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The compatibility of public poor relief with private, in particular faith-based, charity is a long-debated issue. Our contribution offers a historical reflection by analysing the evolving discourses of Catholic charity in nineteenth-century Belgium. We highlight its somewhat ambiguous self-imagery and evaluate its (un)willingness to cooperate with official provisions. Belgian Catholics at first sought to complement and even to infiltrate the public structures created under French rule, but rising ideological tensions on the issue in Belgian society from 1850 onwards made them realise that the clock couldn’t be turned back. A further expansion or more pronounced agency of public provisions, however, was considered unwanted and unnecessary. The Belgian Church eagerly defended the pre-eminence of private charity provisions, considering them to be more community-embedded, encompassing, efficient, flexible and innovative. Religious charity was portrayed as morally pre-eminent, much more committed and interpersonal, with strong connotations of vocation, pastorate, penance and salvation emerging from its transcendental perspective. Given this mindset, it was far from self-evident that a division of tasks with public poor relief should be sought. While nineteenth-century Belgian Catholics repeatedly made public appeals for pragmatism and cooperation, the continued expansion of their charitable networks and the associated discourses reveal an inherently competitive strategy and a continuous, even growing conviction that upheld the superiority of private initiative.

In: European Journal for the History of Medicine and Health