True Charity

Contact Us

It’s not just what you give, it’s how you live

By Brian Caulfield

This article was written exclusively for, the members-only digital portal from the Knights of Columbus. Looking for more? Join the Knights of Columbus today.

The meaning of charity has been constricted in our day. We usually use the word to mean donating money to those in need: I give to charity. Further, donations generally are given to a charity, a tax-exempt organization, by which we’re allowed the claim a charitable deduction on our taxes.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with giving to help others and earning a deduction, but if that’s all we mean by charity, we are missing a large part of our Catholic tradition and risk reducing the Gospel to a dollar sign.

In the fuller sense of the word, we must not just give to charity, we must live with charity. This is what we mean when we say that charity is the first principle of the Knights of Columbus. The way the Order records its charitable activity each year makes the same point. The first number represents the actual money donated by all Knights and councils (an impressive $177.5 million in 2016). The second number reports the total hours logged by Knights volunteering for worthy causes, providing hands-on, on-the-ground help to those in need. The total for 2016 was also impressive: more than 75 million hours.

Now that’s charity in a fuller sense. Behind the numbers are Knights like you donating their hard-earned dollars to help provide food and emergency shelters for persecuted Christians in the Middle East. Buying bottled water for families closer to home who suffered a destructive storm. Or breaking a sweat building a home for poor families on a Habitat for Humanity site. Making the thrill of victory possible as an official at a Special Olympics event. Even something as simple as a bunch of Knights getting together to spend a few hours of shared elbow grease on a Saturday, helping the pastor clean up the parish grounds.

But even all this generosity and activity does not give the fullest Catholic sense of the word charity. Let’s break open the meaning, first with a formal definition, and then with an outline of how to do charity.

“Charity is the theological virtue by which we love God above all things for his own sake, and our neighbor as ourselves for the love of God,” states the Catechism of the Catholic Church (no. 1822). If you get the sense that God is at the heart of charity, you are right. If you think that charity must include love of neighbor, right again. In fact, the Bible is clear that you can’t have one love without the other. Recall how Jesus described the Greatest Commandment:

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength … Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mk 12:30-31).

Powerful words, but modern usage has greatly diluted the meaning of “love” as well, to mean little beyond the sexual realm. No wonder our culture is so confused, when “love” and “charity” have been reduced.

But our Catholic faith gives us a structure of language and an outline of action to reclaim the full meaning of both words. We can find this structure in the Corporal Works of Mercy, which outline what a Catholic should do to live as a follower of Christ.

Corporal Works of Mercy
1. Feed the hungry.
2. Give drink to the thirsty.
3. Clothe the naked.
4. Shelter the homeless.
5. Visit the sick.
6. Ransom the captive. (Or visit the imprisoned.)
7. Bury the dead.

Pope Francis has urged us to develop the habit of performing these merciful works on a regular basis, through prayer, patience, and deliberate action. He reminds us that “The one who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen” (1 Jn 4:20).

There is great wisdom in the fullness of charity.

About the Author

Brian Caulfield is the editor of Fathers for Good, an initiative of the Knights of Columbus.

Action Points

  1. How do you measure charity in your life? Does your outlook need to change?
  2. How many corporal works of mercy can you or your family perform in one week by joining together to supply a food pantry or visit a homeless shelter?
  3. Mindful of the fuller meaning of love and charity, how you can live out this fullness in your daily home life, among those you care for the most?