ALMS-DEEDS

Alms:  "Something given to a charity or cause: benefaction, beneficence, charity, contribution, donation, gift."

[Links are generally to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, The New American Bible or the Thesaurus to clarify a word.]

"THE Roman Catechism (§6, no. 16, Council of Trent) observes that "in the Seventh Commandment is implied the obligation to be compassionate towards the poor and needy and to relieve them in their necessities and difficulties by the means and resources with which God may have endowed us;" accordingly... we will briefly consider the subject of alms-deeds. We shall, therefore, glance at the nature of this obligation, its gravity, its matter, and the spiritual and temporal blessings that follow in its train.

One of our most deeply rooted prejudices is to the effect that almsgiving is something superabundant [as if excessive] or superfluous and not a strict and rigorous obligation. The result of this idea is that those who do give alms regard their act as highly meritorious, no matter how small or insufficient their alms may really be; while those who give none at all, never dream that they are thereby guilty of any fault. Hence the abandonment, the misery, the desolation of numbers of the poor who are reduced to the direst extremities. Now I maintain that almsgiving is a grave obligation and as essential as any other, so much so indeed that the neglect of it can of itself lead to the loss of one's soul.

To be thoroughly convinced of this truth it should be enough for you to ponder on a matter that often gives you groundless scandal. You often wonder at seeing the immense disparity in goods and fortune that is found in the world - a disparity by force of which one languishes in misery, wanting even the very necessities of life, while another is surrounded by an abundance of all things. Now is it not precisely here that you should find an infallible proof of the obligation of which I speak? Assuredly it is, if you but believe that there is a God - a just and provident God - presiding over human affairs. For how can we suppose that God is oblivious of His creatures who are the work of His hands and who are no less dear to Him than are the well-to-do? Are we to imagine that He who provides food for the birds of the air and even for the lowest insects on earth, will so many of His children abandoned to misery, and deprived of all hope of relief? How can we imagine any such thing without a grave injury to God, His providence, and His justice? If, then, in the present order of things, God finds it necessary that should exist a disparity or inequality in states and conditions here below, if He has willed the world to be made up of rich and poor, it must also be admitted that He has provided for the sustenance of each one of the latter, by directing the former to take care of them and protect them in such a way that the abundance of the one will provide for the indigence of the other: Let your abundance supply their want. (2 Cor. 8:14)

This is how you should view the matter, even had God given no definite instructions on the point; but as a matter of fact, His wishes in this regard are only too clear and evident.

In the first place this obligation of almsgiving is necessarily implied in the general precept of charity; for, as St. Thomas observes, God in commanding us to love our neighbor, commands us at the same time to attend to all those things without which such love cannot subsist. Now this love must not consist in words alone, but in deeds and works: Let us not love in word nor in tongue but in deed and truth. (1 John 3:18) Now, how can this love subsist if, though able to help and assist our neighbor in his necessities, we leave him naked, hungry, in want, without making any effort to do what we can to procure him the help of which he stands in need!

But in addition to this, God has given us an express command both in the Old Law and in the New: There will not be wanting poor in the land of your habitation, (Deut. 15:11) said God to the Jewish people; therefore I command you to open your hand to your needy and poor brother. And has not Jesus Christ in the Gospel told us to convert into alms whatever remains over and above our needs? That which remains, give alms (Luke 11:41 DR, compare NAB) - in which words the Fathers have recognized a real precept - not merely a simple counsel.

The following reflection will confirm this still more. It is certain that God will not condemn us for the omission of that which is of simple counsel; but it is equally certain that the bare omission of alms-deeds will decide our everlasting lot - of this we have in the Gospels an incontestable proof. For on what shall be based the sentence of eternal rejection which Jesus Christ will pronounce against the reprobate on the day of general judgment? Precisely on this omission: I was hungry and you gave Me not to eat: I was thirsty and you gave Me not to drink: I was naked and you clothed Me not.(Matt. 25:42) And what is most remarkable of all is that no mention is made of any other fault than this, as if that judgment was to be concerned with this point alone. Not that we have to render no account of our other faults, says St. John Chrysostom; but this is specially mentioned, because of all obligations it is the most neglected. It was, then, highly important to warn us in this respect, to guard us against being deceived, and to let us see that apart from all other obligations this one obligation of alms-deeds, if transgressed by us, will be a sufficient reason for our condemnation.

Nor can this seem too severe if we only reflect on the countless evils resulting from the omission of that portion of almsgiving to which each one is bound. Who indeed can number them? Who can count the horrid blasphemies launched against God and His providence in moments of deep despair? Who can count the number of unfortunate girls, not badly inclined by nature, who have been driven by want to make a vile traffic of their modesty? Who can count the young men left without the least education and growing up to every sort of vice and corruption, owing to want of means? Whence, too, comes the appalling number of criminals who are the plague of society, fully capable of the most cold-blooded crimes? Whence also the terrible catalogue of theft and robbery and assassination and suicide? And whence the horrors and atrocities that make nature itself shudder? I well know that much must be attributed to natural depravity and perversity; but you must also grant that much is due to need and misery driving those who are by no means ill-disposed to the worst and most desperate resolutions.

Now to whom, I ask, must be attributed much of these evils, if not to those cruel and inhuman possessors of wealth who refuse to hold out to the poor the succor which God has directed? Today they refuse to cast a thought on the matter as if it was something that had no concern whatever for them; but what will they think when the Divine Judge unfolds before their eyes the horrible series of disorders and misfortunes caused by their hardness of heart? In that moment, what opinion shall they form of the obligation of alms-deeds? and what shall be their opinion of their neglect of it ?

It need cause no astonishment, therefore, that almsgiving should form before God's tribunal the subject of strict and special investigation deciding our lot for all eternity. On the contrary, it should rather be a matter for surprise that in face of such strong evidence men can continue on in their old way without the least apprehension, or as if there was nothing to fear in this respect. Is not the neglect of this obligation visible and manifest? Yet in spite of this how few there are who think of seriously reflecting on this point? who ever dream of accusing themselves in Confession of having failed in this duty, or of having only half fulfilled it?

How, then, are we to account for the practical peace and tranquillity that exists with regard to this particular subject? It would seem as if the cause must be sought in the subject-matter of the obligation which instead of being clear and precise is vague and undetermined. Its subject-matter, according to the words of Jesus Christ already quoted, is all that remains over and above one's wants, one's decent maintenance: That which remains give alms. But this surplus cannot be fixed with absolute precision - it necessarily varies with the variety of states, conditions, positions, or employments. Hence it follows that even though people should be fully alive to the obligation in theory, few believe themselves bound by it in practice, since few in practice consider they possess that surplus of which Jesus Christ speaks; and thus the whole obligation vanishes into thin air.

It is in vain that theologians, following on God's own words, lay down various wise rules regarding the proportion to be observed between the wants of the poor and the superfluity of the rich; and as both classes admit of varying grades they draw the conclusion that the greater the needs of the poor the stronger their claims to the superfluities of the rich. Fine theories these on paper! fine rules to read in books, while all the time, regardless of his own state or position, be it ever so rich, regardless, too, of the necessity of others, be that necessity ever so extreme, each one says and always will continue to say that he really possesses no such thing as surplus wealth. This, then, is a point that requires looking into...

If all that you thus say is true, we must conclude that God is making a solemn mockery of the poor when He assigns as their sustenance imaginary resources, which have no real existence. Now is not this supposition utterly impossible? Who, then, is to determine the surplus in question? Is it your own caprice? or rather is it not your state as a Christian? If you regard as surplus that part alone which remains after you have provided for the satisfaction of your passions, which are insatiable in their nature, it is not difficult to understand how it is you have nothing to give. For how is it possible that anything be regarded as superfluous by that all-consuming desire which is ever anxious to grow rich, to make a fine figure in the world, to be amused and enjoy itself daily more and more? In face of this fine system of daily increasing and incessant wants and desires, what place can remain for works of charity?

There must, therefore, be some definite rule; now where we look for it if not in the principles of Christian sobriety, temperance, and moderation which exercise so restraining an influence over your wants? and this, be it well understood, without interfering in any way with what is necessary, honest, or becoming. Let me explain this more clearly. [See the Cardinal Virtues, and see our page on Virtue.]

God does not forbid you to live in a manner suitable to your rank or condition; He even very willingly concedes a certain dignity, a certain amount of pomp, in keeping with your state in life; but it is by no means His intention that you run after all the world's fashions, vanities, and pomps, much of which you could easily do without, as many so well know how to do, without the least prejudice to their honor, or rank, or general reputation ; it is not His intention that you should, for the mere sake of appearance or show, attempt to rival those who are superior to you in means; or that you should raise yourself above your position. Avoid all such excess or extravagance, and you will easily find the surplus of which our Lord speaks. [Editor's note: I don't think the author here is saying you should avoid self improvement. I doubt that he is trying to reinforce class distinctions. However, would it make sense for the janitor to try to live as well as the CEO or president of the company? Someone consistently living beyond his means is foolish and wrong. Yet how often might this occur just for vanity?]

God does not forbid you to take, from time to time, some honest recreation; but it is not His intention that you should make your whole life consist in a ceaseless round of amusements and pleasures directly opposed to the principles of Christianity. Avoid this excess and you will easily find the requisite surplus. [cf. CCC 377, 2549, 1838, 2187.]

Nay more: it is not even forbidden that you should try to improve your position and increase your means, especially if you have a family to settle, provided, of course, that in observing the law of justice you do not offend against the law of charity, since both one and the other are equally prescribed by the Lord. Hence, while it would be a grave sin to enrich oneself at the expense of one's creditors, it is none the less so to grow rich at the expense of the poor and needy. Let your ideas, therefore, be reconstructed in accordance with the immutable maxims of the Gospel, which you swore to observe in Baptism. [See Respect for the Person, and CCC 2411.]

But to be still more definite and precise, can you dispense yourself from the obligation of regarding as superfluous that which you spend in openly offending God and in directly ruining your own soul? Ah! if charity would but lead you to devote to the relief of the poor even a part of the money you expend daily in drunkenness, in play, in good cheer, in vicious habits, in general self-indulgence, the poor would have more than enough to provide for all their needs! Here we have precisely that fund of iniquity referred to by Jesus Christ in the Gospel and which He directs us to convert into a fund of alms for the poor - a fund that will even prove more profitable to yourself than to the poor: Make unto your friends of the mammon of iniquity.(Luke 16:9.) How can you affirm in good faith that you have nothing with which to succor them? You have only too much to purchase the fire of hell at a great price, while you have nothing with which to buy the happiness of heaven at a much smaller price! What a strange contradiction I

Furthermore, what definitely and still more clearly shows the insincerity and bad faith of many, will be found in certain examples that frequently fall under our notice, and which occasion considerable remark, even from the world itself. I here refer to the vast sums, the colossal wealth, sometimes left behind them by those who have no heirs, or at least no near heirs. Are not such fortunes an evident proof of the existence of a surplus which should have been devoted, at least in part, to the needs of the poor? These sums will naturally be very welcome to the fortunate heir who will only be too eager to enter on the possession of his inheritance; but they will be a very poor recommendation for him who goes before the tribunal of God, leaving behind him the basis of so grave a charge, - a charge which the Lord, moved by the cries of the neglected poor, will strictly and inexorably investigate.

To come back to the point under consideration, I repeat that the precept imposed by God regarding the obligation of succoring the poor by alms could not be more clear or stringent; while as for the subject-matter of the obligation, that is to say, that portion over and above, indicated by our Lord, it cannot be regarded as obscure, unless, indeed, we willfully wish to close our eyes to the light. Now what should be the conclusion? The incontestable conclusion is this that the almost universal omission of this duty will one day end in the damnation of not a few souls.

Do not try to persuade yourself that the contrary custom, now so generally prevailing, will be enough to excuse you, for such a custom can never do away with the divine law on which alone, and not on the customs of the world, we shall be judged. Nay, these very sins which seem authorized by custom and hence cause little remorse, are on that very account all the more dangerous; and with good reason did St. Augustine cry out in dread: "Alas for the current of worldly custom," which engulfs and ruins so many souls in its turbulent flood!

Nor will it be wise for anyone to attempt to provide for his eternal interests by substituting in place of alms other practices, such, for instance, as regularity of conduct, devout exercises, frequentation of the Sacraments, and various works of piety and religion. There are only too many who though good and upright in every other respect, yet are well known to be grasping and avaricious in a supreme degree. But all the rest is useless, completely useless, if you throw a veil over this obligation which God has specially imposed on you. He has abundantly endowed you with goods and fortune for no other purpose than that of making you the ministers of His providence, the supporters and fathers of the poor. I repeat, then, in the most firm manner: either give out of your abundance to the relief of the needy in proportion to your means, or be prepared to face the risk of eternal damnation.

These words may seem to you to be hard and severe. Doubtless such is the case: but they are none the less true. If this teaching appears to you to be exaggerated, let me ask you to account for those words of our Lord, in which He declares that, It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven.[Matt. 19:24] Now, why is this? According to the common opinion of the Fathers [of the church, early Christian teachers] it is due to the mode and system of living generally followed by the rich - a mode and system made up of effeminacy, luxury, ambition, pleasures, good cheer, and enjoyment; but a mode and system in horrible contrast with the sea of calamities and miseries which surrounds us on all sides and which the rich completely neglect or forget, contrary to the express desire of God, the Supreme Lord of all things. Such, then, is the reason and such also is the foundation of all those woes pronounced by our Lord against the rich: Woe to you that are rich, for you have your consolation...woe to you that now laugh, for you shall mourn and weep. [Luke 6:24.]

But if the duty is hard, the reward is great - a reward concerning both the time that now is, as well as the time to come. As for the former God Himself tells us: He that has mercy on the poor lends to the Lord; and the Lord will repay him. [Prov. 19:17.] And if temporal rewards do not appear, or if they are slow in coming, it will be well to remember the story of Tobias. [See the Encyclopedia entry on Tobias, and the NAB translation of the Book of Tobit.]

As for spiritual blessings - the blessings for the life to come - we have countless passages in which the Holy Ghost sets them forth in words that cannot be mistaken. Thus, the poor sinner is told: Water quenches a flaming fire, and alms resists sins [Sirac 3:29] and, Alms deliver from all sins [Tobit 12:9; Douay Rheims] ; and, Give alms and behold all things are clean to you. [Luke 11:41] By alms, too, grace is preserved in the soul: Alms shall preserve the grace of a man as the apple of the eye. (Sirac 17:17) By alms God's offended justice is satisfied: Redeem your sins with alms and your iniquities with works of mercy to the poor ; (Dan. 4:24) while Blessed is he that understands concerning the needy and the poor; the Lord will deliver him in the evil day.' (Psalm 41:2)... Let us conclude this instruction in the words of the Holy Tobias to his son: If have much, give abundantly ; if have little take care, even so, to bestow willingly a little. (Tobit 4:8)."

[The emphasis has been added to above text.] 


Rt. Rev. John Hagan, A Compendium of Catechetical Instrunction, vol. III, Browne and Nolan Limited, Dublin (1928). pp. 406-412. Imprimatur, +Eduardus, Archbishop of Dublin. [The imprimatur applies to the original text but not to any material in brackets.] Copyrighted material is used in reliance on 17USC107. Scriptural references were included as footnotes in the original text but have been moved to in line links for the readers convenience.

See also Scripture on Almsgiving and A Plea for the Poor.

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