Front Page Titles (by Subject) QUESTION XXXII.: OF ALMSGIVING. - Aquinas Ethicus: or, the Moral Teaching of St. Thomas, vol. 1 (Summa Theologica - Prima Secundae, Secunda Secundae Pt.1)
Return to Title Page for Aquinas Ethicus: or, the Moral Teaching of St. Thomas, vol. 1 (Summa Theologica - Prima Secundae, Secunda Secundae Pt.1)
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
QUESTION XXXII.: OF ALMSGIVING. - St. Thomas Aquinas, Aquinas Ethicus: or, the Moral Teaching of St. Thomas, vol. 1 (Summa Theologica - Prima Secundae, Secunda Secundae Pt.1) 
Aquinas Ethicus: or, the Moral Teaching of St. Thomas. A Translation of the Principal Portions of the Second part of the Summa Theologica, with Notes by Joseph Rickaby, S.J. (London: Burns and Oates, 1892).
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
Article I.—Is almsgiving an act of charity?
R. Exterior acts are referred to that virtue to which their motive belongs. Now the motive of almsgiving is to succour one in need. Hence some define almsgiving: “A work whereby something is given to one in need, out of compassion, for the sake of God:” which motive belongs to mercy. Hence almsgiving is properly an act of mercy. And this appears from the name: for in Greek eleemosyna is derived from mercy.1 And because mercy is an effect of charity, it follows that almsgiving is an act of charity through the medium of mercy.
§ 1. To the objection, that an act of charity cannot be without charity, but almsgiving can be without charity, according to the text: “If I should distribute all my goods to feed the poor, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing,”2 —it is to be said that a thing is said to be an act of charity in two ways: in one way, materially, as it is an act of justice to do just things; and such an act of virtue may be without virtue: for many who have not the habit of justice do just things from natural reason, or from fear, or from the hope of gain. In another way a thing is said to be an act of virtue formally, as it is an act of justice to do just things in the way that the just man does them, that is to say, with readiness and delight; and in this way an act of virtue is not without virtue. Thus then to give alms materially may be without charity; but formally to give alms, that is, for God, with delight and readiness, and in every way as it ought to be done, is not without charity.1
Article V.—Is it of precept to give alms?
R. Since the love of our neighbour is of precept, all those things must fall under precept without which the love of our neighbour cannot be maintained. Now it is a point of love of our neighbour, not only to wish him good, but also to do him good, according to the text: “Let us love not in word, nor in tongue, but in deed and in truth.”2 But to will and to work a person’s good, it is requisite that we should succour his need, which is done by almsgiving; and therefore almsgiving is of precept. But because precepts are given of acts of virtue, almsgiving must fall under precept inasmuch as it is an act necessary to virtue, or in other words, required by right reason. In point of which, something is to be considered on the side of the giver, and something on the side of him to whom the alms is to be given. On the side of the giver we must observe that what is distributed in alms should be his superfluity. And I say superfluity, not merely in respect of the man himself, or above what is necessary for that individual, but also in respect of others, the care of whom is incumbent on him. In this respect we are to understand the phrase necessary to the person, taking person as implying dignity.1 Every one must first provide for himself, and for those the care of whom is incumbent on him; and afterwards, out of the residue, he should relieve the needs of others. On the part of the receiver it is requisite that he should be in need; otherwise there would be no reason why alms should be given him. But since it is impossible for one man to relieve all who are in need, therefore it is not every need that binds under precept, but that which must be relieved, or the sufferer will perish. In that case Ambrose’s saying has place: “Feed him that is dying of hunger: if thou hast not fed him, thou hast slain him.”2 Thus then it is of precept to give alms out of your superfluity, and to give alms to him who is in extreme need: otherwise almsgiving is matter of counsel, as there are counsels of every better good.
§ 2. The temporal goods that heaven bestows on a man are his as to the ownership, but as to the use they ought not to be his exclusively, but also should benefit others, who can be maintained out of them, from what is superfluous to the owner. Wherefore Basil says: “It is the bread of the hungry that you withhold: the naked man’s coat that you keep in store: the shoe of the barefoot that is mouldering in your house: the money of the needy that you have buried in the earth.”
§ 3. There is a time at which one sins mortally in omitting to give alms: on the part of the receiver, when there is an apparent, evident, and urgent need, and no appearance of any one at hand to relieve it: on the part of the giver, when he has superfluities, which are not necessary to him in his present state, according to a probable estimate. Nor need he consider all the cases that may happen in the future: for this would be to think of the future, which our Lord forbids.1 But the measures of superfluous and necessary should be determined according to what may be expected in all likelihood and occurs for the most part.
Article VI.—Is a man bound to give alms out of his store of necessaries?
R. The word necessary is used in two ways: one way it means that without which a thing cannot be. Out of what is so necessary alms ought not to be given at all; for instance, in the case of one in such stress of need as only to have just enough for the sustenance of himself and his children: for to give alms out of what is so necessary is to take your own and your children’s life. This I say except in the conjuncture where by taking from yourself you gave to some great personage who was the mainstay of Church or State. For the deliverance of such a person it would be praiseworthy to expose yourself and your kin to the danger of death: since the common good is to be preferred to private good. In another way that is said to be necessary, without which life cannot be conveniently lived according to the condition and state of your own person and of other persons, the care of whom is incumbent on you. The limit of this necessity is not a hard and fast line: but you may add a good deal without being able to pronounce that it goes beyond what is thus necessary: and you may subtract a good deal, and yet enough retain to enable you to live suitably to your state. To give alms then out of this store is good, and falls not under precept, but under counsel. It would be an inordinate thing, however, for one to deprive himself of so much of his own goods to give to others, as not to be able on the rest to pass his life suitably to his state and to the calls of business. For no one ought to live unsuitably. But from this rule there are three exceptions. The first is when one changes his state, say, by entering religion: for then in giving away all he has for Christ he does a work of perfection, and transfers himself to another state. Secondly, when the deprivation, though of things necessary for a suitable estate of life, yet can easily be made up, so that no very great inconvenience follows. Thirdly, on the concurrence of extreme need in some private person, or again some great need in the commonwealth: for in such cases it is praiseworthy in you to drop what might seem to belong to the becoming ornament of your state in order to relieve a greater need.
Article VII.—May alms be given out of ill-gotten goods?
R. There are three sorts of ill-gotten goods. There is one sort that is due to him from whom it was gotten, and cannot be retained by him who has gotten it, as in cases of robbery and theft and usury. Out of such goods alms cannot be given, since the man is bound to restitution of them. There is another sort which the party who has gotten it cannot keep, and yet it is not due to him of whom he has gotten it: because against justice he received it, and against justice the other gave it; as in the case of simony, in which both giver and receiver act against the justice of the divine law. Hence restitution should not be made to the giver, but the amount should be distributed in alms. And the same in like cases, in which both giving and receiving are against the law. There is a third sort of ill-gotten gains, where the getting itself is not unlawful, but the source of the getting is unlawful, as appears in the case of what a woman gets by following the trade of a prostitute. This is properly called filthy lucre; for in following that trade the woman acts filthily and against the law of God: but in taking her hire, she acts not unjustly, nor against the law. Hence this manner of ill-gotten gain may be retained, and alms given out of it.
§ 2. As regards money won at play something seems to be unlawful by divine law, namely, that a man should win from those who are incapable of alienating their property, as are infants [in the legal sense] and lunatics, and such like; and that a man should draw another to play from covetousness of winning of him; and that he should win of him by playing unfairly; and in these cases he is bound to restitution, and thus cannot give alms out of that money. There seems to be something further unlawful by positive civil law,1 which prohibits that sort of gain altogether. But because the civil law does not bind all, but only those who are subject to those laws, and moreover may be abrogated by disuse, therefore among the people that are bound by such laws winners at play, as a rule, are bound to restitution, unless a custom to the contrary happens to prevail, or unless it was the loser who invited the other to play, in which case that other is not bound to restitution, because the loser deserves not to receive it. On the other hand, he cannot lawfully keep his winnings, while the law against him remains in force; hence he ought in that case to give them away in alms.
Article IX.—Are alms to be given by preference to our nearest of kin?
R. Augustine says: “They who are nearer akin to us are assigned us as it were by lot, that we should make more provision for them.” Still in this matter a measure of discernment must be applied, according to different degrees of kindred and of holiness and of usefulness. For to a much holier person in greater need, and to one more useful towards the common good, alms should rather be given than to a person nearer akin, especially if the kindred is not very close; if no special care of that person rests upon us; and if he is in no great need.
[1 ]ἐλεημοσύνη, whence our word alms, from ἐλεεɩ̂ν, to be merciful, which appears in Kyrie elesion. (Trl.)
[2 ]1 Cor. xiii. 3.
[1 ]See above, on the mode of virtue, I-II. q 100 art. 9; also Ethics and Natural Law, pp. 184, 185 (2). (Trl.)
[2 ]1 St. John iii. 18
[1 ]Thus persona, “parson,” means a beneficed clergyman. The parson’s necessities outrun those of the single individual. (Trl.)
[2 ]By a violation of charity, but not of justice. Ethics and Natural Law, p. 281. (Trl.)
[1 ]St. Matt. vi. 34.
[1 ]Roman Law. (Trl.)