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.

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Suicide in History and the Question of Dignity

As an undergraduate, I once attended a lecture by a visiting classicist who made the interesting remark that he considered classical antiquity to be the first modern age and the period from roughly 1700 to present as the second modern age. Over the course of my own studies of the Middle Ages, I have come to find his suggestion more and more plausible. On too many issues modernity and antiquity agree, while the Middle Ages differ with both. One wonders how modernists would feel to be told that they are even more backward than the Middle Ages on matters of religion, reason, homosexuality, abortion, birth control, and suicide.

The last of these concerns us here as the push for normalizing suicide, euphemistically called “death with dignity,” continues to gain traction in the modern world. In classical antiquity, suicide as a dignified death was accepted as a given. Often it was seen as the only dignified or honorable response to personal failure or tragedy. Hence Nero committed suicide (though he needed help) when the proximity of his overthrow became clear. Socrates committed suicide rather than flee or accept a lesser sentence when he was found guilty. Suicide for no reason at all was typically looked down on but, in general, suicide was seen as a noble and dignified response when the occasion called for it.

The Middle Ages rejected this. That backward writer Dante placed suicides in the 6th circle of his Inferno, a sin more serious than heresy and violence against others, bordering (literally) on blasphemy, but less serious than the sins of deception (since they involved greater malice). Suicide rates were far lower in the Middle Ages than today (1) (antiquity being difficult to measure). The reasons for this probably vary and are many, but several possibilities stand out.

First, suicide typically implies a negative view of the word. In pagan Antiquity most world-views tended to be fairly pessimistic. To Plato, the material world was a lesser shadow of the better, truer world of forms, and the body the mere prison of the soul. Philosophies like Epicureanism or Skepticism rested on the view that life was painful; at best, one could get by either by minimizing discomfort or taking no strong position on anything.Suicide itself rests on a strong hatred of the world. In the end, it is the refusal to see anything in the world worth living for, a refusal to love anything in the world enough to live for its sake. In a pessimistic world-view like pagan antiquity this was possible; in the Middle Ages, much less so.

Second, suicide differed in the pagan and medieval world because of how those societies dealt with suffering. In the ancient world the best to hope for was to get by minimizing pain, but nothing more. In the Middle Ages, the world was a meaningful place, the product of a divine mindand more, a place where that divine mind had actually shared in human suffering.Hence the explanation of one Franciscan preacher that this was why images of Christ were placed in Churches: that as people saw how their Captain and Lord had suffered for them, they would not hesitate to suffer for him as well. In the ancient world, no one would have thought of Zeus as having loved mankind enough to suffer for them.

Finally, the medieval world was convinced of the intrinsic moral worth of the human individual, made in the image and likeness of God. To say that his worth was intrinsic was to say that a man’s moral worth was not dependent on accidentals like his station in life, wealth, political success or failure. Hence, if he failed, he need not kill himself to maintain his dignity, nor would this be expected of him. His dignity was his not by his own merits, but by gift of his nature. Maybe this was why Dante put suicides as bordering on blasphemy– it was the ultimate denial of the goodness of the world, the command to love self and neighbor, and the rejection of the intrinsic dignity and value of human life.

In a pagan world, whether ancient or modern, when dignity depends on a human action, when a person must invent their own meaning in an objectively meaningless life, and especially when one has no basis for finding meaning in the midst of suffering, then suicide begins to look like a realistic option. And so suicide is increasingly looked at today not only as a realistic option, but even one to celebrate. It could scarce be otherwise to a modern world that cannot find meaning in the world or in suffering and that rejects the intrinsic dignity of every human being. In this sense, at least, the modern world is even more backward than the medieval.

(1) For a more strictly scholarly look on suicide in the Middle Ages, Alexander Murray has written extensively on the subject. For a brief article by him see, http://psychiatry.queensu.ca/assets/synergyfall12.pdf