Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., in an essay for The Catholic World Report, offers some points worth pondering regarding Christianity and poverty. Entitled “Do Christians Love Poverty,” Schall insists that we must make the distinction between loving the poor – actual people – and loving “poverty” in some abstract way. For that to happen, we have to be holistic, realistic and concrete in our intentions and actions.
It would seem that our love of the poor, in some basic sense, ought to include not just our helping the poor in his immediate needs but mainly inciting his capacity to help himself. We want him not to need us to help him except in the sense that we all need an economic and social system that works for everyone. We want this system to be growing; we do not want a stagnant system which always produces the same or lesser amounts of available goods. We want and need people who do not think solely or mainly in terms of distributing existing goods, which they often conceive to have been ill-gotten simply because someone has more than others.
Schall says that our “love” for the poor isn’t love if it does harm. If we insist on “loving the poor” but create conditions that increase poverty or make it difficult for a poor person to use his or her own abilities to make money, we aren’t loving anyone.
The poor man is not really much interested in our love of him or his poverty if we do not know how not to be poor. He does not want our love if it strikes him to be, on our part, an exercise in behalf of our private virtue and vanity—“See how I am concerned with the poor!” We do not, furthermore, need good will towards or “love” of poor wrapped around ways of politics or economics that would, if put into practice, only make things worse or more totalitarian for everyone, including the poor. Almost all modern tyranny has ridden to power on a claim, sometimes even a sincere claim, to help the poor. We cannot avoid asking where claims to help the poor actually lead, not just where they say they do. In that sense, claiming to “be on the side of” or to help the poor might well be something both of a Christian heresy and a failure of reason.
Acknowledging that there are some people who will always need the care of others (the biblical admonition that the poor will always be with us), Schall clarifies that many of the poor in today’s world are poor only because they lack resources, rule of law, political structures, knowledge and/or experience in order to lift themselves from poverty. Our being able to help provide these things, working along side the poor, is the best example of loving them.
Finally, Schall calls for a shift in Christian social thought:
[S]ocial thought should shift the direction of its rhetoric in dealing with any issue concerning the poor. It should not primarily stress the Christian’s associating himself with the poor or looking like he is poor, as if the poor man wants everyone to be destitute and is delighted to see well-off folks joining them. The religious emphasis needs to be more oriented to teaching how not to be poor. It ought to realize that the first step in this change of emphasis is to rid itself of the idea that redistribution of existing goods is nothing but a revolutionary method that would really make everyone poor. Again, the purpose of Christianity is not to make everyone poor. It must learn to understand profit, markets, and innovation as the primary way to enable the poor, by their own efforts, to become not poor. The poor are not really helped by well-meaning souls who identify with them but who have only confused or detrimental ideas about wealth production. One final thought seems worth making. The only real resource in the world is the human brain. It is not oil, or material goods, or location. It is true that human intelligence is itself designed to know and deal with what exists in the world.