“Charity begins at home” strikes the modern ear as a contradiction in terms. In our time, charity has come to mean giving to strangers —the stranger the better. It is a duty that we discharge by writing a check or typing a credit card number into our favorite charity’s website. (By the way, that address is www.chroniclesmagazine.org.) How can it be charitable to give something to my wife and children or even to my cousins or neighbors?

When we forget the meaning of words, it is small wonder if we no longer recognize the thing itself “Charity” comes from the Latin caritas, which meant something like “dearness,” “fondness,” “affection.” St. Jerome used it to translate St. Paul’s Greek word, agape, the deep affection we are to have for each other in imitation of Christ’s perfect love for us. As St. Augustine put it, charity is the “virtue which joins us to God in love,” and it is, as St. Paul tells us, a greater gift of the spirit even than faith.

As a gift of the Holy Spirit, charity connects us with God. St. Thomas tells us that, rather than lavish our wealth on the evil (e.g., thieves, confidence men, and child molesters), we should do the greatest good to those who are closest to God. Quoting Paul’s dictum that “Charity dealeth not perversely,” he points out that “to do good deeds to certain persons is to act perversely. . . . Therefore, since kindness is an act of charity, we ought not to be kind to everyone.” From this perspective of grace, then, much of the do-gooding time and effort spent on drug dealers, thugs, and child molesters is not only misguided, but perverse.

However, from the natural perspective, as Thomas says, closeness to ourselves must also affect the degree of our charity: “In what concerns nature we should love our kinsmen most, . . . and we are more closely bound to provide them with necessities of life.” In other words, charity does begin at home and radiates outward to the broader spheres of our kinfolk, friends, neighbors, and fellow citizens before it is exhausted in the general sea of humanity.

Philanthropists who speak of a general duty to the world do not understand the problem of scarcity. “Since one cannot help everyone,” said Augustine, “one has to be concerned with those who by reason of place, time, or circumstances, are by some chance more tightly bound to you.”

A Christian saint who had the power to do everyone good would obviously exercise it (within the limits set forth by Thomas), but such power belongs to the divine and not to the human. Charity obliges us to be kind to those who are attached to us and to relieve the deserving poor who come our way. Universal charity is impossible even for the wealthiest individuals or governments in the world; in attempting to practice it, we become morally numb to the obligations of everyday life. International philanthropy is evil.