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Babes and alms

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Who instructs the ignorant more than a mom? Who reproves the sinner more than a dad?


"I was hungry, and you gave me to eat. I was thirsty, and you gave me to drink. I was a stranger, and you took me in."
"As long as you did it to one of these my least brethren, you did it to me."
The most natural objects today of these familiar verses from Matthew 25 are children. A baby cries from hunger and thirst: the mom nurses the baby. The toddler grows out of his shoes in a couple of months: the parents sacrifice to replace them.
And the baby in the womb in our society counts as a "stranger." A philosopher, Judith Jarvis Thomson wrote a famous article on this premise. A woman discovering that she is pregnant, Thomson argued, is like someone waking up to find that a stranger has been hooked up to her for life support. You wouldn't have an obligation to keep that stranger alive, she claims, and neither does a mom have any obligations to her unborn child.
As twisted and misguided as this view is, it is the implicit premise, nonetheless, of legal abortion. The precious son or daughter by societal convention turned into a complete stranger to be disposed of at will. Who counts better as "these least of my brethren?"
But since these verses from Matthew 25 have traditionally also defined the main corporal works of mercy, the question arises of whether, today, we need a new understanding of almsgiving, so that what Christian parents typically do counts as giving alms in the strict sense.

The case is even stronger for the spiritual works of mercy. Who instructs the ignorant more than a mom? Who reproves the sinner more than a dad? Who "bears with those who trouble and annoy us" more than a mom and dad, not only with each other, but also with the child who vomits in the back of the car, has a tantrum in church, won't eat his dinner, or keeps dropping his socks on the stairway?
I say "Christian" parent because almsgiving, by definition, is an act relieving the need of another carried out, deliberately, in fulfillment of the two great precepts of charity: to love God with one's whole being, and to love one's neighbor as oneself. For a Christian, love of the child, baptized and therefore identified with Christ, is at once love of God and love of another self.
A typical older definition shows an unfortunate tendency to construe almsgiving as a relationship between classes. "Any material favor that assists the needy, prompted by charity, is almsgiving." So begins the entry in the old Catholic Encyclopedia. Its treatment is excellent, of course, and yet as this language of "the needy" shows, it tends to think of objects of almsgiving as belonging to classes of needy persons ("refugees," "victims of the hurricane," "the blind") who are aided by dedicated, organized efforts of other classes ("the wealthy," "the churches"). Such groups exist of course, and sometimes not merely by abstraction (whole nations may be in great need, such as Ukraine right now). And yet, the central case of almsgiving is of one person helping another, each the "neighbor" or "brother" of the other: look again at Matthew 25.
We can perhaps get at this needed, broader understanding of almsgiving by contrast. There are other ways of addressing needs in our society after all: I have in mind market exchanges. When the butcher goes to the baker for bread, he brings meat with him (or money as a proxy) to address the need of the baker, who gives bread in exchange, which addresses the need of the butcher. A market exchange just is one where each addresses the need of the other with a view to equally receiving something back.
Therefore, construe almsgiving as any addressing of another's need (out of love of God and neighbor), which is not so compensated. "If you love them that love you, what reward shall you have?" (Mt 5:46). That is, in a market exchange each gets precisely and only what he trades for. "When thou makest a feast, call the poor, the maimed, the lame, and the blind; And thou shalt be blessed, because they have not wherewith to make thee recompense," (Lk 15:13-14). That is, deliberately enter into "exchanges," which are not like that, because the counterparty is incapable of compensating you. But every family dinner is like this: it is a "feast" where the poor are invited, who "have not wherewith" to pay for the meal as at a restaurant.
"The world" does not see family relationships in this way, because "the world," deeply misguided, looks upon children as commodities, or as means for fulfilling the aspirations of the parents. Thus, the parents feeding their children at dinner, in the example just given, on that misguided understanding are just consoling themselves. "They have their reward" right then and there. But Christians reject this understanding. They see children as gifts of God, belonging to God, temporarily in their care -- who are just as incapable of fulfilling the happiness of their parents as any fallen, finite creature.
To be sure governmental tax and education policies need to be radically revised, to assist parents raising children. But before that let's also get the Christian incentives right, by acknowledging parents as exemplary givers to babes of alms.

- Michael Pakaluk, an Aristotle scholar and Ordinarius of the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas, is a professor in the Busch School of Business at the Catholic University of America. He lives in Hyattsville, MD, with his wife Catherine, also a professor at the Busch School, and their eight children. His latest book is "Mary's Voice in the Gospel of John" available from Amazon.

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