Do Christians Love Poverty?

Insisting that the only thing the poor need is bread consigns them to a world without signs of transcendence.

oct. 4. (cns photo)
Pope Francis leads a meeting with the poor in the archbishop’s residence in Assisi, Italy, Oct. 4, 2013. The meeting was in the famous "stripping room," where St. Francis stripped off his rich clothes, gave them to his father and began a life of poverty dedicated to Christ. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)


For some time, after listening to much of their rhetoric on the topic, the question has bothered me: Do Christians love poverty as such, as a positive good? Do they want people to be poor so that they can be loveable? Somewhere in my memory, I recall a similar question: If we love our neighbor because we are “commanded” to love him, do we really love him? Or are we just obeying the commandment? Will the person we say we love recognize that what is really going on is that we are gaining points for virtue for ourselves by making it seem like we love him by law? These are questions asked without guile.

Poverty is not just a Christian concern, but also a socialist and a liberal one, though both may have gotten the idea one way or another from Christians. Are the poor the moral basis that justifies the actions of the government or the philanthropists? In lieu of God, does concern for the poor become a substitute for God as the only visible way to prove that we are not just being selfish? In either case, the poor and “options” for them are but tools that rationalize self-centered lives that have no other reason for existing but their own self-esteem.

In the beginning, I would like to affirm that, in my opinion, it is not the purpose of Christianity to make men poor or to keep them that way, granted that riches or wealth can, if not ordered, be morally dangerous. They (“all those beautiful things”) can become, as Augustine reflected, a means to obtain whatever we want. Several Latin American economists have remarked that the reason evangelical Christians make such headway in Latin America is because they perceive the need for discipline, work, virtue, honesty, knowledge, enterprise, and other aspects of learning to become productive—of becoming “not poor.”

Catholics, by contrast, (shades of Max Weber’s famous thesis in Protestantism and the Spirit of Capitalism), seem content with the status quo and with a static distribution or redistribution of existing goods that pits one group against another. The Catholics are not concerned with creating more goods, more wealth. In an honorable and effective way they think in terms of distributing their own, someone else’s, or the state’s limited store of goods, not of producing more goods, of increasing the whole of what is available. Though this thesis about Catholics economically lagging behind was challenged by people like George O’Brien and Amintore Fanfani, they did so by pointing to those Catholics, usually German or northern Italian, who did understand growth and innovation as something that can be learned and put into practice.

No doubt, we can also distinguish between loving or helping the poor persons—real individuals in need here and now—and loving “poverty” as such, an abstraction. It would seem that our love of the poor, in some basic sense, ought to include not just our helping the poor in his immediate needs but mainly inciting his capacity to help himself. We want him not to need us to help him except in the sense that we all need an economic and social system that works for everyone. We want this system to be growing; we do not want a stagnant system which always produces the same or lesser amounts of available goods. We want and need people who do not think solely or mainly in terms of distributing existing goods, which they often conceive to have been ill-gotten simply because someone has more than others.

The poor man is not really much interested in our love of him or his poverty if we do not know how not to be poor. He does not want our love if it strikes him to be, on our part, an exercise in behalf of our private virtue and vanity—“See how I am concerned with the poor!” We do not, furthermore, need good will towards or “love” of poor wrapped around ways of politics or economics that would, if put into practice, only make things worse or more totalitarian for everyone, including the poor. Almost all modern tyranny has ridden to power on a claim, sometimes even a sincere claim, to help the poor. We cannot avoid asking where claims to help the poor actually lead, not just where they say they do. In that sense, claiming to “be on the side of” or to help the poor might well be something both of a Christian heresy and a failure of reason.

The “cause” of poverty elimination, even when sincerely (if not naively) intended, has become too much tied up with political and economic systems that seek complete control over citizens and economy in the name of the “common good” and “social justice.” We cannot just think of the poor or poverty without likewise thinking of freedom, virtue, reason, and experience.


Part of the reason that I bring this issue up is because of a letter I recently received from a Midwestern correspondent whom I have never met. She wrote the following:

I have been reading Anne Carey’s revised book about religious sisters [Sisters in Crisis: Revisited]. They have a very strange attitude toward the poor and the “marginalized.” I’ve noticed—they seem to like them to be poor and marginalized. They seem to want them to stay that way. In the meantime, they themselves, the most educated group of women ever who can pretty much count on being taken care of, can think of themselves as champions of the poor and downtrodden. They are not all like that, of course, I know some really wonderful women who are members of some of the wacky congregations. But there really is a strange dichotomy among many of these.

This bluntly stated observation of an ordinary housewife does not just apply to some religious women from, as it were, “wacky” congregations. Whenever someone, religious or secular, tells us that he wants to “identify” with the poor, especially someone who has little clue about the causes of wealth and poverty, we can suspect that the poor are being used as a cloak to justify a political or personal agenda that needs careful examination.

Both the Old and New Testaments, as well as other literature, are, no doubt, filled with admonitions that urge us to give to and care for the poor. As such, no one can have much of a problem with this admonition. The New Testament also assumes that “the poor will always be with us” (Matt 26:11). In the course of history, two kinds of poverty, as it were, have been distinguished. In part, this distinction had to do with the meaning of what we now call works of “charity.” That is, some people are poor because of natural or accidental defects in intelligence or health, whereby it was impossible for them to care for themselves and their own interests. Someone else had to care for them at least in part. This group was really what Aristotle meant by “slaves,” people by nature or accident who were unable to care for themselves.

The other group contained those who could care for themselves if they had an opportunity to do so. Ideally, they would be able to get themselves out of poverty if they lived in a place or in a system that allowed or encouraged them to do so. Not every economic or political system can or will do this. Mankind’s history reveals a slow learning process whereby lessons are learned. The best intentions in the world or the highest talents and discipline will not work if either the system is disordered or the people are not basically virtuous. Some economic theorists claim, no doubt, that vice, waste, and luxury are the primary motives for growth. And they do cause a certain kind of development.

Let us ask, however, why did God give us a world in which all things were not provided to us by nature? We can best answer this query by affirming that God intended for us to learn by ourselves how to take the raw earth and transform it into something that served our transcendent purposes. The greater good was not that everything was provided for us with no input of our own. The greater good was that we actually had something to learn and do, something that included our responsibility to others and to what works. That is why we were given reason and time, nothing much else but a planet and cosmos full of riches if we could but learn of them.

We have to think of these two groups in different ways. The first group will always need someone else to care for them. The latter will not, if they learn or are taught how not to be poor. Laziness and sloth are real negative factors. When religion confuses these two groups, it identifies itself with the poor in the second sense as if they were poor in the first sense. They will look on the poor as permanently in a condition of need. The justification for one’s religious life is then to “care” for the poor rather than discover ways to teach the poor not to be poor.


If we add to this mix the issue of the vow of “poverty,” we find, along with the classic philosophers like Socrates, a voluntary choice not to be rich, not to be bothered by the cares that having wealth of whatever size may bring. This choice did not mean that those with vows of poverty did not themselves need enough riches to care for themselves. It meant that they were free to do myriads of other worthy things like philosophizing or, if they chose, assisting those who were poor. St. Benedict, in a famous phrase, said that the monks are both to pray and to work. St. Ignatius said that we can pray in anything we do. Later economists have realized that this monastic working and not spending was the origin of savings. By being poor, they became rich. This wealth enabled further growth to take place, a growth that built some of the most beautiful places on our planet.

One other caution needs to be added here. The distinction of wealth and poverty is not necessarily a distinction between good people and bad. We can find robbers and cheats among the poor and among the rich, as we can find virtue among both. Poverty, furthermore, is relative and must usually be thought in the context of envy. One’s sense of one’s own poverty does usually have something to do with “keeping up with the Jonses.” The transportation union of the BART system in San Francisco talked of a strike even if they were among the highest paid workers in the country. The poor in the United States or Europe, while still “feeling” poor, have more income and facilities at their disposal than many of those thought to be rich in the rest of the world. Moreover, poverty is not the only cause of civic unsettlement. The Muslim world, in spite of huge oil revenues, is one of the poorest areas in the world. This largely is a result of ideas. The main Islamic concern is not to be rich but to establish the law of Mohammed everywhere so that Allah will be praised.

In conclusion, I want to return to issue of the Christian relation to poverty and the poor. But first let me note one school of thought that we hear of whenever anyone wants to build something noble or beautiful. We suddenly hear cries, first spoken by Judas, that “It would better to use the money for the poor” (Jn 13:29). This is the passage in Scripture designed to show that poverty was not always the most important thing to consider. It has always been my contention that money spent on beautiful things is money spent for the poor. The poor have need of beauty as much as they do bread. And if we insist that the only thing the poor need in their poverty is bread, we will not only insult the poor who can appreciate beauty but we will lock him into a world with no signs of transcendence. The alternative is not beauty or helping the poor, but both. It is always worth meditation for economists and theologians to wonder how small towns of two or three thousand inhabitants—poor people by our standards—managed over the course of centuries to build some of the most beautiful things in the world. Henry Adams talked of this in speaking of the Virgin and the Dynamo.

My main thesis, however, is that Catholic social thought should shift the direction of its rhetoric in dealing with any issue concerning the poor. It should not primarily stress the Christian’s associating himself with the poor or looking like he is poor, as if the poor man wants everyone to be destitute and is delighted to see well-off folks joining them. The religious emphasis needs to be more oriented to teaching how not to be poor. It ought to realize that the first step in this change of emphasis is to rid itself of the idea that redistribution of existing goods is nothing but a revolutionary method that would really make everyone poor. Again, the purpose of Christianity is not to make everyone poor. It must learn to understand profit, markets, and innovation as the primary way to enable the poor, by their own efforts, to become not poor. The poor are not really helped by well-meaning souls who identify with them but who have only confused or detrimental ideas about wealth production.

One final thought seems worth making. The only real resource in the world is the human brain. It is not oil, or material goods, or location. It is true that human intelligence is itself designed to know and deal with what exists in the world. The world is intended to be a place for man wherein he can become through his own enterprise more fully what he ought to be. The virtue of charity, the need to give of one’s abundance, includes the learning how to think and learn what works and what does not. Aristotle had long ago remarked that men need a certain amount of wealth and goods to be virtuous. That is the kind of being we are. They also, having the goods, need a similar amount of virtue. They need to reject vice and corruption.

The worst thing that can happen to Christianity (itself responsible for much of the grounding of science in its teaching about the existence of a real world with secondary causality in it) is to associate itself or be associated with the love of poverty in such a way that Christians seem to want everyone to be poor and thus take no workable steps to make it otherwise. Many seem to think that, by claiming to be on the side of the poor, the poor will be grateful and will reconnect with Christianity. I for one doubt this result. How one is perceived does make a difference, no doubt. The poor, however, usually see where such sympathies lead, to political and ideological control in the name of poverty alleviation. In this area, we have little room for deluding ourselves. Much of world poverty has in fact been reduced or alleviated, as a recent essay in The Economist has shown. Christians often seem not to know that this change has happened or why it happened.

One last point is worth making. The “urgency” of poverty alleviation often makes it seem that the main purpose of the Church in this world is horizontal—that by attending to this issue, it will at the same time fulfill its main purpose. But the Church exists to lead us to a transcendent end, poor and rich alike. Modern thought has often been an effort to substitute this transcendent end for an inner-worldly one as if making a better world here and now were what it was all about. Salvation comes into the world whether the world is perfect or not. Christianity holds that the poor qua poor have as good a chance of reaching beatitude as the rich qua rich, probably a better one. Unless this end is understood, no amount of discussion of wealth and poverty in this world will make much difference. But when the question of the poor does arise, as it should, the main question should not be identification with it, but what really alleviates their condition.

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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).