Poverty & the Church

Image courtesy of I4gerardo (Pixabay)

The love for God always loves to lift the mind into divine conversation. The love for neighbor is always ready to think good about him.

~ Maximus the Confessor, On Love: The Four Centuries on Charity

I thought the Church was supposed to help the poor. If they are, I haven’t seen any of that!

I recently heard these words at a restaurant. I was in my booth, and to my right were a couple of older gentlemen engaged in conversation. Admittedly, it was difficult not to overhear them as I was by myself and they were not more than 4 feet away from me.

As a practicing Catholic trained in theology, when I hear people talking about the Church, I am interested to hear what they are saying. From what I could tell, the gentleman closest to me may have worked with a Catholic parish. He was a leaner-looking guy, clean shaven, and his friend was more husky with a beard.

In a nutshell, the leaner gentleman was expressing his concerns (in no uncertain terms) about how he didn’t like the Church spending money on buildings. “I thought the Church was supposed to help the poor. If they are, I haven’t seen any of that!” I understood him to mean here that the Church hasn’t helped him. His friend was going along with the point and they discussed the matter for a bit.

When I was in the teaching profession, one of my favorite subjects was Catholic social doctrine. Inevitably, the subjects of poverty and social justice would arise. From the Catholic perspective, these two subjects can only be understood within the context of Christian virtue and charity, which is grounded in the love of God. Our highly secularized society often forgets this important context and makes poverty and social justice ends unto themselves.

Someone might think that such ideas result in less concern for the poor. Quite the opposite! It is precisely when we love God that our love of fellow man, especially the poor, becomes warmer and more intense.

Nevertheless, there is an order to our love. When discussing poverty with my students, I recalled an important statement from Jesus, “The poor you will always have with you. Me, you will not always have” (Matthew 26:11). The context for this story is the woman who poured perfume on Jesus’ feet. Some of the disciples present at this scene murmured (verse 9), opining that it was a waste; the perfume could have been sold and the money given to the poor. Sound familiar?

I thought the Church was supposed to help the poor. If they are, I haven’t seen any of that!

When it comes to helping those who are in poverty, the correct order must be maintained. We must love our neighbor (as ourselves) out of our love of God, whom we love first — with our whole heart, mind, soul, and strength. If we reverse this order, then we have mistaken the forest for the trees and run the risk of getting lost in darkness.

When people argue from this reversed order (and likely don’t even realize it), it is easy to be tempted to just throw a bunch of theology at them. Pastorally speaking, they are not likely to receive correct theology very well. I think a better approach comes through St. Paul Street Evangelization’s four-step method of listen, befriend, proclaim, and invite.

“Listening” means hearing out the person, letting them speak. During this step, the evangelist can make mental notes of any points made and charitably discuss them later in the conversation. For example, a well-timed question can be very effective. If an objection a person has is that the churches are too opulent, why aren’t the poor being helped, etc., then some critical questions would be in order.

Above all, the evangelist ought to discern precisely what the situation is. In other words, is there a legitimate concern about where money is going, grounded in facts, or is this just a personal opinion? If it is the latter, then the evangelist can discuss the honor and glory of God. It, too, must be represented so that people can have a tangible connection to a very real aspect of the Faith.

Christians — including the poor — have to have places to go for the Eucharistic Sacrifice and worship, places that give honor and glory to God. That requires property and/or buildings. Over time, Christians are going to give of themselves for the betterment of these places through their time, treasure, or talent. If people expect the clergy to turn down these good-faith efforts, then that is unreasonable. In such a case, the complaint wouldn’t be about helping the poor, but rather how “mean” or “rude” the clergy are!

In my case, I wasn’t sure how the two gentlemen would accept an intrusion by a complete stranger upon their otherwise private conversation. That would have shot any sort of credibility on my part. So, I did not get involved. Instead, I paid attention to the position set forth by the leaner gentleman in the hope that it might serve some later good. It is good, after all, to know peoples’ perceptions of the Church, because if for nothing else, we might find it helpful in later conversations.

One of the last things I heard from the leaner guy was about how he went to Europe not too long ago. He was remarking upon the conditions of the churches there, wondering why money wasn’t being spent on fixing them up. Two words crossed my mind: cognitive dissonance. It tells us that this man has not likely thought through these matters very much. This man (it appears), and many others out there, need evangelists to kindly, gently, and respectfully clarify this and similar issues.

Author: Kevin Symonds

Kevin Symonds was born and raised in Massachusetts. In 2003, he received his B.A. in Theological Studies from Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio with an emphasis on the Classical Languages. Three years later, he obtained his M.A. degree in Theological Studies also from Franciscan University. Kevin lives in North Dakota. He specializes in the Catholic Church’s theology of private revelation and has written books and numerous articles (print and Internet). He is a member of the Mariological Society of America.

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