Poverty and Ultimate Riches

An Interview with Fr. James Schall SJ

Father James Schall was a Professor in the Department of Government at Georgetown University for over 35 years. He retired from that position in 2012. He is the author of numerous books, including: Another Sort of Learning (Ignatius Press, 1988); Idylls and Rambles (Ignatius Press, 1994); and Religion, Wealth and Poverty (Fraser Institute Press, 1990). His most recent book is Reasonable Pleasures: The Strange Coherences of Catholicism (Ignatius Press, 2013). In August of 2013, Schall published a piece in The Catholic World Report that received considerable attention titled, "Do Christians Love Poverty?" He recently spoke with managing editor Ray Nothstine.

R&L: What is the most common misconception that Christians make today about how effectively to help the poor?

James Schall: The most common mistake, and there are others, that Christians make is that poverty is primarily a problem of mal-distribution of existing goods. The mere fact that some have more than others is itself, wrongly, taken to be a sign of injustice. Thus, the solution is simple: All we have to do is take over the excessive goods of some and give them to the others who have need of them. The primary institution assigned to carry out this justifying re-distribution is the modern state. Probably no idea, except perhaps ecology, gives the state more unrestricted power than such ideas about poverty. In the end, it is claimed, everyone will be equal. No one will have any reason to envy anyone else who, for whatever reason, has more than he does. The end of this mentality, if put into effect, would be quickly to make everyone poor, with little awareness that they could or should be anything else.

Scripture speaks of the poor and how we are to care for 'the least of these.' Do we keep this witness properly balanced today?

Poverty is not the only or most important topic mentioned in Scripture. Solomon did build a beautiful temple. It was rebuilt when it was first destroyed. Jesus Himself was in the Temple chatting with the Learned of the Law. Jesus' concern with the poor assumed that there were those about who were not poor. Otherwise, they could not help the poor. I am always astonished at how often people who talk of poverty fail to talk of how wealth, whereby poverty can be lessened or eliminated, is produced and justly distributed in the first place.

In the parable of the talents, Christ seems annoyed at the man who buried his talent and did not increase it by investment like the others. Paul said that the man who does not work, should not eat. Were Paul to say that today, he would be accused of being insensitive. Paul at least showed that he was aware of free-loaders who really did little to earn their keep yet who demanded to be taken care of by others. If everyone is absolutely poor, no one can help anyone, not that the poor sometimes cannot or do not help each other.

Poverty is mainly a comparative thing. The very rich think they are poor compared to the very, very rich. The poor think they are better off than the very poor. The question of poverty cannot be discussed as if the problem of how to produce wealth did not come up or as if we do not know something about how to produce wealth. Most poverty is caused by the refusal or inability to learn how to produce sufficient wealth so as not to be poor. Not a few modern ideologies, designed to help the poor, in fact imprison them in customs or institutions that cannot produce wealth. Some beliefs, such as the voluntarist position that there is no stable order, make it impossible to do what needs to be done to produce wealth by the work of our minds and hands.

Is there inherently anything virtuous about poverty?

Socrates, though he seems to have had enough to eat and at least a tunic and a home for his wife and boys, considered himself poor. But he thought of his poverty in terms of its freeing himself from the entanglement of wealth getting. He held that his time was better spent in discussing the higher things. The religious vow of poverty is more in this Socratic tradition. It is not designed to make everyone poor. What it is designed to do is show that complete absorption in the things of this world is not really what will make us happy.

But poverty, especially voluntary poverty, is a tricky business. We cannot go around saying: 'See how poor I am, look at me!' Poverty is poverty. We need not be rich. We can live a full human live with relatively few things. Aristotle rightly said, however, that most people need a sufficient amount of material goods to live a normal and virtuous life. The world was not given to us that we do nothing with it but sit around lamenting how poor we are. It really was given to us in a certain astonishing abundance. But we have to learn what this abundance is and how to develop it. That is why we are here. Poverty is best reduced and eliminated when we are figuring out how to do and develop many things that we need and want, things of beauty and safety and health and everything else. The basic Christian teaching was not that we should make everyone poor, but that even the poor could ultimately save their souls. But in itself, the world was a challenge to make everyone rich through human action and intelligence.

Do you think an abundance of material goods, especially in the West, has also helped to promote a spiritual poverty?

It has been the experience of the classic Greeks, Hindus, and Chinese, I think, that an abundance of material goods enabled them to produce great and beautiful things. But it has also led to a system of control whereby rigidity set in. Slavery or its equivalent often had an economic basis, as Aristotle understood. If we had machines to do our work, he thought, we would not need slaves. This is pretty much what has happened.

But one of the things that an abundance of material goods makes us realize, as Aristotle also understood, was that riches were not happiness as such. At best, riches were aids, but they were not the end. Hence, it became possible to see that a life spent in pursuit of riches, with no further purpose, was an empty life. It was only when riches had a higher purpose that their real worth was seen. Moreover, as I mentioned, the Socratic tradition taught us to examine our lives. If we did so, we would discover that riches were at best helps and at worst temptations. But in themselves, riches were a good thing. There is nothing ignoble in thinking that everyone should live in abundance. It is interesting in recent years how much poverty has in fact been eliminated in the world. Many nations that were for centuries poor have learned something of how to produce wealth. Much of the talk about poverty today overlooks the fact of this rather amazing progress.

But the notion of spiritual poverty is a tricky one. As I recall, Mother Teresa used that phrase in the sense that many of the richest people in the world were "spiritually" poor. In one sense, only a rich man can really understand the emptiness of wealth if he thinks it is the final definition of his happiness. This was Aristotle's point in the first book of his Ethics. There is a reason why we might think wealth is the essence of happiness. After all, we can buy, we think, pleasures or honors with it. But when we have them, we soon discover that these things are themselves only means. So in that sense, riches themselves can lead to a sense of voluntary poverty, to the realization that our true end is not located in how much we own or have. On the other hand, as Aristotle also said, once we understand the proper place of riches, if we have them, we can use them for good and noble purposes. This is what I think was implicit in Scripture but rarely mentioned, namely, that the rich were being taught what to do with their riches so that those who had were directed to the poor not to keep them poor but to assist them in being not poor.

Many people are poor through no fault of their own, but this is not true of everyone. Do we have a problem with not blaming poverty on the forces that are sometimes the most responsible?

We do have a problem here. How often do people who talk of helping the poor, in the logic of their complaint, demand that something be done about it. The next thing we find is that they are really demanding governments to do something. Yet, it is precisely governments that are often the most irresponsible agents, the ones that dry up the sources of wealth production. Governments are often the one agency most responsible for poverty in the name of getting rid of it.

Unions also are widely praised as giving rights to workers, whereas in fact they are partly responsible in their demands in shipping whole industries to other parts of the world. It becomes too costly to produce what others can and will produce more cheaply and in fact better, often. This is a quagmire, I know. In one sense, it is in the interest for the alleviation of poverty that countries that were long stagnant suddenly learn how to work, to do the things that others do too expensively. The high costs of labor in one country mean the possibilities of jobs in another part of the world. It is ironic that the rapid growth of economies in the world is due to the work ethic or intelligence of those in other parts of the world who had been cut off from modern means of production. One of the answers to this issue is to empower the state to prevent such jobs from going elsewhere. When this happens, the ethos of local labor becomes enforced and its high cost is not allowed to be challenged by competition.

I often wonder about the emphasis on consumerism that several popes have made. This consumerism is presumably a vice of demanding ever more goods for their own sake. Pope Francis talks of a "throw away" society. But he also talks of the jobs that the young need. Rarely do popes talk of where such jobs come from. Basically they come from a sound economic theory and from minds. The ultimate riches are not land or resources. They are in the mind. That is the real source of wealth in the world.

We cannot have jobs unless we have people to consume what is produced. Men have to be able, hopefully by their own work, to purchase what they need and want. The obsolescence of things is not a bad thing in itself. The need of a market, of someone to consume, of producing something better, is absolutely necessary if we are going to talk of jobs. To say that we just need jobs without a word about where jobs come from is irresponsible. Moreover, to produce artificial jobs, or jobs that are in effect meaningless, for no purpose, is equally corrupting.

Catholic Charities, dedicated in large part to the care of the poor, receives a lot of funding from government programs. Is this type of funding ultimately of a positive or negative benefit?

One of the things Church people have had difficulty in understanding is that the culture itself can contain within it rules, customs, laws, or decrees that approve actions that are in fact contrary to good sense or Christian teaching. To become dependent on government programs is thus not a neutral thing. In the name of what some call the greater good one often finds himself justifying this aid. Benedict in Deus Caritas Est put his finger on an important aspect of this problem. What government aid cannot do is to deal with the individual as such. Charity is not a bureaucratic virtue. People need more than aid. The reason Catholics are involved in such issues is primarily beyond politics.

This issue becomes especially difficult as we see the state more and more claim control of all aspects of the society including religious organizations which have anything to do with government monies or purposes. The popes have valiantly striven to show why faith has also a proper place in public. But as the public space becomes more alien to its practices and principles, it becomes clear that the government takes control of what it finances. It has used religious organizations because they are presumably better able to deal with certain issues of poverty or well-being than government bureaucracies.

The state now often realizes that one way to control the Church is through financing its charitable institutions to such a degree that they cannot operate without government funds. Church bureaucrats themselves often seem willing to compromise principle to retain the funding. So, yes, there are definitely positive and negative aspects here. The day seems fast coming in which the government simply takes control of all aspects of life—education, health, leisure, work, and culture, all of this in the name of helping the poor and the citizens.

What is the biggest hurdle in alleviating poverty today?

Probably, and paradoxically, the idea that we all should be poor in the name of Christianity, ecology, or limits of growth. I have asked the question recently—Does Christianity want people to be poor? I think that many religious people, using ecology and exploitation theory, do think this. And if we do want everyone to be poor, the best way to do this is to empower that authority whose normal ways will guarantee widespread poverty, namely the state, which in no way produces wealth itself. There is a certain attractiveness to this view. It is the view of Castro's Cuba. He has made a potentially prosperous country simply poor and declared them happy. He has successfully blamed all their ills on foreigners. Most Cubans who can get out do so. But those who have to stay must say in public that they are happy and live a superior life to the rich elsewhere.

There is a tendency to want everyone to take a vow of poverty as a solution to our problems. Instead of asking how wealth is produced and distributed justly and effectively, we give up and claim that our purpose is to protect the planet for future generations. This protection means that we cannot use anything much. Best to leave it untouched for someone in 3456 AD. The trouble with this approach is that we have no idea what we can do with this earth. The amazing things that have happened with regard to energy and science in the past hundred years make us suspect that there are ways to make everyone rich that we have no suspicion of. We are afraid to know what we can know. This is why I say that the only basis of wealth is mind.

We need a more Aristotelian approach that recognizes that the establishment of a full and beautiful city is what we ought to be about. But at the same time, we are open to the transcendence that comes to us from revelation as it is addressed to our reason. We know that we possess here no lasting city. We are at a stage, I sometimes suspect, where, in the name of poverty, we will cut off any possibility of everyone becoming not poor. The purpose of Christianity was that we save our souls no matter what sort of civil society we found ourselves in. But that did not take away a possible inner-worldly purpose that would really reach the human perfections of beauty, abundance, and wellbeing that are implicit in our creation and the relation of our minds to it.