Poverty and renunciation

April 3, 2013

“Go into the street, and give one man a lecture on morality, and another a shilling, and see which will respect you most.” Samuel Johnson said that in the 18th century, but the general preference for money over preaching is sufficiently strong and timeless that his wry quip remains pertinent. Most economists take Johnson’s sentiment too seriously. They assume that people always want more shillings and always resist wealth-denying morality. That is a serious error.

Consider, for example, the enthusiastic response from around the world to the material renunciations of Pope Francis. The crowds cheered when the new leader of the Catholic Church said he wanted a “poor Church for the poor”. His decision to stay in simple lodgings and wear simple clothes amounted to turning down shillings for the sake of giving a morality lecture, but few observers were bothered. On the contrary, it was welcomed as a pertinent comment on the excessively materialist values of modern society.

The need to be “for the poor” is eternal and universal. In every society there will always be people who cannot thrive without help from others. Despite Dr Johnson’s comment, the need for conscience-pricking discourses on the topic, papal and otherwise, is equally timeless. Otherwise, it would be too easy to find plausible but ultimately selfish reasons not to help out.

In the modern world, the challenge of being pro-poor is particularly difficult, because there are two distinct types of poverty: of the seriously poor and of the relatively rich. In poorer countries, including Francis’s native Argentina, poverty is often absolute: not enough to eat, squalid housing, no access to education. The poor there need Dr Johnson’s shillings. In rich countries, material poverty is only relative. Those called poor generally all have life’s necessities, but fewer comforts and luxuries than most of their compatriots. As Francis’s papal predecessors often suggested, this relative material deprivation is less significant than more intangible shortages: of opportunity and noble aspirations. The socially and spiritually deprived could benefit from something like Dr. Johnson’s “lectures on morality”.

Involuntary poverty, whether material or intangible, is a bad thing, but Francis said he wanted a “poor church”. He must believe that voluntary poverty can sometimes be virtuous.

Two virtues spring to mind. The first is solidarity. There is something selfish about having much more than is necessary when so many people are forced to go without. Renunciation by the rich can redress that injustice.

As Francis’s wish suggests, the Catholic Church has much to renounce before it can be considered poor alongside the world’s poor. It has too often amassed fortunes and its leaders have been too close to the privileged classes, especially if they express the right pious sentiments. The lack of economic solidarity, though, is a global phenomenon.

A New York family pays thousands of dollars for surgery on a pet cat. Parents in the slums of Buenos Aires cannot raise the hundreds of dollars needed for surgery on their child. There may be no direct relationship between the two, but there is something distasteful about the conjunction, because the Americans and Argentines live in the same world. Solidarity is much more appealing. The New Yorkers could foreswear surgery as a sort of memorial of the plight of the poor, or better yet, donate the unspent money to a children’s medical charity.

The second virtue of voluntary poverty is the detachment it brings from what the pope’s namesake, Francis of Assisi, called the “dung” of “earthly things”. The 13th century saint loved “Lady Poverty”  because in her presence it was easier to taste “the honeyed crumbs which fall from the table of the Holy Angels”. In less poetic words, we may think that we own our houses, cars or yachts, but they often own us, by taking precedence over more important concerns. When higher GDP is considered the paramount sign of national success, people have become subservient to things.

The Catholic Church canonised Francis of Assisi, “the little poor man”, but its numerous ecclesial palaces and luxurious monasteries suggest an excessive attachment to material things. Pope Francis seems to think his detachment from the Church’s fortune can set an example for the Church. It could also inspire residents of rich economies. Detachment from material things is particularly valuable when there are so many material things to be detached from, and when so much of society, from family life to education, seems to be organised primarily to serve the satisfaction of material whims.

In choosing a relatively simple wardrobe and housing, the new pope is not necessary criticising the view, widespread among Catholics, that elegant clothing, beautiful buildings and fine art bear witness to the glory of God. But in a world where there is both too much poverty and too much wealth, the renunciation of riches can speak more persuasively than luxury.


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Even as a non-believer, Pope Francis strikes me as a breath of fresh air in a church long gone stale.

But I take issue in your extrapolation of HIS values to those not of his flock. Americans are fortunate to live as they do…a life billions in third world countries whose populations continue to explode because of ignorance, religion or stupidity.

Those unfortunates with no land, no money, no education, no skill, no experience of commercial value, no job and little prospect of any of these will NEVER be able to afford the life they see on TV. You seem to infer that those of relative plenty, such as virtually all Americans, should “think twice” on how they spend THEIR financial resources. I most strongly disagree.

There is a reason for those signs that say “Do not feed the pigeons”. Those without reason or intellect will always breed to the extent of the available food supply and the excess will suffer when it contracts.

My wife and I had a much loved cat (one of five at the time) that developed vaccine-induced feline sarcoma (cancer). Because I kept shot records, it was possible to identify the vaccine and manufacturer responsible, and they paid the $1,500 or so necessary to remove the initial tumor. Had they not I would have.

The cancer reoccured after a year and a half. Since we had taken all possible “margins” the first time, it was considered inoperable. She received palliative care until the last, put down when she could no longer drink or eat, mentally “in and out” and we did not want her to choke to death under the bed in the night.

Had anyone at the time ever suggested we should have instead sent the money to some third world hell hole to save doomed children destined to hate America if they do reach maturity would have been told to POUND SAND with extreme prejudice. Our pets are full fledged members of our family and, in our opinion, ahead in line to benefit from the “golden rule.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

Second paragraph in my post should have ended: “…will never have.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

However, the Pope minimizes the fact that it is those of “wealth” (especially within the U.S.) that provide the most support for the Church’s outreach and charitable programs, both locally and worldwide.

One should be very careful when admonishing those of wealth (excepting those who achieved wealth through unethical means)while at the same time asking them to provide financial support.

Posted by COindependent | Report as abusive

“Admonishing those of wealth”, as COindependent puts it, is a risky game in that it’s those of wealth who generally hold the power and on whom the church depends on for financial support. However, for an institution with the core purpose of being a pillar of morality, pandering to its funding sources should be of minor importance compared to fighting for justice.

Too often, the Church, whether Catholic or otherwise, focuses on side issues which ultimately are morally trivial. For example, its crusade against homosexuality, which in essence is a crusade against loving relationships, seems trivial compared to so many other issues. Even if God did see it as a sin, then surely a sin which is ultimately a loving one in which no-one is hurt is minor compared to abject poverty, subjugation of minorities or the rife corruption and abuses of power by those who run the planet? If the Church is to be for anyone, it is the oppressed and the voiceless rather than the rich and the powerful. And if a few feathers get ruffled along the way, then that is par for the course, even leaders need to be held to account.

For me, rather than focus on the possible damage to the church’s funding base, it would seem much more constructive to applaud the Pope’s refreshing words on real issues and moves to distance it from past hypocrisies.

Posted by uncoverTheFlaws | Report as abusive