When referring to the social promotion of the materially needy people, many confuse the meaning of the words assistentialism, philanthropy and charity, and thus make no distinction. These three concepts, however, have significant differences and it is important that the Vincentian community be clear about these distinctions in order to avoid erroneous interpretations.
Assistentialism (Latin word meaning “to be together,” “to stand by”) comes from the word attendance, which means act or effect of attending. Thus, assistance is the set of actions taken by a person or group in favor of others, in order to provide protection, support, help, relief. The term assistentialism has a somewhat negative sense among us, since in providing such assistance one is not concerned about the eradication of the root causes of social ills. As a doctrine, assistentialism maintains that nothing can be done, in terms of structural reforms, reducing all social action to the application of palliatives.
Philanthropy, a Greek word meaning “friendship toward humankind,” has more to do with humanitarianism, that is, love for humanity. The term emerged in the eighteenth century and was compared to a type of charity that was judged as more enlightened, more scientific in its way of acting, and not inspired by theological reasons, but exclusively human and sociological. Today, philanthropy has an almost neutral meaning: the cultivation of human action on behalf of the needy and, in a broader sense, a vague interest in human problems. It is a word that is associated with people regardless of their religion or social status. For example, groups such as the Rotary Club or the Lions promote and develop philanthropic activities, that is, social activities that are devoid of any spiritual dimension. In some dictionaries, philanthropy is synonymous with charity, but it does not include the presence of God in these actions.
On the other hand, charity is the Christian word that means love that moves the will to effectively seek the good of the other. Charity is identified with the love of God. Charity is God! To do charity or to practice charity is to have the same attitude as God and to perform the same actions that God would engage in when confronted with situations of misery and poverty. It is discerning what God would “do,” and then doing it. It is the gift of self, without worrying about receiving anything in return. It is living the demands of the Gospel. It also means benevolence, compassion and kindness. It is one of the theological virtues, that is, one of the virtues that God offers us. In many cases, charity and love are confused and some dictionaries use the expression “love-charity” to try to approximate the true meaning of the word.
Therefore, we can conclude that, if the work of integral human development, developed by the members of the Vincentian Family, were mere assistance or philanthropy, we would not have achieved so many successes in assisting families in need and so many people excluded from society. Our action remains firm thanks to the fact that it is a work of charity, which implies the dimension of love. Here lies our difference.
Our total devotion to the excluded, our love for God in the person of the poor, our absolute dedication to the cause of the Gospel and our authentic obsession to reduce social inequalities … all of these summarize the work of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul and the work of the worldwide Vincentian Family.
Renato Lima de Oliveira
16th General President of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul