Inspired by the witness of the gospels (namely, Mt. 25.31-45, Lk. 10.25-37, and Acts 2.42-47), Thomas Aquinas formally codified the church’s practices of charity into two mutually defining lists: seven corporal works of mercy (feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, harboring the stranger, visiting the sick, ministering to prisoners, and burying the dead) and seven spiritual works of mercy (admonishing sinners, instructing the ignorant, counseling the doubtful, comforting the afflicted, bearing wrongs patiently, forgiving injuries, and praying for the living and the dead).
Rooted in of Israel’s long theological tradition emphasizing the care of the widow and orphan, the stranger, and the poor, the works of mercy embody the church’s politics of redemptive justice (for example, Ex. 22.21-25; Job 31.32; Ps. 68.4-6; Pr. 19.17; Is. 58.7; Ezek. 18.7). Of course, the church’s performance of charity has taken numerous manifestations throughout history ranging from Tertullian’s eucharistic care of the poor; the hospices and hospitals of St. Basil; the great medieval monasteries, guilds and fraternities; to Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker Movement and Jean Vanier’s L’Arche communities. Tracing its early history, Ramsay MacMullen notes in Christianizing the Roman Empire (A.D. 100-400):
“Judaism taught concern for poverty (and who outside that tradition in the ancient world would have been recorded on his tombstone as ‘a lover of the poor’?). The tradition carried forward within Christianity. As the pagan temples closed, the churches opened: the Basilica of St. Peter in Rome, for example, as setting for an enormous banquet for the poor provided by a senator in commemoration of the anniversary of his wife’s death; or the Basilica of St. Ambrose in Milan, where the bishop preached on the need to succor the less fortunate. Julian was right to see this transfer of function to his rivals as important to their success. ‘It is generosity toward non-members, care for the graves of the dead, and pretended holiness of life that have specially fostered the growth of atheism’ (i.e. Christianity). Therefore he was right in his plan to make temples even more active centers for relief of the poor. However, that project came to nothing” (p. 54).
In an end note, MacMullen adds, “Paulin., Ep. 13.15, cited in Brown (1980), The Cult of the Saints, 36; Gregory of Nyssa, Pauper. Amand.; Ambrose, De Nabuthe; and Callinicus, Vita S. Hypatii 6.45, 31.5f., and 34.2 on supplying of food and clothing in Thrace in the period around A. D. 400. I cannot find much other evidence for poor-relief in the 4th century, though thereafter it becomes quite abundant” (p. 143, n.12). MacMullen’s analysis is helpful in that it begins to trace the origins of the doctrine of mercy not simply in the early church of the first few centuries, but right through to Hebrew Scriptures and the archaeological data of first century Judaism. What MacMullen seems to be suggesting here is that the Jews, and the Christians thereafter, were up to something quite peculiar, astonishing even, in their preferential treatment of the poor and destitute. The powerful took notice. Is it possible that already in the 4th century, we see in Julian an early attempt at a strategic, bureaucratic co-option of christian charity for the sake of sustaining empire?