The Reign of Christ. Book Two. Chapter Fourteen: The Sixth Law: Poor Relief
14 min read
14 min read
When the things long consecrated to his name and worship have been thus preserved and sanctified to Christ the Lord, as much as possible and to the degree that we trust him and love him as our Savior and the giver of all good things, and when equitable assets have been set aside and by ample patrimony constituted by the laying down of law for the churches of Christ in his Kingdom, Your Majesty will restore that holy provision for the poor and needy which the Holy Spirit has prescribed and commended to us (Acts 2:45; 4:32-34; 5:1-11; and 6:1-6). Without it there can be no true communion of saints, and Your Majesty will see to it that each church has its deacons in charge of providing for the poor, concerning which I have before advised, (Book One, Chapter 14) “men of excellent repute” and ”full of the Holy Spirit and of wisdom.” Each church will have as many of these as is necessary to care for the needy, in proportion to its population and the numbers of the poor. Their duty and office is contained under these headings: First, they should investigate how many really indigent persons live in each church for whom it is equitable for the church to provide the necessities of life. For the churches of Christ must exclude from their communion those who, when they can sustain themselves by their own powers, neglect this and live inordinately, accepting borrowed food (II Thess. 3:6) ; it certainly is not the duty of the church to foster such people in their godless idleness. Against these, therefore, the saying should prevail: ”Whoever does not work, let him not eat” (v. 10).
What the Holy Spirit commanded concerning widows should also be understood and observed in regard to all the needy: “If any one of the faithful has widows, let him take care of them, and let the church not be burdened that it may take care of those who are really widows” (I Tim. 5:16). Thus if any needy persons belong to anyone’s circle, either by blood or marriage or by any other special relationship or particular custom, it is certainly their duty, if they have the means of the Lord, to provide for their own the necessities of life and spare the churches in order that they may have more to nourish and assist those who have no home or family who would want to or could help them.
This horrifying pronouncement of the Holy Spirit should resound in the hearts of all: “If anyone does not look after his own, and especially his own household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an infidel” (I Tim. 5:8). For those whom the Lord has given to us in special close relationships fall particularly under the second great commandment, in which the whole law is contained and fulfilled: “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” (Matt. 22:39). For the Lord gives to each as neighbors in a special sense those whom he associates and unites to him by blood, marriage, domestic service, or other particular custom.
The first requirement of deacons in charge of the giving of alms is to inquire as diligently as possible who are really in need and cannot themselves alleviate their own need, and who are the ones who either feign need or invite it by laziness and soft living, and who have or do not have neighbors who can or may undertake their care and provide for them. The deacons should keep a special written record of the names, kind of need, and behavior of those whom they have discovered to be unable to obtain the necessities of life for themselves and who have no one close to them to provide for them. At certain times they should visit them or summon them in order to learn more precisely how they are enjoying the alms of the faithful, and what things they may be in need of at any given time. For just as the wicked are never satisfied, and beggary knows neither moderation nor limit, so also reputable and prudent men dissimulate and conceal their need and judge whatever is provided for them by the churches to be too much. But the Holy Spirit has prescribed both how and to what extent to distribute the assets of the churches, so that absolutely no one may be in need, and that to each may be given what he has need of in order to live piously and well (Acts 2:45, and 4:35). And who would not see from this alone how necessary it is for the churches to select deacons of this sort for the responsibility of almsgiving, to investigate and obtain information not casually but accurately concerning those who seek the help of the church, whether one is in need and what he needs, and how much must be contributed to each by the churches toward a decent and pious life. Then also if they have members of their households who are natural sources of assistance given by the Lord to help them in time of need, they should accept this. For such should be compelled by the churches to take care of their own; toward this end the deacons ought to be at hand and of service to the bishop and the elders, as for the entire discipline of Christ.
Another function of the office of the deacons is that they should keep an account of whatever comes to the churches for the use of the poor, either from the proceeds of property or the offerings of the faithful, and from this give to each of the poor whatever shall be found to be necessary for them to live to the Lord. And they must keep a faithful record of this in a book of expenses; for they should render an account of all receipts and expenditures to the bishop and presbytery, “aiming at what is honorable” after the example of the apostle, “not only in the Lord’s sight, but also in the sight of men” (II Cor. 8:21). On this account the Holy Spirit requires also of deacons that they be men approved, with a good reputation among the people of Christ (Acts 6:3). For as men work because of a desire for money, so with the least reason they burden with unjust suspicion those who administer public funds. Strongly suspicious and complaining in these matters are the poor who have not learned from Christ’s Spirit “both to abound and to suffer want” (Phil. 4:12).
And for this reason, in order that the deacons may have fuller authority with the whole flock of Christ and be more surely recommended to its trust, the early churches assigned them a rank near to that of the presbyterial dignity and admitted them to a part in the sacred ministry of both teaching and the sacraments. The Antichrists have plainly voided the office of these men, as also all others of the sacred ministry, and reduced them to an empty display, so that today there are very few who think that deacons have any other function than to minister at the Masses of bishops and priests and there do the reading of the Gospels. This was originally a minor responsibility of this order, as I have said, so that their ministry among the people of God in caring for the poor and asserting the discipline of Christ obtained greater authority as well as greater credit.
Care for the properties of the churches and the collection of income therefrom and of other proceeds designated for the use of the poor of the churches pertain to the office of subdeacons and administrators, so that the deacons may spend themselves completely: first, in the correct distribution of the assets of the churches already collected, namely, to give to each only what he truly needs in order to live to the Lord; secondly, to maintain the discipline of Christ among those who are fed by the churches, so that those who receive food from the churches for this very purpose will strive to live to the Lord; finally, to advance this discipline among the rest of the Christians, whose life and habits they are able better to know and investigate from their care for the poor. This distribution of the duties of deacons and subdeacons was still observed in the time of the Roman bishop Saint Gregory, as may be read in many of his letters. (Gregory I, Letters 1.2)
However approved and wise the deacons are to whom the churches assign poor relief, the poor will be little helped unless there is some source of supply of things to be distributed to them, and this must be provided by Your Majesty, so that the churches may supply whatever the cause of the needy demands.
In former times, a fourth part of all the assets of the churches which came from the property or the gifts and offerings of the faithful was set aside for the poor.
Furthermore, pious princes and men of wealth established homes and hospitals, some to nourish and care for the needy who were in good health, some for infants, others for orphans, still others for the aged infirm, others for those laboring under various forms of sickness, and some for pilgrims and displaced persons. There is no doubt that in this realm many things have been donated and provided by Your Majesty’s ancestors and other reverent nobles and men for the use of the needy, and in the course of time false cenobites and clergy charged with the supervision of these provisions for the poor have converted them to the use of their own pleasure and pomp, after they were supposed to have surrendered such things, having rejected all concern not only for the bodies of the needy brothers but also for the souls of themselves and the whole people of Christ and all religion, under the pretext of zeal for spreading the worship of God, i.e., cumulating their cursed Masses and other abominable ceremonies. For they had removed all power and authority of kings and legitimate magistrates from themselves and persuaded the common people that it was far better if these goods were expended on their godless cults for the benefit of the living and the dead than if Christ the Lord by this means fed the hungry, gave the thirsty to drink, offered hospitality to pilgrims and the homeless, clothed the naked, and visited the sick and prisoners (Matt. 25:35-36).
If, therefore, in the visitations of the churches any remains are found of funds given for the use of the poor, Your Majesty certainly ought to claim them for the cause of the needy of Christ and restore them to the use for which they were originally consecrated to the Lord.
Then it will also be suitable for certain payments to be imposed on the more well-to-do priestly benefices, as I have said a little before this, to feed the poor, to the extent of a fourth part of all the revenues of the churches, as it is assigned to them in so many Canons.
Then, in order that unworthy persons may not appropriate the alms of the churches and of the faithful from those who are truly deserving and really in need, Your Majesty must renew the law of God and of the emperor Valentinian that no one should be permitted to beg, but that those who are able to sustain themselves by their labors should be compelled to work and not be taken care of by the churches. Each should live by his own resources without begging, so that our brethren and members may be nourished (Deut. 15:4; II Thess. 3:6, 10-12).
In order that this may come about more conveniently and equitably, Your Majesty must also decree that each person should provide nourishment for the members of his household and the poor specially related to him if his means make it possible for him to do so; and that each city, town, and village should support their poor who cannot be taken care of by their own households, and not send them away to others.
But since it can happen that some town or village may have more slender means than are sufficient to provide the necessities of life for all its needy, the cost of taking care of these efficiently will be met by Your Majesty’s order in such a way that in each district some holy men gifted with spiritual prudence will be put in charge of this undertaking, in order to transfer to richer churches, on Your Majesty’s authority, those who cannot be taken care of by their own churches. For all of us Christians are members of one another (Eph. 4:25), under which title the Gentile churches, at the time and by the inspiration of the apostle Paul, helped churches struck by famine in Judea, and acknowledged it to be their duty to do so (Rom. 15:26-27).
Finally, since from our nature, depraved and always rebellious against God, we continually compromise the instructions and precepts of God, and according to our desires and misdirected judgments, are always eager to follow paths and ways other than what God has prescribed, however holy the care of the poor is, there will be some who will refuse to put their alms for the poor into a common fund, and say that they prefer to provide for the poor by their personal generosity if it seems good to them to do so. Their arrogance will have to be countered both by Your Majesty’s law and through the discipline of the Church; by a law which imposes a double offering to the Lord’s fund, if anyone is caught giving anything privately to the needy; by the discipline of the Church, so that if anyone puts nothing into the Lord’s fund, he should be admonished of his duty from the Word of God by the ministers of the churches, and if he should resolutely despise this admonition, he should be held a heathen and a publican. For although it must be left to the judgment of every individual how much he wishes to offer to Christ the Lord for the use of his little ones, nevertheless no one in the Church can be allowed, against the express precept of God, to come empty-handed into the sight of the Lord (Deut. 15:7; 16:16), for he would completely spurn the instruction of the Holy Spirit concerning the care for the poor (Acts 6:2-4) ; indeed, rather, through his private almsgiving he would overturn it.
But here human wisdom, which always puts itself before the divine, will object that it is inhuman that the hands of the faithful are closed so that they cannot do good according to their own judgment to those whom they have found to be really in need; for there are to be found excellent men among the poor, who are ashamed to seek the Church’s alms, however much they may be in need. To this it must be replied, first, that no man’s hand is closed by this law, to interfere with his opening it to whatever poor persons he can and will provide for; but according to God’s precept and the instruction of the Holy Spirit, care must be taken that the sons of God do not give, what they really ought to be giving to the needy little ones of Christ, to the enemies of Christ, or to those who are not needy, or to those who evidently exaggerate their indigence. For a private person cannot, as I said before, investigate the poor as certainly as those who, as they are given this duty by the churches, daily meet it with utmost effort. And the Lord does not fail to give his gifts and an increase of the Holy Spirit to those whom he has chosen for himself and called to this office through his Spirit (I Cor. 12:7-11).
Secondly, even if someone is well acquainted with his needy neighbors and knows their ways, nevertheless, in order that others may not also wish by his example themselves to dispense their alms and very often to those who are little known or investigated (in view of the fact that those who are least worthy of alms are accustomed to beg them all the more imprudently and deviously), it is far better for everyone to send those whom he encounters in need of help, however well he knows them to be good and virtuous, to the deacons of the Church, so that they may obtain from these what they need. We must be very much on guard that we open not even a crack to our innate arrogance of being wise against God and deflecting our aim from his precepts and instructions either to the right or to the left.
And if shame embarrasses some so that they would rather not go to the whole diaconate, let them present their need to one of the deacons, or if this too is difficult for them, then those who are thoroughly acquainted with their need and honesty may bring them to the attention of the deacons and obtain the necessary alms for them.
No Christian, even though he has fallen into poverty (and regardless of the high social standing which he once enjoyed) should be ashamed of the cross of Christ and the salutary remedy administered by the Lord through need. It is even less proper for Christians to find it distasteful to accept alleviation of their need through the ministry of his Church as from the very hand of the Lord, by whose most righteous, and to them no less salutary, judgment they have been plunged into poverty and humility of life. This, however, is also within the competence of the deacons, that they take into consideration not only the need of various persons but also their faintness of heart, and that with prudence and liberality they offer assistance in such a way that in no case they add the affliction of shame to the affliction of poverty, and that they do not reduce those whom the Lord previously blessed with ease and comfort to an unbearable harshness of diet and dress, even though this may be satisfactory to other men who have been accustomed to this according to their living conditions. Here we must consider the precept of the Holy Spirit, that we distribute to each whatever he needs to live well and blessedly (Acts 2:45; 4:35). But it is apparent that, as all do not have equal health of body, nor are all geared to the same manner of life, so some have need of more, others of less; some need softer, others rougher, diet, dress, and various other things. In appreciation of this, when noble men and women were despoiled by the Lombards, Saint Gregory appointed especially liberal pensions for them from church property. (Gregory I, Letters 1.39)
Accordingly, may Your Majesty offer this sixth law to Christ the Lord and his Church. In its first chapter he should decree that no one should be permitted to beg, but that each person should provide for the members of his household and his relatives by blood and marriage if he has the means to do so; the ordinary magistrate of every place ought to be the judge in this matter. The city, town, or village should sustain those who do not have any family assistance. If any city, town, or village through scarcity is unable to provide for its needy, judgment should reside with the superior magistrates of each district, and the poor ought to be transferred to some wealthier church in that district.
In a second chapter he should prescribe that in the first visitation of each church there should be selected by the visitors both deacons approved among the people and caretakers of the poor, such as we have already described, and dutifully enjoin them, according to the norm we have noted, that they should thoroughly investigate what various persons need and faithfully give them these things as far as they are able, and render an account of the receipts and expenses to the bishop and presbytery at appointed times.
In the third chapter, he should forbid private almsgiving and urge his people to entrust their offerings, according to God’s precept and the instruction of the Holy Spirit (Acts 4:34), to the Church and its ministers appointed for this, rather than personally dispense them according to an innate arrogance and against the word of God and the instruction of the Holy Spirit.
In the fourth chapter, he should lay claim for the needs of the poor of any gifts of our ancestors offered to Christ for this purpose which are discovered still to be available. And to whatever degree the remains of these donations are found to be less, he should impose more liberal payments for the sustenance of the poor on wealthier priests to the extent of a fourth share of all the income of the churches, which is due from them according to so many canons.
In the fifth chapter, he should prescribe grave penalties for those who dare to blaspheme this most holy instruction of the Holy Spirit or to dissuade anyone from it; he should command that if it seems to anyone that something must be corrected among the deacons and in all the care of the poor, he should especially admonish the deacons of this. And if they do not act according to that proper admonition, he should defer the matter to thie bishop and presbytery so that in all things the authority of the Word of God may prevail and the wicked pride of men, which approves of nothing established by God, may everywhere be countered in time. Then the prayer of the people of Christ may be answered that the least of Christ’s brethren are so graciously provided for that eventually we may happily hear: “Come, you blessed of my Father, and receive the Kingdom which was prepared for you from the beginning of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me to eat,” etc. (Matt. 25:34-36).
Nor is it sufficient for the kindness of Christians to give food, shelter, and clothing to those in extreme need; they should give so liberally of the gifts of God which they have received that they may even be able, as has been said previously, (Book Two, Chapter 13) to endow and help marriageable girls who are honest and devout, who, because they are without dowry, are kept from marriage longer than is fair, so that they can be married in due time and joined to suitable husbands; they should help boys of outstanding ability who have no patrons to be educated toward studying for the sacred ministry of the Church; finally, they should help, both by gifts and loans, faithful men who are unemployed, that they can make a living by their trade and feed their children and educate them in the Lord and show themselves more profitable citizens of the commonwealth.
For it hardly suffices for the churches of Christ that their people should merely be alive but it must also be provided for them that they live to the Lord for a certain and mutual usefulness among each other and within the State and the Church. Hence the churches must provide that all persons baptized into Christ should from childhood be properly educated and learn decent skills so that each one according to his portion may be able to contribute something to the common good and prove himself as a true and useful member of Christ. Concerning this characteristic of the members of Christ we have already commented above. This concludes our comments on poor relief.