With its Stoic philosophy, the Roman world into which the Church was born did not generally allow feelings like pity, or compassion, or love for those who had fallen upon hard times through unemployment, or sickness, accident, or war. Those of higher estate (and perhaps the government) helped the lowly—but they did so with in the spirit of right social order, or with the spirit of superiority, rather than with the spirit of love which is properly associated with charity. The Roman philosopher Seneca put it this way:
Thus, to the stoic Roman, the man who felt compassion or pity was something of an inferior; one to be despised, or perhaps even hated if his reputation for acting out of feeling became too widespread. Saint John alludes to this in today’s epistle: “Do not be surprised if the world hates you ... we have passed from death to life because we have loved the brethren.”
The Jewish civilization, in which the very early Church was planted, was marginally more compassionate than the Roman—indeed it was the Greek speaking Jews who complained to the Apostles about the lack of organized Christian support for the widows, which got the Apostles to ordain deacons to administer the Church’s charity. But, even among the Jews, the care of the poor and the sick was often a matter of law and obligation, and not true charity: A Jew could not accept interest payments on a loan to another Jew; the poor traveler must be allowed to sleep in the stable and to pick enough grain and fruit for his needs; the levites and the strangers, and orphans, and the widows must be fed; debts must eventually be forgiven—these things were required by the Law of Moses. They were required even of resentful and the stingy. Remember that it was the Samaritan, the outcast foreigner, not the priest or the levite, who gave aid to the man who had been beaten by robbers on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho.
The stoic Roman idea of charity stopped whenever it presented a danger to the benefactor. In Roman North Africa, in the city of Carthage, history records a great plague in the third century. The pagan survivors wanted nothing to do with the sick and the dying; they feared even to bury the dead, but not to loot their possessions. Remember that this was still a time of bloody persecution of Christians. Their bishop, Saint Cyprian, publicly rebuked the pagans:
Cyprian called upon his Christians to care for the sick and to bury the dead—all of the sick and all of the dead, even those who had been persecutors of Christ’s faithful:
We can point to countless other examples of Christian charity: relief for the sick and the poor, the monastic hospitality for travelers, the establishment of hospitals, the education of children at little or no cost, and so on and so forth. Even the Church’s greatest detractors have been known to acknowledge Her outflow of compassion and charity: people like Julian the Apostate, the pagan writer Lucian, Martin Luther, and even the “enlightenment’s” greatest critic of the Church, Voltaire.
The life of Christ, and words like those of Saint John, make the compassionate care of our fellows a necessary part of the spiritual life. It is not enough to say that we will pray for the needy, as though charity could be relegated to some theoretical “active life” distinct from the life of the spirit. In the following chapter of Saint John’s epistle puts it rather succinctly:
As Catholics, we must ask ourselves how we may best go about this mission of compassion and charity that is so much a part of our Faith. The organs of Christian charity have certainly taken a beating in recent years: the family, the extended family, the parish church, and the religious orders. An intact family is certainly rare today, and few people live anywhere near their brothers, their aunts, or their cousins. Among traditional Catholics, the parishes are spread out so far as to make personal contact very difficult. The religious orders have been nearly decimated over the past few decades—reduced both in numbers and in meaningful mission.
Most of these things are beyond our direct control, but might be helped some if Catholics all had the proper attitude toward these structures of civilization. If, for example, we refused to accept easy divorce and contraception; if we valued our family lives more than our possession and our pastimes; if we demonstrated support for the spiritual and charitable works of priests and religious, and condemnation of their more secular pursuits—those attitudes alone would certainly help to bring back the essential organs of Christian charity.
There is also a matter of civic responsibility. The organs of Christian charity have suffered also because we have allowed them to be usurped, and even attacked, by government bureaucracy. We have allowed the State to step in and care for our children and our elderly, to take over the tasks formerly performed by Catholic schools and hospitals. In large measure, we have allowed the State to become the arbiter of our morality and our culture; to decide who will, in our name, will be visited either with war or with our charity. In our name, evil behavior is rewarded, and responsibility discouraged.
Civic responsibility, and the responsibility of Catholics within the Church, requires that we be aware of what is going on, that we consider the consequences of the actions that are being taken in our name, and that we use whatever influence we have to make sure that both the Church and the State are following the right path. Presidents and Popes ought to hear about it when they do something bad—or when they do something good. We must know the major issues which confront our society, and act on them—personally when that is possible, and through our representatives, and at the ballot box. We must demand good representation, and not accept “the lesser of two evils.” We must support the good Church-men and make life difficult for the bad. Our participation in society must not be limited to “cracking open a cold one” while mindlessly soaking in the nightly news and the trash that passes for entertainment.
We live in a society that is considerably more complex than that of Saint John at Ephesus, or Saint Cyprian at Carthage. On some scale, we can imitate their personal compassion for the needy—and we should if we are to call ourselves Catholics—but in many things, we are restricted to working through others—and we must do that too.
Some of this may be inconvenient; there may be many things that we would rather do with our time and our money. Saint John reminds us that Jesus Christ “laid down His life for us; and we likewise ought to lay down our life for the brethren.” A little inconvenience ought not to put us off!
 Epistle 1 John iii: 13-18.
 Seneca, in Thomas E Woods, Jr., How the Church Built Western Civilization, p. 171. (emphasis added)
 Acts of the Apostles vi.
 Deuteronomy xxiii: 19-20; 24-25; xiv: 28-29 xv: 1-11
 Luke x: 23-37.
 In Woods, ibid., p. 174.
 Woods, ibid. p. 175, 180, 169-170.
 1 John iv: 8-21.