On the Way to Healing: Humanizing a 'gravely ill world'

My presence here today brings back cherished memories. Twenty-five years ago the Jesuit School of Theology conferred on me an honorary doctorate as a way of honoring my Jesuit brothers and two simple women who had been betrayed and assassinated in the middle of the night just a few weeks earlier in San Salvador.

Years have passed, but I still find inspiration in those men and women. The six Jesuits, like many of us here today, worked at a university. Amando López, Juan Ramón Moreno and Ignacio Ellacuría were theologians. The last is internationally known. Segundo Montes was a sociologist who accompanied immigrants in Honduras and took up their cause before the U.S. Congress. Ignacio Martín Baró was a social psychologist who analyzed the violence perpetrated against the common people. Joaquín López y López was co-founder of the University of Central America and founder of Fe y Alegría. The two women, Elba and Celina, mother and daughter, were in charge of maintenance, cleaning, gardening and cooking. They were typical of the men and women whom Archbishop Óscar Romero loved to the end, a crucified people, a people poor and hopeful. Remembering them all, and drawing on the thinking of Ignacio Ellacuría, I will offer some reflections on what I think is the greatest problem facing our world today, a world into which we send our graduates. I also will touch on what we have to do.

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The Civilization of Wealth

A truth most real, most hurtful and most puzzling is that our world is in bad shape. During his final days in 1989, devoid of all youthful exuberance, Ignacio Ellacuría said tersely that “our civilization is gravely ill.” In 2005, Jean Ziegler, then special rapporteur at the United Nations on the right to food, said that the world was being threatened with destruction by massive financial capital. A few months ago, the Venezuelan theologian Pedro Trigo, S.J., wrote that the current reality of forced migrations—of which you all have experience here in California—expresses, “in all its harshness, magnitude, and hard-heartedness, the sin of the world.”

Myopic, misleading or hypocritically maintained tributes to globalization cannot hide the disease that threatens our world, and Father Ellacuría warned of the dangers of “a fateful and fatal outcome.” Denouncing these false tributes, he maintained that this sickness is produced by what he called the civilization of wealth. And he concluded that in order to avoid the danger, we have to “reverse, subvert and launch history in another direction.” Some hopeful progressives say that today “another world is possible.” He argued that “another world is necessary.” And for that other world to burst into reality, another civilization is needed, a civilization that opposes and overcomes the present civilization. He called it a civilization of poverty. This notion is not easy to comprehend in all its depth, but I will attempt to explain it.

Father Ellacuría did not precisely define what he meant by civilization, but he described it well enough as a general project of humanity, an order of values, a fixed state of things. In each case he was not referring to one aspect of social reality, like the economy, religion, the cultivation of science and so on, but rather to a totality. Nor did he define precisely what he meant by poverty, when he used that word to characterize a civilization. But it is very important to understand this term correctly. He warns those who object to the use of the term that he does not mean universal impoverishment. That should be obvious.

The decisive factor is that poverty, in this sense, has to be understood in relation to the wealth of the other civilization, which it opposes and overcomes. This means that, although the analysis of the content of the civilization of poverty may be incomplete, it will always be seen in contrast to its counterpart, the civilization of wealth, which it seeks to overcome or surpass.

And most fundamentally, salvation emerges from that overcoming of the civilization of wealth, the salvation of our gravely ill current civilization. Father Ellacuría writes, “In a world sinfully shaped by the dynamism of capital and wealth, it is necessary to stir up a different dynamism that will salvifically surpass it.” It can be said that our world is subject to this figure of sin—which in one form or another is death—a figure that has a powerful dynamism. For this another dynamism is needed that through struggle overcomes that power that configures our world and makes it gravely ill.

With these words Father Ellacuría formulated his global thesis to include the fundamental elements of both civilizations in their dialectical relationship: “The civilization of poverty…rejects the accumulation of capital as the engine of history and the posses­sion and enjoyment of wealth as the principle of humanization. It makes the universal satisfaction of basic needs the principle of development and the growth of shared solidarity the foundation of humanization.”

This is not easy to accept; it is not even easy to understand. Hence, even with good intentions, sometimes the word poverty has been eliminated and replaced by other formulations; people speak about “the civilization of shared austerity” and other similar concepts. The main reason for this substitution, I think, is the chill that results from the introduction of the word poverty into the description of an ideal civilization. But in doing so, we need to keep in mind that the word austerity does not go to the heart of the matter. Austerity is, indeed, a subjective attitude that is opposed to wastefulness, while poverty is an objective reality—a complex one, as we will see—that opposes wealth. Poverty, not austerity, is the dialectical opposite of wealth, which is what must be overcome. And it is important to understand well what is meant by a civilization of poverty.

In the civilization of wealth, the driving force of history is “the private accumulation of the greatest possible cap­ital on the part of individuals, groups, multinationals, states or groups of states.” Its meaning is the maximum enjoyment of that accumulation based on its own security and the possibility of an ever-growing consumerism as the basis for happiness itself.

This civilization is not located geographically, because it is present “in the East as well as in the West and deservedly is called capitalist civilization (whether state capitalism or private capitalism).” The judgment that we make about it should not be simplistic, for that civilization “has brought benefits to humanity that, as such, should be preserved and furthered (scientific and technical de­velopment, new modes of collective consciousness, and so forth). But it has also brought greater evils.” One is that it does not satisfy the basic needs of all. Two, that it not only does not generate equality but is not capable of doing so. Three, it does not generate a humanizing spirit.

The first point is a crime. It is the denial of life. It causes the slow death that results from poverty or hunger and the violent death that comes to those who rebel and struggle for life.

People who wield great power often try to obscure the second point, but they are not convincing. There are simply not enough resources on this planet for what has been accumulated to be enjoyed by everyone. Following the insight of the philosopher Immanuel Kant, the civilization of wealth is unethical precisely because it is not universalizable. Whatever the song sung by the sirens—whether they say that evil is not as absolutely bad as it may seem, or that the good follows its path, or that reprogramming efforts will reduce poverty by 2025, etc.—it remains undeniable that the standard of living (not just of millionaires, but even of middle-class Americans, Europeans or Japanese) is not universalizable. They consume so many resources, raw materials and energy that what remains is simply not enough for the rest of the world’s population to live well.

This makes it difficult or impossible for the human spirit to flourish as a dimension of the totality of a civilization. This is the third of these evils. It is the negation of mutual support and universal dignity—whatever the formulations in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights might be. Father Ellacuría insisted with increasing force that the civilization of wealth does not generate the spirit, inspiration, energy or values capable of humanizing people and societies. The civilization of wealth is a civilization of the individual, of a selfish “good life” and a type of success that excludes others and comes at their expense. One example is the spirit of elitism that is generated by the multimillion dollar sports industry.

And the life breath the Spirit imparts diminishes even more when the West, which produces this civilization, understands it not only as the result of talent and noble efforts—which is partially true, though accompanied by massive historical and secular depredations—but also as the result of a certain predestination. This is how some ancient religions understood what it meant to be a “chosen people.”

As already stated, the civilization of wealth is not defined geographically, although it is more established in some regions than others. For Father Ellacuría, the United States is the paradigm of such a civilization, and other countries configured along these lines act as if they too are endowed with a type of Manifest Destiny.

Such a spirit dehumanizes. It tends to generate contempt in some people and servile or irrational, violent responses in others. In 1989, referring not to the economic resources of the United States but to its spiritual potential, Father Ellacuría said that it “has a bad solution.” He added that having a bad solution is worse than having no solution, as is the case in the third world. Generalizing, he concluded that countries of abundance have “no hope”—while hope is very much a reality in the third world. On the contrary, he said, these countries of abundance are characterized spiritually by fear.

Looking at the world in its entirety, that is, at the world of Father Ellacuría and at our world today, one cannot see how such a world has meaning, especially when we consider that the parable of the rich man and poor Lazarus remains the dominant parable, the one that describes the situation in its entirety. The conclusion is short and to the point: the civilization of wealth is “a humanistic and moral disaster.” And passing judgment on its long history, he added that the self-correcting processes of such a civilization are not sufficient to reverse its destructive course.

‘A Civilization of Poverty’

What can heal this world is what Father Ellacuría called “a civilization of poverty.” I hope I can explain it well so that it remains an enduring legacy.

In the first article in which Father Ellacuría addressed this theme, he programmatically defined the civilization of poverty as “a universal state of affairs that guarantees the satisfaction of basic needs, the freedom to make personal choices, and a space for personal and communal creativity that shapes new forms of life and culture; these in turn engender new relationships with nature, with other human beings, within oneself, and with God.”

This could be considered the most general expression of utopia. It is specific to the civilization of poverty when the foundations of such a civilization are discussed. It is “founded on a materi­alist humanism transformed by Christian light and inspiration.” In the first place, this expression touches on the ability to humanly engage material reality. And thus, as also articulated by Pope John Paul II in his encyclical “On Human Work,” what is being proposed here is a civilization based on work that not only produces but also channels creativity and human fulfillment, a civilization that humanizes instead of just producing economic capital.

In the second place, this civilization of poverty is permeated by important elements of the Jesus/biblical tradition. And in the case of Father Ellacuría, the Ignatian contemplation of the Two Standards likewise is functioning and appropriately historicized, materially and socially. I wish to elaborate on this point a bit. In his Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius presents two paths, one leading to salvation and the other to condemnation. One starts with poverty; the person following this path, like Christ, will also experience insults and humiliations. We recognize this path as one of humility, one that leads to authentic good. The other path, on the contrary, begins with wealth and is furthered by worldly and vain honors, overweening pride and an integral dehumanization that leads to evil. The two standards are opposed to each other by their very nature.

Within this Ignatian understanding, poverty is the key, and Father Ellacuría insists on the need to work for a civilization of poverty. Therefore, it is not enough to prophetically preach this civilization against the civilization of wealth. It is not even enough to simply proclaim it as good news for the poor of this world. Father Ellacuría says that the solution “cannot be in escaping from this world and confronting it with a sign of prophetic protest, but in entering into it to renew it and transform it in the direction of the utopia of the new earth.” Because it is dialectical and contrary to the prevailing civilization, one cannot work for the civilization of poverty without suffering persecution and defamation. That would be a vain illusion. The multitude of martyrs for justice in Latin America since Medellín is clear proof of this.

Within the context of building this civilization of poverty, Father Ellacuría proposes two fundamental tasks. The first, more understandable and acceptable in principle, is to “create economic, political and cultural models that enable a civilization of work as a substitute for a civilization of capital.” The other task is to strengthen “mutual solidarity, in contrast to the closed and competitive individualism of the civilization of wealth.”

With solidarity we enter a sphere of reality that not only has to do with instrumental efficacy. It is the sphere of the Spirit, that which is truly spiritual. In his final years, Father Ellacuría insisted that it is the Spirit that must inform this new civilization, and it must be generated principally by the poor. It seems to me that this is the most striking aspect of his thought during his final years, when he analyzed global social reality: his insistence that the new civilization be informed by spirit, a spirit generated mainly by the poor. The poor in their plentitude are the poor with spirit, pobres con espiritu, and the civilization they humanize is a civilization of spirit.

In a second article that Father Ellacuría developed within an explicitly Christian context in 1983, he wrote:

This poverty authentically gives space to the Spirit. People will no longer be stifled by the desire to have more than others, by lustful desires to have all sorts of superfluities when most of humanity lacks basic necessities. Then, the spirit will be able to flourish, that immense spiritual and human wealth of the poor and of the people of the Third World, who are now choked by poverty and by the imposition of cultural models more suitable for other settings, but not necessarily more humane.

In conclusion, if you will permit me a bit of irony, I like to say that “in the liturgy, things always go well for God.” My sincere desire is that things will go well for God in the civilization of the poor. In other words, I hope that this divine vision becomes historical reality.

My hope and desire is that all of you, graduates, professors, family members, Jesuits and others, work in such a way that the civilization of poverty not only remains a concept or ideal in our liturgy, but indeed becomes a reality.

In this civilization of poverty, may the poor be our sisters and brothers. They are the very ones who inspired the martyrs I mentioned in the beginning of this talk. These poor persons also loved and inspired four North American women, Maura, Ita, Dorothy, and Jean, who also gave their lives for this civilization.

Let me close with the words Ignacio Ellacuría used at the end of his last theological essay. He is speaking about the “new human beings” who emerge with the civilization of poverty:

These new human beings, for their part, keep on announcing, firmly and steadfastly although always in darkness, a future that is ever greater, because beyond all these futures, following one upon another, they catch sight of the God who saves, the God who liberates.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Beth Cioffoletti
3 years 1 month ago
This is just excellent -- a civilization of poverty -- radical, refreshing, healing. Thank you.
Solvitur Ambulando
3 years 1 month ago
Thank you America for publishing this and doing so in honor of these martyrs. To try to give words in comment seems futile. It is brilliant both in form and in content. For many years I have wanted to ask a question of those of us who refer to "the poor". Given the references to both language and poverty in this speech, it seems apropos currently. Why do we, in our evolution of person-first language, still say "the poor"? If humanity is to be a deeper experience than any categorizing we can give it, especially that of economic classification, why do we persist in using something so totalizing such as "the poor" in a label for human persons? And further, does this label give civilizations of both wealth and poverty more power than either should have? I do not know the answer to this question, but it feels it should be asked of the brilliant readers of your fine magazine, especially now.
Vic O’Callaghan
3 years 1 month ago
I found this article moving and profound. While politics is studded with the failures of separating church and state, I struggle with the separation of the church from its own ‘corporateness’. I am long past accepting the phrase ‘but it is the fragile humanness of the organisation’. I am slowly turning this around and can more clearly see that it is the humanising action that is its real capital. Calling poverty forward is a necessary act. While fraught with condemnation and separation, it is the only way to sift the seed from the chaff. I see the current disclosures that are flowing from the sexual abuse crisis as being the greatest light to shine within and beyond the church. This light is penetrating deep into our civilization. This deep isolation is at the centre of the deep thirst for the superficial other. When our sense of self is so crippled, grasping for pain killers is manifest in the drive for the never satisfying more.

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