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Intercultural aspects / Concepts and Symbols of Philanthropy  

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In the New Testament Jesus posits charity as one of the pillars of religious life, (Matthew 6, 1-18) along with prayer and fasting. Charity must be practiced in an unselfish way (Matthew 6), without expecting anything in return (Luke 6, 27- 31) and even without limit (Luke 6, 30).

The Christian model of true compassion is based on the parable of the Good Samaritan. Since the fourth century, monasteries began to apply this model of compassion in the most inclusive and comprehensive way, offering hospitality to anyone who was in need of it. The letters of Paul (composed 50-60 CE) embed the self-deprecating and ecumenical principles of Christian charity (1 Cor. 12, 12-13). Paul propounds an intensified Christian ideal of the community as a social body, identified with the all-encompassing body of Christ. In the transition from the Old to the New Testament (Acts of Apostoles 11-27-30) this revolutionary social ethic, driven by Paul’s letters, is embedded in the request to all Christians to become benefactors.

However, the creation of hierarchies in the emergent Christian Church generated pertinent changes. These hierarchies emerged when the ancient civic sense of the community began to weaken. From this perspective Christian charitable behavior was not simply a pattern of generosity but a departure from old tradition, which considered society as one whole. The relation with the poor became part of the life of the rich, as a consequence of the increasing intertwining between the city and the countryside. The growing visibility of the poor within the walls of the city, was, in part, an effect of a demographic shift during the 4th and 5th century.

The care of poor - who were incarnated as a representation of Christ - created a social construction in which also new patterns of power emerged. The Christian Church gave a new meaning to the old demos. It designated the marginal groups that had always pressed in upon the city as the poor. It should be noted, however, that in the fourth and fifth century society was not marked by clear-cut cleavage and the poor were people vulnerable to impoverishment rather than individual leaving in deep desperate poverty. Christian bishops pursued this strategy with determination, using massive gifts of food to curry favor as “lovers of the poor”, thus gaining greater influence in the politics and culture of cities. To discipline their growing flocks more effectively, senior clerics developed a Christian theology of sin and redemption, placing a new emphasis on individual almsgiving as a means of penance and a vehicle of individual salvation.

The close links between philanthropy, charity and mercy in the Christian tradition help to explain the religious motivations promoting charitable actions in an eschatological perspective. They are the links connecting God, the one who gives, and the one who receives. Christ expresses the human connection underlying philanthropy, which is the Greek word for love of mankind (philia + anthropos), when he identifies himself personally with the poor. To help the poor is to help Christ, and to refuse this help is to deny Christ (Matthew 25). Denying charity to others could bring divine judgment down on the heads of a Christian, while offering charity to others would bring divine mercy and protection. The fundamental condition for the forgiveness of sins and for gaining access to the Kingdom of God is the merciful action, which results in the fulfillment of two series of works called "Works of Mercy: corporal and spiritual." The former concerns the relief of difficult material conditions (poverty, deprivation, loneliness, illness), and the latter fully implements the love of one’s neighbor. This concerns those who do evil as well as those who are suffering because of a physical or spiritual affliction (the doubtful, and the ignorant).

It is crucial to understand how it is possible to conciliate charity (charitas) on the one hand and profit (lucrum) on the other hand in the Christian tradition. Actually, there is no contradiction between the two terms according to the Gospels, which use metaphors of spiritual enrichment, which have had great influence on economic issues: wealth should be multiplied rather than accumulated in order to be redistributed. In the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25, 14-30) it is underlined that the least one can do, in order to achieve the reward (i.e. “sharing the master’s happiness”), is putting “money on deposit with the bankers”. The choice of Christ to embrace poverty while preserving his divine nature is called sacrum commercium and is advocated by Saint Paul as a model of Christian community (2 Corinthians 6, 10).

Patristic authors create further impetus in the relationship between charity and profit. Saint Ambrose introduces the concept of good usury (bonum faenus), which allows one to profit through a charitable attitude as opposed to economic speculation. Another relevant contribution to the Christian economic tradition comes from the monastic experience of the High Middle Ages. A careful analysis of the economic significance of the early Benedictine rules shows that the choice of individual poverty by the monks, who aim at following the example of Christ, is combined with the collective possession of the land of the monastery, whose efficient system of exploitation provides goods necessary to sustain the monks and to relieve the poor in case of need. In the great ecclesiastical movement which reached its goals with the concordat of Worms (1122) the most important achievement is the statement that the Church has the right to possess goods and revenues since the Church is not the owner of this patrimony but a simple administrator of it and a manager on behalf of Christ and the poor. In this perspective charity is no longer just a way to expiate sins but a way to create common good.

Nonetheless, almsgiving must be guided by those who possess the science of charity (scientia charitatis), namely the clergy. Theologians began to carry out a profound analysis of society, and to start a process that would lead to distinguishing between the Christian community and society as a whole. Especially in the writings of medieval economists from the ranks of the Franciscan and Dominican orders, an increase in the wealth of an individual was encouraged under the condition that it did not aim at simply a sterile accumulation of riches. This is explicitly considered as a fruitful opportunity for Christian society: these theologians describe the medieval merchant-banker as the double of the mendicant friar since he prefers to use money and material goods for a charitable purpose rather than simply possess them. It was the birth of the “economy of salvation”, to quote Max Weber. The Monti di Pietà (pawnshops), in this case, played a very important role because, in addition to promoting an “economy of salvation”, they developed, parallel with the Protestant ethics, the idea of “salvation through economy”. Economists and advocates of the Franciscan order did not encourage people to accumulate money but to produce wealth in order to redistribute it as they were convinced of the idea of the volatility of money and therefore of the necessity for the widespread redistribution of wealth.

As a consequence, social assistance, particularly directed to the pauperes pinguiores (the poor less poor), was one of the fundamental novelties of the late Middle Ages. Indeed, during the Renaissance, political authorities (the cities and States) and confraternities were in charge of leading the process for the formation of institutional charity, which was marked by a rationalization of charitable practices. As documented in the exhibition there is an increasing articulation between charitas - almsgiving without a specific goal - and misericordia, which has more practical and "applied" aims. In the fifteenth century, Misericordia institutions developed sophisticated forms of management, had a high level of self-governance, and a prominent place in the economic life of the cities. In every major Catholic city hositals were established for the ills, pious institutions in charge of assisting orphans and widows, hospices in which those who were beggars could receive aid and Monti di Pietà that lent small sums to those who were in need temporarily. Many of these institutions were run by confraternities, lay brotherhoods whose members cared for one another as brothers and sisters, who extended help to others in this same family model, acting as mutual aid societies. From the sixteenth century, they secularized and their charitable acts became the social services of a civil society, with an increasing role of misericordia aims (assistance in several forms and outcomes).