Letter from Rome: Pope Francis and Truly Helping the Poor

Dear friends of Istituto Acton,

With the election of Pope Francis, the Catholic Church is now led by a humble, simple pastor who will capture the world’s attention with his care for the poor and suffering.   This is not to say that his more intellectual predecessors did not have this same concern for the lowly; a look at their first encyclicals, John Paul II’s Redemptor Hominis and Benedict XVI’s Deus Caritas Est, reveals how Jesus Christ, perfect God and perfect Man, is our model in thought and action, and we can expect Francis to do the same.  In fact, he already has by his deeds eschewing some of the pomp that is currently associated with the papacy.  While this has turned off some more traditional Catholics, it is likely to appeal to others who have fallen away from the faith, not an insignificant number of people according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.  It’s therefore important to remember that the tradition at the heart of the Church is meant to serve the larger mission of saving souls by bringing them closer to Christ, which is what the New Evangelization is all about.

The problem of belief in the modern world cannot be solved by a few gestures, of course, and there are many reasons why so many people have a hard time trying to be good Catholics.  The Church has never claimed that living according to the faith is easy or necessarily convenient.  But the more worrying trend is that many are not even trying.  As G.K. Chesterton remarked at the beginning of the 20th century, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.”  Being a Christian is not simply a matter of showing up at Sunday Mass but of thinking and acting according to a certain understanding of God and man.  It’s why theology and philosophy are so important in Christianity, much more so than in religions such as Judaism and Islam that put more emphasis on following the law in all its details.  Belief in the Triune God goes much beyond doing good deeds or practicing sexual morality, and belief makes the deeds more coherent and even easier to do.  The mistake many fallen-away Catholics make is that they focus on one or another aspect of the teaching at the expense of all the others, and Francis will do a lot of good if he can get some of these to re-examine the Church’s claims and show us that living a Christian life is not only possible but what God wants for us and therefore something He helps us do if we get up and try again after our inevitable falls.  The Church is made up of sinners who are called to be saints and the whole point of the Church would be absurd if it were only made up of perfect men and women who don’t exist anyway.

So perhaps Francis will help us realize that Christianity is true by the way he lives and his concern for the poor; as both John Paul II and Benedict XVI said, witness is often a stronger example of faith than mere words.  We already know that the poor are at the center of Francis’s thoughts and actions, so it will be useful to re-examine what the Church means by spiritual and material poverty.  It’s not that the things of the world are to be despised and rejected but that we should put these goods at the service of their Creator and for the good of others.  This means having a spirit of detachment, of appreciating and enjoying material goods while also being able to put them aside voluntarily and for a greater good.  This detachment is good for its practitioner as much as for the recipient of someone’s charity because it helps him live a calmer, more balanced life by making space for God in his heart.

When it comes to actually helping the poor, it involves much more than simply giving away our goods or, even worse, letting the State take from the rich and give to the poor.  One thing we’ve learned with the help of economics is that wealth can be created, not just redistributed.  Wealth creation involves the division of labor, protection of property, along with “peace, easy taxes and a simple administration of justice” as Adam Smith explained.  Making these things the focus of government results in “the commercial society,” something quite different than a pre-commercial or feudal society that did not have commerce as its focus.  By putting commerce at the center, the proponents of the commercial society were aiming at providing as much material prosperity as possible, thinking that this prosperity would provide more liberty and security for all.  Calvin Coolidge, the subject of Amity Shlaes’s new biography, put it best: “America’s business is business.”

Material prosperity need not promote spiritual development, as we can easily imagine and in fact see all around us, so it’s perfectly natural and understandable why religious-minded people might be critics of the commercial society.   If commerce is at the heart of society, that means others things, including religion, are not, and it’s worth thinking about what has been lost with the promotion of economic growth and opportunity.  But it’s not very likely that we’re going to find something else to replace it and create a new “post-commercial” society, so it’s better to think of ways to improve rather than replace commerce.  It may not be very revolutionary or exciting but it’s more achievable and actually quite likely if we re-learn what we’ve forgotten about wealth creation.

Part of this re-learning will mean re-learning what the Church teaches about poverty.  It’s tempting to turn poverty into a virtue, which would make wealth a bad thing or even a vice.  If it’s better to be poor than rich, why not make everyone poor?  The best way to do this would be to return to a pre-commercial or feudal society with all its fixed hierarchies, landed aristocracies, primogeniture and few opportunities for growth and innovation.  It would also mean less freedom and less security because the poor would be even more dependent on and envious of the rich than they are now.  If you can’t become rich by working, why not take it by stealing?  Not a very good deal for the downtrodden.  If we want to help the poor, it would mean helping them become non-poor and even wealthy, which means going into business.  Again, not very dramatic but it works.

The question for Christians is how to be poor in spirit while being materially rich, because when we’re creating wealth, we’re helping others and we don’t have the option of shutting down the commercial society in the name of the poor.  We have to learn the spirit of detachment while living amidst the riches of the world, not an easy task but a possible one if we think about it correctly.  And try.

All of the above is part of the PovertyCure initiative, which has been perfectly timed with the election of Pope Francis.  Parts of the documentary were filmed in Buenos Aires and describe what happens when the rule of law and private property are not respected.  It’s worth keeping this in mind when we hear Francis talk about inequality between rich and poor because one big reason the rich are rich and the poor are poor in Argentina is the missing rule of law there.  Argentina has anything but a free economy, so helping the poor there, it would involve liberalizing rather than further restricting the economy, while needing pastors such as the former archbishop of Buenos Aires who is now our bishop and neighbor in Rome.  We have to work together to ensure that Christianity and the free economy complement each other and thereby truly help the poor materially and spiritually, in word and deed.

A happy and blessed Easter season to all of you,

Kishore Jayabalan