Although Jesus met a great deal of opposition during His earthly ministry, we know of only one place in which He was actually laughed at. In response to a stern warning regarding the dangers of earthly riches “the Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and laughed at Him” (Lk 16:14). Christians likewise receive a similar response when they speak of riches and poverty. Especially considering the great material wealth many Christians possess. Even the Church herself has been accused of being a “big business” with access to tremendous amount of money. So when the Church speaks on poverty and helping the poor, it comes across as little more than hypocrisy. But the accusation really comes from ambiguity surrounding the Church’s teaching on poverty and aid to the poor. It seems therefore that a primer of sorts is needed, especially because the topic of poverty will also likely be one that is discussed in the coming election season.
From the outset it is important to recall an important principle that follows from the anthropological truth that man is a body-spirit composite. Therefore he has needs in both realms. Therefore any discussion regarding poverty must always start with the truth that man can have poverty in both the spiritual and material realm. This is why the accusation that the Church should sell all her artwork and build only functional churches is patently false. The Church may have enough material riches to feed all the poor for a short time, but then what? By selling all the artwork and stripping the churches, the world is now that much poorer because beauty has been lost. Man does not live on bread alone and therefore there always needs to be a balance between spiritual and material riches. Both are necessary for man to be truly rich and this is the reason the Church has always promoted both the Spiritual and Corporal Works of Mercy among the faithful.
When Blessed Theresa of Calcutta visited the United States she was asked what it was like coming from a country where she worked with the poorest of the poor to a rich country like ours. She responded that “Any country that accepts abortion is the poorest of the poor. It is a poverty to decide that a child must die so that you live as you wish.” Her point was that spiritual poverty is often the worst of the two. While we may be relatively affluent in the United States, we do not need to go far to work with the spiritually poor (as distinct from the “poor in spirit” that Our Lord declared blessed).
St. Thomas Aquinas does say that there is a certain priority in the material realm because without meeting the absolute necessity for survival, a man cannot appreciate any spiritual goods. This point hinges on another important distinction, namely the distinction between poverty and destitution. The latter refers to those who lack the necessaries of life and therefore are in need of help from others. Poverty, properly understood, refers to those who have only what is necessary for life with no superfluity.
The distinction is important because there are those groups such as the Catholic Campaign for Human Development whose mission it is to eradicate poverty. Certainly the eradication of destitution should be the goal of all Christians, but with poverty it is different. Poverty is a Christian value. As Solomon says in the Book of Proverbs, “Give me neither beggary, nor riches, give me only the necessaries of this life” (Prov 30:8). As the fulfillment of all the Scriptures, Jesus by His life and example gave poverty a sacred character. This cannot be overlooked.
The former head of the Pontifical Council Cor Unum for Human and Christian Development, Robert Cardinal Sarah cautions that “we do not have the right to confuse destitution and poverty, because in doing so we would seriously be going against the gospel. Recall what Christ told us: ‘The poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me’ (Jn 12:8). Those who want to eradicate poverty make the son of God a liar. They are mistaken and lying….The Church must not fight against poverty but, rather, wage a battle against destitution, especially material and spiritual destitution. It is critical to make a commitment so that all men might have the minimum they require in order to live.”
A man who grew up in one of the poorest regions in Guinea, Cardinal Sarah knows that poverty is a Christian value because the poor person is “someone who knows that by himself he cannot live. He needs God and other people in order to be, flourish and grow.”
There of course is always the danger of seeing poverty as an end in itself, but it is meant to be a means to holiness and perfection. This leads to a further distinction between affective and effective poverty. All men are called to affective poverty with is the detachment of the heart from whatever wealth one may possess. On the other hand, effective poverty, which consists in an actual lack of material goods, is not a commandment but only a counsel.
Despite being a Gospel value, this does not mean the poor should be left alone. Instead those who have the experience of gaining wealth should aid those who are poor to alleviate their poverty. This principle follows once again from the truth that man is both body and spirit. A man is better off when he works for his milk than when someone merely gives it to him. In working for the milk he achieves his dignity and grows in virtue. Work is a good for man. In receiving things merely as a handout, it actually diminishes his dignity as he grows in dependence. He may have a full belly but his heart begins to empty.
This of course assumes that the man is actually capable of stepping out of poverty. There are those who through some disability cannot care for themselves. We have to distinguish between them, even though all too often we treat them as the same. Those who are incapable need our charity but again in a way that accords with their situation and their dignity.
Regardless of how we aid the poor, it is not enough to simply pay your taxes or make a donation. Very often aid to the poor becomes a means by which the State gains control over its citizens. While a donation to a charitable organization is a good because the group is often familiar with what is needed, it should not exhaust our charity to the poor. The problem is that in giving money we often give too little of ourselves and deprive the person of what they need most—face to face love. As Pius XII reminded us, “Your charity must resemble God’s who came in person to bring us help.”
There is one further point that bears reflection and that is the notion of inequality. The terms rich and poor are really only relative terms. The poor in our country would be considered rich in other countries. That is why when we speak of inequality it is often misleading. There may be a great deal of inequality between a rich man with $1 billion and a poor man with $1 million dollars, but neither would be living in poverty. Very often the use of the term inequality is meant to imply that somehow the poor are being exploited by the rich. That may very well be the case, but it is not all inequality is unjust. It is best to simply leave this term out of the discussion and to examine things from the lens of distributive justice which examines the distribution of the benefits and burdens of society on different groups of people.
In nearly every culture prior to the rise of Christianity, the poor were despised. Once Our Lord came under the guise of a poor man, the world began to see the dignity and nobility of the poor. Christians therefore have an obligation to see poverty in its proper light. This can only happen when we cut through jargon and ideology to see both the value and dangers associated with it.