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I. Zeipel

Economic and Ethical Views of the Fathers

The Fathers and Teachers of the early Church were always ardent apologists for charity in all its forms. For Christian love of the neighbor there opened a wide field of work wherever there was need.

Hermas repeatedly pointed to the Christian duty to take care of widows and orphans. Clement of Rome praised hospitality and commended it in his letter to the Christians in Corinth as their main merit. He relates that many Christians went to prison voluntarily in order to set others free and many of them became slaves so that the money paid for them could be used to ransom others.

In his letter to Polycarpus, St. Ignatius says that communities used their resources to ransom slaves, but at the same time he instructs Christian slaves not to demand ransom because otherwise they run the risk to become "slaves of their desires."

The Apostolic Canons, among other good deeds, advise Christians to use their profits to pay ransom for slaves. The laws introduced by Christian emperors also testify to the desire of the Church to help liberate slaves. In 316, Constantine the Great issued a special confirmation of the long-standing right of Christians to set their slaves free not before the praetor but before the bishop and a community gathering…

St. John Chrysostom also spoke on slavery. He pointed out that the Acts of the Apostles' narrative about the communism of the early Christians refers to the selling of property, rather then the selling of slaves as the early Christians either had no slaves at all or set them free. The associates of St. Augustine gave the Church their lands, not slaves; they set the latter free. From this example we can conclude that if not all but at least some Christians who opted for perfect poverty often set their slaves free.

Look how much they love!

Similarly, Tertullian describes the rules observed by Christians during their liturgical gatherings. Communities are headed by elders; they manage the common fund to which everyone makes a contribution at a certain day of the month or whenever they wish. These contributions are voluntary; nobody is forced to make them. Therefore, this is charity. The money thus collected is used to feed and bury the poor, to support wretched orphans both boys and girls, as well as helpless old people who are unable to leave their homes. It is also used to help the shipwrecked, those sentenced to labor in mines or exiled to islands, and finally prisoners, if they have to endure imprisonment for their faith in Christ. This tradition is so characteristic of Christians that the athens point at them and say: Look how much they love one another!

It was the bishop alone who was in charge of the money intended for the poor. As he manages it in the name of the Lord, Apostolic Canons describe him as a mediator between God and the poor. St. Ambrose demands from bishops that they be careful and prudent in managing church property.

The bishop is instructed to give visitors all that is necessary but nothing superfluous lest his other duties with regard to the clergy should come into conflict. St. John Chrysostom does not wish to see the money intended to the poor put much away for a "rainy day." It should be distributed immediately and quickly, while caring for the future should be left to the Most High. This advice was partly conditioned by the unreliable situation of that time.

St. John Chrysostom relates the following fact: A person who was put in charge of the poor collected a great amount of gold and prudently saved part of it for a rainy day. But an enemy came to the country and stole the gold, making it useless for both the poor and their benefactor.

St. Ambrose draws the special attention of those in charge of church property to their duty to help also those poor people who, ashamed of their poverty, seek to conceal it. In his calls to charity in general he does not forget any category of the poor, but shows the greatest concern for those who are utterly helpless and unable to draw the attention of others. Therefore, he commends those Christians who take care of orphaned young girls, helping them, sometimes at great expense, to marry, thus saving them from disgrace.

© Ateljee Kuvitella, Data Universum Oy