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Poverty and renunciation

3 April 2013 By Edward Hadas

“Go into the street, and give one man a lecture on morality, and another a shilling, and see which will respect you most.” Samuel Johnson said that in the 18th century, but the general preference for money over preaching is sufficiently strong and timeless that his wry quip remains pertinent. Most economists take Johnson’s sentiment too seriously. They assume that people always want more shillings and always resist wealth-denying morality. That is a serious error.

Consider, for example, the enthusiastic response from around the world to the material renunciations of Pope Francis. The crowds cheered when the new leader of the Catholic Church said he wanted a “poor Church for the poor”. His decision to stay in simple lodgings and wear simple clothes amounted to turning down shillings for the sake of giving a morality lecture, but few observers were bothered. On the contrary, it was welcomed as a pertinent comment on the excessively materialist values of modern society.

The need to be “for the poor” is eternal and universal. In every society there will always be people who cannot thrive without help from others. Despite Dr Johnson’s comment, the need for conscience-pricking discourses on the topic, papal and otherwise, is equally timeless. Otherwise, it would be too easy to find plausible but ultimately selfish reasons not to help out.

In the modern world, the challenge of being pro-poor is particularly difficult, because there are two distinct types of poverty: of the seriously poor and of the relatively rich. In poorer countries, including Francis’s native Argentina, poverty is often absolute: not enough to eat, squalid housing, no access to education. The poor there need Dr Johnson’s shillings. In rich countries, material poverty is only relative. Those called poor generally all have life’s necessities, but fewer comforts and luxuries than most of their compatriots. As Francis’s papal predecessors often suggested, this relative material deprivation is less significant than more intangible shortages: of opportunity and noble aspirations. The socially and spiritually deprived could benefit from something like Dr. Johnson’s “lectures on morality”.

Involuntary poverty, whether material or intangible, is a bad thing, but Francis said he wanted a “poor church”. He must believe that voluntary poverty can sometimes be virtuous.

Two virtues spring to mind. The first is solidarity. There is something selfish about having much more than is necessary when so many people are forced to go without. Renunciation by the rich can redress that injustice.

As Francis’s wish suggests, the Catholic Church has much to renounce before it can be considered poor alongside the world’s poor. It has too often amassed fortunes and its leaders have been too close to the privileged classes, especially if they express the right pious sentiments. The lack of economic solidarity, though, is a global phenomenon.

A New York family pays thousands of dollars for surgery on a pet cat. Parents in the slums of Buenos Aires cannot raise the hundreds of dollars needed for surgery on their child. There may be no direct relationship between the two, but there is something distasteful about the conjunction, because the Americans and Argentines live in the same world. Solidarity is much more appealing. The New Yorkers could foreswear surgery as a sort of memorial of the plight of the poor, or better yet, donate the unspent money to a children’s medical charity.

The second virtue of voluntary poverty is the detachment it brings from what the pope’s namesake, Francis of Assisi, called the “dung” of “earthly things”. The 13th century saint loved “Lady Poverty” because in her presence it was easier to taste “the honeyed crumbs which fall from the table of the Holy Angels”. In less poetic words, we may think that we own our houses, cars or yachts, but they often own us, by taking precedence over more important concerns. When higher GDP is considered the paramount sign of national success, people have become subservient to things.

The Catholic Church canonised Francis of Assisi, “the little poor man”, but its numerous ecclesial palaces and luxurious monasteries suggest an excessive attachment to material things. Pope Francis seems to think his detachment from the Church’s fortune can set an example for the Church. It could also inspire residents of rich economies. Detachment from material things is particularly valuable when there are so many material things to be detached from, and when so much of society, from family life to education, seems to be organised primarily to serve the satisfaction of material whims.

In choosing a relatively simple wardrobe and housing, the new pope is not necessary criticising the view, widespread among Catholics, that elegant clothing, beautiful buildings and fine art bear witness to the glory of God. But in a world where there is both too much poverty and too much wealth, the renunciation of riches can speak more persuasively than luxury.


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