Will the Poor Really Always Be With Us?

“Those who want to eradicate poverty make the Son of God a liar. They are mistaken and lying.”  ∼ Robert Cardinal Sarah

“The economic problem … has been solved already: we know how to provide enough and do not require any hostile, inhuman, aggressive technologies to do so. There is no economic problem and, in a sense, there never has been.”  ∼ E. F. Schumacher


In Chapter 19 of Luke, we have the account of one Zacchaeus, a wealthy tax-collector in Jericho. As he seems to have been short in stature, he climbs a sycamore tree in order to see Jesus who was passing by. I once read an alternate interpretation that argued that he climbed the tree because Jesus was short. Zachaeus just wanted to peer over the heads of normally sized people blocking his view. In any case, Jesus spots him in the tree and tells him to climb down. Jesus “means to stay” at his house that day. Jesus assumes the man’s hospitality.

When they all arrived at Zachaeus’ home, “everyone began to murmur.” What was Jesus doing fraternizing with sinners? Tax-collectors were evidently both rich and in a sinful trade. But Zachaeus “stood his ground.” He gives half his belongings to the poor. If he defrauded anyone, he paid back “four times” the cost. Jesus tells him that “this day” “salvation” has come to Zachaeus’ house. “The Son of Man came to search out and save what was lost.”

If we look at that passage, several issues seem clear. If Zachaeus were not wealthy, he could give nothing to the poor. He was not only just but generous; he gave back more than he needed to give. Salvation could come to a man who was rich, even to a wealthy sinner, still rich even after giving half his possessions away. The issue was not whether he was rich or not, but what he did with his riches. Christ did not request that he give the rest of his income away to become poor. Nor did he ask him to find a better job that did not have the taint of sin. Likewise, he did not ask Zachaeus, like the other tax-collector, Matthew, to come and follow him as an apostle. We are mindful here of the parable of the talents in which the only one reprimanded was the man with one talent who did not invest it to produce more wealth.


I bring these passages up in the context of reading the very good interview of Robert Cardinal Sarah of Guinea, a man now in the Roman Curia. At one point in the interview, the topic of concern for the poor came up. Such concern has obviously been with the Christian community from the beginning. But, at first sight, at least, something is found in Cardinal Sarah’s remarks that I had never heard of before. He seemed to maintain that efforts to eliminate poverty were contrary to the Gospel. “I remember being disgusted,” Sarah remarked, “when I heard the advertising slogan of a Catholic charitable organization which was almost insulting to the poor: ‘Let us fight for zero-poverty’.” The Cardinal even maintained that Christ’s observation that “the poor you always have with you” was a command not to try not to be poor. “This slogan (‘fight for zero-poverty’) respects neither the Gospel nor Christ.” A poor person feels “dependent” on God, a rich man on himself.

I confess that I have often had the impression that certain strands of Christian social thought wanted the poor about so that they could have some justification for their lives and theories. There was an antagonism between those who held poverty could be eliminated and those who needed it to justify their ideology. The poor themselves, as far as I could see, given a choice, did not want to be poor, nor should anyone want them to be. The poor were realists, not romantics. Nor did I think they needed to be poor because anything else was a bad idea.

Christ’s admonition that the “poor would always be with us,” as I always understood it, did not mean that God wanted everyone to be poor so that the efforts to live in more abundance would be an evil endeavor. Rather it was a statement of probability, of the likelihood that men—because of sin, ignorance, and laziness—would never take all the means necessary not to be poor. Indeed, men had to learn both theoretically and practically not to be poor. They were not “given” everything in the beginning because they were challenged by their condition to find for themselves a better way. They really had something to do in this world.

This learning how to increase “the wealth of nations” is the way that God respected their human dignity. This endeavor is what the history of economics is about. The last thing that the poor want is to live in poverty. To escape poverty, they had to learn how to be not-poor from the rich who had learned it before them. They also had to learn what did not work. Like any other human accomplishment, men have to learn not to be poor and then put what they have learned into operation. Vows of poverty were fine, but they were not intended for everyone.


When we read admonitions to aid the poor, their very presupposition is that someone is not poor. If everyone were poor and no one knew any difference, the notion of “not being poor” would never make much sense. If we distributed everything that the rich had, moreover, everyone would end up poor. We need a dynamic context for continued wealth production. The reason the poor are poor is not because the rich are rich. So in my reading, Cardinal Sarah seemed uncharacteristically confused about this topic. The world had in recent centuries and decades taken great strides in alleviating poverty for everyone. No one else thought this was a bad thing.

Most of modern poverty, in any case, is caused by governmental or ecological policies and ideological presuppositions that limit growth. As Schumacher said, we know how to solve the economic problem. We have not figured out how to solve the human and political problem. But the two are not the same. It is one thing to know how to produce wealth, as John Mueller says, another thing to know what to do with it. There are many ways to keep people poor, but only one general way to make everyone not poor.


So I was ready to write off the good Cardinal as having a blind spot in his otherwise acute understanding of the modern world. While I fully agree in both the dignity of the actual poor and in the dangers of riches, I had never quite confronted the proposition that we should, on the authority of Christ Himself, keep the poor impoverished for their own good. So I read more of the interview. Lo, what came up next was the following passage: “The Church must not fight against poverty, but, rather, wage a battle against destitution, especially material and spiritual destitution.” Suddenly, it became clear that we were dealing more with a semantic than a real problem. Sarah distinguished between “destitution,” which he wanted to be rid of, and “poverty,” which would be different from “destitution.” To advocate that everyone should have food, clothing, shelter, jobs, adequacy of normal things, this is here called “poverty.” Others would call the same thing “getting rid of poverty,” or “zero-sum poverty.”

Sarah also recalled the two versions of beatitudes—“Blessed are the poor” and “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” Many examples of saints and other Christians over the centuries have shown that the rich man can also be “poor” in spirit. He can use his wealth generously to help others. Many of our educational, health, and artistic institutions come from this generosity. Socialist theories want to concentrate all wealth in the hands of the state so that nothing would escape its control. That happened in Guinea, something Sarah recounts as a learning experience for him.

Moreover, there is some of Aristotle here. Aristotle thought that most people should not be too rich or too poor. This “middle-class” position was the better for everyone—a view important in American tradition. “The poor would always be with us” was not a command not to be rich or strive for increasing wealth for everyone. The virtuous rich could do many things for everyone else. Those who in fact contributed more deserved more. If they did not receive it, either in wealth or honors, they would cease striving and everyone would lose. We need those who are better than others in most things, including wealth formation. A common good is precisely a good that comes about when everyone is doing what he can do. Common good is not a theory to make everyone “equal” so that no differences of talent, energy, goodness, or discipline make any difference.


“The Son (of God) wanted to be poor so as to show us the best path by which we can return to God,” Cardinal Sarah observes. “The ‘zero poverty’ program liquidates and physically eliminates the vows of religious and priests.” Just why this might be so is a mystery to me. In my essay “The Christian Guardians,” I argued that the religious vows were never intended for everyone. Religious life has never meant a life of planned “destitution.”  The Church has required religious orders to have enough means to care for their members.

Again, we equivocate here on the word “poverty.” But the establishment of economic and social systems in which men and women could be adequately cared for, in which many would be well taken care of, is not an evil. Many people do want to be rich, but most are content with a normal life. And the rich serve a valuable function in society. The spiritual danger of wealth is well recognized, but the solution need not deny a middle-class way of life for most people.

“The Son of God loves the poor; others intend to eradicate them. What a lying, unrealistic, almost tyrannical utopia!” I find this rhetoric, I must confess, uncomfortable. I cannot imagine how Christ’s love of the poor was intended to keep them poor. More likely, it was intended to incite them not to be poor. That was part of loving them. But again, when we recall Cardinal Sarah’s own distinction between “destitution” and “poverty,” we see that he really does want to eliminate a “destitution” that most of us would call “poverty.” If we read his sentence this way—“The Son of God loves the destitute; others intend to eradicate them”—the confusion would become clear. Christ does also love the destitute, as do we. But we do not want them to be “destitute,” that is, “poor.”

“We must be precise in our words. The language of the UN and its agencies, who want to suppress poverty, which they confuse with destitution, is not that of the Church of Christ. The Son of God did not come to speak to the poor in ideological slogans. The Church must banish these slogans from her language. For they have stupefied and destroyed peoples who were trying to remain free in conscience.” This was Cardinal Sarah’s parting shot on the topic of poverty.

The issue seems to come down to this question: Who is using “precise language”? When it comes to life questions like abortion, many UN agencies are into ideological slogans. But I think, on hearing the cardinal’s own distinction between “destitution” and “poverty,” most people would say that they are both talking about the same thing. Modern economics and institutions are not trying to eliminate or destroy individual destitute or poor persons. Rather, they are trying to bring them to a state in which they have an adequacy and abundance of goods with which to pursue the cultural and family lives that are open to them and proper to all human dignity.

Editor’s note: The image above, titled “For the Poor,” was painted by William Frederick Yeames (1835-1918). 


The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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