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Will Pope Francis’s calls to focus the Church’s mission on the poor end thousands of years of debate?

Pope_Francis_in_March_2013Pope Francis continues to attract enormous attention with his repeated calls to refocus the attention of the Catholic church upon its mission to the poor. In fact, the Christian church has always had a very difficult relationship with the poor and, especially, the rich. This goes all the way back to Jesus himself – who advised that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God” – and the reports in the Bible that the earliest church at Jerusalem shared its possessions in common.

The relationship became increasingly difficult in the medieval period when the universal church itself became fabulously wealthy and (with the decline of the Roman Empire) the Western world’s only authentic super-power. The official teaching of the church came to terms with wealth (and poverty) at a relatively early date and was cemented (in the fifth) in the shotgun wedding of Christianity and neo-Platonism forged by St. Augustine. According to Augustine, perfect people might live without property but we are all fallen (some more than others) and we need property and laws and a state to keep the wicked from perpetually preying upon the righteous. In any case, God’s ten commandments included this one – “Thou Shalt Not Steal – which seemed clear enough. In the sixteenth century, Martin Luther set about demolishing the authority of this church by condemning the holy fruit-machine of penance and indulgence – but he never challenged the claims of the wealthy to their property (or the need for the poor to accept their own lowly status with good grace).

But there has always been a dissenting tradition within the Christian church.  In the fifth century it was brilliantly represented by an anonymous and mysterious monk – the ‘Sicilian Briton’ – who may have come from Stoke and probably lived in Sicily. He lambasted the various attempts to avoid Jesus’s plain speaking about the future prospects of the rich and came up with this rather brilliant sound-bite: “the few that are rich are the reason for the many who are poor”. In the fourteenth century, the issue came to a head with the dispute over ‘holy’ or ‘apostolic’ poverty. Monastic followers of the other Francis – St. Francis of Assisi – insisted that the ‘holier way’ was to live without property and that this should apply to all officers of the church, all the way up to the pope. For fifty years this generated an intensive and lively debate within the church. It was only really resolved when the principal participants died off, most of them by natural causes. (A few recalcitrant friars were burnt at the stake in Marseilles for failing to toe the papal line). It is a dispute which has reappeared from time to time within the church ever since.

Christianity, in its myths, in its doctrines and in its institutions, has shaped our understanding of the rights and wrongs of wealth and poverty for two thousand years. For the most part, it has defended profound inequality and counselled the poor to be patient (for their reward will come in another place). But at times it has also presented the most profound challenge to that established order of rich and poor. Where will the interventions of the present pope take us? Don’t hold your breath!

Chris Pierson is Professor of Politics at the University of Nottingham and has recently published Just Property, a study of the history of private property in the West.

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  1. The words of the “Sicilian Briton”–“the few that are rich are the reason for the many who are poor”–reminds me especially of the words of James in the New Testament. James 2:6 confronts a church that caters to the rich by saying “But you have dishonored the poor man. Is it not the rich who oppress you, is it not they who drag you into court?” Then later, James 5:1-6 confronts the rich directly, saying in 5:4-6 that “Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out; and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned, you have killed the righteous man; he does not resist you.”

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