Christian TraditionsRoman CatholicTheology & Spirituality

The Church and Almsgiving


Awhile back, I found myself defending the Catholic Church to a few strangers. One young man—I will call him Adam—was convinced that the Church was not actually doing anything good in the world, least of all for the poor. (I was waiting for him to suggest that we should just “sell the Vatican.”) Crossing his arms, he asked me concretely: what is the Church actually doing for the poor?

Although the answer would have been exhausting (considering the broad scope of the question), I immediately reconsidered it altogether. Why? Well, for two reasons. Firstly, even though I thought Adam was referring to the Catholic Church specifically, there are different ideas on what the “Church” actually is, which revealed a language barrier between us (something that often brings conversations like this to their knees). Secondly, even if I could somehow answer the question without confusing him (or myself), I remembered that Jesus spoke about keeping one’s almsgiving a secret.

The Church According to Some

Now, to Adam (and other non-Christians I’ve talked to), there is a distinction between the Church (with a capital C), which I’m told represents baptized Christendom, and a particular church, which represents a particular denomination—or even a particular parish. Since the discussion was largely anti-Religion, however, the difference didn’t matter much. Grouping all religious institutions together, the Catholic Church is, according to him, a business like any other.

To his point, the Catholic Church is similar to a business. It has buildings, employees, products, and consumers to sustain it, so to speak. There are even visible hierarchies with emphasis on obedience that give it a “top-down” feel like many businesses. Without attempting to insult the intellectual integrity of other denominations, I can even see how they could be considered other brands of the same thing: Christianity. However, reducing the Catholic Church—or any other church—to merely a business, without any theological understanding of it, makes it difficult to understand how it functions, much less how the Church as a whole responds to the poor.

The Church According to Scripture

There is some merit to this business model, though. The Church as a whole is literally a corporation, a body. I could argue that most of its work appears to be grassroots (with its members giving of their own goodwill rather than the command of some clergyman), but it really is top-down: from the head to the body, not from the Pope, but from God. Jesus is the head; the Church is His body, as stated in Scripture:

“He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the first-born from the dead, that in everything he might be pre-eminent.” (Col 1:17-18)

“Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” (1 Cor 12:27)

This does not exclude other denominations, for Jesus does not have a lot of bodies. He has one, as Scripture again indicates:

“For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit. For the body does not consist of one member but of many.” (1 Cor 12:12-14)

The Secret of Almsgiving

When Adam asked what the “Church is doing,” he may be referring to the Universal Church as he understands it. However, answering the question requires knowing what the Church really is as its members understand it. To me, it’s like asking, “What is Jesus doing with His right hand?”

“But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.” (Matthew 6:3)

So without even investigating the question or getting defensive about it, Jesus commands not to answer it. If not even another member of the Body should learn about my service, then I don’t think it follows to tell everyone else about it—even if they ask.

Declare the Works of God

At the same time, however, I could not help but recall another piece of Scripture, this one from the book of Tobit. (Even though not every church includes Tobit in their Bible, I hope the verse will, at the very least, be a cause for discussion among my friends.)

“It is good to guard the secret of a king, but gloriously to reveal the works of God.” (Tobit 12:7a)

The angel Raphael illuminated the conflict between keeping God’s secrets and glorifying him, which I think is relevant to this discussion. Jesus was referring to bragging about good works in order to receive earthly rewards. Thus, it is more likely that I am supposed to share what God is doing in the world (albeit through the members of His body, the Church) instead of what the members are doing. It would be the difference between me saying, “I gave that derelict ten dollars. What a good boy am I?” and, “God remembered one of his children today by giving him money with which to feed himself. Let’s give him thanks and praise.” Both statements reveal the secret of almsgiving but in very different ways.

But Tell No One

Then again, the Gospel gives several accounts when Jesus told people to keep his good works a secret: the two blind men were healed (Matthew 9:28-30), the leper was healed (Mark 1:42-44) except by law (Lev. 14:1-32), raising a girl from the dead (Mark 5:41-43), and even a whole crowd after healing a deaf man with a speech impediment (Mark 7:32-36). The only time I can recall that he actually told someone to tell people was after releasing a demoniac (Luke 8:38-39), but even then he tells the man to “declare how much God has done for you.” However, most of the time when Jesus told those he had healed to “tell no one,” they told everyone anyway.


So, having considered Scripture to some length, I suspect I would have been justified in explaining to Adam what the Church is doing for the poor, but only if it was used as a vehicle to glorify God and not myself. Scripture does not speak specifically about bragging about my neighbor’s good works (that I could remember), but it at least seems clear to me that what we do in His Name should stay in His Name.

All Scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from The Revised Standard Version of the Bible: Catholic Edition®. RSVCE®. Copyright © 1965, 1966 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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