Defence of the Poor

The Catholic Social Teaching (CST) has been around for 125 years, yet most church members have never heard of it. And not enough have an informed knowledge of its contents. No wonder, then, that CST is often referred to as the Church’s best kept secret. But why all the secrecy around Church teaching that was intended to give hope, energy and inspiration to the faithful? What is so provocative about the teaching that it has been considered risky to allow the masses access to it?

By Gabriel Dolan*

The Catholic faithful are very familiar with Church teaching on dogma and sexuality, but it is only in recent times that they have had the privilege of chewing on Papal documents on issues of poverty, protest, environment, equality, justice, integrity of creation and freedom. CST has for over a century, however, attempted to ask in a consistent manner who the poor are, why they are poor, how poverty can be eradicated, and what the Gospel and our traditions have to say about all of this. These are hot topics that, up until recently, were only discussed among theologians, safely away from the impoverished and disenfranchised billions who might be incited by their content.
Yet the Church, out of compassion and moved by the dreadful conditions to which the poor have been subjected to, keeps asking: Is this morally right? Why the injustice, deprivation and inequality? What is wrong with the organisation of society and its systems that some live in horrific squalor, while the owners of property and business live in extravagance?
The Church has no monopoly on wisdom, but, confronted by injustices and a changing world, she has continually endeavoured to give hope, offer solutions and confront the evils that prevent us from enjoying the fullness of life that Jesus promised two thousand years ago: “I came that you might have life–life in all its fullness” (John10:10).
The development of CST, then, is a continuous process of responding to the multi-faceted aspects of poverty and of attempting to read the signs of the times in a society that is always changing. In other words, this is a long journey of conversion and progression, while opting for the poor by examining the world and how it works from their perspective. It has been described by theologian Donal Dorr, in his many works on CST, as “viewing life from the bottom”. This is a radical new approach that took decades to take shape. From the outset, the Church was challenged by poverty, but also considered by many as part of the status quothat was maintaining a very unjust system.
The Church wanted to help the poor, but was also committed to law and order, and feared anything that might resemble disorder, revolution or protest. Was it possible to bring meaningful change without confrontation, and how much could be tolerated and upset in order to make life less miserable for those at the bottom of the pile?
This is the struggle and the context in which CST has evolved. This essay, however, not only attempts to explain the principles of CST and the circumstances in which it developed; it also attempts to critique and see the limitations and failures of the teaching, as well as highlight its prophetic and inspirational role within the Church and society.

Historical development

Viewing life from the bottom

The questions from the outset have always been: What side is the Church on, the powerful or the weak? Is it possible to provide solutions that ensure that both sides win and live in harmony?

These questions troubled Pope Leo XIII, the author of Rerum Novarum, the first CST encyclical published in 1891. Leo wanted economics to serve humanity, and not the poor to be slaves of the economic order. He was deeply concerned for the plight of the workers, and he insisted that the state has a duty to protect workers. He wanted change, but expected it to come from above. His approach was to appeal to the authorities and powers, but he did not address the issue as to what the poor should do, if their appeals and complaints were ignored.
Leo feared confrontation and conflict. He could not approve rebellion or resistance to a tyrannical order. Still, he set the spark alight that gave CST a strong foundation. Yet, it took forty years before the next papal document picked up the initiative and advanced Leo’s teaching. In 1931, Pius XI released Quadragesimo Anno, and for the first time we were introduced to the term ‘social justice’. He also critiqued the capitalist model of society, and the encyclical gave the Church standing and respect, as many believed that it had a blueprint as to what a just society would look like. Pius XI’s major contribution towards CST is probably his claim that the right of private property is subordinate to the right of all peoples to share the wealth of the Earth. That was a very radical idea, and challenged the basis of the capitalist owner system.

The Earth is God’s gift to all
Pius XI was followed by Pius XII in 1939, who reigned for twenty years, until he was succeeded by the much loved Pope John XXIII in 1958. Pope John, in his humble manner, gave the Church the Second Vatican Council, which put justice right at the centre of peace, poverty and development. Gaudium et Spes, the Pastoral Constitutionon the Church in the Modern World, stated emphatically that the poor have a right to their share of the earth’s resources. But how to bring about the adherence to such right was not emphasised.
CST was gradually becoming more progressive and radical, yet it was still viewing development and change from a Western perspective. The right to self-determination and the struggle of the colonised nations around the globe to gain independence received little attention or support in Papal encyclicals. It was not until Paul VI’s encyclical Populorum Progressio(‘The Development of Peoples’ –PP), released in 1967, that the whole notion of global inequality and poverty was finally addressed. The encyclical presents a consistent analysis of poverty and offers solutions. Pope Paul expected that change would come from the top and trickle down to those at the bottom. However, he openly put on the side of rich peoples the responsibility of any possible future “wrath of the poor”: “We must repeat that the superfluous goods of wealthier nations ought to be placed at the disposal of poorer nations… Continuing avarice on the part of the prospering peoples… will arouse the judgment of God and the wrath of the poor, with consequences no one can foresee” (PP54).
Paul VI was reluctant to envisage a society in which the poor could shape their own destiny. However, when Latin American Bishops met in Medellin (1968), they spelt out clearly, for the first time, the notion of ‘option for the poor’ and proposed the ‘conscientisation of the poor’ as the solution to assist them in organising and mobilising themselves in pursuit of their own liberation. Paul VI was hesitant about taking the strong line as advocated by the Latin American Bishops, but he did convene a Synod of Bishops in 1971with the theme: “Justice in the World”. Finally, justice was getting the attention that it long deserved.

The document that followed the Synod is best remembered for its statement that action for and on behalf of justice is “a constituent dimension of preaching the Gospel”. Justice was clearly no longer viewed as an added extra in the life of Christians, but as a constituent element – that is, not optional – for the follower of Jesus. CST was now mainstream. But who would carry it to the grassroots and global level?
Pope John Paul II played a pivotal role in the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe in the late 1980s, especially in his native Poland. He was very supportive of the Polish Solidarnosc(‘Solidarity’) Union, but still very cautious and sceptical of liberation theology that had taken firm roots in Latin America by the time he took office in 1978. He did attend the Latin America Bishops Conference in Puebla, Mexico (1979), but he preferred to emphasise the importance of human rights as the means to bring about change and development. He did not want Jesus to be portrayed as a liberation figure like Che Guevara.
In his Encyclical Laboren Exercens(‘On Human Work’), in 1981, peppered with 10 references to ‘Solidarity’, strongly defended the rights of workers and the role of trade unions, but he was insistent that this was a struggle for justice, not a class war. For him, ‘class struggle’ is a struggle ‘against’ others; solidarity, instead, implies a struggle ‘with’ others, with injustice (rather than other people) as the enemy.He got more and more worried that Christianity would be perceived as another wing of Marxist ideology, and so he attempted to control its expansion by the appointment of very traditional bishops in Latin America. Yet, his defence of the poor cannot be disputed. He spoke frequently of the need for an integral humanism.
In 1987, John Paul II wrote another social encyclical, Sollicitudo rei Socialis(‘On Social Concern’), to mark the 20thAnniversary of Populorum Progressio. The Pope analysed the current state of development in terms of conflict between Eastern and Western blocs, a conflict often played out by proxy wars in the global south, thus contributing to underdevelopment there. He criticised both the liberal capitalist ideology of the West and the Marxist collectivist ideology of the East. He proposed, instead, freedom and solidarity based on respect for the human person and a vision of authentic human development. He identified sin and ‘structures of sin’ as barriers to development. The encyclical also defined a new international outlook for CST that is rooted in the concerns of the Third World.
John Paul’s successor, Benedict XVI, carried on the same style of leadership. In his encyclicals, he emphasised charity much more than justice, while giving Caritas throughout the world the duty of implementing the charitable dimension of the Church’s mission. Benedict taught that it is the laity’s duty to promote and defend justice. He was reluctant to give the hierarchy that responsibility and, in the process, he was indicating that, perhaps, working for justice is only an indirect duty of the Church, and best left to the lay faithful. No one could doubt Benedict’s compassion and love for the poor, but his position does not amount to an ‘option for the poor’ in the way we would normally understand it.
This portrayal of the history and emphases of CST over the years does show how different Popes took different approaches to CST. This is further confirmed by the arrival of Pope Francis in 2013. His simple lifestyle – welcoming migrants, visiting prisoners and his off- the-cuff remarks – has endeared him to the world. His desire to delegate power to episcopal conferences and to be personally addressed as the Bishop of Rome illustrate that he teaches by witnessing most of all.

* The author is a member of St Patrick’s Missionary Society. He has ministered in Kenya since 1982 in the Dioceses of Lodwar, Kitale and, currently, Mombasa. Most of his Ministry is devoted to Human Rights and Peacebuilding. He is a columnist with the Daily Nationand a board member of several civil society organisations in Kenya.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]

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