Skip to Content

From the archive

The Spectator: on popes and poverty since 1828

13 March 2014

6:28 PM

13 March 2014

6:28 PM

A year ago, a relatively unknown Argentine cardinal, Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected Pope. A few days later he announced he would take the name Francis, after Saint Francis of Assisi, because, he said, he had particular concern for the poor.

In the 1880s, Pope Leo XIII also drew the attention of his clergy to St Francis’s teachings on poverty. The Spectator approved, and recommended it to Protestants as well as Catholics, but it took issue with the Pope’s argument that the spectacle of rich people joyfully embracing holy poverty would be enough to encourage the poor not to mind being poor.

‘It seems very doubtful whether the foundation of societies organised on the basis of abjuring the world’s possessions, ever has contributed greatly to the spiritual content and happiness of the poor… A life of “religious poverty ” is a daring venture, of which the Saviour might set the example, an example which a few great spirits might manfully follow; but as the basis of a great social organisation, it can hardly be said to have either itself succeeded, or driven out that covetous spirit which seems to animate so many of the destructive conspiracies of modern Socialism.’

The Spectator closely followed the early days of the relationship between the Anglican Church and socialism. In 1889, Lewelyn Davies told the a conference of clergymen that the church should embrace socialism, but should there were a few things they should beware:

‘One was economic blundering such as might frighten away capital. A second was teaching the poor to rely upon State aid until character in general became lowered; and a third was “that of encouraging society in general, and the working classes in particular, to make of material comfort the highest aim in life.” It would never do to make of the poor a lower human class, for whom the things of true price were the things of the body. That is admirably said.’

Later on, Canon Donaldson (who was also known as the Red Vicar of St Mark’s Leicester) had a long piece in a 1931 Spectator where he argued that the idolatry of riches was bringing western civilisation to ruin. The old prophets, he said, had argued that the poor were poor because they were socially robbed. It wasn’t till the 18th century that a notion grew up that riches were the peculiar right and privilege of the ‘successful’ members of society. Now, he said, we were heading for a fall.

‘Idolatry of riches pervades the civilization of the West, and is bringing it to ruin. Betting and gambling pollute our sport; sweepstakes support hospitals. Incontinent luxury flaunts its excesses before the face of the poor. Industry and commerce are honeycombed with the money-passion. Competitions, within and without the nations, threaten Humanity with the horrible arbitrament of War.’

A week later, the famous Catholic historian Christopher Dawson argued that western society’s problems weren’t because of economic imbalance but because the inner world of the moral consciousness and the outer world of economics and politics had become confusingly separated.

‘Modern social and economic changes have destroyed the simple and immediate relations that existed between a man and his neighbour and above all between the rich and the poor. In the past there was no question about how his duty could be fulfilled. He had to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to tend the sick and to visit the prisoner. But today all that has changed. The sick are in hospitals, the lepers—what there are of them—are in settlements, the poor are on the dole, and as for the naked they are more in evidence in fashionable watering places than they are in the slums. Consequently charity must mainly take the form of subscriptions to public funds and highly organised institutions. It has become hardly distinguishable from a kind of voluntary taxation for objects of social welfare.’

Pope Francis, who’s washed the feet of prisoners and has made a point of appointing cardinals from the world’s poorest regions, also raised this problem last weekend when he told participants at an international symposium, ‘What is not helpful is a theoretical poverty, but the poverty that is learnt by touching the flesh of the poor Christ, in the humble, in the poor, in the sick, in children.’

Show comments