Asking the Question: Why are they Poor?

Preface:  The following post is adapted from an article I wrote for the quarterly newsletter of the Solanus Casey Region of the Secular Franciscan Order.  Last month I was named the regional chair of JPIC:  Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation.   This is a ministry shared by all branches of the Franciscan family.  It is an expression of the incarnational theology of St. Francis of Assisi and for Secular Franciscans, flows naturally out of our rule:

Let them individually and collectively be in the forefront in promoting justice by the testimony of their human lives and their courageous initiatives. Especially in the field of public life, they should make definite choices in harmony with their faith. (Chapter 15, OFS Rule)

This article was intended, if you will, as my calling card to the local fraternities I will be working with.  However, after the fact I was struck by the connections to a suggestion made by our frequent commentator Jordan (thank you!) in response to my recent post on critics of Pope Francis:

Perhaps it is time for Catholic social teaching oriented American Catholics to move away from directly refuting prominent politically conservative Catholics in the think-tanks, on Capitol Hill, and elsewhere. Pope Francis , in his Evangelii Gaudium, offers a new slate on which to draw an alternate political philosophy based not on social Darwinism but a Christlike attention to the least among us.

We who subscribe to comprehensive CST and its realization in American life must develop a way to succinctly and convincingly explain why CST is not socialism. In his new exhortation, Pope Francis has already developed a sophisticated argument for CST as a life-giving and life-affirming political way which intrinsically respects human beings and humanity.

While I had not articulated it in these terms, I think this describes quite well what I set out to do:


I want to begin with a quote from Dom Helder Camara the bishop of Recife, Brazil, from 1964 to 1985, a period that coincided with a repressive dictatorship in Brazil.   Reflecting on his interaction with the ruling class, he said,

“When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.”

His question—why are they poor?—is an important one:  it lies at the heart of Catholic Social Teaching.  It makes us distinguish between charity and justice and helps us see in the poor their dignity as human beings created in the image of God.     It leads us to seeing the poor as our brothers and sisters in Christ: because of this bond we must ask (as we would ask about our own family) why they are afflicted by poverty, hunger, disease and oppression.

This question, and questions like it, terrified the dictatorship in Brazil, in Chile under Pinochet, and in South Africa under white minority rule.   Many of the people who led these governments or profited from their rule saw themselves as good Christians and they were personally generous to the poor.   But to honestly answer the question of why there were so many poor would call into question their own privilege and power.   It would expose the foundations of their society to the light of Christ (1 Cor 4:5), and they were afraid of what they would see.

As Catholics it is our responsibility to ask this question and to look unflinchingly at the answers.   The Church first began asking itself this question in the 19th century.  Pope Leo XIII in his encyclical Rerum Novarum studied a world that was growing rich from the industrial revolution, but whose wealth was hoarded by a few.   He asked why so many working men and women were poor; his answer was to place the blame squarely on unjust social structures:

[W]e clearly see…the misery and wretchedness pressing so unjustly on the majority of the working class….[I]t has come to pass that working men have been surrendered, isolated and helpless, to the hardheartedness of employers and the greed of unchecked competition…. [T]he hiring of labor and the conduct of trade are concentrated in the hands of comparatively few; so that a small number of very rich men have been able to lay upon the teeming masses of the laboring poor a yoke little better than that of slavery itself. 

Since then the Church has repeatedly asked itself the question, Why are they poor?    It does so because, as the Father of Vatican II put it, “the Church has … the duty of scrutinizing the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel” (Gaudium et Spes, 4).   And every time, the Church has answered that the blame lies in unjust social structures that place ideology—whether communism or capitalism—before the good of human beings.   Pope John Paul II made this point forcefully:

[T]he tension between East and West is … between two concepts of the development of individuals and peoples both concepts being imperfect and in need of radical correction.…This is one of the reasons why the Church’s social doctrine adopts a critical attitude towards both liberal capitalism and Marxist collectivism. (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, 21)

This answer has not been popular, particularly when the Church criticizes capitalism.   Bishop Camara was called a communist; more recently, Rush Limbaugh denounced Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium as “pure Marxism coming out of the mouth of the Pope”  precisely because the Pope was again trying to answer the question, Why are they poor?

The challenge for us as Catholics and Secular Franciscans is, as St. Ignatius Loyola put it, to think with the Church.  We are called by our rule to “make definite choices in harmony with [our] faith” (OFS Rule, Chapter 15).  We need to ask ourselves, in our own time and place, why are they poor?  And we need to reflect and act upon the answers given by the Church and rooted in the gospel.


My next step as JPIC chair is to go out to the local fraternities and engage with them on this very question:  why are they poor?  However, at the moment I am somewhat at a loss as to how to proceed.  Executing my responsibilities as JPIC chair clearly involves questions of adult pedagogy—something I have discussed (and criticized) in several previous blog posts (see here, here and here)—so I am aware that simply going out and lecturing on Catholic Social Teaching, complete with copious quotes from papal encyclicals is not sufficient, and indeed may not be effective.   Yes, I started that way, in writing, but this was more of an attempt to position myself and my approach to this ministry, and less of an attempt to persuade.

Further, I am conscious of another trap that I am in danger of falling into:  believing, consciously or unconsciously, that I have “The Answers (c)” and it is my duty as an enlightened Catholic to bring the truth to the benighted masses.    The temptation to do this is doubly strong since I am an academic and most of my confreres are not, and since I am probably more progressive (for want of a better term) politically and theologically than they are.  This is not universally true and I am conscious of many variations and combinations that are quite surprising (or were to me when I first met these people).   Nevertheless, as a first approximation it is a reasonable generalization.

Paolo Freire, in his book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, described this temptation well:

[T]hese adherents to the people’s cause constantly run the risk of falling into a type of generosity as malefic as that of the oppressors. The generosity of the oppressors is nourished by an unjust order, which must be maintained in order to justify that generosity. Our converts, on the other hand, truly desire to transform the unjust order; but because of their background they believe that they must be the executors of the transformation. They talk about the people, but they do not trust them; and trusting the people is the indispensable precondition for revolutionary change. A real humanist can be identified more by his trust in the people, which engages him in their struggle, than by a thousand actions in their favor without that trust.

Realizing the existence of this temptation is the first step in over-coming it.  And this realization has also convinced me that any pedagogical approach that I take must be grounded in the experience and understanding of my listeners:  they have a wisdom that must be respected and built upon.   My confreres may not have read or fully thought through the implications of Catholic Social Teaching, but they have each lived out their baptismal faith and their dedication to the Franciscan charism in manifold ways, often with a quiet sanctity that I am in awe of.

But, at the same time, they often accept uncritically definitions and tropes propagated by the secular world that are at odds with their faith.    It is into the gap between these two realities that I need to go, and in terms of practical steps to take, I am at a loss.  So I would welcome suggestions and discussion on this very point.

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  • a solitary bird

    The gap between the rich and the poor is getting wider and wider. The rich are getting richer and the poor – poorer. Greed is a big factor in our capitalist structure. Those with the means of production use their wealth to become wealthier instead of seeing that their wealth is a way to help others to help themselves by providing good jobs so that they can support themselves and their families. The other social structures that are keeping them poor are sinful structures that our society just accepts as okay – drugs, alcohol, divorce and breakdown of the family, etc.

  • Ralf OFS

    David, I would ask first: brothers and sisters, do you know the poor of your city? Because if you start talking about non-concrete human beings, it can easily become quite off track.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      That is an excellent suggestion. However, I wonder how you would move it to poor they actually know, as opposed to stereotypes they think they know (e.g., the mythical welfare mom buying lobster with her food stamps).

      • Ralf OFS

        That does not seem to be too difficult (on a theoretical level, of course! My part is easier here). According to St. Paul, everything(!) we have is a gift, according to St. Francis, any good we do (like studying hard) is nothing else but God working in us and nothing we can be proud of, since it comes from the One who is uniquely good.
        Thus, if we start judging any poor negatively – which is not doable without subconsciously applauding those who did well, since they are our point of reverence – we insult God.
        This might be a strange thought for those without a background of Franciscan formation, but for anybody inside the Order this should be perfectly clear.

        After this, you can ask: what made Mrs. X poor that she had no influence upon? Did anything make her poor that is a sign of lack of supporting her dignity as a human being, as a Child of God (e.g. small wages)?

        • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

          But of course, when the rubber meets the road, things get exciting. See my comment responding to TauSign below.

  • dismasdolben

    I agree with Ralf OFS, but as one who has lived all over the world, although usually only in one capacity–international school teacher to a very elite and privileged clientele–but who STARTED off as a Peace Corps Volunteer, living among villagers in Sri Lanka, that the problem with “meeting the poor,” is that it is socially stigmatized everywhere, even in America. You wouldn’t want to know how many times I have been dissed by colleagues or school administrators for even CHATTING with people in the streets of places like Mumbai, or, God forbid! for striking up friendly conversations with food servers in school cafeterias. And in America I was once denounced by a relative for making friends among blacks in the small Southern town in which I grew up. She actually said to me, “You go to those people because you feel insecure among your own class.” Rich people do not want their children mingling with the children of the poor; they don’t want them sympathizing with them too much, although they don’t mind them giving charity–but at arm’s length. That’s simply the way it is in a society with ultra-capitalist ethics, and the challenge for the Church is to make at least the Catholics to understand that Christianity was, at its inception a religion of the poor, and that the saints whose statues the rich like to put in their front lawns would have felt uncomfortable being there.

    • emmasrandomthoughts

      This is an excellent post, and you’re absolutely right. I especially love the part about the saints people put in their front yards. I just picture the wealthy houses with the statues of St. Francis in their front yard.

      • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

        Of course, to be fair, it is not just rich people who do this. I call the most common image the “bird bath St. Francis”: cute, lovable and completely non-threatening. And, as my pastor preached this Christmas, there is a real tendency to focus on “Jesus, meek and mild” and ignore the Jesus who challenges our preconceptions.

        Also, according to the biographers, Francis frequently had dinner with the rich and powerful. He looked for lost souls wherever they were to be found. Again, kind of like Jesus that way.

        • dismasdolben

          It’s very convenient for some, I suppose, that what are, I suspect, the highly sanitized, “canonical” scriptures of the New Testament represent Jesus that way, but do you REALLY suppose that the Yeshua Ben-Nazroti who consorted with prostitutes, who healed what was beyond a doubt (according to Roman law and custom) the catamite of a Roman officer, who drove money-changers out of the Temple–that that Jesus was welcomed at very many Sadducees tables? Or that the Francis who stripped himself naked in the square of his native city and who dressed in foul rags he picked up in the back alleys was welcomed at very many prelates and noblemen’s tables? Really? There seems to be a certain tendency at Vox Nova to attempt a de-radicalizing of Catholicism. Haven’t you boys and gals figured out yet,that Catholicism is COUNTER-CULTURAL in Protestant and secularized America? Jesus and Francis were considered either crazy or highly suspicious, just as Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton were by such as the Knights of Columbus. I have a funny feeling that first pope whose name is Francis is going to be undercutting business-as-usual parishes and dioceses attempting to “fit in” at boardrooms and Rotary Clubs all over the “land of the [financially] free and the home of the [bloody-flag-waving] brave.”

          • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

            “Or that the Francis who stripped himself naked in the square of his native city and who dressed in foul rags he picked up in the back alleys was welcomed at very many prelates and noblemen’s tables? Really?”

            Well, the answer to this depends on your views on the “Franciscan Question”: the Franciscan version of the quest for the historical Jesus. If you give any credence to the canonical biographies (1st & 2nd Celano, Bonaventure), then the answer is yes, definitely: Francis was welcomed at the tables of the rich and powerful, both lay and clerical, despite, or perhaps because of his behavior. I personally see no reason to not accept these accounts, and it is not obvious to me that in doing so I am “de-radicalizing” Catholicism.

  • Johnboy

    When we awaken to our solidarity, compassion will ensue. When we properly conceive poverty more broadly, spiritually as well as materially, not only will we reinterpret our true wealth and realign our highest aspirations, but we’ll better realize our solidarity with all who share our radically impoverished human condition.

    Perhaps, David, you could approach your task, even if somewhat surreptitiously, as a facilitator of lectio divina, seeking to engage the participatory imaginations of your audience more so than their cognitive mapmaking, incorporating a sampling of literature, music and the arts in a liturgical story, song and symbol, down-playing the abstract and theoretic argumentation of political discourse while emphasizing a concrete and practical unitive experience.

    Such lectio would engage “the text,” in this case the context of relevant story, song and symbol, from the perspective of asking “what must I do in response?” and “what transformation must be effected in me?”. It changes our de-ontology by changing our ontology, changes our “oughts” by changing our “is” by refocusing our attention from where others are wrong in thought, word and deed and how others need to change and respond to where we are wrong, how we must change and might respond.

    I remember an enlightening exercise we once did with parishioners, asking them to call out words and phrases that bring “the church” to mind and writing them on a chalkboard. Next, we similarly inventoried, first what was right, then what was wrong, with “the church.” Invariably, the one word that was always omitted was “ME.” When we introduced the notions that “I am” and “We are” the church, everyone’s conceptions of what was wrong with the church and, especially, what could be done about it, were transformed, much like when the prophet, Nathan, rebuked David: “That man is YOU!”.

    Others may have ideas regarding inspiring stories and songs, even movies and youtube vignettes. For example, look at this Thai commercial:

    One of my favorite movies of all time remains Brother Sun, Sister Moon. It can move hearts and inspire responses. I imagine one would be amazed by how many inspirational songs and videos a group of students can spontaneously stream via wifi to a big screen when gathered and challenged to thus share. At least this readily engages my children, nieces and nephews when sharing humorous material.

    Finally, years ago, I participated in a nonpartisan think tank on poverty in Louisiana and we published a white paper. During those years, I became acquainted with some beautiful people from France, who’d come as missionaries to work among the poor of New Orleans. That’s right – foreign missionaries and WE, in the US, were their territory. Please check this out:

    More than anything else, what I learned from The Fourth World (people who lived on the extreme margins of society in worse than Third World squalor), was that, more than a sip of soup or a crumb of bread, what all people desire is enough dignity to have some seat at the table where their destinies are being discussed and deliberated. That resonates with the notion that “we support that which we help create.” Engage your audience by having them create the responses that you facilitate.

    David, what an earnest, thoughtful article/post. Godspeed, mon ami.

  • Johnboy

    A distinctly Christian radicality will be “rooted” in degrees of intimacy, which are realized in such fruits as compassion, which – not only proceeds in charity beyond the demands of justice, but – manifests in terms of pastoral sensitivity, which is as long-suffering, forbearing, forgiving, patient and kind with sinners as it is harsh on sin.

    We realize the transformation of individuals and communities in matters of degree and there is much growth to celebrate in both the secular and religious dimensions of American life even as we are invited into even deeper realizations of intimacy with God. Much contemplation is masked in our ordinary lives and its fruits are extraordinarily realized, even in America’s rotary clubs and boardrooms (over against any dialectical, either-or notion of radical depravity). To not thus acknowledge the Spirit’s pervasive influence and incarnational presence would represent a radical de-catholic-ization.

    The most effective spiritual cultivation of a counterculture, then, will ordinarily emphasize the formative primacy of right belonging and right desiring, out of which right behaving typically ensues, followed by right believing. Culture warriors, who judgmentally lead legalistically and fideistically, with morals and dogma, are radical in the sense of being rooted, alright, in the Old Testament.

    Merton was right to lament that our churches have fostered a lot more humanization and socialization than transformation, but Lonergan was right that humanization and socialization entail conversions. Humanization and divinization (theosis) may be much the same for one created as an imago Dei?

  • Ronald King

    David, That is quite a task you have before you. My thoughts relate to your being vulnerable with the audience you’re addressing. What has brought you to this sensitivity to the suffering of the poor. What is your suffering associated with empathizing with the poor? Do you feel the weight of their suffering? Do you feel the isolation, the emptiness, hopelessness, etc. and what this feels like? Have you shed tears which receive no comfort? Or do you experience a numbing which gives no relief? How has Christ opened you to this suffering and what does it feel like when you feel alone with this aspect of Love which leaves you empty and isolated?

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Those are all very good questions, but not ones I think I can answer, at least not easily. Superficially, I don’t think I am emotionally sensitive to the poor and their plight. I do not come into a lot of contact with individual poor folk, and my wife is much more likely to engage a panhandler in conversation than I am. Me, I am generous when I got the cash and try to always be polite if I don’t. Following Dorothy Day, I would say that for me, this love for the poor is an act of will: I do this because, as commanded by Jesus, I must do this to be true to my Catholic and Franciscan identity. In my own background there is also the knowledge of how precarious my family once was. When I was growing up we did not live on the wrong side of the tracks, as it were, but you could see them (figuratively and literally) from where we lived. And that was after a long slog upwards by my parents. And I promised myself, and impressed on my children, that I would never forget where I came from.

      • Ronald King

        David, My social and familial history is composed of being born into a lower social and economic working class environment of coal miners with little education and low expectations for achievement. Consequently, my core beliefs about myself, others and the world were constructed in an environment which struggled with a sense of worthlessness and its negative impact on cognitive development. My abilities were limited by a core sense of being inferior, of having a “basic fault” which must be hidden from self and others. This alienated me from others and myself and formed a subjective response of learned helplessness when faced with opportunities for success outside of my expectations. Psychological defenses instinctively protected me against the unwanted intrusion of these beliefs and feelings and I thought protected me against others being aware of my worthlessness. I began to gain freedom from these influences through one friend in the air force who had a degree in psychology and who could see the distorted beliefs which harmed and inhibited my development.
        This is too long to describe in detail. Without personal and institutional influences I would not have escaped the history of being “less than”. It is critical to have interpersonal and institutional support to counterbalance the genetic and social history of poverty which can distort the dignity of each person born into such an environment. The interpersonal connection is critical in assisting the person through the fears of facing what was once believed to be unattainable. This is where empathy provides the interpersonal bond and motivation which strengthens the will of each participant. Without empathy the will is weakened. The institutional structure is also a product of the development or lack of development of empathy. I either provides a path towards healing and freedom or a structure of false hope . Must go. Happy New Year

  • Mark VA

    Perhaps one of the best ways to help those in poverty, especially the students, is thru education. Those who have mastered a body of knowledge, and have the right academic credentials, could offer to tutor them, free of charge, to a level where proficiency can be demonstrated. This, in turn, would open the doors to higher education, scholarship money, and a way out of the cycle of poverty.

    What we’re talking here is an ongoing weekly commitment (summers especially included) of a number of hours, with the “school” open continuously. For example, in the area of mathematics, those high school level students who have passed the calculus AP exam (at least the AB part), would be replaced by those who want to take on this challenge.

    I think that such tutorial “schools” could easily be established under the auspices of a local parish or school, or even both. The regular day teachers could be kept in the loop to provide for synergy. To be effective, the key ingredients would be the right academic credentials of the tutors, the seriousness of the long-range commitment for all involved, and the fact that all this is free of charge. Does this sound familiar?

    It is worth noting what would be attained by this simple example:

    (a) the poor become “concrete”, as Ralf OFS rightly put it;
    (b) they are helped in a lasting way, and no $$ is involved;
    (c) because no $$ is involved, yet something of quantifiable value is achieved, all this is counter-cultural;
    (d) the “graduates” would be predisposed to continue this “pipeline” going, this time as tutors – at the very least, they should feel the moral obligation to do so;
    (e) the “school” could mature to the level of a semi-monastic scholarly community, and positively impact the surrounding culture.

    • Kurt

      What you describe is a good way to help those in poverty. I am relucant to use the term “best way” out of fear that it becomes taken as the only way to help people out of poverty rather than one out of many that are called for. While this is an admirable initiative with the potential to do much good, we still have to ask the question, should those who perform manual labor, for 40 hours a week and 52 weeks of the year, still find themselves in poverty even though fully employed?

      • Mark VA


        You are absolutely right, there are many ways to “get involved”, so to speak. I’m of the opinion that they should always include small, local, sustained, face to face endeavors. Without them, they run the risk of becoming overly academic, bureaucratic, clinical, and ultimately detached from those they intend to help.

        Fans of the Netflix show “Lilyhammer”, will recognize this detached condition, spoofed in the “Muriburiland” song:

        • Kurt


          I’m am totally with you in promoting such initiatives. If we find such features lacking in Catholic Charities or other social/public initiatives, let’s promote this improvement rather than any suggestion of abandoning the work of these public or private agencies.

        • Kurt


          I am reflecting further on the wisdom of your comment. In my personal experience (being a good JOCist, I’m inclined to observe, judge, act), I think one of the great problems we have is that the most helpful social assistance is by people with stable working class jobs assisting with advice or financial help to their relatives and neighbors who are in need. Let’s face it, the rich generally live no where near the poor and have little natural social interaction with them. In my experience, it has been the aunt, neighbor, grandparent with a union factory job or living off a civil service pension who has been able to directly deal with another who might have otherwise been heading to a life of drug abuse, poverty, lack of gainful employment, etc.

          Rarely has it been the rich man, no matter how generous in writing checks to bureaucratic charities split between relief of the poor and the Opera Board.

          Part of our current social woes is the decline of people in such situations — good union jobs or good blue collar public service jobs. I think your prophetic point is worthy of discussion.

      • Johnboy

        To be clear, at the prevailing national minimum wage, a person would not live in poverty and a two member-one worker household would be on its margin. What many are grappling with, rather, is whether any full-time breadwinner of a family of four should find her family in poverty. And whether part of the burden of providing the social safety net, which primarily consists of EITC, food stamps, medicaid, housing subsidies, supplemental security income or SSI and temporary assistance for needy families or TANF, should be shifted to employers.

        Some overstate the effect that a minimum wage has on unemployment and wage-price spirals, because the evidence doesn’t unambiguously bear this out. At higher levels though (but what threshold, exactly?), others do argue that -not only can the minimum wage become inflationary and exacerbate unemployment, but – it can add disincentives to the acquisition of skills training and education in the same nonvirtuous cycle often experienced by countries and regions that are “resource-cursed.”

        Striking the right blend of solutions to poverty is problematic but social justice for the working poor must begin with a just wage that is not exploitative and most of the industrialized world, regrettably, still needs to have this enforced by government. I understand and appreciate arguments that focus on the prudent calibration of employer-provided and government-provided means of support but the ideological reality is that too many seem too willing both to totally do away with the minimum wage and to drastically cut the social safety net, which would be imprudent for all sorts of reasons, even beyond the angles of justice. Just as many others, however, seem to overemphasize employer-based solutions.

        I think the overwhelming virtues and efficacies of any education-oriented solution will outweigh the potential drawbacks, breaking such nonvirtuous cycles as avoidance of skill training and education that can be inadvertently reinforced both by the highest minimum wage levels and by safety net over-dependencies. Arguments against better education are seldom compelling to me.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      I want to second Kurt’s question, because it is at the heart of the dichotomy posed by Bishop Camara: it is a worthy act of both charity and justice to help the poor, but unless we ask the question of why are they poor, we run the risk of engaging in actions that end up sustaining an unjust status quo.

  • Tausign

    Well I like the questions you’ve raised and the pitfalls you’ve identified. The passage from Paolo Freire is particularly poignant for me. I think you’re off to a good start on what will be a real challenge. I pray that your inspiration will help to ‘animate and guide’ the local fraternities into giving birth to a ‘more fraternal and evangelical world so that the kingdom of God may be bought about more effectively’. (Art 10 SFO Rule). In my opinion, that’s the overarching goal and few if any SFO members would argue with such a vision.

    Unfortunately, most members (indeed most Catholics) are handed a pre-processed JPIC/CST solution or plan to social ills that they either, receive warmly, ignore or reject. Rarely are they involved in the process of working through the problems themselves, most likely because it involves hard work and conversion. Nevertheless, just as the vocation per se is a response to a call…so too nothing will happen here unless someone sounds the call…I guess that’s you!

    Finally, since you’ve assessed and acknowledged your own political thought or leanings you can choose to convert or persuade others to follow your views. Or you can consider setting them aside (a true sacrifice and a challenging form of poverty) in an attempt to transcend ideologies (to hell with them) and see if you can achieve a consensus view that fosters ‘gospel to life’ actions.

    Peace and good.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Tausign wrote:

      ” Or you can consider setting them aside (a true sacrifice and a challenging form of poverty) in an attempt to transcend ideologies (to hell with them) and see if you can achieve a consensus view that fosters ‘gospel to life’ actions.”

      While I am NOT accusing you of this, one problem with this approach is that being asked to “set aside” ones own ideology (often cast as a request for nonpartisanship) is in fact a request to not question the regnant ideology. My experience in this area is what is driving my concern.

      Some years ago (just before the 2008) election, I led a discussion in my fraternity in which I suggested, as Pope Francis recently did, that perhaps the Catholic Church should not obsess quite so much about abortion. The goal was to sort out all the issues that were coming up in the election campaign and reflect on them from a Catholic perspective. The discussion blew up in my face. I had one member walk out, and another (figuratively) waved a copy of the “Five Fundamentals” pamphlet from Catholic Answers in my face. My interpretation of the comments made at the time was that their understanding of Catholic teaching was “self-evident” and that my attempt to interject other social justice issues was a partisan attempt to make it “okay” for Catholics to vote for Obama.

      (I want to digress and give a shout out to one of our members, an inquirer at the time. Tony, an ex-marine with pretty conservative views, worked really hard to calm things down so we could try to continue talking.)

      • dismasdolben

        The irony in that situation in your fraternity was that your opponents were, in effect, rejecting the “whole cloth” principle of Catholic social justice, which INCLUDES opposition to abortion. Why? Because abortion in the United States is frequently–not always, but frequently–resorted to by those women who are so impoverished that they cannot afford to feed and clothe children. It’s been so easy for American Catholics to “wave the fetus flag,” instead of thinking about how to feed, clothe, educate, adopt and cherish the children of the poor.

        Many years ago, Mario Cuomo, who was perhaps the most sincere Catholic politician in power in my lifetime, suggested to the people of New York that he might be willing to put limitations on “aid to dependent” welfare mothers and remove children from those kinds of abusive homes, if they’d be willing to build the kinds of orphanages that once, in a more “progressive” age, nurtured some of America’s finest future citizens (the very successful father of a college friend of mine was raised in one). Of course, that went nowhere in the “Age of Reagan.”

  • Johnboy

    One of the most popular speeches, delivered thousands of times on the chataqua circuit, was titled “Acres of Diamonds.” This excerpt articulates many of the same sentiments (gospel perversions) found in the Prosperity Gospel, which deemphasizes the Perfect Joy of St Francis (and Job and Thomas More), a profound spiritual well being, and either overemphasizes material well being or, more subtly and hence insidiously, downplays the call to conversion of lifestyle among affluent people (such as the author of Evangelical Catholicism and his ilk have done? with JPII’s writings per MSWinters).


    The simplicity of St Francis is one obvious form of lifestyle conversion. A question to challenge the students: “What other forms of conversion could minister, indirectly or directly, to the poor?”

    While all are invited to ongoing conversion, we should compassionately remember that imperfect contrition, the purgative way and the old covenant remain, soteriologically, remain both necessary and sufficient, while perfect contrition, the unitive way and the new covenant invite us to lives of superabundance, where we can journey more quickly and with less hindrance through life. Neither traditionalists nor progressives should denigrate our country’s
    pervasive goodness, even as we long for ever deeper gospel value-realizations for ourselves and others. We mustn’t catastrophize society’s failures to realize the optimal, the wholly wholly holy, in terms of being wholly depraved, but should, instead, recognize that the suboptimal can also result from a goodness that is variously wounded, deserving of compassion. There is too much hyberbole in political discourse, employed by ideologues of all extremes, I suppose to energize the base.

    • Johnboy

      the Acres of Diamonds excerpt above-refernced: “I say that you ought to get rich, and it is your duty to get rich … The men who get rich may be the most honest men you find in the community. Let me say here clearly … ninety-eight out of one hundred of the rich men of America are honest. That is why they are rich. That is why they are trusted with money. That is why they carry on great enterprises and find plenty of people to work with them. It is because they are honest men. … I sympathize with the poor, but the number of poor who are to be sympathized with is very small. To sympathize with a man whom God has punished for his sins … is to do wrong. … Let us remember there is not a poor person in the United States who was not made poor by his own shortcomings…”

  • Mark VA


    Thank you for your comments. I was merely echoing what Ralph OFS wrote:

    “David, I would ask first: brothers and sisters, do you know the poor of your city? Because if you start talking about non-concrete human beings, it can easily become quite off track.

    As I see it, the actual persons must be the roots of these endeavors. Any plans of action to help the poor, to be effective, must be based on these local, face-to-face relationships. Otherwise, deracinated ideas often end up romanticizing the poor, or worse, transforming them into a commodity fetish, to be traded back and forth in the political marketplace (often with brand names such as the “poor”, “masses”, “dis-empowered”, “99 %”, or more quaintly, “workers”, or “proletariat”).

    I would like to mention the philosopher and historian Leszek Kołakowski in this context. I think his ideas can be of help to those young and eager Western intellectuals, who are encountering these old and powerful ideological forces for the first time, in a tangible way. There is no need to meander thru this thicket:

    Happy New Year all ye who blog here!

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      No real disagreement Mark (thought I have not read Kolakowski) but I must add that the poor have been romanticized long before there was Marxism. In this regard I recommend (as I have in the past) Michel Mollat’s “The Poor in the Middle Ages.” On the other hand, the mere act of constructing universalizing categories—such as working class or the masses—does not, a priori deracinate the people being discussed, any more than the categories “Christian” or “Catholic” do. You do not have to be a Marxist to find class analysis germane.

      • Mark VA

        It is not the categories themselves, Mr. Cruz-Uribe, it is the habit of thinking exclusively in them, while not connecting with the concrete persons behind them. It’s a common pitfall, and as Ralf OFS rightly noted, “… it can easily become quite off track”.

        Thus, it is not the poor who become deracinated, it is the thought process of the person who fell into this habit. It risks becoming increasingly rigid, irrational, and aggressive. In its more advanced stages, this thought process often turns against the poor, who “don’t understand what’s good for them”.

        The antidote is as simple as making a lasting bond with a neighbor in need. It is this concrete experience that often clarifies the thinking. The net result is lasting, well delivered and needed, help.

        • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

          Mark, I don’t think we disagree: see the comment from Paolo Friere that I quoted in the original post, and hunt up the context in the original. (Sorry, I don’t have a page reference handy—I swiped this from someone online.) I just want to emphasize the opposite side of the coin: to concentrate too heavily (or perhaps uncritically) on your neighbor without reflecting on the broader categories will cause you to give bread to the poor but never ask why they are poor. Or perhaps, what is worse, accept the pat answers of the reigning ideology for why they are poor: they are lazy, it is God’s will, etc. etc. etc.

        • Kurt

          .In its more advanced stages, this thought process often turns against the poor, who “don’t understand what’s good for them”.

          This needs to be avoided at whatever cost. The leading organizations for economic justice need to be groups conrolled by workers or low income persons themselves. Of course, this preminently is the labor movement. It also includes the models of community organizing promoted by the Alinsky and JOCist methods and the Industrial Areas Foundation.

          Worker organization is essential.

  • TauSign

    David wrote:

    “While I am NOT accusing you of this, one problem with this approach is that being asked to ‘set aside’ one’s own ideology (often cast as a request for nonpartisanship) is in fact a request to not question the regnant ideology. My experience in this area is what is driving my concern.”

    To your point about confronting the ‘regnant ideology’ (I presume you mean the current consensus view)…I get it. The OFS/Christian must always be ready to be “a sign of contradiction”…but these things are seldom a binary choice of good and evil. It’s the failure of ‘legalism’ in which laws and rules that are meant to foster good are often twisted into rules of oppression. Respect for the Sabbath becomes twisted into a prohibition of doing anything: even good (cf: Mk 3:1-6). Just as Jesus, we wait for the right moment to become that ‘sign of contradiction’, when it will become fruitful; and then we act. In the meantime we could proceed in a nonpartisan fashion, especially if it serves a greater good.

    Peace and good

  • Mark VA

    Mr Cruz-Uribe:

    I agree, it seems our thinking is slowly becoming the same (Lim L = Lim U, as the thinking gets more refined – sorry, just couldn’t resist a little nerd humor here).

    I do think it is the personal contact with those in need that often guards against an uncritical acceptance of their condition. If it’s established, then one sees all sorts of things, some praiseworthy, and some not so praiseworthy. This forces a decision. It is at this point that the “street smart” Catholic social thought should kick in.

    Case in point – let’s say that the free tutoring I mentioned above is offered. It is my experience that some who would benefit will accept and stick with it, but others will just shrug their shoulders and walk away. Thus, I still think that what Ralf OFS asked is the foundational question:

    “… brothers and sisters, do you know the poor of your city? “.

    This question doesn’t do away with the broad categories, but puts them in their (subsidiary) place. Neighbor first (Lim U), categories second (Lim L).

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Nerd humor aside :-), I want to focus on your specific example:

      “Case in point – let’s say that the free tutoring I mentioned above is offered. It is my experience that some who would benefit will accept and stick with it, but others will just shrug their shoulders and walk away.”

      This is a case where

      “one sees all sorts of things, some praiseworthy, and some not so praiseworthy.”

      However, at this point I think a categorical analysis is critical. Why do they walk away? From the perspective of the regnant ideology, education is “the” answer, and their refusal to embrace this “opportunity” is regarded as a personal failing. The usual response is to then say, “I tried”, shrug, and turn away. The personalist approach is, of course, to go after them and try to engage them. But even though this is definitely the right thing to do, I think it will be futile unless their perceived “rejection” is contextualized. What about their broader context leads them to think this is the right course of action? Decisions are not made in a vacuum and an understanding of the social forces that shaped them is understood. A number of social scientists have pointed out that people try to make optimal decisions, but they do so from within their own frame of reference; outside of this frame they may seem completely irrational, or at least sub-optimal.

      So, to expand on what Ralf said, you must know the poor as individuals, but you cannot know them as such until you understand the world they inhabit.

      • Mark VA

        Mr. Cruz-Uribe:

        To stick with my example: it is my experience over the past years, that some will reject free math tutoring, for whatever reasons. My explanations are that mastering this subject at the high school level while still in high school, will help open doors to higher education and scholarships, and beyond that, to a life of employment, may be even research. These explanations (to the parents as well) are not often effective. Many still walk away without even beginning. How should one contextualize their negative response? Since I can’t read hearts, I would be hesitant to even begin.

        At this point, I would like to invite Ralf OFS to offer his opinion, since he made a statement that has become a common denominator in our discussion (do you know the poor in your city?). Please help me “contextualize” this emblematic situation – help is offered and is rejected. Now what?

      • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

        Mark wrote:

        “At this point, I would like to invite Ralf OFS to offer his opinion, since he made a statement that has become a common denominator in our discussion (do you know the poor in your city?). Please help me “contextualize” this emblematic situation – help is offered and is rejected. Now what?”

        Mark, this is a complicated question, and there are many possible answers. But let me suggest a couple lenses to view the situation through. First, the racial dimension, if it exists, cannot be ignored. If you are white and your students are black or latino, then your entire interaction will be viewed through racial constructs. In saying this, I AM NOT accusing you of being racist in any way shape or form! But if you are white and they are not, then your most sincere efforts might be understood in radically different ways. You might be heard as patronizing and condescending. Again, I am not saying that you are these things, but the gulf across which you may be speaking is a broad one.

        If your students are poor and minorities, they may simply not believe you. From a white middle-class perspective, everything you say is self-evidently true—we can look at ourselves and the “people like us” who have worked hard and succeeded. But they may have no comparable examples. One of the deleterious effects of desgregation, is that the black and latino middle class has moved to the suburbs, and are no longer visible to a poor urban population. So, in the experience of the people you are working with, they have no evidence that hard work and study leads anywhere. So why make an effort when they do not have any concrete experience of it producing results? And again, if there is a racial dimension, they may believe you are trying project “white values” onto their lives where they do not fit. If their experience of race in America is that being black means being left behind or even being actively held back, then your (honest and true) advice to the contrary will not be heard or believed.

        Finally, I would refer you to the post by Mr. King above. Poverty can affect self-esteem and self-image in very negative ways, and this can cause folks to give up before they even begin because they “know” it is hopeless. Though overly dramatic, some of the scenes in the movie “Stand and Deliver” capture this. Check out the discussion with the girls parents in the restaurant, or the scene where one of the young men announces he can get a union job driving fork lift.

        I hope this helps shed some light on the context in which your perplexing (and very frustrating) exchanges are occurring.

        • Mark VA

          Thank you, Mr. Cruz-Uribe, for a thoughtful reply. From my point of view, you’ve truly “contextualized” the issue, without rationalizing it.

          As an aside note: In my particular case, some of the most advanced and hard working students were tutored in the context of the “racial dimension”, as you put it, and at the same time, the “gender dimension”. I hasten to add that the parents here played a very supportive role, which reflected positively on the overall effort.

          However, as you rightly noted, this is not always the case, and the question of race may become an issue. Outside of the race aspect, it is also my experience that the question of ego may get in play, especially in the case of someone who needs help, but has never been in this diminished situation before (the “nouveau poor”). I’ve also noticed that some will drop out of the effort when the learning slope becomes a little steeper, and the demands on time and effort increase. These are just some of the barriers – I’m sure there are many others.

          Extrapolating from this, I think it is self evident that “knowing the poor in your city” is the precondition to offering effective help. Any “categories”, and the strategies for offering effective help, if they are to have any substance, should be derived from this empirical body of evidence.

          It also worth noting that in this drama, humility and pride play key roles for both parties. Perhaps when Christ said “For the poor you have always with you: but me you have not always” He also had this in mind.

  • Mark VA


    I completely agree that worker organization is essential. By this I understand that the “poor” need to be active agents in the solution to whatever deficiency they suffer from, and others should advise and collaborate with them. This is the essence of solidarity – togetherness. Otherwise, the poor risk becoming passive subjects of someone’s else (well meaning or not) ideology.

    I remember that in East Germany (the old DDR), there was a joke:

    “Since the Party is so dissatisfied with the five year plan’s progress, it should consider dissolving the people, and electing itself another”.

    • Cojuanco

      That’s actually a quote from Brecht, writing just after the East German Communists (actual Marxists, not the kind that exists only in Limbaugh’s brain) brutally crushed strikes, mostly of construction workers, calling for free elections, effective labor unions and proper wages for their work. The irony is that they crushed the strikes of actual workers in the name of bringing about a worker’s and peasant’s state.

      • Mark VA

        Thanks, Cojuanco. What was the Brecht play that featured this joke? Or did he say it in some other context?

      • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

        This is actually a quote from a poem by Brecht called Die Loesung (The Solution). Here is the whole thing in English translation:

        After the uprising of the 17th of June
        The Secretary of the Writers’ Union
        Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee
        Stating that the people
        Had forfeited the confidence of the government
        And could win it back only
        By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier
        In that case for the government
        To dissolve the people
        And elect another?

  • brian martin

    I think you have to define “poor”. Not in the sense of what you personally define poor as, but you have to have dialogue to determine what other people view as poor. As I have stated before, I did mental health outreach work for 5 years, and my wife was a case manager at a shelter for over 10 years. Even among the homeless people we worked with, definitions of what “poor” meant differed. Also, the idea that one can say “this is why people are poor” with any degree of certainty, and make it a blanket statement is to dehumanize the individuals. If one wants to get philosophical, the reason they are poor is because sin entered the world centuries ago. The fact is, some people are poor due to their own poor choices and folly. Some are poor due to bad behavior of others. To want to cure poverty, end homelessness etc. is all very noble…but ultimately is just the clanging of cymbals. To want to be in relationship with people…well, that is what we are really called to do, is it not? But ultimately, what I really reject, is the thinking that pervades so much of the parishes I have belonged to…that it all is supposed to look a particular way. We should give x amount a month to this program, or volunteer and serve a meal at this shelter once per month, or belong to this Catholic group or committee. Perhaps the best thing you can do is suggest people take some time with God, in prayer, and ask God what it is he wants them to do…because all are given different gifts.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO


      thanks for this thoughtful comment. You are correct that before discussing the whys of poverty, you need to define poor. This can lead to an interesting discussion if only because I have met people who were as poor as church mice who did not regard themselves as “poor.” For them, the category of “poor” came with all kinds of negative connotations and they wanted nothing to do with it.

      I disagree, however, with your avoidance of discussing why people are poor as a category. I agree that individual circumstances vary but, to hearken back to the circumstances Bishop Camara was addressing: some Brazilian peasants were poor because they were lazy, or were drug addicts or alcoholics; others were poor because their parents had made bad choices or abused them. But all of this poverty occurred in a larger framework of a social and economic system which concentrated wealth (particularly rural land) in the hands of a small minority and a social system which was set up to maintain their political/social/economic dominance. To reduce poverty strictly to the former without addressing the latter is to ignore a really large elephant in the room. Yes, it is the result of sin coming into the world, but one can fruitfully say more. (Or as Paolo Friere said, one can help the poor to say more for themselves.)

      Finally, I think we are called to have more than a relationship with people. For myself, as a Franciscan, I am called to compassion in its radical (i.e. root) meaning: to suffer with them. In other words, we are called to be in solidarity with them, which is a particular kind of relationship, one which is predicated on receiving as well as giving.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Brian writes

      “To want to cure poverty, end homelessness etc. is all very noble…but ultimately is just the clanging of cymbals.”

      Brian, after responding to your comment I went down to breakfast, and lingering over my coffee and reading a book review at America Magazine, (see I came back to this one comment of yours. Your take on this seems unduly passive. At the risk of being provocative would you feel the same if I said back

      “To want to end abortion is all very noble, but ultimately is the clanging of symbols…”

      It seems to me that when confronted with sins that cry out to heaven for vengeance (among which the prophets definitely classed the oppression of the poor) one must respond even if ones efforts are partial and incomplete, and perhaps if they even appear futile. (Here I think of the generation of abolitionists who labored for the end of slavery in America; they died without seeing their goal achieved, and indeed, saw slavery become even more entrenched in the South.)

      • brian martin

        Thank you for your thoughtful response. I think I stated my case poorly. To set up the “end of poverty” as a goal sound great…but in reality, it does not account for sin. Now, I am sure I am probably taking this out of context, but it seems that Jesus once said something to the effect that “the poor will always be with you”. This is not meant to be a cynical excuse to do nothing, it is simply an understanding that poverty, like suffering, like death, will be a part of human existence.
        I think perhaps I did not transition from the philosophical nature of that argument to the rest of my commentary. I believe that the existence of poverty, of suffering, etc. calls for each of us to be more like Christ. I believe that it is too easy for people to sit back in pseudo-intellectual discussions and say “this is what the correct Catholic response should be…everyone should get off their lazy well fed butts and feed the poor” or “everyone should give x amount of their gross income” or “everyone should belong to this Catholic program”. What is too often missing is the internal quest toward discernment. The question of what does God want me to do. What I was suggesting and did not articulate well was that the question of “why are they poor” could well be followed up with…”they are poor, how does God, through the Holy Spirit, want me to use my gifts in the face of this knowledge”.
        As much as I would like it to be otherwise, not everyone is supposed to be sitting with the poor, holding a hand, listening to their stories….some have to cook the meals, others have to pay for the meals…others have to take care of running the shelter, doing the books etc.
        I think it is always important to prayerfully go before God and ask his direction. There is a long history of this in the Catholic Church. Catherine of Sienna, St. Ignatius of Loylola etc. talked about the importance of discernment….the concept was mentioned by Pope Francis numerous times in his interview with America magazine.

  • TauSign

    [Despite the picture, a comment from TauSign who is having technical difficulties posting]

    Well David, I’m glad that you were persistent in your question ‘Why are they poor?’…and in steering the discussion towards the flawed social elements (structures of sin) rather than the personal failures of those caught in poverty. While there are many factors that contribute to the overall problem of poverty in America (or the world) its probably fair to say that our role vis a vis JPIC is to clarify and remedy the justice/injustice issues. When all is said and done we’ll surely discover that tolerating injustice creates a breeding ground for personal failures even as it creates heroic virtue in a gifted few.

    As for your practical question of how to proceed, I found several good resources at the website. In particular, if you hit the search bar with ‘deck of cards’ you’ll find an interesting page entitled “The Stack of the Deck: An Illustration of The Root Causes of Poverty”. I suspect that if you wander around that nexus you might find some ideas that will help.

    Peace and good. Tausign