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§ 81. Christian Charity.

See the Lit. in vol. II. § 88, p. 311 sq. Chastel: Études historiques sur l’influence de la charité (Paris 1853, English transl., Philad. 1857—for the first three centuries). Häser: Geschichte der christl. Krankenpflege und Pflegerschaften (Berlin 1857). Ratzinger: Gesch. der christl. Armenpflege (Freib. 1869, a new ed. announced 1884). Morin: Histoire critique de la pauvreté (in the “Mémoirs de l’ Académie des inscript.” IV). Lecky: Hist. of Europ. Morals, ch. 4th (II. 62 sqq.). Uhlhorn: Christian Charity in the Ancient Church (Stuttgart, 1881; Engl. transl. Lond. and N. York 1883), Book III., and his Die Christliche Liebesthätigkeit im Mittelalter. Stuttgart, 1884. (See also his art. in Brieger’s “Zeitschrift för K. G.” IV. 1). B. Riggenbach: Das Armenwesen der Reformation (Basel 1883). Also the articles Armenpflege in Herzog’s “Encycl.“2 vol. I. 648–663; in Wetzer and Welte’s “Kirchenlex.“2 vol. I. 1354–1375; Paupérisme in Lichtenberger X. 305–312; and Hospitals in Smith and Cheetham I. 785–789.

From the cruelties of superstition and bigotry we gladly turn to the queen of Christian graces, that “most excellent gift of charity,” which never ceased to be exercised wherever the story of Christ’s love for sinners was told and his golden rule repeated. It is a “bond of’ perfectness” that binds together all ages and sections of Christendom. It comforted the Roman empire in its hoary age and agonies of death; and it tamed the ferocity of the barbarian invaders. It is impossible to overestimate the moral effect of the teaching and example of Christ, and of St. Paul’s seraphic praise of charity upon the development of this cardinal virtue in all ages and countries. We bow with reverence before the truly apostolic succession of those missionaries, bishops, monks, nuns, kings, nobles, and plain men and women, rich or poor, known and unknown, who, from gratitude to Christ and pure love to their fellow-men, sacrificed home, health, wealth, life itself, to humanize and Christianize savages, to feed the hungry, to give drink to the thirsty, to entertain the stranger, to clothe the naked, to visit the sick, to call on the prisoner, to comfort the dying. We admire and honor also those exceptional saints who, in literal fulfillment or misunderstanding of the Saviour’s advice to the rich youth, and in imitation of the first disciples at Jerusalem, sold all their possessions and gave them to the poor that they might become perfect. The admiration is indeed diminished, but not destroyed, if in many cases a large measure of refined selfishness was mixed with self-denial, and when the riches of heaven were the sole or chief inducement for choosing voluntary poverty on earth.

The supreme duty of Christian charity was inculcated by all faithful pastors and teachers of the gospel from the beginning. In the apostolic and ante-Nicene ages it was exercised by regular contributions on the Lord’s day, and especially at the communion and the agape connected with it. Every congregation was a charitable society, and took care of its widows and orphans, of strangers and prisoners, and sent help to distant congregations in need.372372    See vol. II. § 100.

After Constantine, when the masses of the people flocked into the church, charity assumed an institutional form, and built hospitals and houses of refuge for the strangers, the poor, the sick, the aged, the orphans.373373    They are called Xenodochium and Xenodochia (ξενοδοχεῖον) for strangers; ptochium or ptochotrophium (πτωχεῖον, πτωχοτροφεῖον) for the poor; orphanotrophium (ὀρφανοθροφεῖον) for orphans; brephotrophium (βρεφοτροφεῖον) for foundlings house for the sick (νοσοκομεῖα, valetudinaria); for the aged (γεροντοκομεῖα); and for widows (χηροτροφεῖα); in Latin hospitium, hospitals, hospitalium (corresponding to the Greek ξενοδοχεῖον). See Du Cange. Such institutions were unknown among the heathen; for the houses near the temples of Aeculapius were only intended for temporary shelter, not for care and attendance. The Emperor Julian’s involuntary eulogy of the charity of the “Galilaeans ” as he contemptuously called the Christians, and his abortive attempt to force the heathen to imitate it, are well known. See vol. III. 50. They appear first in the East, but soon afterwards also in the West. Fabiola founded a hospital in Rome, Pammachius one in the Portus Romanus, Paulinus one in Nola. At the time of Gregory I. there were several hospitals in Rome; he mentions also hospitals in Naples, Sicily, and Sardinia. These institutions were necessary in the greatly enlarged sphere of the church, and the increase of poverty, distress, and disaster which at last overwhelmed the Roman empire. They may in many cases have served purposes of ostentation, superseded or excused private charity, encouraged idleness, and thus increased rather than diminished pauperism. But these were abuses to which the best human institutions are subject.

Private charity continued to be exercised in proportion to the degree of vitality in the church. The great fathers and bishops of the fourth and fifth centuries set an illustrious example of plain living and high thinking, of self-denial and liberality, and were never weary in their sermons and writings in enjoining the duty of charity. St. Basil himself superintended his extensive hospital at Caesarea, and did not shrink from contact with lepers; St. Gregory Nazianzen exhorted the brethren to be “a god to the unfortunate by imitating the mercy of God,” for there is “nothing so divine as beneficence;” St. Chrysostom founded several hospitals in Constantinople, incessantly appealed to the rich in behalf of the poor, and directed the boundless charities of the noble widow Olympias. St. Ambrose, at once a proud Roman and an humble Christian, comforted the paupers in Milan, while he rebuked an emperor for his cruelty; Paulinus of Nola lived in a small house with his wife, Theresiâ and used his princely wealth for the building of a monastery, the relief of the needy, the ransoming of prisoners, and when his means were exhausted, he exchanged himself with the son of a widow to be carried away into Africa; the great Augustin declined to accept as a present a better coat than he might give in turn to a brother in need; St. Jerome founded a hospice in Bethlehem from the proceeds of his property, and induced Roman ladies of proud ancestry to sell their jewels, silk dresses, and palaces, for the poor, and to exchange a life of luxurious ease for a life of ascetic self-denial. Those examples shone like brilliant stars through the darkness of the middle ages.

But the same fathers, it must be added, handed to the middle ages also the disturbing doctrine of the meritorious nature and atoning efficacy of charity, as “covering a multitude of sins,” and its influence even upon the dead in purgatory. These errors greatly stimulated and largely vitiated that virtue, and do it to this day.374374    See the numerous quotations from the fathers in Uhlhorn, p. 278 sqq. “Countless times is the thought expressed that almsgiving is a safe investment of money at good interest with God in heaven.” He thinks that “the doctrine of purgatory, and of the influence which almsgiving exercises even upon souls in purgatory, determined more than anything else the charity of the entire mediaeval period” (p. 287). The notion that alms have an atoning efficacy is expressed again and again in every variety of form as the motive of almsgiving which is predominant above all others. Even Augustin, the most evangelical among the fathers, teaches “that alms have power to extinguish and expiate sin,” although he qualifies the maxim and confines the benefit to those who amend their lives. No one had greater influence upon the Latin church than the author of the City of God, in which, as Uhlhorn says, “he unconsciously wrote the programme of the middle ages.”

The Latin word caritas, which originally denotes dearness or costliness (from carus, dear), then esteem, affection, assumed in the church the more significant meaning of benevolence and beneficence, or love in active exercise, especially to the poor and suffering among our fellow-men. The sentiment and the deed must not be separated, and the gift of the hand derives its value from the love of the heart. Though the gifts are unequal, the benevolent love should be the same, and the widow’s mite is as much blessed by God as the princely donation of the rich. Ambrose compares benevolence in the intercourse of men with men to the sun in its relation to the earth. “Let the gifts of the wealthy,” says another father, “be more abundant, but let not the poor be behind him in love.” Very often, however, charity was contracted into mere almsgiving. Praying, fasting, and almsgiving were regarded (as also among the Jews and Mohammedans) as the chief works of piety; the last was put highest. For the sake of charity it is right to break the fast or to interrupt devotion.

Pope Gregory the Great best represents the mediaeval charity with its ascetic self-denial, its pious superstitions and utilitarian ingredients. He lived in that miserable transition period when the old Roman civilization was crumbling to pieces and the new civilization was not yet built up on its ruins. “We see nothing but sorrow,” he says, “we hear nothing but complaints. Ah, Rome! once the mistress of the world, where is the senate? where the people? The buildings are in ruins, the walls are falling. Everywhere the sword! Everywhere death! I am weary of life! “But charity remained as an angel of comfort. It could not prevent the general collapse, but it dried the tears and soothed the sorrows of individuals. Gregory was a father to the poor. He distributed every month cart-loads of corn, oil, wine, and meat among them. What the Roman emperors did from policy to keep down insurrection, this pope did from love to Christ and the poor. He felt personally guilty when a man died of starvation in Rome. He set careful and conscientious men over the Roman hospitals, and required them to submit regular accounts of the management of funds. He furnished the means for the founding of a Xenodochium in Jerusalem. He was the chief promoter of the custom of dividing the income of the church into four equal parts, one for the bishop, one for the rest of the clergy, one for the church buildings, one for the poor. At the same time he was a strong believer in the meritorious efficacy of almsgiving for the living and the dead. He popularized Augustin’s notion of purgatory, supported it by monkish fables, and introduced masses for the departed (without the so-called thirties, i.e. thirty days after death). He held that God remits the guilt and eternal punishment, but not the temporal punishment of sin, which must be atoned for in this life, or in purgatory. Thus be explained the passage about the fire (1 Cor. 3:11) which consumes wood, hay, and stubble, i.e. light and trifling sins such as useless talk, immoderate laughter, mismanagement of property. Hence, the more alms the better, both for our own salvation and for the relief of our departed relatives and friends. Almsgiving is the wing of repentance, and paves the way to heaven. This idea ruled supreme during the middle ages.

Among the barbarians in the West charitable institutions were introduced by missionaries in connection with convents, which were expected to exercise hospitality to strangers and give help to the poor. The Irish missionaries cared for the bodies as well as for the souls of the heathen to whom they preached the gospel, and founded “Hospitalia Scotorum.” The Council of Orleans, 549, shows acquaintance with Xenodochia in the towns. There was a large one at Lyons. Chrodegang of Metz and Alcuin exhort the bishops to found institutions of charity, or at least to keep a guest-room for the care of the sick and the stranger. A Synod at Aix in 815 ordered that an infirmary should be built near the church and in every convent. The Capitularies of Charlemagne extend to charitable institutions the same privileges as to churches and monasteries, and order that “strangers, pilgrims, and paupers” be duly entertained according to the canons.

The hospitals were under the immediate supervision of the bishop or a superintendent appointed by him. They were usually dedicated to the Holy Spirit, who was represented in the form of a dove in some conspicuous place of the building. They received donations and legacies, and were made the trustees of landed estates. The church of the middle ages was the largest property-holder, but her very wealth and prosperity became a source of temptation and corruption, which in the course of time loudly called for a reformation.

After we have made all reasonable deduction for a large amount of selfish charity which looked to the donor rather than the recipient, and for an injudicious profusion of alms which encouraged pauperism instead of enabling the poor to help themselves by honest work, we still have left one of the noblest chapters in the history of morals to which no other religion can furnish a parallel. For the regular gratuitous distribution of grain to the poor heathen of Rome, who under Augustus rose to 200,000, and under the Antonines to 500,000, was made from the public treasury and dictated by selfish motives of state policy; it called forth no gratitude; it failed of its object, and proved, together with slavery and the gladiatorial shows for the amusement of the people, one of the chief demoralizing influences of the empire.375375    “There can be,” says Lecky, (II. 78), “no question that either in practice nor in theory, neither in the institution, that were founded nor in the place that was assigned to it in the scale of duties, did charity in antiquity occupy a position at all comparable to that which it has obtained by Christianity. Nearly all the relief was a State measure, dictated much more by policy than by benevolence; and the habit of selling young children, the innumerable expositions, the readiness of the poor to enroll themselves as gladiators, and the frequent famines, show how large was the measure of unrelieved distress. A very few pagan examples of charity have, indeed, descended to us.”

Finally, we must not forget that the history of true Christian charity remains to a large part unwritten. Its power is indeed felt everywhere and every day; but it loves to do its work silently without a thought of the merit of reward. It follows human misery into all its lonely griefs with personal sympathy as well as material aid, and finds its own happiness in promoting the happiness of others. There is luxury in doing good for its own sake. “When thou doest alms,” says the Lord, “let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth, that thine alms may be in secret: and thy Father who seeth in secret shall reward thee.”376376    Matt. 6:3, 4. The word “openly” (ἐν τῷ φανερῷ) is omitted in the best MSS. and critical editions, and in the E. Revision.


Uhlhorn closes his first work with this judgment of mediaeval charity (p. 396 sq. of the English translation): “No period has done so much for the poor as the middle ages. What wholesale distribution of alms, what an abundance of institutions of the most various kinds, what numbers of hospitals for all manner of sufferers, what a series of ministrant orders, male and female, knightly and civil, what self-sacrifice and devotedness! In the mediaeval period all that we have observed germinating in the ancient Church, first attains its maturity. The middle ages, however, also appropriated whatever tendencies existed toward a one-sided and unsound development. Church care of the poor entirely perished, and all charity became institutional; monks and nuns, or members of the ministrant orders, took the place of the deacons—the diaconate died out. Charity became one-sidedly institutional and one-sidedly ecclesiastical. The church was the mediatrix of every exercise of charity, she became in fact the sole recipient, the sole bestower; for the main object of every work of mercy, of every distribution of alms, of every endowment, of all self-sacrifice in the service of the needy, was the giver’s own salvation. The transformation was complete. Men gave and ministered no longer for the sake of helping and serving the poor in Christ, but to obtain for themselves and theirs, merit, release from purgatory, a high degree of eternal happiness. The consequence was, that poverty was not contended with, but fostered, and beggary brought to maturity; so that notwithstanding the abundant donations, the various foundations, the well-endowed institutions, distress was after all not mastered. Nor is it mastered yet. “The poor ye have always with you” (John 12:8). Riggenbach (l.c.) maintains that in the middle ages hospitals were mere provision-houses (Versorgungshäuser), and that the Reformation first asserted the principle that they should be also houses of moral reform (Rettungshäuser and Heilanstalten).

Lecky, who devotes a part of the fourth chapter of his impartial humanitarian History of European Morals to this subject, comes to the following conclusion (II. 79, 85): “Christianity for the first time made charity a rudimentary virtue, giving it a leading place in the moral type, and in the exhortations 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 .... The greatest things are often those which are most imperfectly realized; and surely no achievements of the Christian Church are more truly great than those which it has effected in the sphere of charity. For the first time in the history of mankind, it has inspired many thousands of men and women, at the sacrifice of all worldly interests, and often under circumstances of extreme discomfort or danger, to devote their entire lives to the single object of assuaging the sufferings of humanity. It has covered the globe with countless institutions of mercy, absolutely unknown to the whole Pagan world. It has indissolubly united, in the minds of men, the idea of supreme goodness with that of active and constant benevolence. It has placed in every parish a religious minister who, whatever may be his other functions, has at least been officially charged with the superintendence of an organization of charity, and who finds in this office one of the most important as well as one of the most legitimate sources of his power.”

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