The Holy Father has spilled a great deal of ink impressing upon the First World its duty to welcome economic migrants. Now he’s turned to spilling bronze. The Vatican has become the new home of a lumpy brown mass depicting a crowd of emaciated figures evidently waiting for their chance at a better life.
Many Catholics have difficulty grasping the Pope’s priorities. He excoriates Western democracies for their mistreatment of the poor while cozying up to the communist regime in China, which has starved tens of millions—perhaps hundreds of millions—to death and left countless others in desperate poverty.
Some have noted how seldom Pope Francis invokes the name of Jesus in his public statements. When he draws attention to the plight of the poor, he doesn’t consider the primary causes—which are often spiritual—but only the effects, which are material. This is why he speaks of the struggle of migrants and refugees far more than he speaks of tyranny, social dysfunction, or bankrupt ideologies. For him (and most liberal Christians), the problem begins at the border, not at home.
This runs contrary to the Gospel’s teaching on poverty. At the risk of oversimplifying, it’s sin that causes poverty, and people will always sin. As Christ himself says, “the poor you will always have with you.” Our Lord wasn’t a defeatist. He was simply expressing a basic truth: people will always sin, and sin will make them poor—spiritually, of course, but also perhaps materially. Christ reinforces this truth in his parable of the prodigal son, who loses his fortune because of sinful living, along with his parable of the talents, where the third servant loses his job because of his sinful attitude. Therefore, his advice to the poor is to seek God first and foremost, and not a better life in another country. “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness,” he exhorts, “and all these things will be given to you as well.”
When Pope Francis does speak about the causes of poverty, he’ll usually blame capitalism or nationalism, not sin. Thus, he’s far more critical of the Italian right-winger Matteo Salvini than he is of the far-left dictator Nicolás Maduro. In his mind—and again, in the mind of most liberal Christians—Western politicians somehow account for the desperation of African migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean, not the dictators and kleptocrats who make their homelands uninhabitable.
What is the Pope’s long-term solution to global poverty? It’s difficult to say. He apparently expects rich nations to take in all the world’s poor, and for their governments to provide for all their needs and wants. At the same time, he urges Catholics to hold back on evangelization. This attitude risks reducing the Church to little more than a glorified NGO—a possibility that Pope Benedict XVI repeatedly warned against.
It also ignores the failure of past missionary efforts in these countries. It’s worth asking why so many Catholic nations suffer from poverty and unrest. Perhaps it’s because Catholic missionaries after Vatican II saw themselves as political reformists (the basis of liberation theology) instead of apostles. Perhaps it’s because Catholic bishops saw themselves more as administrators and diplomats (the basis of clericalism) than of pastors.
Concerning this question of what to do for the poor, the Gospel again stands in direct opposition to the progressive approach. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, a Jew is beaten, stripped, and robbed by bandits. Two of his own countrymen pass him by as he lays on the side of the road, bleeding and naked. Only the Samaritan stops to help him. He takes the man to an inn and pays for his stay.
Many exegetes have suggested that the beaten man symbolizes the oppressed poor, the Samaritan the missionary, and the inn the Church. The meaning is clear: Christians should meet the suffering where they are and take on their burden themselves. In the modern version of this story—the one expounded by Pope Francis and the U.S. bishops—the Samaritan symbolizes Church leaders, and the inn represents Western governments. After seeing the beaten Jew safely to the inn, the modern Samaritan sets out to dialogue with the bandits.
In a time of spiritual turmoil and huge disparities between the rich and poor, it’s tempting to believe that merely balancing the scales of prosperity through unregulated migration and wealth redistribution will create harmony and goodwill in the world. But to do so risks ignoring the Gospel, trivializing charity, and underestimating the power of sin.
Yet Jesus came into the world to save the world from sin, not poverty or national borders. For this reason, his final command is to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” If they truly want to help the poor and end economic injustice, our bishops could do no better than to follow this commandment and rediscover their missionary zeal. Heaven demands nothing less.
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