Prayer, Fasting, and That Other One

By an act of almsgiving, we remedy an unjust distribution of the gift of the whole earth; we remedy, for our neighbor, what disobedience to God’s plan has wrought. Almsgiving is fitting for the forgiveness of sin because it uses money, the very tool enabling unjust distribution, for the sake of just distribution. Usually I don’t put myself through the pain of reading pop-Catholic articles, but I did this morning: fifteen of them, all about Lent. Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are the Orion’s Belt of Lenten devotion—but nine of the articles didn’t mention “almsgiving” at all. The six that did were lackluster, immediately excusing the earnest Catholic from actually giving alms: “sometimes we are the giver and sometimes the recipient” or “this category can also be seen as ‘Acts of Love’” or “You can give time and talent rather than treasure.” The Catechism (in its glossary) defines almsgiving as “Money or goods given to the poor as an act of penance or fraternal charity.” Some readers may be excited by the possibility of giving “goods,” but in our society, where most people don’t make anything or grow anything, money should be the main avenue by which we give alms. And if we find excitement in giving goods  rather  than money, it is probably money that our souls most need us to give. Money is not a neutral tool. It requires action from us. St. John Chrysostom often exhorted his congregants: “let us despise money”; which ultimately led him to forbid that “anybody should come into the church carrying money.”[1] Basil the Great asked, “Who is the father of lies? Who is the author of forgery? Who gave birth to perjury? Is it not money?”[2] Pope Leo I wrote, “it is difficult to prevent sin between buying and selling”—which became a standard citation in scholastic economic treatises.[3] And St. Thomas Aquinas, who wrote one such treatise, taught, more philosophically, that “Riches, once they are possessed, are certainly in themselves of a nature ( per se quidem nature sunt ) to hinder the perfection of charity, especially by enticing and distracting the mind” (STh., II-II q. 186 a. 3 ad 4). If all of this is true, it means that we cannot simply swap out “money” with “acts of service” or “a smile.” Almsgiving creatively and virtuously “undoes” the evil effect of money; it is a means by which we order  to  charity that which, by its very nature, “hinders the perfection of charity.” Almsgiving redeems money. Lent is for doing battle against “the world, the flesh, and the devil.” Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving each help us to fight all three of these sources of temptation, but each has its particular enemy as well. Prayer, more than the other two, is our weapon against the devil. Fasting is our main weapon against the flesh. And we ought to stab the world through with almsgiving. In the Gospel of John, the “world” indicates the sphere of resistance to God’s design and the attempt to establish a social order that goes on without Him. The world “hates” the Christian, even as it hated Christ (John 15:18), because both seek to bring a kind of “peace” (14:27) foreign to its plan. The world teaches us to put our hope for security, not in God, but in idols—mechanisms, technologies, and social arrangements that offer an earth-bound plan for salvation. Nowhere is this clearer than in the man-made security of money. Money creates a world that makes it easy to call a moving company rather than our friends, to rely on stock market investments for retirement rather than our children, to buy entertainment rather than to rejoice in the Creation with our community. In short, money seems to allow me to rely on my own power rather than on friendship. Possessing and exchanging it is a catechesis for living in “the world,” insofar as the one with money is primed to view himself as not needing people—and ultimately, not needing God. Our constant use of money as a medium of exchange can gradually lead us to distrust our neighbors. St. Thomas says  this  problem is what St. Paul refers to when he says the love of money is the root of all evil.[4] We expect to get from those to whom we “give” money, and we expect them to give, not out of their freedom, not because they want to give us any gift, not because we are cultivating a friendship with them, but because they need our money and the goods it can buy. This is why almsgiving’s redemption of money is actually a redemption of ourselves: Sirach 3:30: “Water extinguishes a blazing fire: so almsgiving atones for sin.” Tobit 12:9: “Almsgiving delivers from death, and it will purge away every sin.” St. Francis of Assisi: “Let us give alms because these cleanse our souls from the stains of sin.” Catechism of the Council of Trent: “We appease the wrath of God by holy prayer [and] redeem our offenses against man by almsdeeds,” (Question IX). Almsgiving does not  arbitrarily  “redeem our offenses against man,” as if God may just as well have attached the forgiveness of sin to “scratching man’s back” as “giving alms.” Rather, almsgiving is a  fitting  act for redeeming offenses against man: by using money as a gift rather than as an exchange, the almsgiver gives up the everyday exchange-use of money. Almsgiving  stops  treating the neighbor as a tool that can be driven to obey my will. Likewise, almsgiving corrects—at least in part—the very injustice that the use of money so thoroughly enables: unjust distribution. The 1996 Catechism teaches that, “When we attend to the needs of those in want, we give them what is theirs, not ours. More than performing works of mercy, we are paying a debt of justice,” (CCC 2446). Consider the following fathers. St. Basil: “Is he worthy of any name but a thief, who will not clothe the naked?”[5] St. Ambrose: “It is not anything of yours that you are bestowing on the poor; rather, you are giving back something of his. For you alone are usurping what was given in common for the use of all. The earth belongs to everyone.”[6] St. Augustine: “Those who possess superfluities possess alien goods.”[7] Gregory the Great: “When we supply necessaries to the poor, we return what is theirs.”[8] Within the real order, Creation cries out to be shared. We can try to keep it all for ourselves, but food spoils. Productive land is bountiful. But  money  enables man to easily store up more than he needs by representing an indefinite amount of wealth with a token—and this has occasioned innumerable sins against God, who gives “the original gift of the earth to the whole of mankind.” (CCC 2403). It was for this very reason that a number of saints believed Jesus called all money “iniquitous.”[9] Pope St. John Paul II reiterates the teaching of the Church, that “God gave the earth to the whole human race for the sustenance of all its members, without excluding or favoring anyone.”[10] By an act of almsgiving, we remedy an unjust distribution of this gift of the whole earth; we remedy, for our neighbor, what disobedience to God’s plan has wrought. Almsgiving is fitting for the forgiveness of sin because it uses money, the very tool enabling unjust distribution, for the sake of just distribution. How much should we give? Of course, we must prioritize ourselves. In fact there are strong theological grounds for doing so. The reason we take care of ourselves first is because we need to provision ourselves with everything necessary to lead a life of virtue—a life united with God. Forgoing what is needed for virtue would be the same as forgoing our union with God. As Mary Hirschfeld has provocatively phrased it, “To attempt to love our neighbors more than ourselves would be essentially to love our neighbors more than God.” Once we are provided for, then our focus immediately concentrates on caring for others in order that they may also have everything they need to lead virtuous lives. The people that we take care of immediately after ourselves are our family. That is the priority and sacred responsibility of all peoples. But this can be tricky. We love our families so much that we want to spoil them with the greatest of gifts. They, however, are partners with us in stewarding our families’ goods for the common good. That is why the Church commands us to use the things we own, “with moderation, reserving the better part for guests, for the sick and the poor” (CCC 2405). The age-old question of “How much should we give away?” is transformed in the Christian mind to “How much should we keep?” Lent is a time to help us answer that question. We fast to understand what our proper relation to food should be, finding freedom in saying “no.” And so, too, do we go to the extreme of almsgiving during Lent, taking the occasion, if we can, to “even [give] out of one’s needs” as John Paul said, to find what our right orientation to ownership—and towards money—should be. [11] Republished with gracious permission from New Polity (February 2023). The Imaginative Conservative  applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now. Notes:
John Chrysostom, “Homily 27 on John” PG [59:160] (ἀργυρίου καταφρονοῦμεν) and “Homily 77 on John” PG [59:418] (καταφρονεῖν… χρημάτων); Jean Chrysostome: Sur l’incompréhensibilité de Dieu. J. Daniélou, A.-M. Malingrey, R. Flacelière (2000: réim-pr. de la 2e éd., 1970), 266.
Basil the Great, “Homily on the Rich” PG [31:297].
Leo I, Letter 167 PL [54:1206].
STh., I-II q.84 a.1 ad 2.
Homily on Luke 12 , PG [31, 277].
On Naboth , 12.53 PL [32:3, 498].
Exposition on the Psalms 147.13.
Book on Pastoral Regulations PL [77, 87].
STh., II-II q. 32 a. 7 ad 1: All riches are called riches of iniquity… according to Ambrose in his commentary on Lk. 16:9, “Make unto yourselves friends,” etc., “He calls mammon unjust, because it draws our affections by the various allurements of wealth.” Or, because “among the many ancestors whose property you inherit, there is one who took the property of others unjustly, although you know nothing about it,” as Basil says in a homily (Hom. super Luc. A, 5). Or, all riches are styled riches “of iniquity,” e.g., of “inequality,” because they are not distributed equally among all, one being in need, and another in affluence.
Centesimus Annus , 31.
Centesimus Annus , 36. The featured image is “Almsgiving” (1864) by Silvestro Lega, and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. All comments are moderated and must be civil, concise, and constructive to the conversation. Comments that are critical of an essay may be approved, but comments containing ad hominem criticism of the author will not be published. Also, comments containing web links or block quotations are unlikely to be approved. Keep in mind that essays represent the opinions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Imaginative Conservative or its editor or publisher.

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