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                                             Poverty versus Destitution

by Philip Trower


       I’m sure that at some time or other you have enjoyed the experience of hearing an idea you are attached to confirmed by some highly qualified public figure.  It isn’t a matter of intellectual vanity.  It’s more a matter of relief.  ‘Thank goodness, I didn’t get it wrong after all’.


      In my case the most recent experience had to do with an idea which now seems to be widespread among Catholics and Christians generally.  Followers of Our Lord, it is said, are by definition committed to abolishing world poverty.  Leaving aside the question as to whether this is possible, it should be the final goal of the pursuit of justice and peace and world history generally.          


      But is it?  Or should it be?   From the first time I came across the idea I felt uncomfortable with it.  Where in the Gospels is there anything suggesting that this is what Our Lord had in mind when he spoke about poverty?  It is true we have the awesome parable of Dives and Lazarus to keep us from neglecting our duties towards the destitute.  But elsewhere he calls the poor blessed and tells us we shall always have them with us.


      So you can imagine my relief when I found the idea being questioned by no less a person than Cardinal Sarah, the prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments in Rome, who himself came from a very poor family in Guinea, West Africa.


       “I remember being disgusted,” he writes in his book God or Nothing, “when I heard the advertising slogan of a Catholic charitable organisation, which was almost insulting to the poor: ‘Let us fight for zero poverty.’  Not one saint --- and God alone knows the tremendous number of saints of charity the Church has brought forth in two thousand years --- ever dared to speak that way about poverty and poor people…. The Church must not fight against poverty but, rather, wage a battle against destitution, especially material and spiritual destitution.”  No matter how well meant, “the slogan  repects neither the Gospel nor Christ.” 


       To be strongly recommended, God or Nothing, published by Ignatius Press, is that new type of book, the interview-autobiography. The subtitle is A Conversation on Faith with Nicolas Diat.  But we also learn a lot about the Cardinal’s life too.


        However before quoting His Eminence any further, I would like to look at the idea of abolishing poverty in a somewhat broader context. 


        Humanly it is understandable.  It is easy to make the mistake of thinking that happiness depends on having at least as much as we ourselves have in spite of the evidence to the contrary. We would also feel more comfortable with what we have if there was nobody with less.


        As a result, from what I often hear or read,  it seems to me that many Catholics now believe the goal of history as willed by God involves turning the whole world into the equivalent of a prosperous western middle-class suburb where incomes are roughly equal,  comforts and conveniences the same, science has overcome physical and psychological suffering, and evil or wrong-doing is controlled or has been eradicated by education, the right kind of political institutions and good legislation.  This, of course, is just the earthly utopia of the fathers of the 18th century enlightenment; the climax of progress or climax of  human history. 


         Not everything the enlightenment fathers said was wrong.  Some of its ideas had Christian roots, and a large part of the reform movement preceding and following Vatican II has been a matter of sorting the good from the bad or the allowable from the unallowable in the enlightenment legacy.  However, prominent among the unallowable things, from the Church’s standpoint, is the enlightenment view of the end times.


        For the children of the enlightenment there is no Last Day.  When everything they see as bad has been overcome there will be a perfect world for all eternity. For the Church, on the other hand, there is, of course a Last Day and sin and evil will only finally be overcome after it.  Meanwhile the pursuit of justice and peace together with the preaching of the Gospel requires the children of the Church to make the world spiritually and materially as much according to the mind of God as possible given the existence of human weakness and fallibility.  The difference between the two standpoints is the difference between those who believe in the possibility of building a better world and those who believe in the possibility of a perfect world.


          At this point Gaudium et Spes, that is the Council’s Pastoral Constitution in the Modern World helps to clarify the implications of the difference.  The relevant sections are sections 36-39.  While telling us that earthly progress “in so far as it can contribute to the better ordering of human society is of vital concern to the kingdom of God”, it also insists that earthly progress “must be carefully distinguished from the growth of Christ’s Kingdom.”  At the same time it is equally insistent, that neither are going to reach completion or fulfilment this side of the Last Day. 


         “While it is our duty” it says, “ to develop on earth the values of human dignity, brotherhood and freedom, and indeed all the good things that can come from our nature and our activity,” this will only be fully realised “when Christ hands over to his Father the everlasting and universal kingdom.” Until then, to quote Pope Leo XIII, one of the founding fathers of the Church’s contemporary social teaching, “to suffer and endure…is the lot of humanity.  Let them try as they may, no strength and no artifice will ever succeed in banishing from human life the ills and troubles which beset it.”


           In the meantime, however, the Church wants us to co-operate with those she now calls ‘people of good will’ in making  life on earth and the earth itself as much according to the mind of God as possible. Such is her current teaching.  But she wants us to do this without falling into the illusion that we can create a utopia.  Nor must we ignore the fact that many of the assumptions and objectives of our contemporaries about what it should be like and how to get there, no matter how well meant, are incompatible with Catholic teaching e.g. abortion and euthanasia. 




          We can now return to Cardinal Sarah.  The passages I am going to quote will be found on pages 140-143 of God or Nothing.


        “There is a fundamental distinction,” he tells us “between destitution and poverty,” and “we do not have the right to confuse them because in doing so we would be seriously going against the Gospel….Poverty is a biblical value confirmed by Christ.”


        “As president of the Pontifical Council Cor Unum, I devoted my days to fighting destitution, particularly on the most distressing fronts in the world.   This was a demanding struggle to bring first aid to those who no longer had anything: no food or clothing or education.”  But there was spiritual destitution too.  “In my prayer I often think of the destitution….of those who have no human consideration.”


         There is also religious destitution.   “In the fight against destitution there is one fundamental distinction which consists of restoring to man his vocation as a child of God and his joy in belonging to the family of God.  If we do not include the religious aspect, we fall into a kind of philanthropy or secular humanitarian activity that forgets the Gospel….  I always marvel when Gaudium et Spes declares ‘The spirit of poverty and charity is the glory and witness of the Church of Christ” (GS 88)   


          “ Pope Francis, in his yearly Lenten message in 2014, distinguishes between moral destitution, spiritual destitution, and material destitution,” spiritual destitution being the most serious “because man is cut off from his natural source which is God…..Let us not forget the magnificent, heartfelt cry of our Pope when he declared to journalists from all over the world on March 16th 2013….  ‘Oh, how I wish for a Church that is poor and for the poor’.” 


          “I often think of the vow of poverty taken by our religious.  Does our world still know that the men and women who pronounce it do so in order to be as close as possible to Christ? ….The ‘zero poverty’ program liquidates and  physically eliminates the vows of religious and priests.”


          “Mankind has never been so rich, yet it reaches astounding heights of moral and spiritual destitution because of the poverty of our interpersonal relationships and the globalization of indifference….The poor person is someone who knows that by himself he cannot live.  He needs God and other people….On the contrary, rich people expect nothing of anyone….In this sense wealth can lead to great sadness…and terrible spiritual poverty.”


           “The language of the UN and its agencies who want to suppress poverty, which they confuse with destitution, is not that of the Church of Christ…. The Son of God loves the poor, others intend to eradicate them.”


             Asked by his interlocutor whether he was not afraid of being misunderstood in employing this sort of distinction, the Cardinal replied: “It is a lack of charity to remain silent in the face of confusing words and slogans!”


            His Eminence had plenty opportunities for exercising this kind of charity  when he was Archbishop of Conakry, the capital of Guinea,and the communist dictator was Sekou Toure who was running the country.


          To all this we can add the fact that since 1979 the magisterium has been endorsing the statement that the Church has ‘a preferential option for the poor’.  (See St John Paul II’s address to the third general conference of the Latin American Bishops in that year.)         



           Before coming to end I would like to return briefly to the subject of justice and peace and the formation of more just societies.   

          Good institutions and laws are certainly of the greatest importance. The passing of the
habeas corpus act in England in 1679 is a good example of how much they can achieve.  But no matter how good the laws and institutions of a country may be, you won’t have a just society for long unless a high percentage of the men and women running or participating in it are just too.  The key question, therefore, is how you form just men and women. 


         Will teaching the rules of just behaviour, or supposedly just behaviour, and seeing that they are enforced be enough by itself ?  Surely not.  We have the history of the Soviet Union to show us what happens when an attempt is made to impose absolute justice by diktat from the top down according to an intellectual theory.  Any attempt to form just men and women which overlooks the dimension of the heart can,  in the end only produce pedants, busybodies, taskmasters or tyrants --- no matter how well-intentioned.    


         I am not talking about the heart in any sentimental sense.  I am talking about the heart as it is revealed to us in the devotions to the Sacred and Immaculate Hearts of Our Lord and Our Lady; the heart as the centre of the human soul, the seat of wisdom and love.  Can we have just societies without the proper formation of this key organ and how and where can that be done ?  These seem to me the key questions.


        The state of a man or woman’s heart, not their level of intelligence or intellect, determines the kind of person they fundamentally are.  The formation of hearts or right-heartedness is therefore central to the formation of just societies, the family being the main and natural milieu designed by God for this purpose.  From this it follows that every piece of legislation or cultural trend which undermines the family is an obstacle to the promotion of justice and peace.


        To quote Gaudium et Spes again, “The fundamental law of human perfection and therefore of the transformation of the world is the new commandment of love.” (G.&S. 38)


Copyright © Philip Trower 2016

Version: 9th September 2016

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