Alms and Almsgiving (in the Church)

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The word alms can be traced back to the Greek word [symbol omitted]λεημοσύνη (pity). This word is found in the Septuagint, a fact of importance since it is especially in Holy Scripture that the divine perspective on alms can be seen. From this point of view, the Christian is led to reflect on his duties in regard to those less favored than himself, and especially on the responsibilities of his Christian stewardship over material goods. St. Thomas Aquinas considered almsgiving the general and principal work of mercy (Summa theologiae 2a2ae, 32).

The Value of Alms. Alms assume so large a place in the design of eternal love that Holy Scripture considers a heart attentive to the poor a genuine blessing. "Happy is he who has regard for the lowly and the poor; in the day of misfortune the Lord will deliver him. The Lord will keep and preserve him, He will make him happy upon the earth, and not give him over to the will of his enemies. The Lord will help him on his sick bed, He will take away all his ailment when he is ill" [Ps 40(41). 14]. Such blessings are hardly surprising since an alms given to a fellow man is received by God Himself. As the Old Testament puts it, "He who has compassion on the poor lends to the Lord, and He will repay him for his good deed" (Prv 19.17), but the New Testament incomparably enhances this value of alms since there it is Jesus Christ Himself who is the recipient of alms. This truth is repeatedly illustrated in the legends of the saints. For example, Christ, disguised as a poor man who was clothed by St. Martin of Tours, was to make Martin a great missionary to the pagans and the founder of the Church of Gaul. The first miracle after Pentecost, which had an enormous effect in Jerusalem, was performed by Peter, who, when asked for an alms, gave not silver and gold, but what he had (see Acts 3.6).

Since God sees as His own the needs of the poor, alms have an eternal value, meriting a treasure in heaven. "Sell what you have and give alms. Make for yourselves a treasure in heaven" (Lk 12.33). Alms also have the redemptive value of blotting out sins. "Water quenches a flaming fire and alms atone for sin" (Sir 3.29). In this spirit Daniel gives advice to a king who is in agony over his own weakness: "Atone for your sins by good deeds and for your misdeeds by kindness to the poor, then your posterity will be long" (Dn 4.24). The Archangel Raphael affirms this value of alms to the family of Tobit; in fact, this is one of the most important lessons given by this Biblical work. "Prayer is good with fasting and alms more than to lay up treasures of gold, for alms delivereth from death, and the same is that which purgeth away sin, and maketh to find mercy and life everlasting" (Tb 12.89). Another aspect of the value of alms is that of sacrifice, as taught by Sirach. "In works of charity one offers fine flour, and when he gives alms he presents his sacrifice of prayer" (Sir 35.2).

Alms Purify the Heart. The portions of personal possessions so shared are detached from what is kept, and this tends to create an interior detachment. This may be the meaning of the somewhat obscure text of St. Luke: "Nevertheless, give that which remains as an alms; and behold, all things are clean to you" (Lk 11. 41).

Alms have still other values, for they enrich not only the giver, but the Church, since its charity is in this way enlarged. Alms increase brotherly love in the recipient, who in his turn prays for his benefactor. More particularly, in the exchange of mutual aid between the churches, the entire Mystical Body is blessed. This idea was the foundation of St. Paul's totally apostolic concern for Jerusalem's poor. He considered alms to be a means of eliminating the causes of disunity among Christians. "Now, however, I will set out for Jerusalem to minister to the saints. For Macedonia and Achaia have thought it well to make a contribution for the poor among the saints at Jerusalem" (Rom 15.2526). Such an idea might have splendid applications to the bonds between parishes and dioceses with the help of papal direction. It would be a witnessing before the world to the mutual aid existing among Christ's disciples so that at least among them there would be no distinction based either on race or on country.

The final words of Paul lead to an even higher sphere: human alms become a divine revelation since God both inspires the good action and is glorified by it. "He will increase the growth of the fruits of your justice that, being enriched in all things, you may contribute with simplicity of heart, and thus through us evoke thanksgiving to God; for the administration of this service not only supplies the wants of the saints, but overflows also in much gratitude to the Lord. The evidence furnished by this service makes them glorify God for your obedient profession of Christ's gospel and for the sincere generosity of your contributions to them and to all; while they themselves, in their prayers for you, yearn for you, because of the excellent grace God has given you" (2 Cor 9.1114).

Qualities of Alms. In order to have such value and to merit these promises, alms should correspond to the divine pattern. First, the primacy of intention must be emphasized, for intention is the soul of human action and gives it its real value. Christ Himself emphatically taught that alms should be given "in secret and thy Father, who sees in secret, will reward thee" (Mt 6.24). Christian alms then, should be a communion in merciful love. From this point of view, almsgiving has a delicacy that excludes ostentation and avoids the display of any superiority. St. Jerome once said that alms should be given as if the giver were the real recipient (Letter to Hedibian. ) More emphatically yet, the Lord taught, "When thou givest alms, do not let thy left hand know what thy right hand is doing" (Mt 6.3).

Almsgiving must also be totally disinterested, "not hoping for anything in return" (Lk 6.35; cf. Lk 14.4). The Old Testament had already mentioned the importance of promptness in the reception of a needy friend: "Refuse no one the good on which he has a claim when it is in your power to do it for him. Say not to your neighbor, 'Go and come again tomorrow, tomorrow I will give,' when you can give at once" (Prv 3.2728).

Almsgiving was commanded by the Lord, but not simply in the sense of material assistance; it includes rather, the realization of the compassionate intention of love. St. Paul expressly adds joy to the eagerness of generosity: "He who shows mercy [should do so] with cheerfulness" (Rom 12.8). In a word, alms should reflect the realism of a love that is attentive in its search for the opportunity of fraternal service, since the brother with whom we share what we have is a child of the same Father from whom we have all received. The example of Christ Himself speaks volumes. Living on alms, He nonetheless gave alms to those poorer than Himself (Jn 13.29). Even more, Christ is God's gift for the enrichment of the world: "For you know the graciousness of our Lord Jesus Christhow being rich he became poor for your sakes, that by his poverty you might become rich" (2 Cor 8.9).

Obligation to Give Alms. St. John has formulated the principle: "He who has the goods of this world and sees his brother in need and closes his heart to him, how does the love of God abide in him?" (1 Jn 3.17). True love demands a sharing when there is an abundance on one hand and a need on the other. To refuse to meet this demand is incompatible with charity. In the parable, the priest and the levite saw the unfortunate Samaritan; they could have helped him, but they passed by. It is seldom that a man's life depends so entirely on help from his neighbor, but when it does, the obligation is quite clear. This obligation would be so great that to refuse or deny it would be to destroy charity.

Conditions for the Obligation. "Abundance" exists when one has more than is necessary and strictly useful for his own life, for that of his family, or for the maintenance of his social position. Provision for one's social position is not necessarily a matter of snobbery or ostentation. Social life can impose real obligations. What these may be in any particular case may be determined by reasonable custom and special circumstances as these are evaluated by the Christian conscience of the individual. The logic of his faith and the operation of the gifts of the Holy Spirit will enable him to reach decisions about what is necessary to himself and what should be shared with his neighbor.

Extreme necessity means the absence or insufficiency of goods required for human life. The standard of living varies in different situations. Three stages and forms of theological thought upon this subject can be distinguished. The Fathers were preoccupied with preaching the necessity of almsgiving; the scholastics, with the analysis of its theological foundations; the casuists, with the practical application of the theological conclusions.

The Fathers, as in fact Christian preachers of every age have done, sought to inspire love of the poor and horror of greed and selfishness. They insisted upon the responsibility of the rich, who, as stewards of God, owed their superabundance to the poor. St. Thomas and the scholastics in general worked out the connection between mercy and alms and analyzed the essential reasons why almsgiving is obligatory. From the 14th to the end of the 18th century the major concern of moralists was the problem of conscience in the determination to the extent of the obligation in concrete situations. An effort was made to achieve precision. When exactly is there real abundance? When are alms a matter of strict precept, and when are they more a matter of counsel? St. Alphonsus Liguori studied, edited, and criticized the thought of his predecessors; and his conclusions on the subjects of extreme need and abundance have become classic. With a view to the circumstances of his own time and society, St. Alphonsus taught that the rich should give in charity a 50th part, that is, 2 per cent, of what they could save. In defense of this and other similar theological conclusions in this mattersome propositions were in fact condemned by the Church as too laxit should be noted that although the sum demanded for charity appears small, these authors did not lose sight of the wider horizons of the Gospel; and they were striving to determine what charity required as a matter of course and independently of extreme need. Confronted by a neighbor in extreme need, no Christian is really faithful to the Gospel when he is not prepared to sacrifice his abundance.

Alms are a matter of counsel when fraternal charity can be genuine without them, for instance, when the necessity of one's neighbor is not at the moment so pressing that a refusal to help him would be equivalent to a denial of love. On the other hand, there would be a serious obligation when the withholding of help would keep another from a good absolutely necessary to him. In this case, the lack of love would constitute a mortal sin against fraternal charity.

Generally speaking, then, the obligation of almsgiving is measured both by the extent of one's abundance, and by the kind of necessity the abundance would alleviate. If this necessity is extreme and one's assistance is the only possible way to relieve it, the duty is strict, but if the condition of need is known to others or if it is not really extreme, determination of the extent and force of the obligation calls for the exercise of prudence. The obligation itself is clear because of its connection with fraternal charity; the assessment of the obligation in concrete situations is often not easy to make.

Difficulty in Assessing. This may be due not only to variable circumstances but also, perhaps, to the very nature of things. An adequate Christian judgment in this matter can proceed only from a genuinely spiritual estimate of one's own resources. Certainly God's plan involves the provision of room in human life for creativeness and the generous use of freedom. However, this should not be used as a pretext to evade imperative duty where it clearly exists. Any uncertainty about the extent of a man's obligation should move him to develop the habit of seeing Christ in those poorer than himself. One's final welcome into the kingdomor his rejectionwill depend upon the criterion of his effective love for his brethren (Mt 25.3446). The complexity of life's circumstances shows only that Christ wants His disciples to be free and to use their real liberty in a life of charity, with their conscience enlightened by the divine mercy.

Application to Contemporary Life. The two roots of the obligation of almsgiving indicated by St. John are having the goods of this world and seeing the need of a brother (1 Jn 3.17). In the contemporary world the "having" and "wanting" are viewed in relation to an expanding economy that is not only national but international in scope. In the scale of needs there is almost infinite variation, and while the duties of love have not lost their ancient urgency, their application must undergo modification.

The State's Assumption of the Burden of Providing for Many Needs. Modern civilization has become conscious of at least some of the human rights consonant with human dignity, and in genuine democracies these rights are clearly seen. The state either directly or indirectly takes over more and more of the responsibility for meeting such needs as arise from unemployment, illness, old age, and so on. In consequence of this, many people do not require the help of private charity. To pay taxes or to take out insurance is to participate in the assistance the state and other institutions offer. When these factors are taken into consideration, it can be seen that there has been reduction in the frequency of instances of clearly assessable obligation to give alms.

Nevertheless, there will always be cases in which a Christian cannot rely on the community to assume his personal duty to give alms any more than he can expect the community to assume his personal obligation to love his brother. Laws cannot cover every situation (unforeseen accidents, immediate urgencies, and the like). In addition to obligations arising in such circumstances, a sense of charitable responsibility for his brethren should penetrate and illumine the Christian's performance of his civic duties and particularly the exercise of his right to vote.

Personal Knowledge of the Universality of Human Misery. The newspapers, radio, and television present the public with a spectacle of worldwide need, and this the Christian will see as a call upon his charity. No national or political limits exist for Christian charity. In most situations, only well-organized community effort can make an adequate response to the enormous needs. In the multitude of appeals and of possibilities offered, a 20th-century Christian may need to make a choice; bearing in mind the order of charity, he may have to consider which neighbors are closest to him spiritually. One such spiritual consideration might be "his brethren in the faith." "Therefore, while we have time, let us do good to all men, but especially to those who are of the household of the faith" (Gal 6.10). Those of the household will recognize the help more clearly as an expression of faith. But in general, discernment and an interior spirit become increasingly necessary for the Christian as he finds himself assailed with more multiple and varied appeals.

Need for Collective Organizations. In the mid-20th century it was said that almost any aid project involves so many costly measures that only an organization could undertake it. This is true, especially in cases in which aid must be sent to distant places. This kind of situation should broaden the scope of a Christian's compassionate intentions. He should be conscious of the complexities of the problem and take these into account in his thinking about economics, politics, and international relations. He may feel himself (and be) obligated to personal participation in collective effort and in interesting others by information and appeal. Yet in all this the Christian must take constant care that his participation remains an expression of fraternal love, without which no alms are pleasing to God. The qualities stated above that should mark Christian almsgiving should also characterize participation in the different forms of collective effort to bring aid to others. Otherwise these efforts will degenerate into mere philanthropic enterprises.

While he busies himself by having a share in large and collective undertakings, the Christian will try to keep alert in order not to miss the occasional opportunity that may occur to exercise charity in a direct, immediate, and personal way. He will remember that alms can be in forms other than money. His time, influence, friendliness, sympathy, and encouragement can also be a kind of alms and will give him much opportunity to prove his love for Christ and His Gospel.

See Also: mercy; mercy, works of; charity.

Bibliography: thomas aquinas, Summa theologiae 2a2ae, 3033. alphonsus liguori, Theologia moralis, ed. l. gaudÉ, 4 v. (new ed. Rome 190512) 1.2:3.2. a. beugnet, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. a. vacant et al., (Paris 190350) 1.2:256171. r. brouillard, Catholicisme 1:105056; "La Doctrine Catholique de l'aumône," Nouvrevth 54 (1927) 536. l. bouvier, Le Précepte de l'aumône chez saint Thomas d'Aquin (Montreal 1935). g. j. budde, "Christian Charity, Now and Always: The Fathers of the Church and Almsgiving," American Ecclesiastical Review, 85 (1931) 561579. j. d. o'neill, The Catholic Encyclopedia, ed. c. g. herbermann et al. (New York 190414; suppl. 1922) 1.1:328331.

[j. m. perrin]