That's a stark way of putting it, but that was the conclusion of one famous nineteenth-century historian when he looked at pagan antiquity before the Christian revolution. It's not that mothers never loved their children, or husbands their wives. Natural human love is planted in us from the beginning of creation. And sympathy of one human being for another's misfortune is wired into our nature; thus beggars might survive on the coins passersby tossed to them.
But the idea of universal love was something new and, to pagan thinking, quite obviously wrong. People had to prove they were worth something; they didn't earn respect just by being human. A beggar was a failure. A slave was inferior by nature. The members of the aristocracy were better than other people — in fact, the Greek word aristocracy quite literally means "rule of the best."
Then came these Christians with their absurd idea "Blessed are the poor in spirit"! They took care of the poor — even the pagan poor. What were they up to?
Philanthropy and Charity
It wasn't that the pagan aristocracy never did anything public-spirited. On the contrary, wealthy Romans were big on philanthropy. They donated buildings and entertainments to the people of the city, because that was what one did to maintain one's social position. A public official had to be memorably lavish with his philanthropy if he expected to advance to a higher position. The more ambitious he was, the more lavish he would have to be. This was how the empire obtained its public works.
If you go to Rome today, you can still see the name of the donor written on the front of the Pantheon, the most famous ancient temple left in the city: Marcus Agrippa, spelled out in letters as tall as Marcus Agrippa himself.
In other words, Roman philanthropy was really a matter of drawing attention to the philanthropist. It was not a response to the needs of the poor; in fact, the more gaudy and useless the display, the more effective it was at producing the proper impression of lavish generosity.
On the other hand, there were the Christians. In the first three centuries of the Church, few of them had much money to speak of: A prominent aristocrat who turned Christian was liable to have his wealth confiscated. Lavish displays weren't their thing. In fact, their Teacher had told them, "When you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you" (Matthew 6:3-4).
Obviously, this was exactly the opposite of Roman philanthropy. Christian charity responds to someone's need without asking, "What's in it for me?" This is the kind of giving that Christ expects of us. "Give to every one who begs from you," he said, "and of him who takes away your goods do not ask them again" (Luke 6:30).
Writing in about ad 200, when Christians were still a persecuted minority, Tertullian tried to explain to suspicious and hostile pagans how Christians lived.
That kind of treasury we have is not filled with any dishonorable sum, as the price of a purchased religion; every one puts a little to the public stock, commonly once a month, or when he pleases, and only upon condition that he is both willing and able; for there is no compulsion upon any: all here is a free-will offering, and all these collections are deposited in a common bank for charitable uses, not for the support of merry meetings, for drinking and gormandizing, but for feeding the poor and burying the dead, and providing for girls and boys who have neither parents nor provisions left to support them, for relieving old people worn out in the service of the saints, or those who have suffered by shipwreck, or are condemned to the mines, or islands, or prisons, only for the faith of Christ; these may be said to live upon their profession, for while they suffer for professing the name of Christ, they are fed with the collections of his Church.
It's worth noting that Tertullian mentions all the things Christians do for the poor in the context of Christian worship. The "collections" he describes were those taken up at Mass. To Christians, then as now, charity and worship are inseparable. That gives Christians a completely new way of seeing the relationship between rich and poor.
The First Shall Be Last
To pagan thought, wealth was at least no barrier to virtue. The ordinary citizen in the Roman Empire probably believed without thinking about it what the word aristocracy implied: that wealthy families really were better than the rest.
Christians, on the other hand, not only rejected wealth as a measure of worth but actually went to the opposite extreme. "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle," Jesus said, "than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God" (Mark 10:25). We have good evidence that Christians took this saying seriously and sometimes even went a bit overboard. St. Clement of Alexandria, who lived only about a century after Christ, felt that he had to remind his flock not to treat the rich with open contempt.
If you love truth and you love your brothers, you won't be rude and insolent toward the rich who are called. Nor will you flatter them for your own greedy reasons. Instead, take away their groundless despair with Scripture. Interpret the Lord's revelation rightly, showing why the Kingdom of Heaven is not completely out of their reach if they obey the commandments.
Flattering the rich was natural enough, but who ever heard of the opposite — treating people with contempt because they were rich and successful? Yet that was the danger Christians had to be warned against — so completely had they absorbed Christ's saying, "But many that are first will be last, and the last first" (Mark 10:31).
The Misery They Faced
The charity of the Christians was all the more striking because the need for it was so great. Roman cities were filled with misery almost beyond our capacity to imagine. One saw it everywhere: the beggar covered with boils sitting on the corner, the man with one leg hobbling down the street, the mother wailing for her dead child. Disease was everywhere, and even in times of peace, catastrophe was common. Shabbily built apartment houses would fall in and kill all the residents. Murder and other crimes were rampant.
And every once in a while the plague would come to town, so that everyone could be miserable at once. The wealthy would flee to their country houses, hoping to stay one step ahead of the contagion. Leading the exodus would be the doctors, who knew the signs of an approaching epidemic as well as the fact that they couldn't do anything to stop it.
Yours Is the Church: How Catholicism Shapes Our World
by Mike Aquilina
Pagan priests, too, would be among the first to go: They were wealthy and influential, and their job description didn't include hanging around a bunch of disgusting sick people. So apparently the gods were no help at all.
That left the poor — most of the urban population — to die by the thousands. There was no one to bring them even the most basic comforts and no leadership to control the social chaos that might follow in the tracks of the disease.
But the Christians didn't leave. When people became sick, Christians were foolish enough to go to them and help. Sometimes it cost them their lives: We read of more than one bishop who tended to the sick until he himself was struck down by the plague. But sometimes they survived, and so did the people they cared for.
With many of the diseases that tore through the Roman world, the simple things could make the difference between life and death — bringing water when the patient was too sick to get any for himself, for example. (Remember that there was no running water in the homes of the poor, so getting water meant walking to the nearest source, filling a jar, and hauling the heavy load to where it was needed.) When a patient did get well, he'd remember how kind the Christians had been. He might think that the God who inspired such almost miraculous works of mercy must be very much greater than the pagan gods whose priests were jostling to be first out the city gates.
Julian, the "Pope" of the Pagans
Once Christianity became the favored religion of the empire, its thinking started seeping into the thought of pagans, too. To see how completely Christianity infected the way the world thinks, look no further than the one man who thought he could stamp it out.
The emperor Julian was raised in a Christian family: He was a nephew of the emperor Constantine, who made Christianity the favored religion of the empire. We should say his was a nominally Christian family, because they called themselves Christians but acted like monsters. Julian's whole family, except for Julian and a brother named Gallus, was murdered on the orders of his cousin Constantius II, who had come to be emperor and didn't want any possible rivals left alive. (Gallus grew up to become one of the leaders of the Roman world, so Constantius eventually had him executed as well.)
Julian grew up in a nightmarish atmosphere of fear and suspicion, where anyone who seemed like a potential threat to the emperor might suddenly vanish in the middle of the night. And he had to pretend to be happy about it. One of his earliest surviving writings is a panegyric on his murderous cousin Constantius.
Meanwhile, Julian received the best education money could buy, which in those days meant an education in the great philosophers of Greece. So on the one hand, Julian was steeped, if not positively pickled, in the writings of Aristotle and Plato on the subject of the virtuous life; and on the other hand, he was surrounded by self-declared Christians who murdered each other at the drop of a hat. So it's no big surprise that Julian was attracted to the pagan side. When he became emperor he announced that he was a follower of "Hellenism," the old Greek religion of Zeus and Athena and innumerable other deities.
Literacy might be a luxury, the roads might decay, the aqueducts might crumble — but Christians still made sure the poor were taken care of.
But this Hellenism was not really the old pagan way at all. Julian gave his allegiance to the old gods, but the structure and morality of his revived pagan religion were completely Christian. Julian might rant against the "atheist Galileans," as he contemptuously called Christians, but meanwhile he tried to build a pagan institution that was a mirror image of the Catholic Church.
What made the Church so successful among the masses? It couldn't be Christian doctrine, Julian thought. He was sure that his own philosophical arguments had disproved Christianity conclusively. So it must be the way Christians actually lived their lives.
In his capacity as "pope" of the new paganism, Julian wrote a letter to his head priest in Galatia, in which he ordered him to make sure that the pagan priesthood acted more like Christians. Julian was very specific: Christians have charity, and we don't, and we need to imitate them if we're going to compete. The main barrier to the progress of Julian's peculiar form of pagan puritanism was the fact that Christians came off looking so much better. And that was largely due to Christian charity.
That Hellenism does not yet succeed as we wish is owing to the people who profess it. The gifts of the Gods are indeed great and splendid, and far superior to all our hopes, to all our wishes. For (may Nemesis be propitious to my words!) not long ago no one dared to hope for such a change — and so great a change! — in so short a time. But why should we be satisfied with this, and not rather pay attention to the means by which this impiety [by which Julian means Christianity] has increased — namely, humanity to strangers, care in burying the dead, and pretended sanctity of life? All these, I think, should be really practiced by us.
Julian didn't believe the Christians were really holier than other people. Remember that his supposedly Christian family was a nest of vipers, so he didn't think much of Christians' claims to special piety. But the point was that other people, pagans and Christians, thought the Christians led unusually holy lives. To counter that impression, Julian wanted his priests to be perfectly respectable.
It is not sufficient for you alone to be blameless. Beg or compel all the priests that are in Galatia to be virtuous as well. If they do not attend the worship of the gods with their wives, children, and servants, expel them from the priestly function; and also forbear to converse with the servants, children, and wives of the Galileans [Julian's name for Christians], who are impious towards the gods, and prefer impiety to religion. Admonish also every priest not to frequent the theater, nor to drink in taverns, nor to exercise any trade or employment that is mean and disgraceful. Those who obey you, honor; and those who disobey you, expel. Build hostels as well in every city, so that strangers may share in our benevolence; and not only those of our own religion, but, if they are indigent, others also.
In other words, the pagan priests should live like Christians. They should do all those things that the Christians had been doing to make their impious atheism so attractive to the common people. This in itself was a victory for Christianity, although Julian didn't realize it. He thought he was a pagan, but his morals were instinctively Christian. The theater, after all, began as a religious celebration, but some of the most religious plays were some of the most obscene. Wine was a gift of the god Bacchus, and drunken revelry had often been a feature of pagan worship.
And now Julian wanted to enforce charity — the idea that had never occurred to classical paganism — by making the pagan priests in every city take in poor strangers the way the Christians did. But how did he think he could pay for that?
How these expenses are to be defrayed must now be considered. I have ordered Galatia to supply you with thirty-thousand bushels of wheat every year; of which the fifth part is to be given to the poor who attend on the priests, and the remainder to be distributed among strangers and our own beggars. For when none of the Jews beg, and the impious Galileans relieve both their own poor and ours, it is shameful that ours should be destitute of our assistance.
Notice how Julian proposed to address the problem. The government would pay for the pagan priests' distributions of food. It's the old Roman idea of philanthropy, trying and failing to compete with Christian charity. The Christians were on the outs with the government and had no resources but their own generosity — yet they still supported the pagan poor as well as the Christian poor. Julian seemed to have no expectation that any such spontaneous outbreak of charity would occur in his new church of pagan fundamentalism.
Julian didn't succeed in restoring paganism, of course. He was killed in battle against the Persians, and the pagan camp had no strong personality to replace him. An old story says that, as Julian fell from his horse, his last words were "You win, Galilean." But really the Galilean had already won, long before Julian was born. The whole moral revolution that Christ preached is in everything Julian wrote. Intellectually he was a Hellene, but his every instinct was Christian.
Basil and the Eighth Wonder
Contrast Julian's failure with the success of his old friend and schoolmate Basil — the man we now call St. Basil the Great. The two had studied together in Athens, but Basil went on to become a Christian bishop and a doctor of the Church. Basil was the one who really codified the social doctrines of Catholicism. But his wasn't an abstract intereSt. He was phenomenally successful in exactly the ways Julian failed.
The secret to Basil's success was a combination of deep charity and a brilliant administrative mind. Seeing need everywhere around him in Caesarea, the city where he was bishop, he put together effective ways of helping people in need. There was a soup kitchen for the hungry, poorhouses for the homeless, a trade school for people who needed to find work, a hostel for poor travelers, a nursing home for the old and helpless, and a hospice for the dying. Basil's complex grew so enormous that the astonished citizens of Caesarea began to call it "the new city." His friend St. Gregory of Nazianzus compared the place to the Seven Wonders of the World.
And it was all possible because of charity; it wasn't a government program. Basil's institutions were staffed by Christian ascetics, men and women who freely dedicated themselves to prayer and work. They gave help to anyone who needed it, Christian or not. The money came from donations. Basil told the rich members of his flock that they were investing in their own future. After all, Christ had told them that they would be judged by what they did for the poor (see Matthew 25:31-46). Investing in the poor was investing in heaven.
Basil's "new city" may have been the biggest of the Christian charitable institutions established in the 300s, but it was far from the only one. In fact, Christians set up hospitals, poorhouses, and every other sort of charity all over the place. In every city and town, the poor could find help from a Christian institution. That was why Julian was so worried. What did the pagans have to offer that compared with that?
Fabiola, the Angel of Rome
One of the great heroes of the new charity culture was St. Fabiola, a rich aristocrat who came from one of the leading families in Rome. Married to an abusive husband, she divorced him and remarried — which was legal by Roman law but forbidden by Church law. ("I readily admit that this was a fault," her friend St. Jerome wrote, "but on the other hand I think it might have been a necessity.") When this second husband died, Fabiola made a very public penance. "She laid bare her wound to the gaze of all, and Rome beheld with tears the disfiguring scar which marred her beauty," as Jerome put it. The pope took her back into full communion with the Church.
It soon became clear that Fabiola's penance was more than just a public show. She devoted the rest of her life to study and good works. With her enormous fortune she built a great hospital in Rome, and she worked there herself, tending the worst cases with cheerful love. She patrolled the streets looking for sick people in need of her care and had them brought back to the hospital — or brought them back herself if she had to.
…Need I now recount the various ailments of human beings? Need I speak of noses slit, eyes put out, feet half burnt, hands covered with sores? Or of limbs dropsical and atrophied? Or of diseased flesh alive with worms? Often did she carry on her own shoulders persons infected with jaundice or with filth. Often too did she wash away the matter discharged from wounds which others, even though men, could not bear to look at. She gave food to her patients with her own hand, and moistened the scarce breathing lips of the dying with sips of liquid. I know of many wealthy and devout persons who, unable to overcome their natural repugnance to such sights, perform this work of mercy by the agency of others, giving money instead of personal aid. I do not blame them and am far from construing their weakness of resolution into a want of faith. But while I pardon such squeamishness, I extol to the skies the enthusiastic zeal of a mind that is above it….
Love Never Ends
Charitable institutions were amazing in themselves, but what was even more amazing was the way they survived when every other aspect of civilization was collapsing. Literacy might be a luxury, the roads might decay, the aqueducts might crumble — but Christians still made sure the poor were taken care of. And there were plenty of them to take care of in the miserable ages of wars and invasions that followed the end of Roman power in the West.
For most of Western history, in fact, the Church has been the main source of help for the poor. It was the same in America: Catholic charity looked after the poor when everyone else was scrambling to make a buck.
When at last the lights began to come on again, there was a new golden age of Christian institutions. Hospitals, orphanages, homes for widows, hostels — many of the earliest charities in Europe — date their foundation to the High Middle Ages. For most of Western history, in fact, the Church has been the main source of help for the poor. It was the same in America: Catholic charity looked after the poor when everyone else was scrambling to make a buck.
Look into your own local history. There's a good chance you'll find that the first hospital in your area was founded by Catholic nuns. Hospitals were rare in America even in the mid-nineteenth century. There was no class of professional nurses to staff them. Only people who had literally dedicated their lives to service without thought of material reward could afford to work in a hospital.
Today we see the world Christian charity built all around us. How many hospitals are near you? How many nursing homes? Even if they're not Catholic institutions (and many of them are), they all owe the very idea of their existence to Christian charity. In many ways the government has taken over what used to be the Church's responsibility — making sure that the poor don't starve, that the sick have care. We all agree that something has to be done, that the poor can't just be left to die. But the reason we all agree about that is that Christianity has won. The Christian moral revolution has permeated the thought of the entire world.
When it comes to charity, whether we acknowledge it or not, we're all Christians. Yours is the Church that made that happen.
Mike Aquilina. "Yours Is the Church of Charity." chapter three from Yours Is the Church: How Catholicism Shapes Our World (Cincinnati, OH: Servant Books, 2012): 31-44.
Reprinted by permission of the author, Mike Aquilina and Servant Books. Servant Books is an imprint of Franciscan Media. See the Franciscan Media catalogue here.
Copyright © 2012 Mike Aquilina