The Catholic Philanthropic Tradition in America

Oates, C.S.J., Mary J. The Catholic Philanthropic Tradition in America. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1995.

Oates' offers a comprehensive history of Catholic charities and suggestions for the future of organized benevolence. Catholic charity in ante-bellum America built institutions; e.g., Philadelphia parishioners created institutions to aid orphans of yellow fever epidemics. Benevolence remained relatively localized during the nineteenth century as the wealthy donated money to high-visibility projects and the average laity took responsibility for the increasingly numerous poor. The ranks of charitable sisters swelled after 1850, and social work by highly visible communities of women is an original contribution to U.S. philanthropy. In the twentieth century, however, authorities consolidated social work under diocesan bureaus, hired professionals and cooperated with non-church agencies. These changes appear to have threatened the values of the laity, and even as the total Catholic population grew, both the number of volunteers and rates of giving declined. Oates argues that sustaining Catholic benevolence requires fostering the qualities of vigorous philanthropy in the past: a degree of local autonomy, lay involvement, and the sense that charity critically defines the committed Catholic.