Historian Gertrude Himmelfarb examines Welfare and Charity: Lessons from Victorian England.
The great Victorian philanthropists were not Rockefellers or Carnegies who gave of their fortunes for worthy causes. This was not check-book philanthropy. Nor was it what Dickens and George Eliot satirized as "telescopic philanthropy" — the charity that "increases directly as the square of the distance," like that of Mrs. Jellyby in Bleak House, who was more concerned with the natives of Borrioboola-Gha than with her own children. The Victorians gave what they could by way of money, but more important, they gave of themselves, with their personal, sustained involvement in their work and their direct and immediate concern for those whom they were assisting.
This is a fitting practical case study for thinking through the implications of Benedict XVI's encyclical on love, Deus Caritas Est, which calls for charity in its fullest sense.
Love—caritas—will always prove necessary, even in the most just society. There is no ordering of the State so just that it can eliminate the need for a service of love. Whoever wants to eliminate love is preparing to eliminate man as such. There will always be suffering which cries out for consolation and help. There will always be loneliness. There will always be situations of material need where help in the form of concrete love of neighbour is indispensable. The State which would provide everything, absorbing everything into itself, would ultimately become a mere bureaucracy incapable of guaranteeing the very thing which the suffering person—every person—needs: namely, loving personal concern. We do not need a State which regulates and controls everything, but a State which, in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity, generously acknowledges and supports initiatives arising from the different social forces and combines spontaneity with closeness to those in need. The Church is one of those living forces: she is alive with the love enkindled by the Spirit of Christ. This love does not simply offer people material help, but refreshment and care for their souls, something which often is even more necessary than material support. In the end, the claim that just social structures would make works of charity superfluous masks a materialist conception of man: the mistaken notion that man can live “by bread alone” (Mt 4:4; cf. Dt 8:3)—a conviction that demeans man and ultimately disregards all that is specifically human.