Eradicating Poverty Is Not a Gospel Value – A Reflection on a Teaching by Cardinal Sarah

homeless-blog-postThe eradication of poverty is an oft-stated goal of the modern, liberal West. President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s pronouncement of a “war on poverty” so imprinted this notion in the Western mind that it has become almost axiomatic. It is now a fundamental pillar in the thinking of almost every person (and organization) in the Western world, from the religious pew-sitter concerned for the poor to the most secular humanist bent on a utopian vision. Poverty is a great enemy that must be stamped out!

The only problem is that this is contrary to the Gospel! It is no surprise, therefore, that even after decades of Western “do-goodism,” barely a dent has been made in the percentage of people living in poverty. In fact, some statistics show that the percentage in poverty has increased. But why should we expect great fruitfulness in something that opposes God?

I can see the look of shock on your face right now; you may even be embarrassed that I have written this. I’d like to share a quote with you from Robert Cardinal Sarah, which makes an important distinction that we need to recover. While what he says may also shock you, I encourage you to read it carefully and thoughtfully; the distinction he makes is critical. Not only does the Gospel depend on it, but cultures and individual lives do as well. For indeed, in the name of eradicating poverty some of the worst of Western arrogance has been displayed. It is an arrogance that does not even recognize that it can become willing to the destroy the poor themselves as well as what and whom they love all in the name of this “noble” goal.

Cardinal Robert Sarah is no neophyte in this discussion. He grew up in an impoverished region of Africa and later headed the Roman dicastery, Cor unum, a charitable arm of the Holy See. The extensive passage below is an abbreviated version of the Cardinal’s response to the following questions posed by his interviewer, Nicholas Diat:

How would you describe the nature of Cor unum, the dicastery to which you devoted several years of your life, in its fight against all sorts of poverty? Furthermore, why do you speak so often about the close relation between God and the poor?

In his reply, the Cardinal is reacting somewhat to Mr. Diat’s description of Cor unum’s work as “fight[ing] against all sorts of poverty.” The Cardinal’s response is nothing short of stunning. Please read it carefully and consider obtaining the book so as to able to read the unabridged remarks as well.

The Gospel is not a slogan. The same goes for our activity to relieve people’s suffering … [it is a matter] of working humbly and having a deep respect for the poor. For example, I remember being disgusted when I heard the advertising slogan of a Catholic charitable organization, which was almost insulting to the poor: “Let us fight for zero poverty” … Not one saint … ever dared to speak that way about poverty and poor people.

Jesus himself had no pretention of this sort. This slogan respects neither the Gospel nor Christ. Ever since the Old Testament, God has been with the poor; and Sacred Scripture unceasingly acclaims “the poor of Yahweh.” …

Poverty is a biblical value confirmed by Christ, who emphatically exclaims, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven” (Mt 5:3). … The poor person is someone who knows that, by himself, he cannot live. He needs God and other people in order to be, flourish and grow. On the contrary, rich people expect nothing of anyone. They can provide for their needs without calling either on their neighbors or on God. In this sense wealth can lead to great sadness and true human loneliness or to terrible spiritual poverty. If in order to eat and care for himself, a man must turn to someone else, this necessarily results in a great enlargement of his heart. This is why the poor are closest to God and live in great solidarity with one another; they draw from this divine source the ability to be attentive to others.

The Church must not fight against poverty but, rather, wage a battle against destitution, especially material and spiritual destitution. … [so that all] might have the minimum they require in order to live. …

But we do not have the right to confuse destitution and poverty, because in so doing we would seriously be going against the Gospel. Recall what Christ told us: “The poor you will have always with you …” (Jn 12:8). Those who want to eradicate poverty make the Son of God a liar. …

[In his yearly Lenten message in 2014, Pope Francis] espoused what St. Francis [of Assisi] called “Lady Poverty.” … St. Francis of Assisi wanted to be poor because Christ chose poverty. If he calls poverty a royal virtue, it is because it shone brilliantly in the life of Jesus … and in the life of his mother, Mary of Nazareth. …

Similarly, I often think about the vow of poverty taken by religious … [they] do so in order to be as close as possible to Christ. The Son [of God] wanted us to be poor in order to show us the best path by which we can return to God. …

The Son of God loves the poor; others intend to eradicate them. What a lying, unrealistic, almost tyrannical utopia! I always marvel when Gaudium et Spes declares, “The spirit of poverty and charity is the glory and witness of the Church of Christ” (GS 88).

We must be precise in our choice of words. The language of the UN and its agencies, who want to suppress poverty, which they confuse with destitution, is not that of the Church of Christ. The Son of God did not come to speak to the poor in ideological slogans! The Church must banish these slogans from her language. For they have stupefied and destroyed peoples who were trying to remain free in conscience (Cardinal Sarah, God or Nothing: A Conversation in Faith with Nicholas Diat, pp. 140-142).

Perhaps stunned himself, Mr. Diat follows up with the following question: “Are you not afraid of being misunderstood in employing this sort of distinction?”

The Cardinal replies,

It is a lack of charity to shut one’s eyes. It is a lack of charity to remain silent in the face of confusing words and slogans! … If you read the Latin text of Gaudium et Spes carefully you will immediately notice this distinction (Ibid, p. 143).

This is a powerful insight and it reveals the deep flaw in Western “anti-poverty” programs. Christ asks us to love the poor and imitate the best of what they are, not eliminate them and disregard the simplicity and trust that they can often exemplify. But we in the West, imbued with our materialistic notions and mesmerized by the comfort and control that wealth can temporarily buy, denigrate what the Gospels praises and seek to eradicate it.

So unreflective are we in this matter that some will even justify the most awful things in the name of eradicating poverty. Many programs (U.S.-sponsored and U.N.-sponsored) with this goal advocate for contraception, abortion, and/or euthanasia. Some have even sought to compel these sorts of things as a precondition for receiving aid. Some seek to impose certain aspects of Western thinking, something that has been labeled an attempt at “ideological colonization.” Many of us in the “First World” often speak of the “Third World” in a way that at best is patronizing and at worst exhibits a thinly veiled contempt.

While it is true that certain economic and political systems best support Western lifestyles, there is more to life than material abundance. With our own culture, families, and common sense collapsing around us, it seems odd that we so easily consider our way of life superior; that we see our relationship to the poor and to poorer countries as one in which we have all the answers and they should just listen to us.

The word “arrogance” comes to mind. We too easily assume, without even asking, that we know what is best; we presume that poor people in every part of the world want what we have (materially) and that they don’t perceive the awful price we have paid in order to get it.

We must recover a respect for the world’s poor, who have much to teach us. Even if they are not materially without troubles, they often possess many things we have lost: simplicity, family and tribal (communal) life, reciprocity, proper interdependence (as opposed to radical individualism), trust, a slower life, and a less-stressful life.

Further, we must not forget that the Lord counseled poverty (Lk 18:22), declared the poor blessed (Lk 6:20), lived simply Himself having “nowhere to lay his head” (Mt 8:20), lived among the working poor, and warned of the pernicious quality of wealth (Lk 16:13). God hears the cry of the poor and Mother Mary taught us of a great reversal that is coming, when the mighty and powerful will be cast down and poor and lowly raised up (Lk 1:52). Jesus taught us that many who are now last will be first in the kingdom of Heaven (Mat 19:30). In this life, the poor will sometimes need us. In the next life, on Judgment Day, we are going to need them to welcome us into eternal dwellings (Luke 16:9).

I really cannot say it better than did the good Cardinal, so I will not attempt to do so. We must surely work to alleviate the destitution that often comes in times of famine, war, or natural disaster. But destitution and poverty are not the same thing. Overlooking this distinction can be deadly for the poor we claim to serve and for their cultures, and can result in the worst forms of ideological colonization and secular utopianism.

11 Replies to “Eradicating Poverty Is Not a Gospel Value – A Reflection on a Teaching by Cardinal Sarah”

  1. “Happy Are You Poor” by Fr. Thomas Dubay does an excellent job of making this distinction between poverty and destitution. (Click my name/website to locate my review of the book).

  2. The decadence of the west attest to this fact that its materialistic society leads its people to spiritual destitution. The preponderance of wealth incurred idle hands and produced wandering minds that indulged in irreverent, perverted ideas and self indulgent frivolities which are decaying the very core of human dignity. Its people had become indolent and only wish more handouts in order to indulge in their superficialities and hedonism. Its culture had degenerated into a morally inferior and happy-go-lucky attitude towards life easily stressed-out even in trivial things. 2nd chapter of 2nd Peter best describe our generation. We must all return to GOD and yes, ‘go back to the future’ for which we are called for by JESUS, HIMSELF, to love, honor and obey, to know, love and serve HIM and HIM alone. Yes, Monsignor, yes Cardinal Sarah, eradicating poverty is not a Gospel value, neither is wealth but spiritual poverty and spiritual richness are. GOD Bless you both. YHWH MEKODDISHKEM.

  3. This is exactly what Pope Benedict XVI said in the first Jesus of Nazareth book. He said that Jesus did not come to earth to solve all of our problems. He came to bring us God. And it is only in the hardness of our hearts that this is not enough.

  4. Not to start a rabbit trail, but I noticed this observation: “If you read the Latin text of Gaudium et Spes carefully you will immediately notice this distinction.”

    Whoever provides the translations of our definitive texts into other languages has a lot to account for. Many of us have noticed, since the Vatican II documents themselves, that a lot of social mischief has been imported into the translations we’re given to work with. The example I’m familiar with is Familiaris Consortio since our pastor assigned it to those of us involved in marriage programs in my parish. Where the Latin text speaks of the “good” or “goods” of marriage and family life (bonum, bonorum), the English text speaks of “value” or “values” (69 of the 74 occurrences of “value” translate “bonum”, if memory serves. If my memory is faulty, the number is higher than 69). No doubt a similar confusion is introduced in translations involving “poverty” or “the poor”, which is why Cardinal Sarah prefers the Latin.

  5. Msgr,

    In 2003 I participated in a cross-country bicycle tour sponsored by the USCCB’s domestic anti-poverty arm, the Catholic Campaign for Human Development based in DC to raise awareness about their social-justice grants and programs for people to “break the cycle of poverty.” The “End Poverty in the U.S.” slogan/agenda was/is exactly as Cardinal Sarah described. I was always uncomfortable with the presumptions implicit in this line of thinking (I thought it was both unrealistic and somewhat patronizing), but I didn’t know any better as a fresh convert to the faith who just wanted to live the gospel.

    I’ve since “drifted right” in my walk as a Catholic, but I ask a sincere question–how are we to live out our faith with regard to the poor, and who are the ‘poor among us’? My wife and I are in our late forties and are people of means, in a position to be of material assistance to those who are struggling. We have written large anonymous checks for faithful Catholic families in our parish we knew were struggling to keep the lights on and put food on the table; We try to instill a spirit of generosity of heart in our children by hosting families with sick children needing medical treatment in our area who cannot afford long-term lodging. We give generously to our parish, but could also probably give more.

    We ourselves are not in need, and we give from our abundance. None of this merits anything, and deserves no recognition, though we do try to “not let our left hand know what our right hand is doing.” But we know that it was the widow who gave from her need who was blessed, not the rich people giving from their abundance.

    I only write it here in order to ask the question: How should we live? How should we give? We as a family have so much to learn from the poor but have walked with them so little in our little suburban enclave. We read the story of Lazarus and the rich man to our kids at night. But maybe we are the rich man destined for hell, with Lazarus sitting outside our door, or like the rich young man who went away sad. Cardinal Sarah’s words are an indictment, but while we are alive in this world we still have the chance to change.

    So I ask you, as the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts reading Isaiah but not understanding who said, “how should I know what I am reading unless someone explains it to me?” Please, tell me: practically speaking, how should we live, and how should we give, so we are not shut out from the Kingdom on the Day of Judgement? Please pray for us as a family. All we want is to live for the Lord. What else matters?

  6. The way we have gone after “eradicating poverty” is the same way we have gone after the education system. Throw more money at it. Our education system is worse than ever and we have more single parent families with no fathers. There are many forms of poverty! Thanks so much. I love all your blogs!!!

  7. “In modern American society, being rude and self-centered is relabeled “assertiveness.” “Let the buyer beware” is the ethical umbrella covering the right to sell and collect as much profit as possible, regardless of the customer’s ability to pay. Moreover, in twenty-first century America, certainly the most valuable members of our society are athletes, bankers, and C.E.O.s because our culture compensates them the most.”

    Excerpt From: Mike Stair. “Be Attitudinal.” iBooks.

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