6.1.3 Poverty in the Catholic Church’s teaching
St Luke’s Gospel gives us these words of Jesus:
Blessed are you who are poor,
for the kingdom of God is yours.
Blessed are you who are now hungry,
for you will be satisfied….
But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
But woe to you who are filled now,
for you will be hungry.
(Luke 6:20-21, 24-25)1
St Matthew’s Gospel gives us these:
Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven….
Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be satisfied.
(Matt. 5:3, 6)
In these similar but contrasting statements in Luke and Matthew, we find important keys to Christian teaching about, on one hand, material poverty and, on the other hand, ‘poverty of spirit’ or ‘poverty of heart’. Before we start to study liberation theology, it is appropriate to look at Christian teaching about poverty because liberation theology raised challenging questions about this. We do so under three headings.
Response to material poverty is a matter of justice
When studying Scripture in Unit 2, we saw that poverty is portrayed as an evil which provisions of the Torah sought to prevent and which the prophets called upon those with power to overcome (2.2.3, 2.2.4). The ideal king of Psalm 72 will practise mishpat, just judgment in court, and bring tzedakah, society-wide justice, and in this way will “defend the oppressed among the people [and] save the children of the poor” (Ps. 72:1-4). Among other prophetic voices, Amos cries out for mishpat and tzedakah (Amos 5:6-24). Moreover tzedakah depends on recognition that giving to people in need is an obligation, not an optional extra (see 3.1.4).
We have seen a similar response to poverty in PP:
“If someone who has the riches of this world sees his brother in need and closes his heart to him, how does the love of God abide in him?”2 It is well known how strong were the words used by the Fathers of the Church to describe the proper attitude of persons who possess anything towards persons in need. To quote Saint Ambrose: “You are not making a gift of your possessions to the poor person. You are handing over to him what is his. For what has been given in common for the use of all, you have arrogated to yourself…”.3 … No one is justified in keeping for his exclusive use what he does not need, when others lack necessities… If there should arise a conflict “between acquired private rights and primary community exigencies”, it is the responsibility of public authorities “to look for a solution, with the active participation of individuals and social groups”.4 (PP, #23, italics added; this passage comes just after the start of the section on ‘Action to be taken’ in order to make a reality of integral human development.)
As this makes clear, how people respond to the material poverty of others is a matter of justice, of what is due to them, not only of charity. This corresponds with what we found when examining Friedrich Hayek’s argument that ‘social justice’ is a meaningless concept (early in Unit 5: 5.2.4–5.2.5). In identifying the main flaw in Hayek’s argument, we saw that, even if no one has intentionally brought about a distribution of goods that leaves some in poverty, how people respond to this state of affairs is a matter of justice. For those with resources to do so, not to respond to such poverty is to sin by omission. The quotation above from St Ambrose above expresses this with force.
Do you find this idea that how people respond to poverty is a matter of justice convincing?
To what extent do you think people in the communities you live in see it this way?
Even though suffering, the poor are blessed by God
When Jesus said (as quoted above), “Blessed are you who are poor” and “Blessed are you who are now hungry”, what can this mean? Poverty deprives people of life chances they should have simply because they are human. How can it make sense to call such people “blessed”?
In one way the passage answers this straightforwardly: it refers to blessing as in the future: “they shall be satisfied”.
But there is more to be said than this. Right back at the start of the module, we focused on a passage earlier in Luke when Jesus stood up in the synagogue in his home town of Nazareth and quoted Isaiah (Luke 4:16-21). Reading the first half of that screen again gives the background for what will follow here.
VPlater, Module B, 1.2.2, down to the first ‘Reflection’
Jesus’ ‘Nazareth manifesto’ (as this passage is often called) announced salvation for the afflicted and poor – their blessing. These are the first words in Jesus’ public ministry that Luke’s Gospel gives us. But this blessing was not only in the future. After Jesus finished reading from Isaiah, with “the eyes of all in the synagogue looked intently at him”, he said, “Today this scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing” (vv. 20-21).
For Jesus, the gospel was about God’s reign beginning to be made real there and then, as he called God’s people to a renewal that manifested trust, forgiveness, generosity, among other things – in short, love of God and neighbour. This would bring blessing to the poor and oppressed in a more radical way than political power can do.
Here Jesus was picking up a deep theme in the Hebrew Scriptures, one that we should explore briefly. One Hebrew word for ‘poor’ is anaw; its plural is anawim and this is used numerous times, including in the Isaiah passage which Jesus read in the Nazareth synagogue:
The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,
because the LORD has anointed me;
He has sent me to bring good news to the anawim…
In one way, Isaiah 61 appeals back to the Torah’s call for the year of jubilee (see 2.2.3): the good news will be “a year of favor from the LORD” (v. 2). In another way, it reflects the many expressions in the Old Testament that God’s blessing will come to the anawim. This word is usually translated into English as poor, afflicted, lowly or humble; its literal meaning is close to ‘bowed down’ or ‘overwhelmed’. Time and time again we find a sense that the anawim are not abandoned by God but are close to him and his ways. “You listen, LORD, to the needs of the anawim; you strengthen their heart and incline your ear.” (Ps. 10:17). “It is better to be humble with the anawim than to share plunder with the proud.” (Prov. 16:19).
Most such references are in the Psalms and the prophets. Here are two further examples from the Psalms.
30 But here I am miserable and in pain;
let your saving help protect me, God,
31 That I may praise God’s name in song
and glorify it with thanksgiving.
32 That will please the LORD more than oxen,
more than bulls with horns and hooves:
33 “See, you lowly ones [anawim], and be glad;
you who seek God, take heart!
34 For the LORD hears the poor [a different Hebrew word],
and does not spurn those in bondage…”
(Ps 69: 30-34)
25 For he has not spurned or disdained
the misery of this poor wretch [‘ā·nî – adjective]
Did not turn away from me,
but heard me when I cried out.
26 I will offer praise in the great assembly;
my vows I will fulfill before those who fear him.
27 The poor [anawim] will eat their fill;
those who seek the LORD will offer praise.
May your hearts enjoy life forever!
Moreover, the messianic figure to come in the future, about whom several passages in the Hebrew Scriptures speak, will act for the anawim. Ps. 72 came to be seen as messianic in this way and, as noted above, its ideal king brings justice to the poor – the word is anawim (in vv. 2, 4 and 12). For Christians, one especially well known messianic passage is Isaiah 11:1-9; its early verses say:
2 The spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him:
a spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
A spirit of counsel and of strength,
a spirit of knowledge and of fear of the LORD,
3 and his delight shall be the fear of the LORD.
Not by appearance shall he judge,
nor by hearsay shall he decide,
4 But he shall judge the poor with justice,
When Jesus announced blessing and good news to the poor, the Hebrew Scriptures resonated powerfully in his words. While it can be easy for Christians now to miss these resonances as we read the Bible, or perhaps just to pass over them, they help to form Christian teaching about poverty.
Here is a very short reading that picks up what we have just been looking at and connects it with CST.
Rev. Fred Kammer, S.J., ‘Catholic Social Teaching (CST) and Poverty’
In 6.1.1, I said that during Unit 6 we would assess the extent to which the trajectory of CST on ‘the worker question’ is integrated with that on ‘the development of peoples’. We can note that in this article Kammer does connect addressing poverty with human work.
Before reading the above, how aware were you of this biblical theme of God’s blessing of the poor?
Poverty of spirit
At the start of this screen I quoted Jesus in Luke, ‘Blessed are you who are poor’, and also in Matthew, ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit’ (italics added). How are these two connected?
Our study of the word anaw/anawim can help us to see this. The term refers not narrowly to the materially poor – although it certainly refers to these – but also to those who, recognizing their dependence on God, are characterised by humility and openness to God. Here are verses in Psalm 25 that reflect this:
8 Good and upright is the LORD,
therefore he shows sinners the way,
9 He guides the humble (anawim) in righteousness,
and teaches the humble (anawim) his way.
10 All the paths of the LORD are mercy and truth
toward those who honor his covenant and decrees.
When the poor depend more immediately and fully on God’s gracious provision than the rich tend to do, they manifest humility before God. They are not only poor but poor in spirit.
Such an understanding of ‘poverty of spirit’ or ‘poverty of heart’ finds expression in numerous ways in the New Testament, not least in Mary’s song after she learns she is to have a child (Luke 1:46-55). Here is part of it:
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord;
my spirit rejoices in God my savior.
For he has looked upon his handmaid’s lowliness…
His mercy is from age to age
to those who fear him….
The hungry he has filled with good things;
the rich he has sent away empty.
Read the short section on ‘Poverty of heart’ in the Catholic Catechism; this brings in some other New Testament passages.
Catechism of the Catholic Church, ‘Poverty of heart’ (##2544-2547)
In saying both ‘Blessed are you who are poor’ and ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit’, Jesus was not saying completely different things. Those in material poverty can manifest a dependence on and openness to God that is spiritual poverty. Those who are not poor are called to equivalent dependence and openness – and this may well lead to them to give up material wealth.
Against the background of these three aspects of Catholic teaching about poverty, we are in a better position now to turn to liberation theology.
End of 6.1
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This and other biblical quotations on this page are from the New American Bible Revised Edition (NABRE). ↩
1 Jn 3:17. ↩
De Nabuthe, c. 12, n. 53; (P. L. 14, 747). Cf. J. R. Palanque, Saint Ambrose et l’empire romain, Paris: de Boccard, 1933, pp. 336 f. ↩
Letter to the 82nd Session of the French Social Weeks (Brest 1965), in L’homme et la révolution urbaine, Lyons Chronique sociale 1965, pp. 8 and 9. Cf. L’Osservatore Romano, July 10, 1965, Documentation catholique t. 62, Paris, 1965, col 1365. ↩
Some other similar uses of anawim are at Pss 9:19, 34:3, 147:5-6 and 149:4; cf. Prov 3:34 and 14:21. In some of the references given, the form of the Hebrew word differs from the simple plural anawim. ↩