The Corner

Re: Pope Francis and Poverty

Pope Francis had already given us previews of his economic ideas. He spoke about the free-market economy in broad but provocative terms back in May, for example, in an apparently extemporaneous address to ambassadors to the Holy See.

In Evangelii Gaudium, he reinforces his identification with and advocacy for the poor, insisting on what the Church has claimed as its signature role in the temporal order since at least the fourth century. His conviction that the Church’s love for the poor is inextricable from its proclamation of the gospel is deeply traditional.

From the beginning, the Church’s attitude toward poverty has been marked by an ostensible contradiction. “I can say that the most beautiful and natural expressions of joy which I have seen in my life were in poor people who had little to hold on to,” Francis writes (EG 7), echoing Jesus in the Beatitudes: “Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20). At the same time, the Church works to deprive the poor of their poverty and urges the whole world to join in that effort. So is the Christian praise of poverty insincere? Is it only an attempt to make a virtue of nasty circumstances until we can change them?

Francis has made the helpful distinction between misery, which he says we must combat, and poverty, which he upholds as a virtue. “Lady Poverty,” in St. Francis’s expression, has long been cherished by Christian saints, and clearly Pope Francis is attached to her — to poverty in the sense of a material simplicity that’s elegant and liberating. Convents and monasteries are famously clean and spare, attractive because of their poverty, not despite it. When your food, water, medicine, shelter, and acess to fresh air and sunlight are adequate, every possession in excess of what you need to maintain them amounts to a distraction from your pursuit and enjoyment of the one thing necessary.

From that vision flow the familiar papal warnings against the danger of mistaking the means of economic activity for its purpose. When the pope speaks up for the poor whom the powerful would reduce to instruments of productivity, he’s also enjoining us not to do unto ourselves what we ought not do unto others. Thanksgiving Day weekend is a fitting moment to summon gratitude for electricity, indoor plumbing, central heating, and all the technological advances that free us from labors that consumed so much of the time and energy of past generations. While the work most of us now do may be different from theirs in kind, however, is it necessarily different in quantity?

Working dawn to dusk in front of computer screens may be easier in some respects than working dawn to dusk in the fields, but it’s still dawn to dusk. When John Paul II in Laborem Exercens (1981) decries economism, a species of materialism, the error of placing “the spiritual and the personal (man’s activity, moral values and such matters) in a position of subordination to material reality,” he’s pointing to a condition under which the masters of the economy stand to suffer as much as anyone.

Francis calls it consumerism, our compliance with an elaborate set of social expectations that keep the money circulating but distract us from God and neighbor, our sources of true joy. To compete in the modern economy, we have to stay busy grooming ourselves as individuals whom others would want to do business with. Typically that entails houses, cars, electronics, and the thousand and one other accessories that we need in order to fit into the world and stay in touch with it. It’s a package deal whose components are expensive and multiply endlessly. The advice that readers would be justified in drawing from Francis’s economic philosophy is entirely Franciscan: Buy smaller packages.

In addition to extolling voluntary poverty, the Church encourages efforts to alleviate poverty that’s involuntary, but it’s not always clear how the two tendencies are related. All indications are that Pope Francis has contemplated that relationship more than most people have, so I hope he’ll expound on it in a future document.

Meanwhile, his economic policy for feeding the hungry and clothing the naked impresses many readers as more sentimental than thoughtful. Economic conservatives argue that the creation of wealth, not its redistribution, is the most reliable antidote to destitution. The likes of Samuel Gregg, John O’Sullivan, and Kevin Williamson share Francis’s concern for the poor, but he offers little recognition that he hears them. His priorities are noble: He’s more interested in poverty than in wealth, and like many well-meaning people, particularly on the left, he discusses both in language that works better as an expression of solidarity with the poor than as a concrete plan for helping them.

It’s sometimes hard to reconcile Francis’s economic pronouncements with Catholic social teaching about subsidiarity. The bigger the state, the smaller the Church, and the thinner the network of Catholic schools, hospitals, nursing homes, and social services. Over the past century, the Church’s historic role to care for the poor has drifted increasingly in the direction of urging the state to care for them. That, at any rate, is the widely shared perception, which clashes somewhat with Francis’s argument that a robust social mission is an essential feature of the new evangelization.

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