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.