The Tablet, the British Catholic journal, in its issue on May 22, 2015, carried two stories that made me worry a little more about what seems to be a leftward drift under the pontificate of Francis I. The first story is about the recent beatification of Oscar Romero, the archbishop of San Salvador who in 1980 was assassinated by government thugs while celebrating mass. The Salvadoran government at the time was a brutal right-wing dictatorship. The last sermon preached by Romero advised soldiers to disobey if ordered to massacre civilians, a far from rare event. One did not have to be a leftist to be appalled by government atrocities, or to express concern for the miserable conditions of the poor in that country. However, Romero has been an icon of the left throughout Latin America and the act of beatification (certain to be followed by the elevation to sainthood) is now being considered as a positive gesture toward Catholic progressives.The second story is even more telling: It reports on the recent general assembly in Rome of Caritas, the international arm of this very active charitable Catholic organization. A keynote speaker was the Peruvian Dominican Gustavo Gutierrez, who in 1971 wrote A Theology of Liberation, the immensely influential founding document of the movement of that name. For a long time Gutierrez and his movement were under suspicion in the Vatican for a heretical version of the Christian faith, Marxist ideology, and advocacy of class warfare. The by now aged firebrand (presumably somewhat mellowed) is undergoing a very public rehabilitation process. He is a close friend of the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the doctrinal watchdog agency (previously known, and feared, as the Holy Office of the Inquisition). More impressively he has been received in private audience by Pope Francis, who reputedly consults with Gutierrez on the forthcoming encyclical on climate change.The official theme of the Caritas conference is “Caring for the Creation” (a favorite phrase of the Christian caucus in the global warming movement). Michel Roy, the current general secretary of Caritas International, has said that the agency’s task in the next few years is to help Pope Francis in his goal of bringing about a “poor Church for the poor”. The linkage between the two campaigns—against global poverty and against global warming—is today of course prominent in progressive movements and circles in many places (call it the greening of the left or the blushing of environmentalism). Cardinal Peter Turkson heads the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace (long known as an outpost of Liberation Theology within the Curia); he has memorably formulated the aforementioned linkage as necessary “given the extra impact of climate change on populations that are already living in poverty”. I doubt if Turkson has heard the old joke: What will be the very last headline of The New York Times? “World ends Tomorrow—Women and Minorities Hit Hardest!”I have previously expressed concerns about some of Pope Francis’ previous, possibly off-the-cuff economic opinions. [Such as his repudiation of “unfettered capitalism”. Where can one find such an animal today? In Western democracies there are many “fetters” – laws, government regulations, a free press sniffing out corruption, labor unions. The most unfettered capitalism in the contemporary world can be found in China, paradoxically roaring away under a red flag. It does have some “fetters”, most of them caused by corruption and the economically irrational remnants of state socialism. Despite these, the capitalist dynamic unleased by the economic reforms has lifted millions of Chinese from desperate poverty to a decent level of material life.] Even the most conservative Catholics do not ascribe infallibility to papal views on economics. There is reason to think that Francis’ public persona of warmth and kindness, so much applauded in the media, reflects the reality of the man. I still think that Francis will steer a middle course between the hopes of progressive Catholics and the fears of traditionalists. He may well succeed in controlling the Berlusconi syndrome of corruption that has leaped over the invisible border between the Italian republic and sovereign Vatican state. Even so, Liberation Theology utopianism becoming established in Catholic social teaching would be bad news for both the Church and the world.I am intrigued by this phrase “a poor Church for the poor”. It implies a considerable step beyond the famous phrase “a preferential option for the poor”, which was promulgated by the Latin American Bishops’ Conference in Medellin, Colombia, in 1968, and which has become widely embraced by Catholics internationally. Some years ago a Brazilian student of mine compared the relative ability of getting out of poverty by Pentecostal Protestants and Catholics belonging to the so-called “base communities” (the ground troops of Liberation Theology). My student found that the Pentecostals were way ahead of the Catholics. Being Catholic herself, she didn’t like her findings. Trying to explain the difference, she had a very lucid formulation (I cannot remember now whether this was her own statement or whether she quoted someone else): “The Catholic Church has adopted a preferential option for the poor. The grammar of this sentence implies that the Church itself is not poor. The Pentecostal church is poor, and therefore the poor opt for it.” Well put. But does this mean that poor people would opt for the Catholic Church if it too was poor? Not necessarily. I remember another conversation I had during those years when my interest was very much focused on Latin America. A Chilean sociologist told me this: “Catholic activists, most of them of middle-class backgrounds, go into the slums dressed in scruffy jeans and sweatshirts. Slum-dwellers feel this to be patronizing and they don’t like it. Pentecostal preachers, most of them quite poor themselves and of little education beyond their flock, come dressed very neatly in suits, white shirts and ties. This goes over well. People think that it shows respect and it reflects their own aspirations”. Now Francis seems to be saying that it is not enough to be for the poor; one has to be poor.It is very clear that Jesus had a special concern for individuals who were poor, marginalized or oppressed. That will necessarily be a core element of any Christian ethics. But surely this does not mean that one wants people to go on living under such conditions; if at all possible, one wants people to get out of poverty, marginality or oppression. Does the Church have a better chance to further these aims if it is poor itself? Probably not. Would it help to cure the sick if doctors were sick as well? Obviously not. There is a rich Christian tradition of good works, including working for individual and collective betterment. There is, however, a different tradition going back to the Desert Fathers and mainly expressed by monastic orders (such as the Franciscans, so much admired by Pope Francis). An impressive representative of this tradition was Charles de Foucauld (1858-1916), who started out as a French army officer serving in North Africa, after a conversion experience became a Trappist monk, then a hermit. He lived a lonely life among the Tuareg in the Algerian desert, where he was murdered by armed bandits. He did not seek to convert anyone, did not actively help anyone by improving their condition. He simply was there in what he called “Christian presence”: “It is not necessary to teach others, to cure them or to improve them; it is only necessary to live among them and share their human condition and being present to them in love.” After his death these ideas were realized by two newly founded monastic orders, the Little Brothers and the Little Sisters of Jesus. Charles de Foucauld was declared a martyr and beatified by Pope Benedict XVI. I think it is useful to recall this other tradition, so as not to have an overly active understanding of Christian ethics (continuing the Jewish ideal of tikkun olam: the “repair of the universe”). Perhaps there is a distinctive vocation for some individuals to do nothing—just to be there in solidarity with those who suffer—without trying to “repair” anything.It is equally clear that this cannot be a vocation for everybody, especially for those who have family obligations (as the British writer Ferdinand Mount put it: “the Sermon on the Mount is a beautiful sermon; it is a sermon for bachelors”). Back to the poor: Let me stipulate that it is a good thing to be “for the poor” (if you will, to have a “preferential option” for them). But in that case one has to face the basic question: Just what is good for the poor? Good, that is, to get them out of poverty. I think the empirical evidence is quite clear: More than anything else, it is economic growth. Of course there are other important desiderata: sensible economic policies beyond just enhancing growth, social and educational policies to give more people access to the fruits of economic growth, political and legal stability, and others. But the condition sine qua non is sustained growth of GDP. Let me say again: The most instructive example is China since 1979. (There are other less huge examples; and China would be better off with some other desiderata “fettering” its quasi-neoliberal dynamism.)In order to keep a clear view of these facts, one must abandon the currently fashionable canard of “inequality”. There are many inequalities: between the young and the old, between the attractive and the ugly, and so on. Absolute equality is impossible. The last pamphlet written by the Marquis de Sade, One more Effort and You will be True Republicans, focused on the inequality between the sexually frustrated and the sexually satisfied. Therefore, every citizen of a true republic should have free access to the body of every other citizen. (I think de Sade, when he wrote this, was already confined to a lunatic asylum.) As to inequality of income and wealth, we know that such inequality increases in the early period of significant growth. Irving Kristol once wrote to a number of leading American leftists, asking them what degree of economic inequality they would find tolerable; none replied. It seems to me, both ethically and politically, that it is unacceptable that hunger is a problem for children in poor countries, while obesity is a problem for the children in rich ones. I don’t think it is a serious problem if my annual income is $ 100,000 while someone across town makes over a million. No, the real issue is not “inequality”, but the character of poverty in a society.A few years ago I visited a Pentecostal mega-church in a suburb of Johannesburg. This was in the course of a research project on Pentecostalism in South Africa. Much about the morning service in that church was instructive, but the sermon was the most interesting. This is a summary of what the preacher said to an audience of predominantly poor blacks: Poverty is a great misfortune. If it afflicts you, God will be with you and sustain you. But God does not want you to be poor. Here are some things you can do. The preacher then listed some of the core behavior patterns associated with the classical virtues of the Protestant ethic. The church puts its money where its preacher’s mouth is: It runs a business school on its premises—not of course to train executives for big corporations, but to teach people how to run small businesses (car repair shops, beauty parlors, or corner groceries). Pentecostalism has been criticized for teaching the “prosperity gospel” and the promise that one will become rich by doing nothing except praying noisily and giving money to the preacher. That is clearly a false promise. But the promise of betterment if one follows what the Johannesburg preacher was urging is not a false promise: If one follows the behavioral maxims of the Protestant ethic, one may not become rich, but will have a better chance of getting out of the worst poverty.The left likes to look for the “root causes of poverty” (usually these turn out to be the exploitations of capitalism). That is futile. A better project would be looking for “the root causes of wealth”. It would be helpful if Catholic social teaching supported this project.
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Published on: June 10, 2015
The Francis EraA Poor Church for the Poor?
The left likes to look for the “root causes of poverty”. A better project would be looking for “the root causes of wealth”. It would be helpful if Catholic social teaching supported this project.