instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Tuesday, February 24, 2004


No one gives alms any more. We give "to charity."

This substitution of "charity" for "almsgiving" suggests an impoverished understanding of both charity and almsgiving.

Charity can be defined as the habit, infused into the human soul by God, of desiring the glory of God and the salvation of men. There's a big drop-off from that to "giving money to a tax-exempt organization."

If the idea of charity has dwindled, the idea of almsgiving has been diluted. We may give to the poor, but we also give to the parish, and to the school, and to any number of "charitable organizations." To the IRS:
The term charitable is used in its generally accepted legal sense and includes relief of the poor, the distressed, or the underprivileged; advancement of religion; advancement of education or science; erection or maintenance of public buildings, monuments, or works; lessening the burdens of government; lessening of neighborhood tensions; elimination of prejudice and discrimination; defense of human and civil rights secured by law; and combating community deterioration and juvenile delinquency.
These may all be noble goals, but they aren't all matter for almsgiving.

There is a sort of sophisticated thinking that says, "Material poverty is just one form of poverty. We can be rich in material goods yet poor in [civil rights/education/the arts]." I see such thought as tending toward a form of stealing from the poor: taking the prescriptions, commandments, and exhortations to give to the poor -- the literally poor, the underfed, underhoused, underclothed poor -- that have been given to us in Scripture and tradition, and directing them, by means of semantic and analogical tricks, at people who are not poor.

This isn't to say working to enrich the civil rights, education, and artistic experience of people who may not be materially poor has no basis in Scripture and tradition, much less that it's a bad idea. But it is not almsgiving.

"Almsgiving saves one from death and expiates every sin," Tobit told his son. We have no such guarantee about giving money to the local orchestra.

Note, by the way, this distinction made in Canon 222 of the Code of Canon Law, a distinction the IRS is not concerned with:
§1. The Christian faithful are obliged to assist with the needs of the Church so that the Church has what is necessary for divine worship, for the works of the apostolate and of charity, and for the decent support of ministers.

§2. They are also obliged to promote social justice and, mindful of the precept of the Lord, to assist the poor from their own resources.
Assisting with the needs of the Church is a precept of the Church. Assisting the poor from our own resources is a precept of the Lord. Catholics must do both, but we shouldn't confuse them. That weekly check to the parish, while morally required, is not almsgiving.