Whose poor?

[This item somewhat revised and extended overnight. My thanks to
correspondents who find the many holes in my daily Emmentaler.]


“It is plain to Us and to everyone that the majority of the poor, through no fault of their own, are in a condition of misery and wretchedness which calls for prompt and effective remedy. The traditional workmen’s guilds were abolished in the last century; no form of protection took their place; in its laws and institutions the State disowned the ancestral faith; hence, by degrees, we have reached a time when working men, isolated and unprotected, have been delivered over to the brutality of employers and the unchecked greed of competition. To make this worse, rapacious usury, condemned by the Church again and again, is practised still by covetous men who have changed its guise but not its nature. The giving of employment and the conduct of trade have passed so generally into the hands of a few that a small body of excessively rich men have laid on the teeming multitudes of poor a yoke which for practical purposes is the yoke of slavery.”

The statement above does not come from some half-crazed, half-Marxist, Jesuit incendiary in Latin America. Rather it was written by Pope Leo XIII, one hundred and twenty-six years ago. This makes it quite recent in the history of the Church. But if one checks back to Gregory of Nazianzen, for instance — his “Verses Against the Rich,” in the fourth century — one finds many parallel sentiments. Likewise if one consults Saint Isidore of Seville, “on the oppressors of the poor,” in the seventh century; Saint Peter Damian in the eleventh, “on the love of money”; my beloved Saint Catherine of Siena in the fourteenth, “on riches and poverty”; Bossuet in the seventeenth, “on the dignity of the poor”; and so forth. Trust me: I have references up here in the High Doganate for all the other centuries, too.

While the vulgarity of the phrase inclines me to violence, “the preferential option for the poor” is not a new thing in Holy Church. Our instinct has been to take their part, from the beginning — to an extent apparently greater than Jesus did. Indeed, I would be prepared to argue from the Gospels that Our Lord didn’t give a darn about the poor, in the sense of “low income.”

“You will always have them with you,” was His almost flippant remark, when Judas was putting up the long face on their behalf — for his own devious purposes. In one of those offensively hip post-modern translations, the remark could be paraphrased: “They’ll live.” He would not be tricked by Judas’ cunning, into putting the lesser above the higher good.

The Church in this world, more visibly than her Founder, is an institution traversing Time. She confronts the temporal in her passing — deals with facts and things that change over the generations; and then change back. The description of economic conditions by Leo XIII seems quaint to us now; that which Gregory Nazianzen described seems quainter, perhaps. And this is because we have missed their point.

Pope Leo went on to condemn socialists more viscerally than he had the robber barons of his generation. These political operators were exploiting the poor to advance a cause in which their little property could be impounded by the State; and their little freedom, taken. He saw, clearly, the monstrous evil of State power. Leftists and other demoniacs who had and have since infiltrated the Church, quote Rerum Novarum selectively. One must read the whole encyclical, attentively and thoughtfully, to fend against their lies and misrepresentations; as well as to discover that the Church carries no brief for robber barons.

For the tract does not look upon “the poor” in purely material terms — as some jumble of “low income,” with “poor access,” suffering “inequality.” The Church, until quite recently, did not present man as an economic unit or cypher; as an atom in the masses. The human dignity she espoused always involved independence, for the individual and his family. She takes man in the light of his Creator, not in the wording of some humanly-contrived “social contract” — man as man, and not as an abstraction.

But this is a complex matter; we are not seeking Utopia, but in consequence of original sin, making the best of a bad hash. Only within that earthly context does the Church make her public demands; and not for one political or economic system over another, but for some decency within the system, whatever it may be. (Over the centuries she has dealt with every kind of political order, and there is nothing new under the Sun.)

A man should have the serenity that comes from living in his own home; should not depend entirely on some boss for his livelihood, and daily permissions; nor be entangled from adolescence in debt, nor constantly huzza’d by tempters. He should never be treated as cattle, or chattel, or “demographic target.” He should not be deflected from the life of pilgrim, sub specie aeternitatis; nor deprived of the freedom to make his own way.

Vastly more could be said about the “social teaching” of the Church, as it has been thought through over twenty centuries. Her interest has been in the whole range of human goods; and for the whole man in opposition to the worldly powers that try to control him, and appropriate his labour; to reduce him to a beast of burden, however comfortably stalled. She has thus been against big business and big government, in all of their protean forms; against raw power and thus against raw wealth.

She has opposed wealth, not in itself for its legitimate uses (cathedrals cost money), but as an instrument of power and oppression; she has opposed the corruptions that lead to quick wealth, and assist the cunning in their manipulation of the weak and meek. She has sought to feed the actually hungry, to nurse the actually sick, to teach the ignorant, to rescue the stranded, to visit the imprisoned, and comfort the oppressed; to provide without charge what is urgently needed, and come to emergency aid — in explicitly Christian missions of mercy. And these although each is a secondary, to her primary daily mission, in the administration of the Sacraments.

But “income inequality” was never her concern; nor any other vague, abstract, and ideological, social or ecological “issues.”

At least, not until recently.


POSTSCRIPTUM. For additional clarity, a carpenter we know, off in the sticks, pings in this quote from Caritas in Veritate, the encyclical by our beloved Benedict XVI:

“In the list of areas where the pernicious effects of sin are evident, the economy has been included for some time now. We have a clear proof of this at the present time. The conviction that man is self-sufficient and can successfully eliminate the evil present in history by his own action alone has led him to confuse happiness and salvation with immanent forms of material prosperity and social action. Then, the conviction that the economy must be autonomous, that it must be shielded from ‘influences’ of a moral character, has led man to abuse the economic process in a thoroughly destructive way. In the long term, these convictions have led to economic, social, and political systems that trample upon personal and social freedom, and are therefore unable to deliver the justice that they promise.”