Charity to man is the fulfilment of duties over and beyond those of justice to our fellow creatures, whom we recognize as having the same nature, the same destiny, the same Redeemer as ourselves. Charity, in this sense, is the fulfilment of one of the two great commandments which Christ formulated as containing all of God’s revealed will for man (Matthew 22).

Charity, as generally understood without reference to its religious implications, simply means giving aid to the needy. Charity is the collective title for all the aids and processes whereby ills are met and alleviated. Among savage peoples, charity may be seen as tribal loyalty. Feast and famine, responsibilities and duties, are the common portion of all the members of the tribe. At the same tIme, a who are not members of the tribe are viewed with hostility. The pagan civilizations had a larger organization and hence a greater respect for the rights of strangers. However, none had any great social consciousness of the role of charity. In Greece and Rome, the majority of the population was bound in slavery, and the misery of their condition aroused no sense of charitable obligation. Only under the later emperors do we find the first public charities, the support of poor children, under Nerva and Trajan.

Historians admit the great change introduced by Christianity. The Acts of the Apostles record the fact that the care of widows and orphans was esteemed a social obligation. The letters of Saint Paul refer to a collection taken up in the churches of Greece and Asia Minor for the relief of the poor of Jerusalem. The early Fathers and bishops preached that charity was a duty, not an act which a rich man might freely undertake or as freely omit. Estimates show that c.250 A.D. the church of Rome cared for 1,500 persons; that under Saint Chrysostom, the church of Antioch supported 3,000 widows and children, beside strangers and sick. In later Christian times, church revenues were divided into four parts, one of which was, given to the poor. The clergy thus were the social workers of their time. The monasteries also became conspicuous charitable agencies. To use modern terminology, they did relief work on a vast scale, offering food and shelter to all who asked for it. Finally the religious orders, in great variety, each undertook some charity. In a word, the social work of our naturalistic age inherits from early and medieval Christianity its spirit, its ideals, and much of its actual working.

The revolt against the Church in the 16th century forced the separation of charities and the Church. In considerable part, the kings, princes, and other powers of the time joined the revolt because of the opportunity it afforded to seize the endowments of charities. The resulting distress was so great that the powers of the state had to be invoked. Poor laws sought at first to crush out appeals for aid. This failing, systems were instituted whereby each local district was required to care for all cases of need within its own borders. Local taxation was thus proportioned to the amount of charity given, and the rich taxpayers saw to it that nothing short of absolute need was heeded. From this developed the feeling that still persists, that to receive charity is to confess oneself in utter degradation.

With the Church crippled, and the state by custom niggardly, charity in modern times has become a private matter. Fortunately there have always been individuals profoundly conscious of the misery of their fellows, who consecrate themselves to the struggle against this misery, and who arouse society to take action. Thus the state today intervenes in various types of need, sickness, illiteracy, delinquency, etc., formerly cared for only by individuals, or by religious organizations. Modern social work may be characterized by two qualities: by insistence on prevention, that is, by seeking not merely to aid in an emergency, but more especially to discover and eliminate the causes which brought about the emergency; and by organization, whereby individual cases and social problems are met with all the knowledge and power which can be summoned from every direction. The so-called “scientific” spirit of modern social work is entirely admirable, in that it seeks a complete and permanent solution of every difficulty. The Catholic must, however, regret the absence of religion, and, as far as he is concerned, must be guided by its principles; hence no Catholic can subscribe to certain aspects of the programs of birth-control and eugenics. Furthermore the Catholic must hold firmly the doctrine, taught by Christ Himself, that the practise of charity is not optional, but a real duty binding on all who have the opportunity and the means.