Care for the Poor: Who Are the Poor? Medieval and Modern Views

Pope Francis has recently gained significant acclaim with his love of the poor and of poverty. He has suggested that he wants a “poor Church for the poor and excoriated excesses of the modern economic system that turn man into an economic animal rather than a spiritual one.” His call to care for the poor has seemed to resonate with a world that also professes its own desire to care for the poor. Sometimes, this is even used by enemies of orthodox Catholicism as a tool to be set against traditional Catholic concerns like abortion– the defense of the unborn– and marriage. Forget about that nonsense, say Francis’s secular admirers, focus on the poor, who we really need to care about. Rather than be “obsessed” with controversial social issues, focus instead on the poor. And some Catholics have agreed, preferring the agreement to conflict.

Yet, who are the poor and what does it mean to be poor? In the modern world, poverty means a lack of money. This may say more about the modern world than about genuine poverty. In the Middle Ages, though, poverty had a broader meaning. Poverty, paupertas, meant not so much the lack of money, as the lack of power. Poverty meant powerlessness. The poor were the weakest members of society: this meant they often lacked money, but it was not quite the same thing. In the earlier Middle Ages the poor were monks- men who stepped away from the violence of aristocratic, feudal society and threw down their weapons to live as unarmed monks. And as the poor, they suffered helpless the attacks of other noble warriors and, even more so, the attacks of Vikings, which devastated monasteries throughout Europe. Later, poverty came to refer more to giving up money, as with St. Francis, who gave up his wealthy middle class lifestyle to become a poor vagrant. Yet, even here, the emphasis was not just on giving up of money, but of power. St. Paul had written that “in my weakness, I am strong,”- this was the point.

So, who are the poor today? The modern world, with its obsession with money, simply equates poverty with the lack of money, but possibly the Middle Ages has something to offer. If paupertas, poverty, is seen not only as lack of money, but the classic sense of lack of power, i.e. weakness, then this would force reconsideration of who the poor are today.

If paupertas is weakness, then who are the poor? Who are the weakest members of society we should care about? Seen in this light, a man from the Middle Ages would consider absurd the claim that we should forget about the unborn and focus on the poor. Or that we should forget about marriage controversies and focus on the poor. This would be a contradiction in terms. Who in society is weaker than the unborn? Who is more powerless? Who is weaker than the children who suffer most from the breakdown of marriage?

If modernity is not too proud to take some lessons from the past, then perhaps it might learn something from past views of poverty and weakness. It might learn the absurdity of claiming to care for the poor, but not the unborn, who are the poorest and weakest of all. And it might drop the ridiculous sophistry of saying that we should talk less about abortion and more about poverty. Liberals sometimes accuse anti-abortionists of only caring about children before they are born. Of course, this is nonsense. Catholic Charities is among the largest non-governmental charitable organizations in the United States. But it also misses an important point: that the need to care for the poor, also entails the need to care for the unborn.

If the modern, secular world really wishes to take some lessons from Pope Francis and his concern for the poor, then one lesson it must take is this: care for the poor will necessitate care for the unborn, on pain of hypocrisy.

Women in Paganism and Christianity

In the early years of Christianity, the ancient pagan world held Christians in disgust because of their poor understanding of Christianity. The knew little about it, but they “knew” Christians practiced cannibalism, blood sacrifice, conspired against the state, and engaged in sexual deviancy. The modern world, also increasingly pagan, seems to understand Christianity little better. It knows little about Christianity, but it at least “knows” that Christians hate women and gays, are against science, and enjoy long lists of pointless rules.

All these errors are beyond purpose of this piece; rather, what concerns here is the claim that Christianity is oppressive towards women. What interests about this claim is a very odd historical coincidence: Christianity is supposed to be oppressive towards women, yet in early Christianity a majority of the converts were women. This need not disprove the claim that Christianity oppresses women, yet it is at least surely a very odd coincidence. It would be at least as strange as removing the hoods from a KKK meeting and finding a large majority of African Americans were wearing them. Not impossible, perhaps, but highly puzzling.

In, The Rise of Christianity, Rodney Stark has argued that one of the reasons for the rapid rise of Christianity from a small break-off Jewish sect to a religion that dominated the Roman empire was its appeal to women. In pagan antiquity, women had few rights and little respect. Men generally agreed that wives were too much trouble and marriage undesirable; the promise of land and money from the Roman government did little to make women and marriage more palatable. Women who married were likely to be pushed into marriage to much older men with the result that there was little affection between the spouses. For men it was easier and more convenient to find sex elsewhere, hence adultery and affairs were common- at least for men.

Women were also likely to be forced or coerced into abortions and infanticide. They had little power. The real power, the pater potestas, lay with the husband and father, who had the power of life and death over his family. And he used it. Stark has shown that infant girls were killed in enormous numbers by romans preferring a son; this led to a significant gender gap (as in modern China), and made marriage even more difficult.

Christian behavior was different. The marriage age gap was minimized. Abortion and infanticide forbidden. The double standard on adultery was abolished and, as a result, the gender gap was diminished. The pater potestas, at least in the pagan sense, was abolished. No longer did the husband have the power of life and death over his family; the headship remained, but it was now to be a headship of service. The husband was called the head of the family, but this was said, not by way of domination, but by way of sacrifice. He was, in the language of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, to love his wife even as Christ loved his Church, handing himself over for her to sanctify her. Perhaps the ideal was no more met then than now, but it was still different than the pagan, and the ideal mattered.

Why was the Christian practice so different? First was the language already discussed of Ephesians comparing marriage of a husband and wife to the union of Christ and His Church. Such an image placed higher obligations on both partners and forced them to view their marriages differently. Marriage became a sacrament, not a mere social contract.

This has another important aspect. The marriage symbolism implied a new purpose to marriage. In the old pagan view, marriage was for heir or perhaps family alliances. But the purpose of the union of Christ and the Church was holiness. In the Christian view, the purpose of marriage was not children (though they were to be welcomed) or social benefit, but the mutual holiness of the spouses. Hence women could not be seen as mere tools, as a means to an end (heirs or alliances). Because a woman was not mere matter, but had a soul, a soul for which the husband was responsible and so a woman, because she could not be seen solely in material terms, has a basis to be treated better in the Christian than pagan world- and this is what happened.

Today, with the advent of secularism and return of the materialist philosophy, the pagan world is again slowly returning. And again, the pagan world begins to see women only in material terms, which is to say, in sexual and reproductive terms. Hence, women’s “rights” are almost exclusively seen in sexual terms, which explains the paramount importance placed on birth control and abortion. This is because since women are only matter (or thought to be so), they are are seen solely in light of a material purpose- reproduction. And the modern world is becoming as proficient at preventing women from giving birth and being born as the pagan was. This keeps women more available to serve (as tools) the sexual desires of men. The propaganda has changed, cloaked in the language of “rights” but the facts have not.

Man as a god, God as Man: Medieval and Modernity

In a previous blog post, I referred to the the late nineteenth-century philosophe Frederich Nietzsche, who was something of a prophet for modern society. Nietzsche looked at the present and into the future and saw there, a world for which he hoped—a world without God. While some of his non-theistic colleagues (the “humanists”) in particular, insisted the loss of God would have little effect on human affairs, Nietzsche held them in contempt. For him, the death of God meant the advent of nihilism, the destruction of all meaning and value in life. This meant the destruction of all traditional morality.

Hence Nietzsche ridiculed the humanists who thought they could rid society of Christianity, yet keep its values. He spoke instead of the need to reconstruct all of our own moral values and the need to become gods. God was dead, he said, we would have to be our own gods now. And so we have been.

The Middle Ages, of course, saw things the other way around. To them, God was God and man was not, even if some men (typically royalty ) had the usual delusions of grandeur. God made the world meaningful and moral values—good and evil, right and wrong–to exist. God was the yardstick no man could measure up to, all fell short. Since man could not raise himself up, God bent Himself down, a divine humility to humble the pride of man. The great became small, the strong, weak, and in return man had to become like a little child. Man could not reach God, so God became man to bring the Unreachable into the grasp of humanity. And so, in the end, man could become like god. Accepting his smallness, he could become large. In the traditional formula, the Son of God became man, so that men could become sons of God.

Not so in modernity, no God-man there to humble the pride of man, only man who, in the language of Nietzsche, had to become a god. And so he has, creating his own meaning, right and wrong, and good and evil. He decides what life is, what marriage is, what humanity is. When morality is seen as only a social construction, the typical result is moral destruction. So there is nothing surprising in the recent string of undercover videos showing planned parenthood casually discussing the destruction of unborn human beings. Nothing shocking in planned parenthood discussing “less crunchy” ways of destroying them or talking about cutting across the face to procure an intact brain- all in the interest of maximizing profit. When right and wrong become social constructs, the weakest always suffer. When man has to become god, in the Nietschean sense, he really becomes a demon, preying on the weakest.

The same is true in other areas as well. This is why the thought of euthanasia, euphemistically called “death with dignity,” (as the unborn are euphemistically called “specimens”), is of such concern to advocates of the disabled. When humans decide what makes life worthwhile, it becomes too easy to say that the lives are the weak are not worthwhile- as with the unborn, so with the elderly, perhaps someday soon, so also with the disabled as well. Marriage too becomes redefined and again, the weak suffer, as children- denied a father and mother– become tools in the fulfillment of adult desires. Hence, when man becomes a god, he really becomes a demon.

When God becomes man, however, the issue is reversed. Then the Powerful becomes weak and omnipotence becomes poverty. And when the Great becomes weak, then there is cause to care for the weak. And so the early Christians ended the ancient pagan practice of infanticide and abortion (though modern pagans have again begun it) and provided care for the poor and weak, while later Christians worked to abolish slavery.

If man is a god, in the Nietzschean sense, he is not much of a god. Worse, he is not even much of a man. He is something worse, something capable of supporting the destruction of innocent human beings, their dismemberment, and their sale, sacrifices to modern man’s real god- the almighty dollar and his own ego.