This is an excerpt from the book The Traditional Virtues According to St. Thomas Aquinas: A Study for Men, by Jason M. Craig.

A thing lives when it breathes in and out. The virtue of charity is only alive when it “” in and out, so to speak, in loving God and man. This love is more than a feeling. “[It] is an act of charity to do good to others [for God’s sake],”[1] says Aquinas, and this “good” must be true action. Charity “requires that not only should we be our neighbor’s well-wishers, but also his well-doers.”[2] “Doing good” is labeled by Aquinas with the broad title of “beneficence,” which he calls “an act of friendship,” “an effect of love,” and it “simply means doing good to someone.”[3] But we need charity to be able to see people with love, because in order to “do good” one must know what good is lacking in another—seeing “another’s defect,”[4] as Aquinas puts it, is a necessary step to provide what they need. Charity doesn’t feed a full man; it feeds a hungry man. Without charity we respond very differently to the defects of others, even having a perverted delight in their faults because it makes us feel better about ourselves (this can lead to gossip and similar sins). Without charity we also see less of the man, perhaps missing his true needs, or failing to relate his needs to God because we only see his weaknesses.

Being able to “see” in charity is called the virtue of mercy (also called pity). Mercy is a “compassionate heart . . . for another’s unhappiness.”[5] Mercy comes from a Latin word that literally means bringing into our heart another’s suffering. “[One] grieves or sorrows for another’s distress,” says Aquinas, “in so far as one looks upon another’s distress as one’s own.”[7] This comes somewhat naturally with regard to those close to us, “through real union . . . when another’s evil comes near to us so as to pass to us from him,”[8] as when parents truly “feel” the sickness of their child. We also relate to another’s suffering because “of the possibility of suffering in the same way,”[9] as when a possible harm like cancer destroys another family’s stable peace. To lack mercy is a sign of pride and uncharitable indifference, because we see ourselves as above and different from the pitiable: “[Those] that deem themselves happy, and so far powerful as to think themselves in no danger of suffering.”[10] A lack of pity can also occur because we think, while we ought not to suffer because of our perceived goodness, others likely suffer by their own fault and deservedly: “For the same reason the proud are without pity, because they . . . account [others] as suffering deservedly whatever they suffer.”[11]

The Church traditionally calls actions born from mercy the “works of mercy,” which are divided into spiritual works and corporal (or bodily) works. These tangible acts Aquinas summarizes under “alms.” Although spiritual alms concern a higher perfection (that of the soul), Aquinas is quick to note that alms firstly and typically refer to material help, because “a man in hunger is to be fed rather than instructed,” and “for a needy man money is better than philosophy.”118 Basic needs must be met before moving to higher ones. Unlike tithes, which are given in justice from our total income, alms are given from our “residue,” as Aquinas calls it,[12] meaning from our excess wealth that we hold above our own household needs. One must be careful, however, in underestimating his ability to give and help others—he might be unwilling more than unable. Thus, referencing the clarity of the Gospel (see Matt. 25:41–43), Aquinas says that “some are punished eternally for omitting to give alms.”[13] This is where Aquinas reminds us that “the temporal goods which God grants us, are ours as to the ownership, but as to the use of them, they belong not to us alone but also to such others as we are able to succor out of what we have over and above our needs.”[14] And, “all things are common property in a case of extreme necessity.”[15] In other words, our possessions are not ours absolutely, but must be seen as under our stewardship or care, and charity shows us the ways they ought to be used for others and not ourselves alone.

Alms are the normative means whereby God wills us to help other people. As to deciding whom to “focus” our mercy on, Aquinas takes the Gospel’s practicality seriously in noting that it is clear we must love “our neighbor,” who is near us: “[We] should, in preference, help those who are more closely connected with us.”[16] But, because this neighborly support is not general welfare, it must be an answer to true need: “[One] should give alms not that [our neighbor] may have an easy life, but that he may have relief.”[17] Also, because alms come from excess, one must balance a “poverty of spirit” with the needs of a household. Aquinas says one gives “as one ought,”[18] meaning our generosity should not hurt or deprive those who depend on us. Unless we find a man in “evident and urgent” need,[19] in which case we give to save him without calculating, we must generally be careful not to be materially generous while neglecting the needs of “children, or others under [our] charge,” says Aquinas, because then “[a man] would be throwing away his life and that of others if he were to give away in alms, what was then necessary to him.”[20]

[1] II-II. Q. 31. A. 1. S.C.

[2] II-II. Q. 32. A. 5.

[3] II-II. Q. 31. A. 1.

[4] II-II. Q. 30. A. 2.

[5] II-II. Q. 30. A. 1.

[6] Misericordia has the roots “miserum cor” which denotes a compassionate heart.

[7] II-II. Q. 30. A. 2.

[8] II-II. Q. 30. A. 2.

[9] II-II. Q. 30. A. 2.

[10] II-II. Q. 30. A. 2.

[11] II-II. Q. 30. A. 2. Ad 3.

118 II-II. Q. 32. A. 3.  The itallics are a quotation from Aristotle.

[12] II-II. Q. 32. A. 6.

[13] II-II. Q. 32. A. 5. S.C.

[14] II-II. Q. 32. A. 5. Ad 2.

[15] II-II. Q. 32. A. 7.

[16] II-II. Q. 32. A. 9. Ad 2.

[17] II-II. Q. 32. A. 10. Ad 3.

[18] II-II. Q. 32. A. 1. Ad 1.

[19] II-II. Q. 32. A. 5. Ad 3.

[20] II-II. Q. 32. A. 6.


Not sure how this image relates to charity, other than that there are two parts to it.



Re. the footnote: “miserere’ is the imperative “have mercy”; “miseria” would be misery; St Thomas uses “miserum cor” (“compassionate heart”, or, perhaps, “wretched heart”)



The words in italics are a quotation from Aristotle.


02 / 28 / 2024
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