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The church must be a poor church


This week, dedicated to the eradication of poverty, reminds us that poverty is always with us. But the images of poverty change.

Anti-Poverty WeekThis year the image of poverty that has haunted me is that of the body of Aylan Kurdi cradled in the arms of a Turkish soldier. It was poignant and disturbing. It jarred with our sense that poverty is simply the deprivation of material goods — Aylan was not dressed in rags but in runners any Australian child may have worn. In death he was not emaciated but could have been our own sleeping child.

The image said there is no greater poverty than death, and no greater deprivation than that of a child stripped of life. It also reminded us that Aylan was but one of millions of people who have been deprived of security, food, home, freedom and any tangible hope of making a life in their own nation. It offered us an international context in which to set our response to the many Australians who live in poverty.

The most striking images of responding to poverty have come from Pope Francis. That is not surprising because the best photographers in the world pad after him. Recently they showed him embracing poor immigrants, visiting jails in Philadelphia and Paraguay, at home with poor urban children in New York.

They showed a man as simply dressed as a pope can be, clowning with people we would regard as poor, moved to tears by their sufferings, entering their world as one of them, and encouraging them.

Words are also images. Francis has the gift for finding words that catch the conflicting feelings of prisoners, the sadness of loss and the resilience of people who live in degrading circumstances.

He also speaks powerfully of the need to address poverty. To Catholics he insists on the need for the church to move out of its comfortable centre to the margins where the poor live. To address poverty we must know people who live in poverty as our brothers and sisters. The church must be a poor church.

Phrases like that come easily off the tongue, but to turn them into reality has a sharp edge. At the heart of poverty lies insecurity about the immediate future and inability to manage risk. Should churches embrace these things?

Speaking jocularly with members of religious congregations in Cuba Pope Francis did not back off the implications of being a poor church:

A wise old priest once told me about what happens when the spirit of wealth, of wealthy worldliness enters the heart of a consecrated man or woman, a priest or bishop, or even a Pope — anyone. He said that when we start to save up money to ensure our future — isn't this true? — then our future is not in Jesus, but in a kind of spiritual insurance company which we manage.

When, for example, a religious congregation begins to gather money and save, God is so good that he sends them a terrible bursar who brings them to bankruptcy. Such terrible bursars are some of the greatest blessings God grants his Church, because they make her free, they make her poor.

Pope Francis also asks insistently why poverty exists and is allowed to continue. He names and criticises strongly a framework of relationships that privileges individual and corporate profit over the common good and exploits technology without ethical controls.

Of course, even the most powerful images of poverty are self-indulgent unless they encourage action to eradicate it. Images such as those of Kurdi and Francis can move people to act by making poverty salient. Anything that broadens the imagination is helpful. Executive sleep-ins, soup vans and other initiatives that allow people to experience the life of the poor can feed the desire to address poverty.

These experiences can also bring home the importance of shaping societies in a way that ensures the rich mingle with the poor. A society stratified on the basis of wealth and advantage in its living places, means of transport, schooling, opportunity and workplace arrangements is unlikely to take responsibility for people who are impoverished.

When we notice the gap between people who are affluent and those who are poor, and the harm it brings to society, we shall demand that economic relationships serve the common good, giving priority to the lives of the most disadvantaged.

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

This week is Anti-Poverty Week.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Aylan Kurdi, Pope Francis, Anti-Poverty Week



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Existing comments

If Fr Hamilton wants to promote poverty, his advice on avoiding savings will bring it about more promptly than any other method. By prudently putting aside surplus income, instead of spending it now, people can ensure that we will be able to maintain themselves once they retire. They will not be expecting some divine intervention to put food on the table on clothes on their backs. In addition our accumulated savings and those of others are what investors use to fund major works that improve everyone's lives in ways too many and varied to be mentioned. Rather than discouraging people from saving, we should encourage them to put whatever they can away. I fear that Fr Hamilton's advice is ultimately irresponsible. Those who don't save but live from hand to mouth will more than likely, at some point in the future, end up calling on the support of those who have been more economically wise.

Gerald Lanigan | 14 October 2015  

Pope Francis has admitted recently that he doesn't know much about economics and hasn't much time for it. This rings true, because he's forever theorising as to why poverty exists, when the answer has been settled, at least since Adam Smith's "An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations", if not way before by the 16th century Spanish scholastics (including Jesuits) and even earlier by sharp observers in other cultures. Sadly, he doesn't even know much about general history as such, which shows that, for the vast bulk of mankind over its existence for millennia, grinding poverty, according to the definition that applies currently ($U.S. 1.50 per day), has been the order of the day for the masses. Wealth has been the grand exception over human history, until the last two hundred years where market economies developed and mankind therein began an unprecedented march from what is today regarded as poverty. It's simply staggering that a Pope today is so ignorant of this basic, uncontroversial fact and its huge significance. It's a further gobsmack that he hasn't noticed that grinding poverty he so waxes on about has been disappearing from the planet at exponential rates in recent decades, due to the globalization of the market economy. It's a bit like Pope Leo XIII, a much smarter man, deploring the ravages of unregulated competition in "Rerum Novarum", while under his nose thousands upon thousands of poor Italian peasants were setting sail for the land which was the very apotheosis of unregulated competition at the time, the U.S., there to vastly improve their lot and from whence to ship money back to their hapless relatives in the motherland. Frankly, His Holiness should take on board Wittgenstein's prudent dictum: “Of what which we cannot speak, thereof we should be silent”. But, then again, I have to remind myself of the Catholic dogma that any Pope is infallible only in certain very restricted situations having nothing to do with economics, or astronomy, or climate science, or biology, or whatever, save faith and morals. The good thing about Pope Francis is that he's proved this over and over, ad nauseam. The bad thing is that the poor will suffer the consequences of his pious ignorance, while his supporters cheer, come what may, from the stands.

HH | 15 October 2015  

Jesus talked a lot about money so it's an important topic. Christians are always being asked to give, that is the nature of following Christ. The church must be the church for the poor, however the church by necessity owns property and other assets. The good Samaritan helped the stranger - but the stranger could have been wealthy, for all he knew.

Pam | 15 October 2015  

Previous comments show an ignorance of the Gospels. Christ demanded concern and action to help the poor as an essential to following Him. Pope Francis is merely saying what the Church's social teaching has been for a long time. If we ignore the poor we do so at our own peril and turn our back on Christ. We should save personally for our old age, but should not be attached to wealth or have wealth as our ultimate goal. Jesus said, "Where your treasure is, your heart is there also". We can't take it with us when we die.

Christopher | 15 October 2015  

Thank you Andrew. Francis has done much to address the world's focus on economics and pervasive Eurocentric (Old Colonial) view of the world. South America has also been squandered, increasingly owned wealthy nations and corporations as they take control over resources. The poorest are treated as collateral. The church has its roots in the middle east and trunk and branches in Europe, old money, vast wealth and colonial power.The church has majority of faithful followers in Africa,Asia and South America. Francis is right to condemn obscene wealth, destruction of natural world, and discrimination and slavery of many with poor wages. He espouses Christ in each person no matter who they are. He is also right to highlight inequalities and embrace suffering, as Christ did.... It is more difficult for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven, than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle...

Catherine | 15 October 2015  

The rich depend on the poor. How else would they make their profits?

Catherine | 15 October 2015  

"A society stratified on the basis of wealth and advantage in its living places, means of transport, schooling, opportunity and workplace arrangements is unlikely to take responsibility for people who are impoverished." and of course health. Money has to come from somewhere and the fabled trickle down to the less fortunate is now replaced by the suck up from them to the top few. And...it is fascinating how some of the most slavish Vaticanophyles are now suggesting the current pope has lost his marbles.

Michael D. Breen | 15 October 2015  

Thank you Fr Hamilton for starting such an interesting discourse in ES. My take is that Francis is not saying that capitalism is inherently bad, indeed it seems self-evident that it is the only way for global economic success and as HH says pulling the masses of poor, mainly in the 3rd world, out of degradation as it has done in the West. However, from the Christian perspective even if we accept these broad means as valid, capitalism still cannot be allowed to be (too) exploitative of individuals nor (too) corrupt, and by its nature experience shows that it tends to be both. So good international regulation is vital. Even more important, its purpose needs to be redefined, so that the efficient use of capital is not primarily so much about making the entrepreneur rich (although that is necessary, although should be kept within respectable limits through taxation), but rather to be explicitly for the common good, and especially to make the poor less so. In terms of the Church`s role in the Australian community, again to seems to me that its substantial energies in providing education and health care predominantly for the rich rather than the poor is a gross distortion of the historic mandate to the founding organisations involved, but is a scandal on the rest of us.

Eugene | 15 October 2015  

"How else would (the rich) make their profits?" In the free market, they do it by creating products and services that customers, rich and poor alike, find improve their lives. It's win-win, not zero-sum as the Marxists mistakenly believe. As a result, the poorer people in capitalist economies today are, as it were, the richest poor people in history by far. In terms of the array of choices they have before them, thanks to capitalist innovation and enterprise, options that would leave emperors and nobles of old amazed. Why are millions scrambling to get into Europe, America and Australia? Because, for one, they're lands of opportunity and wealth, made so by capitalism. How many are steering their boats to anti-capitalist, egalitarian Cuba, Venezuela and North Korea? Not a single one. By the way, I'm a bit sick of hearing that I'm ignoring the poor, just because I maintain that the leftist solution to poverty has worsened their situation. The way to engage in the debate is with empirical evidence and reasoning, not moral finger-pointing.

HH | 15 October 2015  

"It may be a tough road, we know, but don't forget. It is easier for a rich man to pass through the eye of a needle than for a camel to... than it is for a camel to." NTNON.

AO | 15 October 2015  

No doubt the encomium to harrowing bursars is extended to ES financial advisor-applicants. CV must display history of bankruptcy[Such a blessing!!!]

Father John George | 15 October 2015  

Cuba is currently in the process of rejoining the world and opening up relations with the US - which Pope Francis encouraged Cuban leaders to embrace. Cubans are just hoping the transition from communism isn't hijacked like in the Soviet Union and China with the capitalist dictatorships.

AURELIUS | 15 October 2015  

@HH. How dare you go quoting empirical data when you should be concerned about the poor being ground under the heal of the rich?!!? (sarcasm off) You are right about the retreat of poverty. In a recent article "The Left has its Pope" American economist Thomas Sowell commented, "In 1900, only 3 percent of American homes had electric lights but more than 99 percent had them before the end of the century. Infant mortality rates were 165 per thousand in 1900 and 7 per thousand by 1997. By 2001, most Americans living below the official poverty line had central air conditioning, a motor vehicle, cable television with multiple TV sets, and other amenities." He went on to say,"Any serious look at the history of human beings over the millennia shows that the species began in poverty. It is not poverty, but prosperity, that needs explaining. Poverty is automatic, but prosperity requires many things" The way we achieve prosperity is by letting people trade their goods and services as they will without government interference. I see no reason to conclude that the less fortunate will be left uncared for without government controlled programs. People had been caring for the poor for centuries through their natural human compassion before big government became the presumed solution for all our ills

Gerald Lanigan | 15 October 2015  

Gerald Lanigan should take HH's advice and look around at the real world before he wags his finger at those who "don't save" because saving is beyond the reach of many hard-working people, let alone those without viable means of support. The speck of moral finger-waving of which HH complains appears to be a beam in both their eyes.

SMK | 15 October 2015  

Why do refugees seek refuge in Europe? It is wealthy! Wealth derived from centuries of colonialism, an industrial revolution, now servicing and manufacturing warfare. Captialism does not want a level playing field. What is the G20 ? Why is there still hunger,disease, and poverty?If 1% of population owns more than half , why is capitalism not working to alleviate suffering??If the rich- royal and old moneyed families, 1st world nations and multi-national corporations -repaid all colonial territories, rich with resources, they would be bankrupt. Profits are not made by individuals,or in isolation to the poor but from buying at minimal cost (farmers will tell you) and supplying/selling products, often superfluous, and often high demand basic needs. Capitalists rely on 3rd world poverty and crippling debt....Fair? It may look different if the shoe or sandal was on the other foot. > It is not left wing or marxist to want a civilised marketplace. Dignity for all.Fair trade is also a safeguard against depletion of resources,in an ever smaller world. One world.

Catherine | 15 October 2015  

A well-written composition. I propose to quote from it this Catholic Mission Sunday. Thank you Andrew.

Fr Bruce Little | 16 October 2015  

Catherine, your thesis that capitalism relies on poverty to create wealth is easily proved false. Even the liberal, left-leaning Brookings Institute acknowledges that global systemic poverty is disappearing at unprecedented rates. Barring any major world wars, there won't be anyone in grinding poverty by about 2050, except in anti-capitalist hell holes such as North Korea. Yet before capitalism began in earnest in the late 18th century, more than 3/4 of the world's population lived in grinding poverty. If evil capitalist wealth creation causes poverty, how is it possible that global poverty has shrunk to vanishing point for the first time in human history at the very same time as capitalism has spread across the world, starting in those countries where it was practiced most intently? Your theory requires that there be MORE poverty as capitalism expands, not less. And who, pray tell, are the masses of the 3rd world exploiting - which they must be according to your theory - as they lift themselves out of poverty via the market? The martians?

HH | 16 October 2015  

I'm guessing a couple of the comments missed the article's point about "saving" - it was meant in the sense of the church - not as general advice for economists. So just as HH speaks in empirical dogmatic terms about the "values" of the free market - that's actually not the role of the church and definitely not part of Catholic teaching. Now that the cold war is over, and the associated Marxist/KGB conspiracy theories that go along with it, Francis is starting to return to tradition Catholic social teaching.

AURELIUS | 16 October 2015  

Excellent comments Gerald. Thomas Sowell is one of my favourite authors. As you probably know, he was a Marxist in his 20s, then was mugged by reality and embraced free market economic theory, which he has explained and defended since about 1960. It would be good if Pope Francis imbibed some of Sowell's vast wisdom before writing about poverty again.

HH | 16 October 2015  

I must say I enjoy Andrew's articles, he helps to bring us focus on the important issues. The thing I notice about wealth is that it gets hold of people who seem to want more and more. Just when is enough - enough? As a Minister of another denomination I found that the generous givers were those who didn't have much in the way of material wealth. Yes the Church of all denominations has concerned itself with building security and sadly prestige, power and possessions have all too often become our goal. I reckon Pope Francis has a 'I beg to differ word.'

Harry Lucas | 16 October 2015  

It's significant that in Poverty Week the 2015 Sveridges Ricksbank ("Nobel") Prize for Economics was awarded to the leading development economist Angus Deaton. Deaton over the years has largely vindicated the pioneering work of Lord Peter Bauer in exposing the hazards of using foreign aid to lift poor nations out of poverty. Aid agencies, Deaton finds, undermine good governance in poor countries. Leaders of poor countries who have their funding sourced in foreign aid are thereby robbed of the incentive to be responsive to the needs of their people, or to promote their good. In fact, foreign aid has created the perverse incentive for these rulers to keep their people in poverty so that the aid funds will continue. Rather than foreign aid, as a panacea, Deaton has a much more sensible line: "What we need to do is to make sure that we are not standing on the way of the now-poor countries doing what we have already done. We need to let poor people help themselves and get out of the way — or, more positively, stop doing things that are obstructing them.”

HH | 16 October 2015  

Pope Francis, like Jesus in whose footsteps he follows, is not a politician nor an economist. Jesus was apolitical - he did not seek to violently overthrow nor subtly undermine the government in Roman occupied Palestine. What he was looking at was the misuse - 'gross consumerism' - of wealthy people's resources whilst others were homeless and starving. That should ring a bell in contemporary Australia. Likewise Jesus healed many mentally ill people who were physically and socially ostracised by society. Once again, we don't have to look far. Jesus' revolution wasn't a violent, physical one bent on overthrowing society but a moral revolution where everyone, from the top down, took their social responsibilities seriously. Proper use of one's resources, whether individual or group, is a Christian responsibility to be exercised wisely. How this is exercised is a matter of debate. I don't think the Pope would object to that.

Edward Fido | 17 October 2015  

Pope Francis may not be an economist ; neither am I , but like him I have seen at first hand, real grinding poverty and it continues to haunt me more than 30 years after the event! Unfortunately in the pursuit of wealth, we are using up the earth's resources at an unsustainable rate. Pope Francis has rightly pointed out the perils of human induced climate change and resource exploitation amongst other issues facing human kind. Contrary to the often meek and mild demeanour ascribed to Jesus , in practice He was very socially aware and highly critical of the rich classes of his day- it's one reason why he was ultimately executed-he offended the rich and powerful and threatened their cosy relationship with the occupying Roman power.

Gavin | 04 November 2015  

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