The Spiritual Bankruptcy of the Poverty Gospel

“You cannot live charity without having interpersonal relationships with the poor, living with the poor and for the poor.” – Pope Francis, May 27, 2019 address to Caritas International

The enemy of souls in our time is materialism. Like a mist that spreads over the landscape, the vapor of materialism reaches everywhere, into every household, into every crevice of every structure; it is the air we breathe. It is in us and ever before us. It becomes the unspoken and barely conscious assumption that permeates our thinking.

When Nietzsche said that God is dead, even in the heart of the believer, he meant that the supernatural was no longer a living reality for modern man. Even those who profess belief in God find it difficult to see in the world the working of Divine agency. Science has replaced God. We look to natural causes for an explanation of physical phenomena, not to the Logos. The creative Word has been replaced by the Big Bang: an explosion out of nothing from which all else is supposed to have “evolved” for no particular purpose. And all will disappear just as mysteriously. The world has been reduced to “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Matter becomes the alpha and omega, the beginning and the end of all things, and our very consciousness, our self-awareness, is taken to be an “epiphenomenon” of the brain, totally dependent on its physical structure and colored in its individual way by genetic happenstance. There is no truth; only sense impressions which we order in arbitrary ways so that we might survive for a time amid the chaos of existence.

This is materialism in a nutshell.  It shapes our thoughts, often unconsciously, for it permeates the atmosphere in which we live and work. Religion is also conditioned by materialism. Christianity has been largely reduced to what might be called the Soup Kitchen Religion, according to which those of us who enjoy material comfort should offer some of our time, or at least some of our money, to those who are less well to do.

In the latter-day Catholic Church, the Soup Kitchen creed is formulated in what is called “the preferential option for the poor.” This is a decidedly odd and awkward phrase, made even more perplexing by the redundancy of “preferential option” (are there any other sort of options?). The tone of the phrase is also at variance with the meaning given it by its adherents. An option is by definition not obligatory, yet the Soup Kitchen creed would make the “preferential option for the poor” not only obligatory but the essence, the sine qua non, of Christianity. Note the Pope’s radical declaration quoted above.

This identification of Christianity with Soup Kitchen Religion reaches its zenith in Liberation Theology, an attempt by South American Marxists to interpret the Gospel in the light of dialectical materialism. Pope Francis imbibed this sort of religion during his formative years in South America and it has become the font from which he draws his homilies and exhortations. He is, when all superficiality is stripped away, a Marxist ideologue railing against economic inequality.

So committed is he to this ideology, that he has proclaimed that we can only be Christian if there are poor people about to whom we can offer some assistance. So lacking in a sense of irony is the Pope that he fails to see that his ideology is one that limits the practice of Christianity to the affluent. If charity is dependent upon having “interpersonal relationships with the poor” through giving material aid, then it would seem the poor are not in a position to be Christians. The man who has nothing to give to another would seem to be left out of the picture.

But the Pope’s Soup Kitchen creed includes spiritual philanthropy: “…the preferential option for the poor must mainly translate into a privileged and preferential religious care.” In providing this care, we are said to grow spiritually. In fact, this is how, according to Francis, we imitate God. But again, the emphasis is placed on the benefits accruing to the affluent, whether that affluence be material or spiritual. And again, the Pope fails to realize what a one-sided and condescending creed he is proposing.

Francis goes on to say, “The worst discrimination that the poor suffer is the lack of spiritual attention.” He also declares, without any supporting reasoning, that the majority of the poor “have a special openness to faith.” So, according to Francis, the poor not only suffer a deprivation of material goods, but they are also denied spiritual instruction. By whom? By the greedy capitalists who not only hoard their worldly wealth but make spirituality their private preserve?

Francis continues in a way reminiscent of what used to be called “the white man’s burden”: the idea that the Europeans must raise up the heathen races in Africa, India and elsewhere, so that they could share in the benefits of civilization. Concerning the spiritual destitution of the poor, Francis says: “They need God and we cannot fail to offer them His friendship, His blessing, His word, the celebration of the sacraments, and the proposal of a path of growth and maturation in the faith.”

At this juncture it seems good to point out that the poor are very much like the rich, but they have less money. That’s the main difference. An openness to the Faith is not dependent upon one’s income or social status, but upon the heart’s longing for truth and love. Not only do the poor not enjoy a privileged position in their receptivity to virtue, but crime statistics relative to income would indicate that the opposite may well be the case.

The poor need God. The rich need God. Why should the rich be seen as in a position to bring God to the poor? If anything, the Gospel teaches that wealth can be a great hindrance to spiritual advancement. And who is keeping the poor from religious instruction and the sacraments? And are the poor really waiting upon the affluent to propose for them “…a path of growth and maturation in the Faith”?

The Pope also abuses the affluent who are aiding the poor “with almsgiving, with beneficence” as possibly guilty of a “hypocritical or false charity.” He speaks with disdain of charitable organizations who aim at “philanthropic efficacy” but whose donors are not engaged in the work in a heartfelt way. No exhortation from Francis would be complete without his assuming the moral high ground and denouncing those below him (always unnamed miscreants) who fail to rise to the level of his understanding and ideals.

It is a universal characteristic of the ideologue that he never looks at reality, but always at his prefabricated notions, into which reality must fit, even if it be necessary to lop off a limb or two. Francis, as an ideologue, does not look at people as individuals, but as categories in his schema of the world. And he regards Scripture as an adjunct to his socialist manifesto.

But the Gospel does not show Our Lord practicing a “preferential option” for any group. And it is not the equalization or redistribution of wealth that Christ commends as the essence of charity. The essence of charity – charis – is charity: love itself. Love has no program, no calculus, no ideology. If all the poor in the world were to become rich, if everyone had the same amount of wealth, charity would not disappear. It does not depend upon our “interpersonal relationships with the poor.” It depends upon our relationship to Christ.

There is no equality in this world because we are unique creations of the Word, all at different points in our pilgrimage to Christ, the heart of our being, the Logos from whom we all descend. No one who lives for Christ would deny another his help. But no one who lives for Christ would define charity as dependent upon his interaction with the poor. He may very well be one of the poor. It is worldliness, not wealth, that leads one away from God.

The poor are just the rich with less money, objectively speaking. And a poor man and a rich man may be equally fixated upon wealth and, thus, both equally impoverished spiritually. To live in Christ is a possibility for every man, regardless of his circumstances. And if Christianity were dependent upon a heartfelt philanthropy, it would be restricted to those with the wherewithal to become philanthropists.

The dangers of the Pope’s ideology are manifold. It encompasses the sort of class distinction that breeds the envy and resentment which Marxist revolutionaries exploit.  It materializes religion and focuses our attention on the passing circumstances of this world. It presupposes a class of superiors, both in wealth and spirituality, who must lift up those beneath them. This is not genuine charity, but condescension. Ultimately, the Pope’s ideology is just that: an ideology, i.e. a mental construction of how the world ought to function according to a presumed human wisdom that vies with Providence. And like all ideologies, it generates anger toward those who will not submit to its demands. This is why the Pope cannot speak without denouncing someone or something. He is an angry ideologue.

Christ proposed no ideology. Even the doctrines that are formulated from His teaching have no meaning unless they are lived. We cannot merely give our assent to certain formulas and continue to go about our business as though materialist assumptions are correct. And we cannot fulfill Our Lord’s command to become perfect “even as your heavenly Father is perfect” by embracing the banalities of Soup Kitchen Religion.

If Our Lord teaches us anything about poverty, it is that it is a blessing to be embraced, not a disease to be cured. Liberation theology can find no basis in the Gospel. And the Pope can find no support for his ideology in Christianity. He took the name of St. Francis, Il Poverello (the little poor man). Let us pray that he will find the true spirit of Franciscan poverty, which is to have nothing in one’s heart but a burning love for Christ.