The Poverty of Ignorance

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.