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Thomas Aquinas on Helping the Poor

This is the third in a series by Wesley Coopersmith, a recent Grove City College graduate in political science and biblical and religious studies. Wesley is currently interning on Capitol Hill. Read the first post: Thomas Aquinas on Private Property, and the second: Thomas Aquinas on the Role of Government. So far in this three-part series on Thomas Aquinas, we’ve considered his writings on private property and the role of government. According to Aquinas, private property is given to individuals by God for the preservation of the earth, and the proper role of government is to protect the lives and property of its citizens from violence and from foreign invaders. This leaves us with one final question: Who should provide for the poor? If government is not permitted to help the poor, who will? Again, Thomas Aquinas provides an answer. We must help those in need directly, through private institutions and through the church, not allowing government to become a substitute for our individual responsibility of loving our neighbor. Aquinas writes:
But because many persons are in need, and the same things cannot assist everybody, the dispensing of one’s own goods is committed to each individual, so that each may out of them assist those in need. (emphasis mine)
Because of the magnitude and specificity of each individual’s needs, the government cannot adequately provide for every one of its citizens. As Christians, we must work to provide for our neighbors in accordance with the command in Scripture to love our neighbor as ourselves. Property is a gift from God—not government—to his people for the purposes of self-preservation and assisting those in need. When private institutions, churches and individuals fulfill their mandate to love our neighbors as ourselves, no need for government involvement exists. [pullquote]     We must help those in need directly, through private institutions and through the church, not allowing government to become a substitute.[/pullquote] I often hear people object that individuals cannot adequately provide for all poor Americans. Government must step in, they argue, to help those who cannot be reached. But haven’t we tried this and failed in many ways? The vast majority of the federal budget is spent on social welfare, yet homelessness, unemployment and poverty continue to exist at very high rates. Maybe it’s time to stop blaming a lack of government spending and start blaming ourselves. How much money do we give to our local churches or charities? How much time have we spent volunteering? Have we even had a conversation with that homeless person we see on our way to work every morning? Do we know where our local soup kitchen is or if our community even has one? As Americans we have failed to use the gifts God has given us to provide for the poor of our nation. Let us learn from Aquinas, who gave up his wealth and nobility, took a vow of poverty and joined the Dominican order of monks to serve his local community for the entirety of his life. Thomas Aquinas knew that if government promoted justice by defending the lives and property of its citizens, and if his fellow man provided for the needy instead of outsourcing this calling to government welfare programs, a safe and prosperous society could exist. Let us as Americans return to this calling.