Remembering a priest who put Pope Francis and the Good Samaritan’s economics into action
Every economics professor I know, including me, has to work to understand these words from Pope Francis: “Do not forget: The poor are at the center of the Gospel; the Gospel cannot be understood without the poor. The poor guarantee us an eternal income and even now they help us become rich in love. For the worst kind of poverty needing to be combated is our poverty of love.”
If it were not for my dear friend Bill Kenney, who died on July 11 at the age of 93, I would still be struggling with what Francis said.
I remember talking with Father Kenney during this past spring’s debate over raising the federal debt ceiling. Budget cutters in Congress were again claiming that welfare programs created incentives for the poor to avoid employment. If these programs were less generous, the budget cutters said, the poor would seek jobs, pull their own weight and generally act in ways more consistent with middle-class values. This way of thinking led many Republicans to favor new work requirements for food stamps and Medicaid as a way to cut federal spending.
Pope Francis: “Do not forget: The poor are at the center of the Gospel; the Gospel cannot be understood without the poor.”
Democrats are more likely to regard poverty as a market failure that must be addressed by public spending. Direct payments to the poor, more progressive taxation policies, higher minimum wages, housing subsidies—there is no shortage of things the government could do to reduce poverty in a country as wealthy as the United States.
Of course, people want their government to do many things, big and small. Here in St. Paul, for example, last winter’s freezing and thawing left us with an epic pothole problem. Father Kenney and I often heard what a nuisance this was, how the government needed to get things fixed, and soon. Bad roads make day-to-day activities more difficult and could, if left to go on long enough, threaten overall economic growth.
The way we talk about the poor can be disturbingly like what we heard about the pothole problem. Many see homeless people as a nuisance who threaten safety and the economic viability of our downtowns. Confronted with people asking us for money or seeing lines outside food banks, we dispassionately hope that some public policy expert will find a way to make the problem go away. As with potholes, we think there’s nothing we can do as individuals. As with potholes, we say that the government must get things fixed, and soon.
As with potholes, we think there’s nothing we can do about poverty as individuals. As with potholes, we say that the government must get things fixed, and soon.
The “get a job” and the “public nuisance” ways of thinking have something important in common. Neither invites, much less obligates, those who are not poor to become personally and lovingly involved in the lives of those who are. Because of that, both approaches contribute to what Francis called “our poverty of love.”
When I taught Economics 101, I could have found plenty of texts that supported the “you’re on your own” view. Texts that described a “mixed economy” in which government plays a more prominent role in solving social problems were likewise easy to come by. But no matter which text I selected, the words of Pope Francis would have seemed equally out of place and irrelevant.
The story of the good Samaritan is a better place to start. You can easily imagine people walking by an assault victim on the roadside. One may think the man should have done more to take care of himself. Another may think we need the government to prevent violence and take care of victims. But only the one who stops to help, and in the process gets to know the man on the side of the road, has a chance to grow in love.
We could also consider the inmates in Texas prisons who swelter in unbearable heat. Some may think they deserve such abuse; that is what prison is for, after all. Others may think it is awful that people should be treated so miserably, but it is up to the government to get its act together and air-condition prisons. Only the person who writes or visits a prisoner, then stays in touch after his or her release, will have the opportunity to grow in love.
Father Keeney was deeply grateful for his decades of service to the poor, the deaf and the local people who made our small inner-city parish their home. His gratitude was not for what he was able to do for others, however. It was for how his parishioners helped him “become rich in love.” As I watched many of those same parishioners surround his hospice bed, the words of Pope Francis at long last seemed clear: “The poor guarantee us an eternal income.”