The majority of people in the world today live in material poverty or destitution. Worse still is their inability to shape their own futures, with the result that they often experience a sense of fatalism and a loss of hope. Men and women throughout the world have paid a high price for the present affluence of many in our Western technological society. Part of the price has been extracted from the poor nations whose fields, forests, and factories have been exploited so that commodities may be produced for the rich in the world. Part too has been paid by the poor who in fact live and work within the wealthy countries but without sharing equitably in the profits. A great part has been paid by affluent people themselves, for they have purchased prosperity at the expense of a staggering impoverishment of their own humanity.
conversion and change must begin in the hearts and life-style of the consumers. Not only must the poor be delivered from their poverty; modern men and women, and especially Christians, must allow themselves to be liberated from the oppression that comes from an acquisitive, consumerist mentality. The social and economic conditions of millions of poor people in the world are issuing a call from God to the wealthy and comfortable to be freed from the economic and political assumptions about affluence and power which shackle their own freedom as well as that of the destitute. There is no ultimate liberation of the poor from their destitution except through the deliverance of the wealthy from their blindness and greed. The Christian response to the situation must involve generous service to the destitute in terms of the caring love outlined in the twenty-fifth chapter of Saint Matthew's Gospel. It involves a willingness to share with others, rooted in gratitude to God who is the ultimate source of all good gifts. It implies an acknowledgment that goods are to be owned personally only if they are held in trust for the service of those in need.
The Christian response also involves just decisionmaking which realizes that efficacious charity must be rooted in justice. The enemy of justice today is often not malice or lack of good well but rather blindness and lack of vision. Poverty today requires that Christians reflect on their actual positions in society as persons and communities so that contemplation might free them from their blindness by revealing the truth of the situation and then call them to make radical decisions.
Finally there must be the response of witness through life-style, following the example of Christ's simplicity and detachment. This has always been the Church's clearest proclamation of the nature of ownership and of its essentially communal character. It also has revealed the reverence that human beings must have for created things which are more truly God's gifts than human achievements. At a time when many people are uninterested in or insensitive to theoretical teaching, they are keenly alert to detect what difference Christianity makes in the lives of those who profess it. Furthermore, many people in the world in fact yearn to be liberated from the sophisticated, domineering, and alienating consumer mentality which characterizes our technological culture. To that yearning, the life of Christians who espouse simplicity and a commitment to responsible stewardship can be a significant response.
Poverty in the Bible. In the Bible there is a development in the understanding of poverty, which is described both as that unavoidable distress which opens a person to God and as the humble, loving abandonment of one's own rights. Hence it is not simply an economic or social condition but also an interior disposition.
Initially the Old Testament writers usually represented wealth as a blessing, whereas poverty was a misfortune to be borne, often as a manifestation of divine retribution. The sapiential writers recognized that there were virtuous poor people, but experience taught them that destitution was often the result of laziness or disorder.
The prophets defended the poor who were often the victims of injustice. They denounced violence and robbery, fraud in trading, abuse of power, and enslavement of the lowly. The prophets echoed the Mosaic law which prescribed charitable attitudes and social measures to lessen the sufferings of the needy, for God had identified with the unfortunate people on the margins and shown compassion toward the poor. The prophets also proclaimed a Messiah who would defend the rights of the poor and destitute.
Even before the Exile the prophets had helped the Israelites to realize that the rich are apt to harden their hearts to the distress of others, to enclose themselves in self-righteousness, and to exploit the underprivileged. But in light of the humiliating experience of servitude in Babylon and the many disappointments after their return from exile, the Israelites were helped by the prophets and other sacred writers to understand poverty as a religious value, more or less synonymous with humility and piety. They came to see it as a virtue which enables people to find refuge in God and to await God's coming with trust.
The religious meaning of poverty was clarified with the incarnation of the divine Logos whose life of self-sacrifice and self-denial revealed God as one who always lives for giving. The incarnation was both a sacrament of God's love for us and an example for us to follow. In his inaugural discourse Jesus taught that the poor were the privileged heirs of the Kingdom he proclaimed. As the Messiah of the poor, he lived a life of simplicity and invited the weary and the burdened to come to him as their meek and humble savior. He sharply criticized the idolatries of power, pleasure, and possessions not by violently attacking them but by identifying himself with the materially or morally indigent, by sharing his life with all who came to him, and by inviting his followers to trust his Father who knows their needs. He promised salvation to all those who trusted him in time of hunger, but the food he promised was the Kingdom. He proclaimed that with him and in him the kingdom of god had arrived, and that with the coming of the Kingdom men and women are placed in a situation in which they must make radical decisions about their lives. Jesus clearly affirmed that with the advent of the Kingdom human riches have become a danger and an obstacle to the acceptance of God's reign in human hearts, to such an extent that it is easier for a person to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God.
The New Testament does not teach that possessions are immoral in themselves or that the absence of possessions constitutes a moral value. What it does say is that riches and the accumulation of possessions constitute a grave danger for people in that once they have become preoccupied with the cares of this world they tend to become blind to the presence of God's Kingdom, deaf to the cries of the poor, and unresponsive to the call to live according to the gospel. The person attached to riches does not have that spirit of freedom which is necessary for a whole-hearted acceptance of God's reign in human life. Hence Jesus requires that his disciples share their possessions with the poor and be prepared to become poor themselves. He did not commend poverty out of contempt for wealth or for purely ascetical reasons but because it helps men and women acknowledge their ultimate dependence and enables them to be open to the needs of others. In his teaching on discipleship Jesus requires that those who voluntarily decide to become poor for the Kingdom must give their riches to the poor who are brothers and sisters in the Kingdom. When faith in the Kingdom is lived out in the form of voluntary poverty, this faith must be expressed by the unity in love of all those who are united in the Body of Christ. Hence those who have faith do not defend their material goods as though they were the bastion of their own self-defense against others; rather they give others a share in their goods because they can look upon others in a spirit of trust and can love them as members of the Body of Christ. Hence the acknowledgment that all people have a right to the riches of God's creation is an intrinsic element in Christian poverty. Holding property in common is an expression of the community of all people in Christ.
The early Christian community had a clear under-standing of the spirit of Jesus' teaching on poverty. They knew that a literal application of his teaching was neither essential nor always possible. They knew that Jesus himself did not live in destitution nor was he usually threatened by hunger. He was able to obtain support from his wealthy friends when he needed it. His lavish generosity at Cana and his sharing in the feast in Matthew's house suggest a spirit of magnanimity far distant from any puritanical condemnation of the enjoyment of good things. Yet he was radically free and detached in his use of goods because of his primary commitment to his mission. Likewise, Paul had a budget for his missionary and charitable work, but he often preached the gospel without any recompense and sometimes lived in want and distress. The early Christians shared what they had with each other and with those in need. Service rendered to the poor was an expression of their love for Christ, who being rich became poor for our sake, so that he might enrich us by his poverty.
Poverty and the Christian Tradition. The birth of monasticism in about 270 in Egypt, Palestine, and Syria was partly an attempt to reassert the call to poverty. Antony heard the gospel call to the rich young man and then sold all that he had and entered the desert. The desert fathers and mothers realized that poverty in the material sense can never be permanently total, for men and women must eat, have shelter, and be clothed. Hence the first monastic men and women of the desert worked and received money with which they provided for their basic needs. While Antony was still alive, Pachomius established communities of monks who modeled themselves on the early Christians, with all things held in common and supported by their own work done under obedience.
In his Dialogues Saint Gregory says that Saint benedict left all his possessions with the desire of pleasing God alone. It is within Benedict's Rule that we find the nucleus of the medieval monastic tradition on poverty. Benedict never uses the word "poor" or the abstract noun "poverty" when speaking of his monks. He directs that his disciples should have no other goal than to seek God. They are to give away all they possess; hence they are to be protected from all personal attachment. After profession the monk is unable to possess anything of his own; he shares everything with the community. Moderation is characteristic of the rule, yet Saint Benedict is adamant that possessions must be renounced. The monastery may possess goods, but the abbot is not to be over-solicitous for material possessions. The produce of the monastery is to be sold a little cheaper than it is sold by others in the world so that in all things God may be glorified. Saint Benedict was conscious that the monastery must share its goods with the poor, the sick, and the stranger. He feared avarice in his monks but prescribed that they should receive what they needed from the resources of the monastery. Throughout history the basic Benedictine attitude toward material goods has been that of stewardship. This tradition is in keeping with the second chapter of Genesis in which God places man in the garden of Eden not as a master but as a steward. In this regard Benedictines have something to say to men and women in the modern world. By establishing the right order of relationships between people and nature, among men and women themselves, and between men and women and God, Saint Benedict established the primacy of persons over things, and at the same time he saw the importance of respect for material things and an ordered and humane environment in helping his monks develop as persons whose whole life is directed to the glorification of God. However, there is the serious problem that a commitment to simplicity of life, celibacy, and obedience, when allied with hard work, can in the course of time make for corporate wealth simply because monks have limited needs and no families to consume the fruit of their labors. This is precisely what happened throughout the Middle Ages, for the principal dissolvent of monastic fervor was the possessiveness of both individuals and communities, including abbots. The urgent question was raised: Who would stand for God against Mammon?
The answer came from Saint francis of assisi. He consciously and explicitly reacted against the monastic rules and constitutions in regard to their teaching on poverty. Akin to Antony and Macarius rather than Cassian and Benedict, he took the words of Christ literally and lived them. His was a direct and absolute imitation of Jesus, not as Jesus lived in Galilee or at Bethany, but as he died on the cross, with even his clothes appropriated by others. Francis stood not only for a literal interpretation of the poverty of Jesus but also for a sense of freedom which he could only describe by a romantic name, Lady Poverty. He felt that the most sordid enemy of this freedom was money, which he saw as a token of possession and security against the future. However, the early history of the Friars Minor gives sad evidence of the perpetual problem of embodying a spirit, a difficulty which was made visible in the case of Franciscan poverty because human beings, as embodied spirits, cannot fully divest themselves of the material world by taking a vow or joining a community. It was Saint bonaventure who found a mean between the commands of Francis and the conditions of human life by establishing principles close to those in the Rule of Benedict. A serious dispute over the interpretation of Franciscan poverty resulted in a theological controversy of great bitterness which was finally ended by Pope John XXII, who insisted that even Christ and his apostles had a true right to own property; he handed back to the Franciscans the ownership of property of which they had been deprived.
The early Franciscans stood apart from the other orders of friars both in their interpretation of poverty as the center of their religious lives and in the various controversies which this brought upon them. The Dominicans, though standing for an austere life and accepting a mendicant status, interpreted poverty in line with the teaching of Saint thomas aquinas, who emphasized that the essence of the virtue of poverty was interior detachment. The use or even the ownership of goods was not illicit for Christians or even for religious communities, provided they observed the prescriptions of canon law in financial matters.
A review of the whole of monastic and medieval spirituality suggests that poverty is not the best word to describe a spiritual ideal. It was not the word used by patristic or monastic spiritual writers; nevertheless it found its way into the vow patterns of religious institutes from the late Middle Ages until the present time. The 1983 Code of Canon Law describes the vow of poverty in canon 600 which reminds those who take the vow that they are meant to imitate Christ and commit themselves to a life that is poor in fact as well as in spirit. They are obliged to work in accord with the nature and ends of the institute to which they belong and to live in dependence on the institute. This is not the poverty of destitution experienced by countless people who are deprived of the basic necessities of life and which Christ and the Church strive to eliminate. Unlike the vow of chastity, which is absolute, that of poverty admits of a wide variety of expressions in accord with the nature, spirit, and purpose of each institute. Hence the effects and obligations of a vow of poverty may differ widely from one religious institute to another. The various apostolates undertaken by religious and their institutes witness to the dignity of human work and the life of service to which religious are called. In addition to the traditional apostolates of education, social services, and health care, work in other areas is frequently undertaken by members of religious institutes to alleviate hunger, ignorance, sickness, unemployment, and the deprivation of basic human freedoms. Often from their own resources they provide for those in such circumstances.
At the heart of all religious life are values that directly oppose blindness, materialism, greed, and the structures that dehumanize persons and communities. These values are above all poverty of spirit, simplicity of life, sharing and giving, self-denial prompted by love, freedom of heart, gratitude, care for persons, and the kind of sound judgment with regard to created things that proceeds from exposure to God in prayer. Material privation is never an end in itself, and it is in no sense a part of religious poverty to assess everything economically by materialistic standards or to override aesthetic or other values for the sake of cheapness or squalor. Such a mentality narrows the human spirit and even creates those very evils accompanying destitution, which all Christians have the duty to eliminate from the earth. A life of simplicity, stewardship, and sharing of goods can surely help to counteract those forces that lie at the roots of world poverty today.
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[r. k. seasoltz]