One major obstacle to addressing the problem of poverty in the modern world is the division of politics into the left and the right.
Christians, who should be holding up the vanguard of economic justice, often end up being sucked in by the rhetoric of right-wing demagogues, largely out of disgust for the left’s policies regarding contraception and abortion.
Yet the Church’s teachings on social issues are not right-wing. We are not libertarians. We do not believe in the invisible hand of the market. We are not radical individualists.
The Catechism tells us that “everyone should look upon his neighbor (without any exception) as ‘another self,’ above all bearing in mind his life and the means necessary for living it with dignity” (1931). This cannot be carried out solely on the level of individual charity.
Benedict XVI tells us that the institutional or political path of charity is “no less excellent and effective than the kind of charity that encounters the neighbor directly, outside the institutional mediation of the pólis” (Caritas in Veritate, 7).
The Church in the last century has consistently pointed toward the need for public social programs to alleviate poverty. Those who are habitually suspicious of government tend to eschew such programs on the basis that they are wasteful and that they replace genuine charity with cold institutional care.
It is true that welfare systems and international development agencies are often breeding grounds for paternalism and condescension, but this does not exculpate societies from the responsibility of providing organized social support. Such providence is not optional.
“Not to enable the poor to share in our goods is to steal from them and deprive them of life. The goods we possess are not ours, but theirs ... that which is already due in justice is not to be offered as a gift of charity” (Catechism, 2446).
The solution lies in a cultural attitude adjustment. How many times have you heard the term “welfare queen” applied to black women on social assistance? How often do we hear rhetoric about people “abusing the system” or complaints about transient populations bleeding the American people? How many good Catholics refuse to give money to beggars because they’ll just “waste it on booze and drugs”?
How often do the well-off, the respectable and the privileged pat themselves on the backs and say, “God helps those who help themselves”?
If this is the attitude of those who are paying for the social programs, it will necessarily be the attitude with which they are administered.
Social programs are not, however, the be-all and end-all of social responsibility. The error of left-wing thinking is often to place too much onus on the government. It is this sort of thinking that lambasts Mother Teresa of Calcutta for providing “short term” solutions instead of doing the really important work of lobbying for better social-security programs.
Utopian social schemes for the eradication of poverty are just as problematic, and just as dehumanizing, as the callous neglect of the poor. They see poverty as an abstract social problem to be alleviated through communist totalitarianism or aggressive anti-populationism.
As the Pope observes, “Institutions by themselves are not enough, because integral human development is primarily a vocation, and therefore it involves a free assumption of responsibility in solidarity on the part of everyone” (Caritas in Veritate, 11).
Gifts form an important part of the solution: “The principle of gratuitousness and the logic of gift as an expression of fraternity can and must find their place within normal economic activity” (36). Many cultures have strong traditions of gift exchange, not merely as an occasional act of celebration, but as an integral part of the local economy. Where this occurs, poverty generally becomes a shared burden of the community and loses many of its degrading dimensions.
Gift economies are counterintuitive from a market-economy perspective because there is no calculated rate of exchange. Commerce functions in terms of contracts and transactions; gift exchange functions in terms of mysterious and invisible circles. It is noncoercive, and yet it works. One example is the practice of blood donation: Where blood is bought and sold, people feel that selling blood is degrading and shortages are common. Where blood is freely donated, it is generally plentiful.
The giving of gifts fosters a spirit of generosity and solidarity, while the reception of gifts creates a sense of gratitude. When this is practiced by a society as a matter of course, the result is a stronger community and a reduction of the shame and privation that falls upon the poor.
In Part 3, we’ll look at some practical scriptural solutions to poverty in one’s own life.
Melinda Selmys is the head writer at VulgataMagazine.org.