entirely sound. Second, because Catholics have a prior claim upon all these principles and practices. As noted above, the general principles were first formulated by the theologian, Vives, in 1526, and received their first application about the same time in the Catholic cities of the Netherlands and Germany. They were developed and applied along the specific lines of present practice by Frederic Ozanam in 1833 (cf. O’Meara, Life of Ozanam). The first non-Catholic to exemplify these modern methods was Chalmers in 1850, while the first charity organization society did not come into existence until 1868 (cf. Warner, op. cit., pp. 377-392). True, these methods are liable to abuse: the work may become too formal, too mechanical, too much given to investigation, and the results may be waste of money, lack of sympathy, and unnecessary hardship to the deserving poor. Nevertheless time and experience seem, in most places, to have reduced these evils to the lowest proportions that can reasonably be expected in a human institution. In many localities it is desirable that Catholic charitable agencies should make a fuller use of these methods, and in general become better organized and better systematized. Where the St. Vincent de Paul Society lives up to the standard set by its founder in this matter, it is the most effective relief society in existence. Some of the American conferences of the association have in recent years begun to employ paid agents with gratifying results. This is a wise feature, inasmuch as voluntary workers cannot always be obtained in sufficient numbers who possess the time, ability, and experience essential to the largest achievement. Again, Catholic charity-workers will follow the best traditions of Catholic charity by cooperating with the tendency, which is every day becoming stronger in the circles of organized charity, to attack the social causes of distress (cf. Proceedings of the Thirty-third National Conference of Charities and Correction, pp. 1-10): This is, of course, the wisest, most effective, most difficult, and, therefore, most meritorious form of charitable effort. In the Middle Ages the social causes of poverty were much better controlled than at present, because the Church had infused into all classes the doctrine that social power carries with it social responsibility. Today the chief social causes of poverty are the worship of money, and the lack of social responsibility in those who possess social power, i.e. economic power. Only within the Catholic Church can be found the principles, resources, organization, and authority through which these causes can be repressed.

Finally, the opportunities of private charity, the direct assistance of individuals by individuals, are still and will continue to be large. This form of charity has always been encouraged by the Church, and when wisely administered it has advantages which are not attainable by the organized form. It makes possible that exchange and that equalization between giver and receiver spoken of by St. Paul, and promotes that mutual understanding and mutual sympathy which are especially necessary in our day, when the gulf separating those who have and those who have not has become so wide and so ominous. Individual charity also increases vastly the total amount that passes from the more to the less fortunate, thereby producing a more equitable distribution of the earth’s bounty than would take place if all cases of distress were referred to the already overburdened organizations. Dr. Devine, who is one of the foremost authorities in the field of organized charity, speaks in the highest terms of rightly-administered individual charity, and declares that, “it is a question whether the unmeasured but certainly large amount of neighborly assistance given in the tenement-houses of the city, precisely as in a New England village or in a frontier settlement, does not rank first of all among the means for the alleviation of distress” (“The Principles of Relief”, p. 332, and the entire chapter). See Alms and Almsgiving; Hospitals; Poverty; Orphans and Orphanages; Education of the Deaf; Education of the Blind; Homes; Protectories; Philanthropy; Monastery.


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