Clearing the Heart to See the Truth
There’s an interesting story about an unusual problem St. Francis of Assisi had to face once his fame began to spread and followers and disciples had begun to collect around him. It seems some early Franciscans understood Francis as a religious Robin Hood; their error led to them robbing the rich to give to the poor. To counter this threat, Pope Innocent III sought to ordain Francis to the priesthood in order to give the latter greater juridical leverage within the burgeoning community. Although Francis’ humility prevented him from being ordained to the priesthood, he did accept ordination to the diaconate. This, as the story goes, was one of the sets of conditions that initiated not only his official canonical recognition as a religious brother and founder of a community in the Church, but also the codification of the Rule of Life in his order to prevent further abuses.
This story perhaps illustrates not just Francis’ challenge, but also the difficulties Christians had and continue to have regarding the proper Gospel response to the poor. If poverty is the root of social injustices, as his filching friars believed, then a Christian must act, using whatever force is necessary, to alleviate this great evil – even if that should mean robbing from the rich. After all, taking what belongs to another is wrong only of the other possesses it justly. Clearly, this wasn’t exactly what Francis had in mind. In fact, he referred to poverty as ‘Lady Poverty,’ and voluntarily accepted this state in order to reveal to the world the true joy that can be had in possessing God alone. In so doing he made plain his conviction that ridding the world of poverty could not be the Christian’s primary goal.
This story may serve as a parable regarding our current political situation. Although there’s much chatter regarding what is called, ‘the Catholic Vote,’ it’s clear from the polls that Catholics are greatly divided regarding their political choices. This isn’t too surprising when we consider how divided Americans are in general. What is surprising is that Catholics are so divided based on their claimed religious commitments. Catholics voting Democrat are just as likely as those voting Republican to cite religious reasons for their political affiliation. This becomes quite perplexing when one considers that both groups claim to belong to the same religious organization that prides itself on doctrinal clarity and consistency in order to foster a unified social mission. Why then the stark religious motivated disparity for voting Catholics? It may be that the reason for this disparity lies close to the same difficulties Francis had with his followers regarding how a Christian should respond to poverty. A quick assessment between Catholic political affiliations reveals a deep cleavage in this response, one not unlike that present in that of the early Franciscans.
The Catholic approach to politics can be classified, as I see it, into two basic camps: The first sees poverty as the root of all social ills – from abortion to war – and believes it to be the result of various governmental and economic institutions; the second sees poverty as symptomatic of a deeper problem – selfishness – which affects the materially poor and rich alike and is epitomized by sexual immorality. For those in the former camp, poverty can only be effectively overcome through education, the creation of equal opportunities, and the redistribution of wealth. The second camp criticizes such a view as a reductionist and over- simplified response to social evils. In fact, the latter camp believes the former camp’s model will create greater problems than it alleviates. Obviously, such views are diametrically opposed; they cannot, therefore, both legitimately claim to express the Church’s teaching.
Both views claim to be Gospel-centered. In this paper, I argue that the “Selfishness is the Problem” position is centered on the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The “Poverty is the Problem” model is centered on the Gospel of Karl Marx with a touch of Jean-Paul Sartre and Jean-Jacques Rousseau for good measure. It basically stems from secular liberalism, a mindset that seems compassionate and sensitive (and therefore true and good) until we take a hard look at how its thinking actually progresses. It is, I think, something like the following:
1. Individual Freedom of self-determination and self-expression is the highest good. Individual freedom in fact, is essential to all other goods.
2. Poverty is the greatest evil, in that poverty constrains and limits the conditions needed for individual freedoms and self-determining opportunities. Hence, the poor cannot fully develop themselves or determine their lives; on the contrary, their lives are determined by their miserable situation.
3. The problem of poverty is understood as the material ‘haves’ vs. the material ‘have-nots.’
4. The ‘haves’ enjoy their wealth due to opportunity and education of which the ‘have-nots’ have been deprived.
5. The ‘haves’ have demonstrated a selfishness and an unwillingness to share. It is sheer foolishness to wait on them to develop generous impulses.
6. This leaves the ‘have-nots’ with no options – nowhere to turn.
7. Consequently, the government needs to step in and remedy this situation.
8. The government fixes things by securing equal opportunities for the poor, (i.e., underprivileged), by funding education programs and particularly those in the inner city, by taxing the rich and giving it to the poor and developing other ways to distribute wealth more evenly, and by allowing abortion which is indispensable if the poor are to escape their circumstances. Abortion is merely a necessary evil, one required to bring about the greater good of defeating poverty.
9. All of this is confirmed by Christ, who expressly requires his followers to care for the poor. Therefore, since Christ and the demands of self-determination agree in the urgent call to fight poverty, whatever candidate most clearly achieves the above goals must be the superior candidate.
10. Barack Obama is this candidate.
Now, this may sound convincing, but it is wrongheaded at almost every step. Here is why:
First, the goal of life is not freedom as an end; we are not free to do whatever we like and call it good. That was precisely Satan’s temptation to Adam and Eve. In other words, we cannot ultimately determine ourselves; our destiny and the best way of achieving it has already been determined by God. In fact, to reject his plan for us is to reject our own freedom. We can either be a slave to sinfulness, or a free son or daughter of God. In the end, there are no other options save these two. To deny this is the essence of secularism. Secularism is thus incompatible with Catholicism.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) addresses this problem of making an end out of something that is supposed to be a means, which is what happens when we make individual freedom the highest good.
“The inversion of means and ends, which results in giving the value of ultimate end to what is only a means for attaining it [in this case, freedom] or in viewing persons as mere means to that end, engenders unjust structures which make Christian conduct in keeping with the commandments of the divine Law giver difficult and almost impossible.” (#1887)
To make free self-determination the highest goal detached from the moral truth of God, presumes to make man God. It inverts the order of creation
To make free self-determination the highest goal not only inhibits our Christina living, but makes it nearly impossible. It is thus misguided and dangerous.
Next, all can agree that poverty is a great evil, but that doesn’t mean it’s the greatest evil. It’s not worse, for instance, than the removal of God from public discourse, or even than abortion. The Church addresses the issue of poverty in the Catechism of the Catholic Church under the topic of The Seventh Commandment: Thou Shall not Steal. The Ten Commandments are divided loosely into two categories: First, Love and God, then Love of Neighbor. Now issues of poverty are understood to fall under the broader heading of loving one’s neighbor. Since I cannot love my neighbor if he/she does not exist, his/her right to life itself comes first. It should, therefore, be obvious that all social issues dealing with Right to Life or Dignity of Life carry more weight – both morally and logically – than questions of property. Furthermore, human dignity is only well-founded if we believe in a God in whose image and likeness we are created. Thus, caring for the poor makes no sense in a country that suppresses public recognition of the existence of God and does not value the dignity of human life. To vote for a candidate who on the one hand claims to support the poor but who on the other supports the suppression of religious expression and/or violates religious consciences, and who does not support the dignity of human life – this is a project doomed to failure. It wholly fails to recognize the necessary role that belief in God and the dignity of human life have in creating a just society. Without these foundations, society will grew more unjust and poverty will only increase.
Furthermore, if wealth and education are preconditions to human flourishing, we would expect that the wealthy and educated would be more moral and fulfilled than the poor. Would any liberal actually admit that openly? I think not. And certainly no Christian should. Although wealth allows for unique forms of self-determination, (e.g., business opportunities), freedom in the Christian sense exists for the purpose of coming to know and love and serve God and neighbor. This being the case, anyone – rich or poor, educated or ignorant, upper class or lower class – can know the truth and love and serve God and neighbor. The conditions required for the most fundamental of freedoms – to succeed or fail at becoming good – are common to rich and poor; they are not reliant on the presence of or absence of specific material possessions.
Christ’s mission revealed that there is nothing special about being rich and educated; such people do not deserve our envy. The poor are rich in ways the materially rich are not; the uneducated are wise in ways the educated are not. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Mt 5: 3) “For you have hidden these things from the learned and wise and revealed them to the children.”(Lk 10:21.) In other words, the poor and uneducated are more likely to understand what truly matters, whereas the materially wealthy often do not. “It is easier to thread a camel through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Lk 18:25.)
In many ways, the poor and uneducated have an advantage because they are freed from the distractions of the world. Christ’s teaching offers a new perspective on which requirements are the most pressing. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t serve the poor, but it does mean that we are to serve them precisely because Christ identifies with them. (Cf. Mt 25:40.) Thus, to say that you cannot be fulfilled if you do not have money or education (which is implied when poverty is considered the greatest evil) is directly contradicted by the teachings of Christ. “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?…But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well.” (Mt 6: 25; 33.)
Mother Theresa personifies the Gospel understanding of the poor. She was often criticized because she did not seek to end poverty, but rather to love Christ in the poor. For her, poverty was an opportunity of love and witness. For her, this was the essence of the Gospel, and it was because of this life that she was canonized. Dorothy Day, on the other hand, wrote much about and worked to alleviate what she called institutional injustices. She sought social change, but has not yet been declared venerable.
What of the belief that poverty and other social evils are remedied by education? Evil is not the result of lack of education. It is not an intellectual problem. It is a moral problem inherited with the fall. We cannot rid the world of evil simply by ‘educating,’ or ‘rationalizing’ with the evil-doer. There are many evil but well-educated people. The Pharisees in Jesus’ day are prime examples. Nor can we remove evil simply by giving evil people better opportunities at material well-being. This can corrupt them even further. “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve ‘god and mammon.” (Mt 5: 24.) “Love of money is the root of all evil.” (1 Tim 6:10.) It should be obvious but I will state it anyway that a poor person can love money just as much as a rich one.
It is false to assume that human behavior is determined by natural causes like the lack of material wealth. This faulty notion asserts that by discovering the natural causes of problems like poverty, we can then create a system to implement policies and procedures that overcome these causes; once we do that, the thinking goes, the problem will be fixed. This form of ‘determinism’ is not compatible with any belief in the Gospel or in free will. We cannot create social structures that fix human behavior. People are free and fallen. People will choose actions that seem good but are actually bad for them in the end. This is the fallen human condition and is why we need a Savior. Every instance in human history where this faulty belief that politics can fix fallen man has been tried and enacted has failed miserably and proved absolutely disastrous to humanity.
My grandfather once said that if you had a room of ten people and gave them a dollar each and left them for a week, upon returning you would find one guy with ten bucks and everyone else penniless. His point was that different people have different abilities. Some are clever, some are foolish, some are generous, some are lazy, etc. This was his Iowa farm-boy way of explaining at least part of a simple truth of Catholicism, the Principle of Solidarity. The Principle of Solidarity teaches that God does not distribute talents and gifts evenly. (cf. #1936.) Not only does this not make society inherently unjust, but “these differences belong to God’s plan, who wills that each receive what he needs from others, and that those endowed with particular ‘talents’ share the benefits with those who need them. These differences encourage and often oblige persons to practice generosity, kindness, and sharing of goods; they foster the mutual enhancement of cultures…” (# 1937.) Therefore, the desire to give each person ‘equal opportunity’ in order to gain equal social advancement and prosperity is untenable, as God does not give talents equally. Person A and person B may each have the same opportunity but end up with radically different outcomes based on different talents, vices, virtues, etc. What principal of solidarity does make clear is that those who have in abundance are called by Him to share with those who have not. We must encourage the universal vocation of being a Christian, namely, the law of Charity. This law aims primarily at me and my actions. My church and community must encourage me to act charitably towards my neighbor and hold me accountable, and not assume personal charity impossible which is why liberals want government to step in and redistribute wealth.
Lastly, with reference to government, the Church does not hold that government is autonomous from the Kingdom of Heaven, or that it has as its main role that of righting wrongs, but that it should be understood as being an instrument of God in service to the Common Good. “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.” (Rom 13:1)
The Common Good is defined in the CCC as the “sum total of social conditions which allow people to reach their fulfillment (i.e. heaven, not self-determination,) more easily.” #1906. Thus, governmental policies or laws must support the common good, not special interests. The government has as its end the attainment of heaven for its citizens. That is the common good! The purpose of government is not to give me what I want, a complete violation of the common good, but rather to support what is truly good for all, even if that should anger a particular special interest group!
The Church offers this crucial principle in her social doctrine: the Principle of Subsidiarity. This means that “a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but should rather support it in case of need and help to co-ordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good.” (# 1883.) Taking care of the poor is both the role and goal of the bishops, (#886) individual Christians, (#1033, 1435, 1825) Christian families and groups, (#2208) and churches. The Catechism of the Catholic Church has this to say with regard to the government: “Political authority has the right and duty to regulate the legitimate exercise of the right to ownership for the sake of the common good.” (#2406.) Note: for the sake of the common good! The purpose of government is not to give me what I want but to pursue the most effective means of stabilizing society, part of which admittedly involved facilitating poverty alleviation.
To summarize, freedom as the highest good followed by the so-called ‘right to self-determination’ is false and dangerous. This creates a means – freedom – into an end, and makes man God. Only God determines life because only God is the author of life. It is true, we can determine ourselves, but what kind of self are we determining? A slave of sin or a glorified child of the Father? Those are the only two possible choices. We cannot determine ourselves by defining our own good.
Secondly, we cannot reduce all social disorder to poverty, nor is the sole cause of poverty reducible to institutional inequality in wealth distribution, education, and opportunity. To think otherwise ignores the role played by personal sin and selfishness. I do not deny that at times unequal distribution of wealth and lack of education may exacerbate the situation, but is never the sole cause. Poverty is something to be fought, but has many causes, the main one being the existence of evil in the world. This evil is not an intellectual problem and the result of poor education. It is a moral problem and exists inside everyone. There is no human system that will ever fix it. Georges Bernanos once said that, “grace is the only element that can prevent man from being a product of his surroundings.” Our surroundings, since the fall, are evil. Grace, not public education, is the only possible solution.
Lastly, the government operates properly only when it recognizes its relationship to God, the common good, and rules of justice, (like the principles of Solidarity, Subsidiarity, and human dignity.) Only within this context can the government operate towards reducing evils like poverty. Otherwise, it merely creates problems worse than the ones it seeks to fix.
Catholics are poorly catechized in the teachings of their Church, but widely indoctrinated in basic principles of Marxism, which seem Christian because they seem compassionate. Given this, it becomes clearer as to why there exists such disparity in the Catholic vote. The current president does not reflect the teachings of the Catholic Church. Those who claim he does only reveal their lack of familiarity with Catholic social doctrine. One may argue that neither does Romney, but he at least holds to the dignity of life and is against violating religiously formed consciences.
The only solution is evangelization and better catechesis. The need is urgent! Perhaps this article can be the first step in a long but necessary process of reforming the Church.