On Giving Alms in a Time of Plague

During the Great Fast of Lent, the faithful are enjoined to do penance. The three great works of penance are prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.[1] In this article, we will define the penance of almsgiving in the form of a brief catechism.

What are alms?

Alms are “every spiritual or corporal work of mercy” [2]. Prümmer defines almsgiving as “a work of mercy whereby we give something to the needy for the sake of God” [3].

In the Gospel, our Lord speaks of giving alms (Mt. 6:3) and the words are ποιοῦντος ἐλεημοσύνην. This is literally “doing mercy” (poiountos eleemosynen), which uses the same root word as in the petition Kyrie eleison — Lord have mercy.

What is an act of mercy?

St. Thomas explains:

A person is said to be merciful [misericors], as being, so to speak, sorrowful at heart [miserum cor]; being affected with sorrow at the misery of another as though it were his own. Hence it follows that he endeavors to dispel the misery of this other, as if it were his; and this is the effect of mercy (S.T. I q21 a3. Cf. I-II q69 a3).

Thus, “the motive for giving alms is to relieve one who is in need” (S.T. II-II q32 a1). Since “mercy is an effect of charity,” almsgiving is “an act of charity through the medium of mercy” (ibid.).

What are the works of mercy?

The Seven Spiritual Works of Mercy are the following:

To give counsel to the doubtful
To instruct the ignorant
To admonish sinners
To comfort the afflicted
To forgive offenses
To bear patiently the troublesome
To pray for the living and the dead

The Seven Corporal Works of Mercy are these:

To feed the hungry
To give drink to the thirsty
To clothe the naked
To shelter the needy
To visit the sick
To visit the imprisoned
To bury the dead

Are corporal works greater than spiritual works?

No. St. Thomas says spiritual works of mercy excel corporal works in almost every way, except in the case where some poor man has an urgent corporal need. In this case, the corporal are better than the spiritual works since “a man in hunger is to be fed rather than instructed” (S.T. II-II q32 a5). Since acts of mercy serve the needy, the most urgent need comes first in an individual case.

Are Catholics bound to give alms to those in need?

St. Thomas considers the question of whether almsdeeds are of precept or of counsel [4]. He answers that alms are of precept:

Some are punished eternally for omitting to give alms, as is clear from Mt. 25:41-43. Therefore almsgiving is a matter of precept.

As love of our neighbor is a matter of precept, whatever is a necessary condition to the love of our neighbor is a matter of precept also. Now the love of our neighbor requires that not only should we be our neighbor’s well-wishers, but also his  well-doers, according to 1 Jn. 3:18: Let us not love in word, nor in tongue, but in deed, and in truth. And in order to be a person’s well-wisher and well-doer, we ought to succor his needs: this is done by almsgiving. Therefore almsgiving is a matter of precept.

The Roman Catechism also makes reference to our Lord’s words in the Gospel and confirms that alms are a precept and duty:

On the last day God will condemn and consign to eternal fires those who have omitted and neglected the duty of almsgiving, while on the contrary He will praise and introduce into His heavenly country those who have exercised mercy towards the poor. [5]

Are we bound to give to all who are in need?

No. St. Thomas observes that we are bound to love all men equally with regard to wishing them well (benevolence), but we can love with our actions (beneficence) only those who are nearby since “we cannot do good to all” (S.T. II-II q26 a6). Therefore, “we are not bound to relieve all who are in need, but only those who could not be succored if we not did not succor them” (II-II q32 a5).

Should we give alms out of what is necessary for ourselves and our families?

No. St. Thomas:

[It] is altogether wrong to give alms out of what is necessary to us in this sense; for instance, if a man found himself in the presence of a case of urgency, and had merely sufficient to support himself and his children, or others under his charge, he would be throwing away his life and that of others if he were to give away in alms, what was then necessary to him. (S.T. II-II q32 a6)

Therefore, alms should be given out of what is surplus to our necessities. Prümmer summarizes:

The greater the need of the neighbour and the more abundant the resources of the donor, so much the greater is the latter’s obligation of giving alms. On the other hand, the less severe the neighbour’s need and the smaller the resources of the donor, so much the less urgent is the latter’s obligation. [6]

Thus, St. Thomas outlines the circumstances wherein the neglect of alms becomes a mortal sin:

There is a time when we sin mortally if we omit to give alms; on the part of the recipient when we see that his need is evident and urgent, and that he is not likely to be succored otherwise — on the part of the giver, when he has superfluous goods, which he does not need for the time being, as far as he can judge with probability. (II-II q32 a5)

This is because, as the Apostle says, he who does not have care for his own is worse than an unbeliever (I Tim. 5:8). Thus, “we are bound to give alms of our surplus, as also to give alms to one whose need is extreme: otherwise almsgiving, like any other greater good, is a matter of counsel” (II-II q32 a5). St. Alphonsus says it is sufficient to give 2% of all surplus income [7].

St. Thomas allows that only in some extreme case, when the common good is under threat, could one give away from one’s own necessities “since the common good is to be preferred to one’s own” (II-II q32 a6).

However, if we make only enough money for our own bare necessities, it is praiseworthy (but not obligatory) to work for the relief of the poor. The Roman Catechism says:

If we are not able to give to those who must depend on the charity of others for their sustenance, it is an act of Christian piety, as well as a means of avoiding idleness, to procure by our labor and industry what is necessary for the relief of the poor. [8]

Pègues also observes that further obligations bind those who have great resources.

Although there may be no pressing need for helping our neighbour, is there any strict and grave obligation to make use of the spiritual and temporal goods one has received in superabundance from God with the view of bettering our neighbour or society?

Yes, one who has received spiritual and temporal goods in superabundance from God is in duty bound to act in this way. [9]

What is the spiritual effect of alms?

The Roman Catechism says that almsgiving is a “medicine suited to heal the wounds of the soul” [10] and quotes Scripture, which speaks of the spiritual reward of alms, such as Tob. 12:9: For alms delivereth from death, and the same is that which purgeth away sins, and maketh to find mercy and life everlasting.

Spirago discusses numerous benefits, such an remission of sins; eternal recompence; temporal blessings; bodily health; answers to prayer; and obtaining the prayers of the poor, whose “prayers have great power with God” [11]. St. Thomas also says says the satisfaction made by alms is even greater than that which is obtained by prayer and fasting [12].

What about those who appear to be harmed by alms?

St. Thomas considers the case in which a needy person begs alms in order to commit sin: “We ought not to help a sinner as such, that is by encouraging him to sin, but as man, that is by supporting his nature” (II-II q32 a6).

Spirago discusses this further, mixing prudence with mercy:

To give to those who are known to be idle and addicted to drink, is to encourage them in sin; but it is better to err on the side of charity than of severity[.] … As all shipwrecked sailors without distinction are received in a port, so we should not sit in judgment upon those who have fallen into poverty, but hasten to help them in their misfortune. [13]

Why am I bound to give away my surplus if it belongs to me?

St. Thomas fields this objection and answers it as follows:

Objection: it is lawful for everyone to use and to keep what is his own. Yet by keeping it he will not give alms. Therefore it is lawful not to give alms: and consequently almsgiving is not a matter of precept.

Reply: 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. Hence Basil says [Hom. super Luc. xii, 18]: “If you acknowledge them,” viz. your temporal goods, “as coming from God, is He unjust because He apportions them unequally? Why are you rich while another is poor, unless it be that you may have the merit of a good stewardship, and he the reward of patience? It is the hungry man’s bread that you withhold, the naked man’s cloak that you have stored away, the shoe of the  barefoot that you have left to rot, the money of the needy that you have buried underground: and so you injure as many as you might help.” Ambrose expresses himself in the same way.

Thus, the saints confess the common principle that, as Cahill observes, “God has ordained material things to satisfy the needs of all” [14]. Therefore, even private property can come under the obligation of almsgiving in the circumstances discussed above.

How is a Catholic bound to almsgiving in time of plague?

In times of plague, the principle of family first again applies. However, the common good obliges the Catholic to make choices that benefit his neighbor given the risk of contagion. In particular, sharing more resources may become necessary and particularly incumbent upon those who have much. In addition, the spiritual works of mercy are especially salutary for all souls at such a time. One writer puts it this way:

While pandemics or epidemics may make it dangerous to feed the hungry or clothe the naked, we can and should still perform the spiritual works of mercy. Visit a cemetery for instance and pray for the dead. Or at least stay at home and say prayers for the souls in Purgatory. Write cards to those who are sick. Be a good example and defend the Catholic Faith publicly on social media. There are many such ways we can share and defend the Faith even when staying at home.


[1] Catechism of Pius X, Satisfaction and Penance, q605

[2] Ibid., q608

[3] Dominic Prümmer, Handbook of Moral Theology (1957), no. 226

[4] A precept is a divine command that obligates the Catholic under pain of mortal sin. A counsel is given to the free choice of an individual soul — e.g., the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience.

[5] Roman Catechism, 3.7 Do Not Steal

[6] Prümmer, loc. cit.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Roman Catechism, loc. cit.

[9] R. P. Thomas Pègues, Catechism of the Summa (1922), II-II 3.9.24

[10] Roman Catechism, 4.5 Forgive Us As

[11] Fr. Francis Spirago, The Catechism Explained (1899), II-A, 3.5

[12] Ibid.

[13] Spirago, loc. cit.

[14] Rev. E. Cahill, S.J., The Framework of a Christian State (Roman Catholic Books reprint 1932), 40

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