Christ’s teaching on poverty

One of the greatest challenges to my own faith was Christ’s teaching about the elevation of the poor. It simply makes no sense to me to see any special spiritual significance to mere poverty. By itself it does nothing to improve behavior or adherence to law, and for every “smiling face in an impoverished village” that gets mentioned in sermons there are just as many savage and violent faces, to say nothing of the cheerful faces among those in penthouses or lake homes. But I think my challenge was based on confounding two separate elements in Christ’s teaching that need to be kept separate. I’ll call these two elements “the older account” and “the newer account”.

The older account of Christ’s elevation of poverty imputes a mystical character to to it, as though the condition itself was a sort of prophesy. The newer account is not mystical but practical and political: we must elevate the poor above others because the rich, so the reasoning goes, have the means to fend for themselves but the poor need advocates to advance their interests. On the first account, Christ elevates the poor because of a mystical vision of what Francis would call “Lady Poverty”; on the second he is modeling how a social and political leader should act and speak so as to ensure justice.

Notice that the newer understanding is based on the idea of human equality. We advocate the rights of the poor in an effort to ensure equal access. The older understanding is based on the idea of hierarchy and ordered separation. On the new understanding, poverty is ultimately an evil that, of itself, is hostile to justice and so needs to be remedied by the polity; on the older understanding it is a sort of blessing that sets someone in a group above another group. Both elements seem necessary to the Christian message – on the one hand the poor have a unique likeness to Christ who though he was in the form of God, emptied himself. At the heart of the Incarnation is this sort of acceptance of poverty, along with all of the spiritual theology that teaches that the goods of this world and those of God are in some sort of contradiction (here I’m thinking of John of the Cross, who sets the material and the spiritual as playing a zero-sum-game). But this account becomes nonsensical on the political or economic plane. Advocating poverty as an economic policy is either exploitation or contradiction.

So, at the moment, my resolution to Christ’s challenge is to divide the economic sphere* from another sphere of existence. This other sphere does not admit of an easy name – it is at once symbolic, spiritual, and prophetic while not being in every case a sphere of existence leading to better morals or cheerfulness. This second sphere has a likeness to the sacramental order, where, for example, marriage is at once symbolic, spiritual, and prophetic while at the same time being a secondary state. I’m bungling this last point but I won’t erase it since there’s something there.


*”Economic” is also too limiting a name. Persons are not equal in a merely economic sense, and ensuring this equality of state is not limited to economics. But this sphere, however broad its scope, is limited by the other one.



  1. theofloinn said,

    September 10, 2014 at 10:21 am

    I’ve always been inclined to the “blessed are the poor in spirit” thing. Service to the poor is not because the poor are necessarily good, but because servicing to them is good. What seems to matter is whether material goods matter a whole lot. A poor kid who kills another over a pair of sneakers is not “poor in spirit”, while a rich man who gives away his goods in service is.

  2. September 10, 2014 at 12:53 pm

    I agree with TOF on this one.

    Meanwhile, we will always have the poor with us — perhaps that’s a vision of the inadequacy of human effort to find a perfect balance because humans do not always rely on God, who alone can effect justice.

  3. Janet said,

    September 11, 2014 at 7:21 am

    I’d also note that the second strand of thought in Catholic teaching is closely connected with the idea of power– rich people have power over poor people. That’s true even when the rich people aren’t even paying attention! The choices of the rich can degrade the poor, and it requires conscious, continuous vigilance to prevent that. As many have noted, in terms of material goods, the “poor” in America are far better off than almost anyone in, say, Chad. Indeed, the lifestyle of the American poor today would shock the Sun King. But that’s not the point: the point is that the poor can be, almost necessarily are, subject to the caprice and evil choices of the rich. A just society restricts that as much as feasible– much preferably by giving the poor a legitimate means of supporting themselves independently by honest work, but also by suitable laws and customs.

    So then, Jesus redeems us by taking on “the form of a slave”, that is, specifically by subjecting himself to the caprice and evil choices of his inferiors. It’s not an “add on”, it’s the main point. People who experience this sort of situation, that is, the poor and the marginal, are closer to Jesus’s experience of the world. Riches and social standing are a dangerous spiritual risk, since they make it easy to forget, easy to abuse others (even by inadvertence), easy to make evil choices without consequences.

  4. Holdfirm said,

    September 12, 2014 at 8:24 am

    When the just society is pushed into the realm of power for the poor you are dancing on the grave of liberation theology. Christ never taught that all men should have equal political power or wealth. St. Paul never condemned slavery directly. Todays liberal Catholics have mistaken the goal of a utopia here on earth as the goal of Christ’s teaching. Anyone who believes in an earthly utopia has never read the history of humanity. The “poor in spirit” are those who find God in this life in spite of its inherent disorder (sin). If we could fix everything so that life is perfect on this earth, there would be no need for heaven.

    • September 12, 2014 at 11:32 am

      When the just society is pushed into the realm of power for the poor you are dancing on the grave of liberation theology

      Maybe so, but to say all advocacy for the poor is liberation theology is like saying every critique of religion is Communist or every vertebrate is a cat.

      St. Paul never condemned slavery directly.

      It belongs to the essence of the New Covenant to extend the promises of Israel to all nations, and the definitive act constituting Israel is a release from slavery. Christ dies on Passover, for goodness sake. Paul was not a revolutionary, to be sure, and would never advocate the an immediate upheaval of the social order, but he clearly sets slavery on the short road to extinction. Philemon returns to his master only as a brother.

      The rest of your comment is directed at someone other than me. If you’re saying we can’t (shouldn’t?) advocate justice for the poor I have no idea what Bible you’re reading or theory of justice you subscribe to.

      • September 13, 2014 at 11:07 am

        One note on this slavery question, since it has a complicated and confusing history where many different things are spoken of under the same word. If we mean simply to make someone work without his consent, then this is not intrinsically wrong. We do it all the time in prisons, and with those captured in war. Causing someone to work without consent is not the same thing as, say, causing him to marry without his consent. The first is possible and the second is not. If this is what one (minimally) means by slavery, then it is neither wrong then nor wrong now – in some cases it is even a more humane option and reflects some measure of enlightenment. The evils of slavery creep in with the various circumstances that attend to the institution, and there is a good deal of debate and legitimate dispute over just what these circumstances are.

        The upshot is that it’s vacuous to point out that St. Paul never condemned slavery. Neither do we condemn all cases of making someone labor against his consent. What we condemn in slavery is more or less chattel slavery, i.e. the idea that some persons are slaves because they are subhuman and unable to ever be our bretheren. It is impossible – absolutely impossible – to see Paul as agreeing to this. He is in fact the central figure in history who drove this idea out.

  5. Loye Young said,

    September 12, 2014 at 3:18 pm

    I recently wrote an article about this very subject. In it, I point out that the primary purpose of giving is to save the soul of the giver, and only secondarily to alleviate economic poverty. Egalitarianism was never the point of Christ’s command to give to the poor. Instead, the giver must give in order to reorient the soul toward’s God’s Kingdom. See the full article here: The Theology of Giving

  6. Mal said,

    September 24, 2014 at 10:44 pm

    Mother Teresa, who spent many years reaching out to the poor and the ostracised, believed that spiritual poverty was a bigger issue facing us. No matter what economic system we have there will always be some who are relatively poorer than others. Greed, corruption and self-serving attitudes always corrupt any system. Where there is no love there cane no fairness. More important though, is the sad fact that there is nothing much that is being done for the spiritual poor. The Church is not addressing this poverty. Many souls could be forever lost because of our lack of conviction and proper teaching.

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