On Poverty and Power

The concern for the poor too often is translated into an excuse for increased governmental power.

“It cannot be doubted that the poor can more easily attain the blessing of humility than those who are rich. In the cases of the poor, the lack of worldly goods is often accompanied by a quiet gentleness, whereas the rich are more prone to arrogance. Nevertheless, many wealthy people are disposed to use their abundance not to swell their own pride but to perform works of benevolence. They consider their greatest gain what they spend to alleviate the distress of others.”
St. Leo the Great, Pope, (d. 461) Sermo #95.

The reading for Sunday, October 14, was the famous passage from Matthew about the rich young man who asked the Lord what he needed to do to possess eternal life (10:17-30). He observed all the commandments. But the Lord told him to sell what he had, give it to the poor, and follow him. He did not do so. John Paul II also used to love to talk on this passage to young men about “what it is all about.” Many things are worth doing other than keeping our riches.

Benedict’s Angelus on this topic is quite instructive. “Jesus teaches that it is most difficult for someone with riches to enter the Kingdom of God, but not impossible.” This “but not impossible” needs a good deal of attention in today’s world. “Riches” have more and more become associated, not with particular rich persons, but with governmental power to take riches through taxation and to redistribute them according to its own criteria which is often contrary to the commandments that the rich young man observed.

Moreover, we have governments going into huge, almost incalculable, debts in order to support welfare and health programs, debts that undermine the whole stability of the financial market. Poverty becomes an excuse not to face the issue of cost and responsibility for what is provided. Many modern states, democratically elected, refuse to face the extravagance of their demands for being taken care of, for being relatively rich, in other words. This government expansion is all done in the name of alleviating the poor.

We have in fact almost fifty percent of our citizens who pay no income taxes at all, though everyone pays sales tax and other such innovations of the government to secure its own financing. We have this situation in a country wherein the poorest are, by any comparative standard, richer than most of the world’s poor.

The Church is “on the side of the poor.” We hear much of a “preferential option for the poor.” Yet, what we do not hear addressed is how to increase wealth so that everyone can be provided for by themselves participating in wealth production. We talk of distribution but not production. That is, we want to “distribute” what already exists, but not increase the total wealth of society so that one group is not seen as opposing the other but all becoming richer, which is what happens in a sound economy.

The concern for the poor too often is translated into an excuse for increased governmental power. The Church has paid far too little attention to this aspect of poverty discussions and far too little to the dangers of such state control of poverty alleviation. Sometimes it is argued that the only way to help the poor is via government subsidies. This is usually the worst way. Government assumes and absorbs the charity role. All government aid to  the poor via entitlements, subsidies, food stamps, or other means comes with a huge political tag that, from a religious point of view, is no longer neutral. We are very obtuse in not realizing this danger.

It is of much interest that Benedict, in 2012, gave the same answer that Pope Leo the Great gave in the fifth century to the question of whether the rich could in fact help the poor. Benedict’s words are almost identical with those of Leo cited above: “The history of the Church is full of examples of rich people,” Benedict observes, “who have used their goods in an evangelical manner, even approaching holiness.”

We live in a time where poverty itself has become more and more politicized. It has too often been made to seem that the only way to help the poor is by government aid, not by enterprise, self-help, charity, and investment. In many ways, the poor have taken the place of God in the modern world. It is not just “helping” the poor, but helping them in a way that demands political involvement and control.

The problem of “riches” that this Gospel of Matthew always brings up looks very different today when trillions of dollars and euros are in the hands of governments to control and distribute according to criteria that have no other basis but political power. The passage in Matthew implied that it was only by God doing “impossible” things that we could deal with the issue of the salvation of the rich. Our governments are now proposing themselves as capable of doing such impossible things.

The original question was whether a rich man could enter the Kingdom of Heaven. The question today is whether a rich society by its taxation distribution laws can, by its irresponsible debt, by its control of what citizens must do to be rich by government distribution, can prevent whole peoples from ever knowing or caring about the Kingdom of God.

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About James V. Schall, S.J. 180 Articles
James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019) taught political philosophy at Georgetown University for many years until retiring in 2012. He was the author of over thirty books and countless essays on philosophy, theology, education, morality, and other topics. His of his last books included On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018 (Ignatius Press, 2018) and The Politics of Heaven and Hell: Christian Themes from Classical, Medieval, and Modern Political Philosophy (Ignatius, 2020).