Charity Begins at Home?

“Charity begins at home.” Does anyone know the origin of this fatuous phrase? I hear it quoted among Catholics as if it is sacred Scripture, and when it is quoted it is most often as a response to my suggestion that a person ought to donate more to the church or to the poor. “After all Father,” they say with that smug expression like they’ve just thought of something terribly clever, “Charity does begin at home.”

I think, if the phrase means anything at all it means that “love” begins at home, and if you can’t be charitable or loving to the people you live with, it’s not worth pretending to love others.

Instead the people who don’t want to give to the poor or to the church misinterpret the word ‘charity’ and think it means ‘charitable giving to the poor’ and end up denying the needs of the poor and the church by with holding their loot, and they do so with a sense of self righteousness.

So next time you hear someone trot out the phrase “Charity begins at home.” Take a moment to gently ask what they mean by it. They’re probably using it as a get out to justify their lack of concern for the poor.

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  • Christi Szwajkowski

    Yep, my mother-in-law used that phrase with me when my husband and I were donating to the local pregnancy center and she didn't care that we weren't providing enough for our three kids. I had to remind her that they have plenty of toys and their own rooms and the best example we can teach them in their young age is to share with others.Now, I have used that phrase with my family members, but I use it in the sense that we can't be fighting at home with each other and then go out in public being charitable and loving to others. In this sense, we must practice virtues at home, which to me is the most challenging.

  • John

    Charity begins at home means to me that I can not help anyone unless I take care of my self first; body, mind and soul. It is selfless selfishness. You learn it quick on the battlefield. It means I will try to move mountains to help you, but first Ive got to make sure Ive done what I can to help myself so I am competent to help you in a meaningful way. Maybe there is a cultural connection between selfless individualism and community in America. GB

  • Howard

    Yes, "charity" is one of those words the "typical" meaning of which has changed over the years. Now it means something like alms, but no one says "alms" any more. In addition to your true statement about love beginning in the family, I've always taken this expression to mean that we should start our concern with those who really are our neighbors, rather than with "humanity at large". Otherwise, we too easily fall into the trap Chesterton described in "The World State":Oh, how I love Humanity, With love so pure and pringlish, And how I hate the horrid French, Who never will be English! The International Idea, The largest and the clearest, Is welding all the nations now, Except the one that's nearest. This compromise has long been known, This scheme of partial pardons, In ethical societies And small suburban gardens— The villas and the chapels where I learned with little labour The way to love my fellow-man And hate my next-door neighbour.

  • John H

    Thomas reflecting on St. Paul is loosely credited with this phrase. St. Paul says, "If any man have not care of his own, and especially of those of his house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel (1 Tim. 5:8)."St. Thomas Aquinas doesn't use the word "home" he simply refers to those most closely connected with us. See Summa II.II.Q31.a3 & II.II.Q32.a9. He writes:"…Augustine says (De Doctr. Christ. i, 28): "Since one cannot do good to all, we ought to consider those chiefly who by reason of place, time or any other circumstance, by a kind of chance are more closely united to us.""I answer that, Grace and virtue imitate the order of nature, which is established by Divine wisdom. Now the order of nature is such that every natural agent pours forth its activity first and most of all on the things which are nearest to it: thus fire heats most what is next to it… But the bestowal of benefits is an act of charity towards others. Therefore we ought to be most beneficent towards those who are most closely connected with us."Charity most definitely must be given to those of our own home first. Of course Thomas goes on to make distinctions between greater and lesser needs, the various states in life, etc. As a father of 4 children I can tell you that my donations are very good for a man of my state. But I can also promise that I don't give as much as I would like, or as much as others at my Church. I have to clothe, educate, feed, shelter, and care for 6 people (myself included). They depend on me, and I have been given the duty to provide for them. If i neglect this duty, even if it is for the sake of the poor, I become worse than the infidels. Charity most certainly begins at home.

  • kkollwitz

    I've understood it mean that by being charitable to one's family, one learns the habits of charity which are then extended beyond the family.

  • Patricius

    I do not know its origin, Father, but it is certainly an old saying in English. The earliest I have seen it quoted is in the memoirs of Fr John Gerrard S.J. He used it while in disguise on the English Mission in an argument with the protestant dean of St. Paul's in which he was defending the traditional teaching on the wrongness of suicide. The command to love our neighbour as ourselves implies that we, necessarily, love ourselves!

  • Nârwen

    The classic literary example of someone whose charity ignores the home is Mrs. Jellyby in Dickens' "Bleak House", who spends so much time and energy on a project based in Africa that her husband and children live in complete chaos. The same novel includes a case of death by spontaneous human combustion.The instances are somewhat parallel : both things seem to happen, but not nearly as much as people think they do.

  • Anil Wang

    I've always understood it in the way Secretary-General of the United Nations Dag Hammarskjöld expressed it:"It is more noble to give yourself completely to one individual than to labor diligently for the salvation of the masses. "In other words, it's trivial to care for "man in the abstract". It doesn't even mean you're "good". The Nazis really did care for man in the abstract, but they hated with a passion a sector of particular man and had no qualms about sacrificing even particular men whom they didn't hate for "the common good".Anyone that can give large amounts to "the poor" but despise most poor people one sees, or are "pro family" and donate heavily to the cause but hate many members of one's own family, that person really need to spend some time in prayer.I know that Mother Teresa and Pope John Paul II (in his addresses on the Theology of the Body) both have versions of this thought, though the exact quotes escape me.

  • Paul Rodden

    Well, from surfing about, this looks the most reliable source:'Charity begins at home, and justice begins next door.' – Charles Dickens (1812-1870), British novelist. Tigg, in Martin Chuzzlewit, ch. 27 (1844)Interestingly, if that is the genuine source, then it's a couplet, an et-et, just as you suggest.So, it seems Dickens wasn't the source of that fatuous quotation, but those who truncated it for the sake of their own convenience…

  • Red Cardigan

    I've never thought of this statement being fatuous, but then, I've never thought of it applying mainly to one's material goods."Charity begins at home," means that you learn to live the provisions of 1 Corinthians 13 under your own roof. If you don't, then no matter how patient, kind, forbearing, generous etc. you are with people outside your family, God who sees all sees how you are irritable with your husband or wife, impatient with your children, stingy toward your relatives who have a claim on you, and so on.As to that last, that may be where the phrase in its material sense is *meant* to make sense: it does a man little good if his brother is out of work and thus is struggling to buy food and clothes for his family while his richer brother is being lauded at his parish for providing an expensive set of new vestments or making a huge contribution to the building fund. It is, in fact, wrong and scandalous for him (objectively, of course) if he is refusing to help his brother in the latter's hour of need while smugly accepting praise for his generosity elsewhere.

  • truthfinder2

    The corollary to that (misused) quote is the (also misused) "God helps those who help themselves" which was quoted to me once by a retired fellow Catholic. He actually believed it was in Scripture. He said a nun had once quoted it to him to justify my friend's earning cash income and not declaring it on his taxes!

  • justamouse

    My priest says that to my kids! I love it. He was one of 6, I believe, and I have 7, so he knows what we're about. It's not about giving stuff away, though I think I mistakenly believed that because Ma Ingall's said it to the mean shopkeeper lady on Little House.It's about the domestic church being the womb of working out selflessness toward our fellow humans.

  • Bill Meyer

    I actually had a catechist who tried to justify to me the many welfare programs on the grounds of insufficient charity. I pointed out to him that while Scripture makes clear the need for charity, it also makes clear that it is a personal obligation, and I have read nothing to support the notion of charity-by-proxy.