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The rise & fall of Christian charity

"The rise & fall of Christian charity" Continued...

Issue: "2010 Books Issue," July 3, 2010

Uhlhorn's summary of early Christian charitable practice: "At no time has the Church more strongly insisted on the duty of assisting the poor in love, but at no time also has she more decidedly pronounced that all is love and to be done with justice. Never has she more highly reverenced the poor, more kindly and lovingly treated them; never also has she been farther from fostering beggary, and making their life easy to idlers."

It was important for the wealthy to work, save, and give. Conspicuous consumption was wrong: "Simplicity, contentment, moderation, are required of every Christian. All luxury, all wantonness met with the more disfavor, the more the surrounding heathen world had at that time sunk into an immoderate voluptuousness, a frequently senseless luxury. The first particular by which a woman who had become a Christian was distinguished from her former female friends, was her simple life and renunciation of luxurious dress. The Christian family was distinguished from the heathen by the great simplicity which prevailed in furniture, in domestics, in eating and drinking."

Clement put this clearly 1,900 years ago: "The handmaids of Christ should love simplicity. Simplicity is the forerunner of holiness. It smoothes out the inequalities of property. A holy ornament should surround your wrists, the joy of giving and the diligence of the housewife. On your feet should glitter untiring zeal in well-doing, and walking in the ways of righteousness. Your necklaces and chains are modesty and simplicity. Such jewelry comes from God's workshop."

But this did not mean a refusal to enjoy the good things God provides. As Uhlhorn notes, "even Tertullian, with his strong tendency to despise the world, describes Christians as possessing and enjoying the good things of earth: 'We are no Brahmans or Indian gymnosophists, no wild men of the woods, and separatists from life. We are mindful of the gratitude which we owe to the Lord our God, and do not despise the enjoyment of His works. We only so moderate it as to avoid excess and abuse.'"

By the fifth century, though, the church based in Rome had changed: "Alms had totally changed their character. They were no longer a moral, but a religious duty; men no longer gave with regard to their neighbors, to serve and to help them in love, but with regard to themselves, to exercise an influence upon their own relation to God, to gain a reward for themselves. 'Certainly every one of us does himself and his own soul the greatest benefit, whenever he relieves the distress of others,' preaches already Leo the Great; and this motive of benefiting oneself and one's family was ever after more and more strongly brought forward in place of self-denying, self-sacrificing love."

Personal involvement by deacons became rare: "A multitude of needy persons, who had formerly been visited and tended by the deacons in their own homes, now found shelter in the hospitals, the poorhouses, while in the case of those who did not require such care, assistance was confined to regular gifts, the dispensation of which was now the task not of the deacons, but chiefly of the head manager of the Church property, the steward. Ministration to the poor in their homes everywhere fell into the background, the diaconate lost in importance, and after the latter half of the fifth century its gradual decay is clearly perceived."

Behind these practical changes lay theological drift: "Nothing more effectively promoted this propensity than the thought that the sin-atoning power of alms reaches also to the other world. It may be said that the doctrine of purgatory . . . determined more than anything else the charity of the entire medieval period." Uhlhorn criticizes "a generation only too much inclined to release themselves from the moral demands of Christianity by external works . . . gifts by which the individual members of the church hoped to obtain the intercession of the martyrs for themselves or for the dead. To give or bequeath anything to the Church was esteemed a specially good work, and one sure to secure the favor of God."

In Uhlhorn's summary, "The former Church care of the poor was such no longer. The beneficence of the bishop [was like] the distributions of the emperors and the Roman nobles. When Gregory the Great [Roman Catholic pope from 590 to 604] had corn, oil, wine, meat distributed every month, when he had carts full of provisions driving through the town for the relief of the poor, this looks more like a revival of the old distribution of corn than of the relief of the poor by the Christian Church. The Bishop of Rome had come into the place of the Emperor, the bishops into the place of the Roman nobles; Christian caritas has assumed a suspicious similarity to the ancient kind."

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