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The Poverty of Ignorance Print E-mail
By William E. Carroll   
Saturday, 12 October 2013

One of the hallmarks of the pontificate of Pope Francis so far has been his calling our attention to the conditions of poverty throughout the world. The pope’s concern extends not simply to economic deprivation but also to social injustices, including the mistreatment of migrants and those marginalized as the result of ethnic or class discrimination. This is his embrace of “the option for the poor” as an overarching imperative for Christian life. Rumors from Rome indicate that the pope is preparing an encyclical on poverty, and even suggest its title: “Blessed are the Poor.”

Vows of poverty taken by members of religious orders remind us of the connection between Christian life and what should be a healthy and spiritual attitude towards material possessions. The Church has always taught that the material world is good; after all it is created by God. In advocating the virtue of poverty, we need to be careful to avoid any form of Manicheanism, which sees the physical world as the realm of darkness, flowing from a primal evil principle. Nor ought we to think, as some Christian heretics claimed, that one must not have any possessions of one’s own in order to be a true follower of Christ.

It seems likely that an encyclical on poverty will seek to make clear what a Christian attitude towards poverty ought to be: both in our own lives and in how we should respond to the needs of others. The pope hopes that, by word and example, he can call attention to the conditions of the poor and motivate others to act to alleviate these conditions. He’s working to remove our ignorance of the poverty that is evident in the world.

At times, Francis has criticized those in the Church more concerned with what he termed the subtleties of theological discourse than with meeting the needs of the poor. There is a temptation here, however, to separate too starkly speculative theology and philosophy from the practical engagement with social and economic questions: to embrace a kind of Christian pragmatism as an exclusive principle, disconnected from broader theological and philosophical insights.

First of all, the claim that action to alleviate poverty ought to take precedence over theoretical reflection is itself a philosophical and theological judgment about priorities, and a judgment in the theoretical order. This reveals, I think, that there can be no adequate call for Christian action without an appropriate theological underpinning. What sense would a call for action be without a framework that includes a justification for such action? 


           Blessed are the poor: The Beatitudes by James Tissot, c. 1890

There is not only an ignorance of poverty in the world; there is also a poverty of ignorance. Not to recognize that human beings, by nature, seek the truth – and that the human mind is able to discover enduring truths about nature, human nature, and God – is to be imprisoned in ignorance. The “dictatorship of relativism,” to which Pope Benedict XVI often referred, is a heavy burden for those captured by its blandishments.

To be unaware that truth is discovered rather than arising from our own subjective opinions is to suffer from a deep-seated ignorance. This is an intellectual impoverishment characteristic of some features of contemporary culture, which is as much an enslaving poverty as the economic variety. The needs of the poor include the needs of those who do not see what the light of reason and faith discloses.

To be indifferent to the needs of the poor may itself indicate a kind of spiritual impoverishment. This kind of poverty has its source in pride, in the unwillingness to be subject to truth and to be open to God’s grace. It takes a profound humility to order one’s thoughts and actions to a truth that exists beyond one’s own subjectivity.

Christians are called to be witnesses to what is true, and to Christ as Truth incarnate. Each Christian witnesses to the truth in the contexts in which he or she lives. This contextualization, as Pope Francis recently remarked, ought not to be identified with relativism. Rather, it is the prudential application of universal principles to particular circumstances.

Our responses to the poor have their roots in the human intellect and will. We need to be attentive to the external manifestations of poverty and seek ways to alleviate them. But we also need to enter into the process of correcting misinformed intellects and poorly formed consciences.

To teach by word and example in the face or faces of poverty requires courage and God’s grace. It needs to be done with that humility which comes from a recognition of what it means to be created. Creatures are not the authors of their own existence. To be created means to depend on God’s agency for everything that you are. The temptation faced by Adam and Eve is always faced by intelligent creatures: to want to be the Creator, the determiner of good and evil, right and wrong.

Pride and its progeny, including the poverty of ignorance, are the result of failing to accept that you are created. A philosophical and theological reflection on God as Creator is an essential feature of a proper Christian understanding of the world and, hence, of how you should act. The Church has rich resources in this regard, not the least of which is the thought of Thomas Aquinas. To illustrate the depths of Christian faith, Thomas often invoked the doctrine of creation. To be ignorant of this tradition is itself a kind of poverty.

 
William Carroll is Thomas Aquinas Fellow in Theology and Science, Blackfriars, University of Oxford.
 
 
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Comments (12)Add Comment
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written by John II, October 12, 2013
The keynote in the distinctions Mr. Carroll seems to be making, I think, is found in the two great Commandments that summarize God's law: Love God unconditionally and love your neighbor as yourself.

The Holy Father has lately been observing publicly the commonplace that a pro forma love of God doesn't spill very readily into love of neighbor. In his encyclical, I hope he makes room for a clear reminder of what we've been witnessing for two generations now: that the "praxis" of a busybody activist love of neighbor eventually seems to crowd out God and morph into an icy narcissism indifferent as well to neighbor.
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written by Avery Tödesulh, October 12, 2013
Glad to see that you're not indulging in "decadent Thomist commentary" which Pope Francis castigates ... You're doing the "genius" stuff that the Pope approves!

One question ... how do you tell 'em apart? Must simply be a matter of "17th, 18th, 19th century Thomism" = BAD, "13th century Thomism" = GOOD ...
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written by Chris in Maryland, October 12, 2013
Bravo Mr. Carroll.

It is truly spiritual and intellectual impoverishment that is the universal poverty in these days of ours.
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written by Rich in MN, October 12, 2013
"Christians are called to be witnesses to what is true, ...the truth in the contexts in which he or she lives. This ...ought not to be identified with relativism. Rather, it is the prudential application of universal principles to particular circumstances."

I think this is such a critical distinction. It seems to be the fundamental understanding that gets lost in a world which, by and large, accepts naive oversimplifications as nuanced insight.
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written by senex, October 12, 2013
I applaud Mr. Carroll for his sane and intelligent comments. The fear that many Catholics and others share is that Pope Francis will return to the discredited ‘ecclesial economics’ of John XXIII and Paul VI based on the theory of Redistributionism which believes that ‘the so-called mal-distribution of the world’s goods is to be explained in terms of envy by the poor alongside the moral corruption of those economic systems that in fact produce existing wealth in the modern world.’ The world, however, does not consist in a static quantity of goods or wealth. Rather, new goods come to market and produce new wealth through new technologies that enable goods and services to be sourced almost anywhere in the world.

As Fr. Schall further points out in his essay on ‘The Foundations of Social Doctrine’ in his book “Does Catholicism Still Exist?”, Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI have shifted away from those earlier discredited theories by promoting the position that ‘options for the poor’ should be directed to the real possibilities for poor peoples to overcome their own problems with the intelligent aid of those who know how to produce wealth in the first place (i.e., not government handouts). This, it seems to me, is the intelligent approach to relieving poverty, despite the recognition that ‘the poor will always be with us’ in this world.

Does anybody really know Pope Francis’ intellectual and ideological views on solving ‘the social poverty’ problem?
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written by Arthur Gerard Smith, October 12, 2013
"First of all, the claim that action to alleviate poverty ought to take precedence over theoretical reflection is itself a philosophical and theological judgment about priorities, and a judgment in the theoretical order. This reveals, I think, that there can be no adequate call for Christian action without an appropriate theological underpinning. What sense would a call for action be without a framework that includes a justification for such action?"

Well I don't know. What theological "framework" did Jesus offer? What "theological underpinning" would one first need to establish before being able to acknowledge that the parable of the Good Samaritan, say, amounted to an"adequate call for Christian action?"

It seems to me that Christ was not a theoretician, thank God, and that while theory has its place, it is a secondary, reflective one. Christian truth aims first for the heart, and it can only be properly appropriated by the head by way of the heart. 
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written by schm0e, October 12, 2013
Glad to see the recognition of the "poverty" of people "marginalized by ethnic or class discrimination." Hopefully it will lead to recognition of the poverty of those marginalized by a culture that denies opportunities to people of conscience.

They don't make for compelling photo-ops for charity or political campaigns, so they need someone to acknowledge them.
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written by Thomas J. Hennigan, October 12, 2013
I live in Peru, a country which still has a high percentage of poor. However, in the past 10 to 15 years the official statistics show that more than 20% of the poor have been able to climb out of poverty. How? With the help of goveernment handouts? No, they are infrequent and badly organized like most things the governemt here does. It happened the creation of jobs with the help of foreign investment. There is a foundation here which helps those in the remote Andean regions to build their own resevoirs and irrigation systems, which means even cuadruplying their annual production. Once they have been taught the technology, they themselves extend it and teach others to apply it. The government with its bureaucracy spends ten times more to achieve much less. Another government failures is the desastrous education system which is part of the cause of so much proverty. Bureacracy and corruption are other producers of poverty.
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written by Tom, October 12, 2013
Would that it were so. This is an interesting explication of what Pope Francis might have said. However, I've seen no quotations where Pope Francis qualifies "poverty" with "spiritual". His focus appears to be solely on material well-being.
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written by quisutDeus, October 12, 2013
Hosea 4:6
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written by Louise, October 14, 2013
John II, see today's homily (Oct 14) by the pope at news.va...he calls it the "Jonah Syndrome". Not sure if this is what you mean:
The Pope continued by saying that the “Sign of Jonah” , is the sign of truth that gives us the confidence to be saved by the blood of Christ. How many Christians are there, stressed Pope Francis, that think they will be saved only for the works they perform. The works, added the Pope are necessary, but they are a consequence, a response to the merciful love that saves us. These works without merciful love mean nothing. The “Jonah Syndrome” underlined the Holy Father is work without this love.The Pope concluded by saying that we should take advantage of Monday’s liturgy to ask ourselves and make a choice. What do I prefer? The Sign of Jonah or The Syndrome of Jonah?
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written by Breidenc, October 15, 2013
Mr. Smith, you write: "It seems to me that Christ was not a theoretician, thank God, and that while theory has its place, it is a secondary, reflective one."

In response to your question, Jesus's theological framework is Torah and the Prophets. These works, from God himself, provide the "theological framework" required for action. Moreover, the Prophets provide further reflection when the Israelites fail to live up to Torah, and predict awful things to happen to those whose hearts fail to be moved by God's Word and Spirit.
Truthfully, if one recognizes that Jesus is an Israelite (Jewish, as we would say, though such a term is anachronistic), then one must be cognizant of Jesus' saying: "I come not to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it." For he is the Law. And "Law" is a poorly translated term for "Torah."

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