(Greek: asylos, safe from violence)

A place in which a person threatened with danger is protected from harm. Historically, the term commonly refers to the custom of endowing holy places, shrines, churches, etc., with the right of asylum against secular force. This meant that a person pursued by the officers of the law or other secular power, could by fleeing to such a place escape arrest. The practise was founded upon two principles, that the exercise of secular power in a place dedicated to God was irreverent and sacrilegious, and that the secular power was too often tyrannical and unjust, and that a refuge was needed in which it was powerless to abuse the innocent. The decay of religious faith and the growth of civil order have both brought it about that the right of asylum is today neither claimed nor exercised. The present use of the word is in reference to institutions in which the helpless are relieved from their necessities; e.g., the asylums for such dependent classes as the orphans, aged, insane and feeble-minded, and the hopelessly poverty-stricken. Such institutions were practically unknown among pagan peoples. Their origin may be traced to Our Lord's insistence on the corporal and spiritual works of mercy as a necessary condition for attaining heaven (Matthew 25). The care of widows, the poor, and orphans, was characteristic of the first Christians; and all through history, the faithful have generously supported and endowed institutions for such purposes, while the founders of many religious orders of men and women have made service in such asylums the chief purpose of their orders. With good reason, modern social workers insist that the dependent, especially orphans and children, should in every possible case be placed in normal family life. The individual's own family society should be aided or corrected, when that is possible. If that is impossible, a foster home suited to his character and needs should be provided. Only when this is impossible, should resort be had to the institutional asylum, when the given case is, for physical, moral, social, or economic reasons, beyond hope of normal treatment. The proper Christian view is that charity must always work for the greatest success as well as for the highest motives. Hence stubborn insistence on the old-fashioned institutional methods is not true charity, when others are available that procure better the physical, moral, educational, and spiritual well-being of the dependent. Catholics, therefore, find in modern child-placing, mothers' pensions, old-age insurance, etc., simply the opportunity for more effective charity, and thus inform these very modern and technical works with age-old Christian motives and virtue. At the same time, the Catholic will insist that the institutional asylum still has work to do; and that those who contribute to it and those who serve it out of spiritual motives are doing an admirable work blessed with much spiritual merit.

New Catholic Dictionary

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