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A Poor Understanding

by Edwin Faust
March 18, 2014

St. Francis lived in the age of the troubadours, whose theme was the chaste love of a noble warrior for a virtuous lady. He loved chivalric poetry and adapted it to his spiritual life, vowing his love for Lady Poverty, in whom he saw the perfection of all virtues. His band of troubadours, the first Franciscans, pledged their fealty to Lady Poverty, to the extent that they would not even beg more food than they needed for the day.

St. Francis also read the Gospels and pondered them deeply. He saw plainly that what led most men away from God was a love for the goods of this world. Taking to heart the truth that one cannot serve two masters, God and Mammon, St. Francis chose God. He did not regard poverty as regrettable, as a social failing to be corrected, but rather as a prerequisite for turning one’s attention to what really mattered: the salvation of one’s soul.

The Church has, through most of her history, been of one mind with St. Francis, who was of one mind with Christ. The vow of poverty is required of those who choose to live the life of the professed religious. And even the laity, whose vocation is marriage and family, are counseled to be content with the basic necessities as a safeguard to their greater spiritual good.

In light of this history, which is a matter of doctrine, there is something unsettling about the Church’s present overarching concern that poverty should be regarded as an injustice to be corrected by a more equitable and socially engineered distribution of goods. Pope Francis has won the praise of the secular media for his often repeated lamentations about the gap between rich and poor, and his chastisement of the rich. His anti-capitalist rhetoric has placed the Church in the middle of a debate about which economic system carries the most benefits for a society. He has placed the Church in the column generally checked off as leaning toward some form of socialism, whose variations haven’t worked terribly well in providing prosperity to the masses.

But why should the Church, which historically extols poverty as an aid to salvation, be concerned with raising general living standards as defined by income and material possessions? It is as though the Church now believes that getting every family into a garden suburb is the ideal set before us by Christ. Pope Francis’ connection with liberation theology (Marxism sprinkled with holy water) has been the subject of much speculation, but whatever may be the truth of the matter, it is undeniable that Papa Bergoglio wants the good life for the masses, with that good life defined in material terms.

There is something so trivial, so disappointing in this preoccupation with the poor. It is, at bottom, an elevation of the bourgeois ideal. It does not so much denounce the rich, as envy and resent them. It places wealth center stage and sets up a political tug of war over who will control it and determine its distribution. It inevitably appeals to government policy — force — as the arbiter of wealth. It tends toward economic totalitarianism in the name of justice. But history has proven time and again that economic power concentrated in the hands of government enriches those in government, not the ostensible beneficiaries of the redistributionist scheme.

The secular media applaud the Pope’s denunciation of income inequality, which is also a theme of the Obama presidency. Sighs of relief can be heard from newsrooms throughout the land that the Church is at long last backing off its preoccupation with sexual morality — abortion and “gay marriage” — and concerning itself with important issues such as economic justice. The Pope even went so far as to declare “youth unemployment” the most pressing problem facing us now. This is astounding, as well as absurd.

The irony here is that in attempting to make the Church more relevant by aligning it with liberal economic policies, the Pope and those who follow his lead are certain to make the Church increasingly irrelevant. If the Catholic voice is to be muted on the subject of morality, which is the Church’s domain, and raised on the subject of economics, which is the world’s domain, then that voice will not speak with its unique authority. It will simply be lost in the babble of temporal politics. It has been remarked that the U.S. bishops are the leftwing of the Democratic Party at prayer; that is, a subordinate and often supine element in a secular organization. It appears that one more bishop has joined this element and endorsed its platform as universally desirable.

The Church has one mandate: save souls. It has one means of doing so: preach the Gospel to all nations. Il Povarello, the Little Poor Man, as St. Francis was called, saw this mandate clearly. He did not see Lady Poverty as poor, but as rich. Indeed, as the source of a spiritual wealth that the ragged children of Mammon, who cling to their gold or long for the gold possessed by others, never know. St. Francis did not presume to instruct the world on the subject of economic justice; he did not teach the poor to envy and resent the rich. Rather, he taught the poor to pity the rich and to value their own poverty as a sign of election and a source of grace.

If Pope Francis were to live up to his namesake, he would do likewise. This is not to say that the Church has no right to speak on the subject of economic justice, but this is not her main concern. And what is threatening the salvation of souls in this world is not a lack of material goods but a spiritual impoverishment that is most prevalent in those precincts where the bourgeois ideal has been realized. Those who live in the slums can more easily become saints than those who live in garden suburbs. There is a story about a camel passing through the eye of a needle that comes to mind, and the point of the story is not that the rich should be more generous, nor the poor become more affluent. It has to do with the Kingdom of Heaven, where the price of admittance cannot be paid with cash or credit card.