Disease and famine struck the Roman army in the fourth century. Pagan soldier Pachomius inquired about a group of fellow Romans who were bringing food and care to the afflicted men. Hearing that they were known as “Christians,” he learned about their religion, converted and, later, helped found the monastic tradition. This became one of the greatest and most charitable institutions in Western civilization.
Thus did charity beget charity.
It’s no surprise that the Christians stood out to Pachomius. Christianity invented charity as we know it in the West. The whole notion of giving was nearly absent from the ancient world, and the charity that did exist was marked more by vainglory than self-denial and love.
The Christian practice of self-denying charity — which we’re all thinking about daily now that we’re in the heart of Lent — started in the very first centuries of “The Way.”
Ordinary Christians fasted and gave the savings to the poor; rich Christians donated greater sums; the Church cared for widows and orphans; St. Augustine established a hospice, ransomed slaves and gave clothing to the poor; St. John Chrysostom founded hospitals. (Meanwhile, wicked Julian the Apostate railed against it all, bitterly complaining that the Christians not only fed their own, but fed the pagans as well.)
Charitable causes and institutions established by the Church during the Middle Ages are legion: efforts to abolish gladiator games and slavery, a hospital in nearly every major city, monasteries that distributed alms, inns for weary travelers, orphanages. Even early Italian capitalist firms in the high Middle Ages and Renaissance eras were charitable, allocating dividends and liquidation proceeds to the poor as if they were stockholders.
If you Google “Catholic” and “Charity” in the same search, you’ll get 124,000 hits. The hundreds of pages of results provide a dizzying army of charitable links, from Third-World poverty relief to food pantries to inner-city apostolates to adoption services.
But two things are missing.
First, there doesn’t seem to be a Catholic charity clearinghouse. Where can you go to determine whether a purported Catholic charity is legitimate?
I thought I might find such a source at the website of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (usccb.org), but found nothing. The Vatican website (vatican.va) doesn’t offer such guidance, either.
Secular websites have done a pretty good job of exploring charities’ merit. If you’re curious, for instance, to know what percentage of your donation goes to charity instead of administrative overhead, you can go to Charity Navigator (charitynavigator.org). But if you want to know whether certain charities act in accordance with the magisterium, I’m afraid you’ll have to do your own cyber-detective work.
The second thing missing in charity cyberspace is Catholic charity bloggers. Despite numerous queries and searches, I couldn’t find a single Catholic blog dedicated to charity. The Scratching Post (ktcatspost.blogspot.com) highlights a different charitable cause every Wednesday. It’s common for popular bloggers to make pleas on behalf of charities (Danielle Bean — daniellebean.com — is especially good in this regard), and at least one Catholic charity has its own blog (Catholic Relief Services — crs-blog.org). But I couldn’t find any blogs that dedicate themselves to charities in general.
I was surprised. The Catholic blogosphere in many ways mirrors the Catholic Church: saints and sinners, philosophy and theology, liturgy and Scripture, sacraments and art.
If you find it in the Church, you’ll find it in the blogosphere.
But when it comes to charity, there’s a surprising disconnect. Charity runs throughout Catholic history, but, in today’s Catholic blogosphere, it has no home. I’m willing to bet, though, that this desideratum is remedied shortly. Someone will step up and fill this important niche.
Inside Looking Out
Rodney Stark is a sociologist of religion. He’s also an agnostic. But he’s a fan of early Christianity’s charitable efforts. According to Stark, “To cities filled with homeless and the impoverished, Christianity offered charity as well as hope. … To cities filled with orphans and widows, Christianity provided a new and expanded sense of family. … And to cities faced with epidemics, fires and earthquakes, Christianity offered effective nursing services.”
But Stark knows Christianity did more than just provide charitable relief. He also credits it with promoting the use of reason, developing economic free markets and promoting freedom and science.
These things, as well as charity, are mostly unique to Christian civilization. They were scarce in the West before the rise of Christianity, but more significantly, they remained scarce in other parts of the world that didn’t become Christianized.
Why? Why, for instance, didn’t Chinese and Indian civilizations develop in similar fashion? They had the natural resources, they had ancient civilizations. Why their relatively stunted growth?
I go back to G.K. Chesterton’s classic Orthodoxy and his discussion of the differences between Buddhism and Christianity. He says the “shortest statement” of their differences “is that the Buddhist saint always has his eyes shut, while the Christian saint always has them very wide open. … The Buddhist is looking with peculiar intentness inwards. The Christian is staring with a frantic intentness outwards.”
Inwards and outwards: That’s the difference. The Christian looks outward, and that’s the sine qua non of love: concern and affection for other, whether it’s a pet, a project or the poor.
It’s no coincidence that Western civilization invented the Internet. It’s just another legacy among countless others that have come from the Christian’s natural tendency to look outward.
It’s also no coincidence that Catholic charities have a legion of links on the Web. Now we just need the Catholic blogosphere to step to the charitable plate.
Eric Scheske blogs at
The Daily Eudemon