Pope Francis makes addressing poverty essential

Pope Francis at a home in the Varginha slum in Rio de Janeiro on July 25.

‘How many poor people there still are in the world! And what great suffering they have to endure!” With these words the new pope explained to international diplomats assembled at the Vatican on March 22 why he chose the name Francis at the moment of his election. And since then Pope Francis has unswervingly pointed to the scandal of poverty in a world of plenty as a piercing moral challenge for the church and the whole human community.

In part, the pope’s message has called us to personal conversion, speaking powerfully to each of us about how we let patterns of materialism captivate our lives and distort our humanity. In a disarming way, Francis seeks to make us all deeply uncomfortable, so that in our discomfort we may recognize and confront the alienation from our own humanity that occurs when we seek happiness in objects rather than in relationship with God and others.

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Francis’ message also has been an invitation to cultural conversion, laying bare the three false cultures that materialism has created in our world: the culture of comfort that makes us think only of ourselves; the culture of waste that seizes the gifts of the created order only to savor them for a moment and then discard them; and the culture of indifference that desensitizes us to the suffering of others, no matter how intense, no matter how sustained. Pope Francis’ words about the “globalization of indifference” echo the poignant observation of Pope Benedict in his encyclical “Charity in Truth” (2009): “As society becomes ever more globalized, it makes us neighbors but does not make us brothers.”

And finally, the pope’s message has been one of structural reform in the world. In June Francis explained: “A way has to be found to enable everyone to benefit from the fruits of the earth, and not simply to close the gap between the affluent and those who must be satisfied with the crumbs falling from the table.” Francis has made clear that the present economic slowdown cannot be an excuse for inaction. Rather, there must immediately commence “a new stimulus to international activity on behalf of the poor, inspired by something more than mere goodwill, or, worse, promises which all too often have not been kept.”

Both the substance and methodology of Pope Francis’ teachings on the rights of the poor have enormous implications for the culture and politics of the United States and for the church in this country. These teachings demand a transformation of the existing Catholic political conversation in our nation, a transformation reflecting three themes: prioritizing the issue of poverty, focusing not only on intrinsic evils but also on structural sin, and acting with prudence when applying Catholic moral principles to specific legal enactments.

Prioritize Poverty

The depth of the moral responsibility of the United States to fight global poverty arises from the tremendous power that our country exerts in the world economy. More than any other nation, the United States has the capacity to influence trading relationships, the availability of capital and market conditions. If Francis’ vision of a world with truly just trading and financial structures is to be realized, then the United States and Europe must take a leading role in reforming the existing rules that so often victimize incipient markets in staggeringly poor countries.

In addition, the United States and the richest nations of the world community have a moral responsibility to share from their plenty with the poorest peoples in the human family. In 2002 the wealthy nations of the world pledged to direct 0.7 percent of their gross domestic product toward the alleviation of dire poverty by the year 2015. This level of investment would largely eliminate severe poverty on the planet. However, the United States and most of the other leading economic powers have reneged on their commitment; today the United States only gives 0.2 percent of its gross domestic product in development assistance. As a result, millions of children die each year from disease and malnutrition that could be prevented. This is social sin, arising from individual decisions. This is the visible presence of a “global culture of indifference” that lets us avert our eyes while our governments consciously make choices to reinforce our culture of comfort while ignoring the countless human lives lost as a consequence.

Within the United States, we also turn our eyes away from the growing domestic inequality that ruins lives and breaks spirits. Pope Francis speaks directly to this: “While the income of a minority is increasing exponentially, that of the majority is crumbling. This imbalance results from ideologies which uphold the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation, and thus deny the right of control to States, which are themselves charged with providing for the common good.” The United States, which for so much of its great history has stood for economic mobility and a broad, comfortable middle class, now reflects gross disparities in income and wealth and barriers to mobility. The poor suffer a “benign neglect” in our political conversations, and absorb brutal cuts in governmental aid, especially at the state level.

If the Catholic Church is truly to be a “church for the poor” in the United States, it must elevate the issue of poverty to the very top of its political agenda, establishing poverty alongside abortion as the pre-eminent moral issues the Catholic community pursues at this moment in our nation’s history. Both abortion and poverty countenance the deaths of millions of children in a world where government action could end the slaughter. Both abortion and poverty, each in its own way and to its own degree, constitute an assault on the very core of the dignity of the human person, instrumentalizing life as part of a throwaway culture. The cry of the unborn and the cry of the poor must be at the core of Catholic political conversation in the coming years because these realities dwarf other threats to human life and dignity that confront us today.

Structural Sin

Another part of the needed transformation in Catholic political conversation is a renewed focus on structural sin. In pursuing many vital elements of the common good, structural sin is actually more relevant than sins of intrinsic evil.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines the common good as “the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment fully and more easily.” There are three elements in the common good: respect for the fundamental and inalienable rights of the human person, the social well being and development of society, and the stability and security of a just order. The common good is primarily accomplished by the variety of social institutions—family, religious communities, economic enterprises, labor unions and service organizations—that lie outside of government. But a crucial element of the common good falls to government for its realization. John Courtney Murray, S.J., called this element “the public order.”

The mission of the Catholic community within the public order in the United States is to move in a comprehensive way to focus government on the enhancement of human rights, the development of society and social peace. Part of that movement must address issues of intrinsic evil—acts that can never be justified regardless of intentions and circumstances—like murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia, racism, torture, suicide and slavery.

Intrinsically evil acts are always and everywhere wrong, but not all intrinsically evil acts fall within the scope of the public order and the role of government. Intrinsically evil acts like adultery and blasphemy are always wrong, but they do not lie within the jurisdiction of government. Some intrinsically evil acts, like racism, lie partly within the scope of government and partly outside. Racial discrimination in housing or unemployment must be legally proscribed, but contemptible racism expressed in private conversation generally should not. Finally, there are acts of intrinsic evil so grave and so contrary to the role of law in society that opposition to them is absolutely central to the Catholic mission of seeking the common good. Abortion and euthanasia are such issues because they involve the most fundamental duty of government to prevent the taking of innocent human life.

It is crucial to fully recognize the nature of intrinsic evil and its relationship to the common good. In recent years, however, some arguments have been broadly advanced in Catholic political conversation proposing that issues pertaining to intrinsically evil acts automatically have priority in the public order over all other issues of grave evil, like poverty, war, unjust immigration laws and the lack of restorative justice in the criminal justice system. This has the effect of labeling these other crucial issues of Catholic social teaching “optional” in the minds of many Catholics.

The statements of Pope Francis on poverty demonstrate why issues of intrinsic evil do not automatically have priority in advancing the common good. The category of intrinsic evil is vital in identifying the exceptionless evil inherent in certain types of actions. Poverty, however, is not a one-time action. It is the result of countless specific human actions with varying degrees of responsibility that give rise to social structures and practices imbued with selfishness and evil. The category of intrinsic evil cannot capture the type of entrenched evil inherent in poverty. Yet Francis clearly teaches that alleviating the grave evil of poverty must be at the very heart of the church’s mission. It is neither optional nor secondary.

Like war, the exploitation of undocumented immigrants and our distorted system of criminal justice, poverty is a structural sin rooted in the very life of society and government. Structural sin constitutes the effect of personal sins that collectively create social situations and institutions fundamentally opposed to divine goodness.

Pope Francis attested poignantly to the reality and the impersonality of structural sin when he visited Lampedusa, where hundreds of undocumented immigrants died in a shipwreck while seeking a new life in Italy. “Who is responsible for the blood of these brothers and sisters of ours?” Francis asked. “Nobody! That is our answer. It isn’t me; I don’t have anything to do with it; it must be someone else, but certainly not me. Yet God is asking each of us: ‘Where is the blood of your brother that cries out to me?’”

Some essential elements for advancing the common good pertain to opposing intrinsically evil acts. Some pertain to issues of structural sin. And others, as “The Splendor of Truth” (1993) reminds us, fall under the category of accomplishing great goods, like the profoundly beautiful vision of social solidarity advanced by Pope John Paul II or the pioneering reflections on stewardship and creation that Pope Benedict XVI brought to the world. There is no single category of sin or evil, social good or virtue, that is the filter for discerning the priorities of the church in the public order. The concept of the common good is multidimensional in its very nature, and any reductionist effort to minimize this quality is a distortion of our heritage and teaching.

Role of Prudence

The role of prudence has been one of the most misused elements in the Catholic political conversation in the United States in recent years. It is frequently asserted, particularly in election years, that issues pertaining to intrinsic evils do not necessitate prudential judgment, while other grave evils like war, poverty or the unjust treatment of immigrants are merely prudentially laden issues on which people of good will can disagree.

The truth is that prudence is a necessary element of any effort to advance the common good through governmental action. Moving from even the clearest moral principle to specific legislation or administrative action involves questions of strategy, prioritization and practicality. Even then, no law or program can ever encapsulate the clarity and fullness of the original moral principle.

Consider the issue of abortion, which represents probably the least complex application of clear and compelling Catholic moral principle to law. It is clear that Catholic teaching demands robust and effective legal sanctions against abortion. But should the law criminalize abortion for the mother or for those performing the abortion? Alternatively, should there be noncriminal sanctions? What is the best pathway to outlawing abortion: a series of graduated proposals beginning with parental notification and prohibitions on late-term abortion, or an immediate full court press for comprehensive prohibitions? These are questions on which people of good will can disagree in full accord with Catholic teaching, since all of these approaches seek to achieve the core principle that the law should protect the life of the unborn. Thus this is wholly different from the candidate who refuses to vote for any legal restrictions on abortion and argues that he is in fact doing more to reduce abortions by his support for aid to the poor and health care programs. Such a candidate has rejected the core substance contained in the Catholic teaching on abortion and civil law.

So it is with the issue of poverty. The core teaching of the church on the role of government in combating poverty declares that in addition to promoting conditions that provide meaningful jobs for their citizens, nations must provide a humane threshold of income, health benefits and housing. Just as important, as Pope Francis has repeatedly taught, wealthy nations must work ardently to reduce gross inequalities of wealth within their borders and beyond. Accomplishing these goals requires a series of complex prudential decisions about financial structures, incentives for wealth creation and income support programs that enhance rather than undermine family life. Many different types of choices are compatible within a full commitment to Catholic teachings on economic justice.

But choices by citizens or public officials that systematically, and therefore unjustly, decrease governmental financial support for the poor clearly reject core Catholic teachings on poverty and economic justice. Policy decisions that reduce development assistance to the poorest countries reject core Catholic teachings. Tax policies that increase rather than decrease inequalities reject core Catholic teachings. The nature and tone of Pope Francis’ declarations on poverty and evil in the world powerfully convey that while prudence is necessary in the formulation of economically just policies, the categorical nature of Catholic teaching on economic justice is clear and binding.

The teachings of Pope Francis on “a church for the poor” not only speak to the centrality of addressing poverty as an imperative for Catholics in the public order, but also call us to look anew at the nature of the common good in society and how we seek to achieve it. We are called to see the issues of abortion and poverty, marriage and immigrant rights, euthanasia and war, religious liberty and restorative justice, not as competing alternatives often set within a partisan framework, but as a complementary continuum of life and dignity. We are called to create a Catholic political conversation that proclaims the greatest problems of our day can only be solved with a vision rooted in the transcendent dignity of the human person. For in the end, the very purpose of Catholic political conversations is to help our nation see human suffering and human striving not through the lens of politics but as God sees them.

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RICHARD DUBIEL
5 years 11 months ago
The intrinsic evil that is not mentioned is giving aid to the poor without including family planning. The Catholic Church loves the poor so much that it doesn't want to be in short supply. With 70-90 million more people being added to the planet every year we'll be sure to have enough poverty to go around. When I see population being discussed, I'll know the Church is serious. Richard Dubiel
Raymond Dombkiewicz
5 years 11 months ago
I have a great idea for Rick, the PhD. Let’s encourage the Church and Laity to transfer all their wealth to the UN, the Gates Foundation, Planned Parenthood, and other similar population control outfits in order to foster programs that eradicate the poor, ignorant, and otherwise unproductive members of society through contraception and abortion, especially in countries like “darkest” Africa; and to do it in such a way that the indigenous populations will love each minute of their “voluntary” genocide. Think of the money you save! Then, when there are no more classes of sub-humans to worry about, all you need do is set up a compliance division to spot unwanted infestations and send out the shock troops to exterminate the pests. That will give you plenty of free time to sit around and play jacks and snort your favorite mind-numbing drugs. What a grand utopia liberals, including Catholic liberals, fantasize through division and conquest and they call it “love.” How Christian of you. Rubbish!
Cath Sarah
5 years 11 months ago
God said to be fruitful and multiply, not to "family plan". Most of the earth is uninhabited, and resources can never be used up, because God is our source.
Marie Rehbein
5 years 11 months ago
Resources can be misused so that they will kill humans. Do not confuse survival of the species in some form with survival of individuals. God made humans stewards of the earth and gave them free will, so it is entirely possible that they can destroy the environment to their own detriment.
Stanley Kopacz
5 years 11 months ago
Surface area of earth: 4 * π * (6400 kilometer)^2 Divide by 6 to obtain land area. These numbers haven't changed appreciably for 6 billion years. Much of the land area is desert or cold, either uninhabitable or barely inhabitable. If you wear a hat with dirt on it, it won't grow enough food for you to live on. Please consider these basic facts. Also, the proposition that God will bail us out no matter what dumb thing we do, I believe that was made by the devil to Jesus. One more thing, if capitalism and the free market is the demigod addition to the Holy Trinity that some here seem to imply then it behooves people to have fewer children. By reducing the number of workers, their free market value will increase, thus bringing them prosperity.
Cath Sarah
5 years 11 months ago
As for the dire predictions about overpopulation, they have been around since the late 1800s and none of them have come true. Here is more information on why they are wrong: http://overpopulationisamyth.com/overpopulation-the-making-of-a-myth God made people innovative and we adapt in order to survive. Yes, he gave us the free will and we will reap the consequences individually. If we destroy the environment and kill ourselves off, it will be because we deserved it. I think we are at a far higher risk of doing that because of immoral behavior than because we don't kill babies or drive cars.
Stanley Kopacz
5 years 11 months ago
Sometimes doctors predict death and it doesn't happen. But one day, nonetheless, they will be right. Extrapolation from the past can be fallacious. If I used my first eighteen years to predict up to my present age of 65, my present height would be over 6 meters. But there are limits. Even to innovation.
Ed Hawkins
5 years 10 months ago
" If we destroy the environment and kill ourselves off, it will be because we deserved it. I think we are at a far higher risk of doing that because of immoral behavior than because we don't kill babies or drive cars." Oy veh! Such a Hebrew Scripture God you have!!! Shades of Sodom and Lot's wife! Echoes of Reverends Robertson and Falwell. The laws of nature are being transgressed because we "drive [entirely too many] cars" and use entirely too much poison in our modern self-centered lives. God will not destroy the planet because of "immorality." The planet will be destroyed because of the sin of presumption: the "Christian" belief that we can do anything to the planet and God will clean up our mess. Stewardship is based on love and respect for all of God's creation.
laura sabath
5 years 11 months ago
Another article by Bishop McElroy that i appreciate greatly. Still, i would have liked to see war more emphasized. I see it as an ignored factor in increasing unborn deaths (unborn of dead, injured or over-stressed mothers with miscarriages, and other deaths of unborn when mothers die of hunger, sewage mixed with water, exposure, lack of medical care, etc). There is also the permanently increasing poverty caused by war through the destruction of land's ability to grow crops and other things that reduce the capacity of the earth to sustain populations of people. There is the destruction of essential, irreplaceable resources (think of forests that hold back floods) by overuse that the war-created poverty now adds to that done by existing poverty. Poverty is closely tied to permanent degradation of creation that we all depend on to have a health-supporting, life-supporting place to live. I first became acquainted with his writing in his highly significant article War without End, http://americamagazine.org/issue/765/article/war-without-end, and look forward to his future articles.
laura sabath
5 years 11 months ago
Let me add to my own comment. I first became acquainted with his writing in his highly significant article War without End, http://americamagazine.org/issue/765/article/war-without-end, and look forward to his future articles.
David Ritchie
5 years 11 months ago
There is a real difference between the "victims" of poverty and the victims of abortion. Poverty "victims" often receive many thousands of dollars in government aid and have a right to vote that many politicians court assiduously. Just look at the ACA and the EIC, to mention just two examples of Governmental "preferences for the poor." The victims of abortion by contrast are essentially "motherless children" because their mothers are looking to kill them at their first opportunity and politicians are more interested in the mother's vote than in the child's. Simply put, aborted children will never have a vote and can therefore safely be ignored by the Democrat Party. So, equating the two issues and treating them as equal--particularly in the "I'll give you this, if you give me that" culture of American politics--is likely to keep the abortion victims very much in the "motherless child" category. Indeed, the child about to be aborted would now become a "motherless AND CHURCHLESS child."
Marie Rehbein
5 years 11 months ago
To Cath Sarah: you wrote, "get more people dependent on them so that they will vote for the people who give them the most" Do you watch a lot of Fox News? It seems you didn't read the quotes I provided. Most people do not stay on welfare, but those who do have no marketable skills due most likely to having had children too young. You might want to suggest that more job training be part of the program. However to characterize its availability and proper funding as a big plot to make people dependent is pure Libertarian nonsense.
Don Roberto Hill
5 years 10 months ago
To my mind the good bishop goes too far when he says that “Tax policies that increase rather than decrease inequalities reject core Catholic teachings.” While gross inequality usually leads to power imbalances, injustice, and strife, we need a more meaningful explanation of why inequality per se is an urgent problem. He is on firm footing, though, when he says that poverty leads to “the deaths of millions of children in a world where government action could end the slaughter… [constituting] an assault on the very core of the dignity of the human person, instrumentalizing life as part of a throwaway culture. The cry of the unborn and the cry of the poor must be at the core of Catholic political conversation…” The Church does teach that government has a role in combating poverty and that “nations must provide a humane threshold [italics added] of income, health benefits and housing” (not the same amount of material goods). I admit I only have a vague notion of how systemic problems can be so harmful to the common good as to require the remedy to be at the top of our agenda. But I suppose it is not outrageous to argue that one should “see the issues of abortion and poverty, marriage and immigrant rights, euthanasia and war, religious liberty and restorative justice, not as competing alternatives often set within a partisan framework, but as a complementary continuum of life and dignity.” Sin begets sin, and root causes of evil cannot be ignored.
Don Roberto Hill
5 years 10 months ago
In considering this further, I pray Bishop McElroy didn't mean it in its most literal form when he said, “Tax policies that increase rather than decrease inequalities reject core Catholic teachings.” Even most 'Liberation Theologians' would not go as far as this particular statement. Perhaps, if pressed, he would refine or qualify this particular statement, e.g., "As things stand in the world today [where the super wealthy invent ever more outrageous entertainments to fend off boredom, purchasing even human organs and enjoying access to legal assistance and decision makers at the highest levels that the average citizen can only dream of, while millions of God's children lack even what those in the "middle class" give to their dogs], policies which tend to further ratchet up inequalities must be carefully analyzed in light of core Catholic teaching..." Otherwise, the statement is problematic. Poverty leads to every manner of sin, including abortion and war, but one of the greatest sources of unhappiness and sin is envy and covetousness. Many people are happy until the day they realize they lack things that others possess.
Jim Lein
5 years 10 months ago
Things like food?
Jim Lein
5 years 10 months ago
The bishop did not espouse a worst-sin theology. In discussing the evils of abortion and of poverty, he mentioned the connection between poverty and abortion (with poverty increasing the number of abortions), but he did not mention the difficult either/or choice voters faced in 2008 and 2012. In 2008, after reading the bishops' voter guidelines, I at first decided not to vote Republican -- because of their wanting to cut pro-choice welfare benefits for the poor. (In the 1930s during the Great Depression, abortion rates were higher than now; with a population of 125 million there were some years when an estimated million abortions or more were performed.) My second decision was not to vote at all. Eventually I decided to vote Democratic. It seemed better to prevent an increase in abortions (as had happened after the 1996 welfare cuts) and maybe help reduce the number with a better safety net than to vote for those who favored further anti-life welfare cuts and who had talked only talked about overturning the national abortion law for 35 years. With our two major party system, I followed the bishops' guidelines in 2008 and 2012. With Pope Francis it seems possible for both sides to contribute and not to be adversaries but partners working together on a problem from different perspectives. In the last two decades or so before Francis, It did seem there was a worst sin theology and that if you didn't march and condemn and if you voted democratic, you were part of the problem and not part of the solution.
Jim Lein
5 years 10 months ago
I pray the bishop did mean what he said about taxes. The wealthy of the Greatest Generation allowed themselves to be taxed at 90 percent or above (except for one year in the 80s) for 20 years from the early 1940s to the early 1960s. Our current generation of wealthy would rather pay nothing. Something is wrong with this current outlook. It would cut $40 billion from food for the poor. Needs come before wants, especially the needs of women, infants, fetuses and embryos. No amount of double talk can justify such cuts, which are blatantly anti-life and anti-Christian.
Don Roberto Hill
5 years 10 months ago
Jim, I am with you insofar as you agree we must be for the poor. We must love and assist the poor. My only objection is that one line, where the bishop places inequality in too prominent a role. I have to wonder, though, if you think the vote against including the word "God" in their platform and the 3,000+ abortions a day (and a leader who voted against "Born Alive" protections) aren't enough to convince you that Democrats worship Pornea (Hedon)? Many Republicans (and Democrats) worship Mammon (and Pornea), but your philosophy seems to argue for the end justifying the means. (And the "means" used by the Democrats apparently includes forcing the Church out of the medical and adoption fields.) Democrats have abetted the spread of porn. They have encouraged the degenerates who want children to be given condoms and taught in school that there is no "Sin of Sodom." They are utterly against traditional morality, and it will get worse: what is repugnant today will be A-Okay tiomorrow (if Hollywood and Oprah say so). It is easy to feel good by voting to have someone else give to the poor. But we are called to be individually charitable, not to vote in a government that along with bread and circusses for us also includes some extra bread for the poor out of resources we ourselves did not earn. Economics is interesting and difficult, and the Church does not teach us how to organize the economy or run a government (and since Democratic party is the party of atheism, it matters little what the Church teaches when they control) other than that individuals within government must obey the Commandments and love God. †
James Sullivan
5 years 10 months ago
I get a little depressed when I see words written by Right to Life people--there is a usually an aggressive in-your-face tone to the comments. The progressive wing of the RCC is also guilty (I raise my hand!) of this aggressive tone at times. I know an 84 year old Sister of Charity whose sister called her a "baby killer" . Sister ____ was devastated--This nun had spoken to her sister about having a compassionate heart toward women who have to make this tragic decision in their lives and her sister shot back " THESE WOMEN KILLED THEIR BABIES AND YOU ARE A CATHOLIC NUN!". Now, where in the world do you go with that statement? Where? This nun loves her sister and never wanted or wants to break off their relationship. Luckily the pro-life woman's children found out what their mother had said to her sister and "gave it to her." "Don't you EVER talk to Aunt ___like that again!" And she stopped the abortion rants. It's funny because this pro-life woman's children have given up on the Church (I am NOT saying all children of pro-life people leave the Church.). But they have had enough of their mother incessantly talking about abortion. Their mother is a staunch conservative --her chilren voted for Obama.
Allesandra Snow
5 years 10 months ago
I do appreciate the effort of the Pope to reached out those people in need despite of his hectic and busy schedules in his routinary activities. Upon mentioning bailout, allow me to share this. The federal government isn't really the worst stock investor in the world. More than $180 billion was lent in the AIG bailout, but so far, the revenue has been almost $18 billion, a return of just about 10 percent. How often have you needed addiitional information on the best way to find a instant cash loan, and resorted to a web search on "reputable payday loan companies?"

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