Sister Amata Miller, I.H.M. is a professor of economics, director of the Myser Initiative on Catholic Identity, and holds the Archbishop Harry Flynn Distinguished Chair in Catholic Identity at St. Catherine University. In the latest volume of Integritas, she describes poverty amidst unprecedented affluence as “the greatest obscenity of our times.” We know how to eliminate poverty, she writes, but lack the political will to do so. And in this discrepancy there is an important role for Catholic universities, rooted as they are in the one of the oldest and most thorough intellectual traditions in the world. She writes,
educators at Catholic colleges and universities can play a key role in fostering that political will in their students: increasing their sense of social responsibility, stimulating creation of institutions for the global common good, and motivating the will to address in their own spheres of influence the multifaceted reality of gross global economic injustice.
Miller points out that over the past 25 years, the world has reduced poverty by half. Still, over a billion people live on $1.25 per day or less, meaning that the goal of ending extreme poverty is not yet accomplished. The goal will only be met by a combined effort of economists, lawmakers, communicators, business leaders, and grass-roots movements of many kinds.
Poverty is one result of an imperfect economic system– a system, she points out, that too many economists want to understand and harness, rather than critique and provide alternatives to.
In recent years, economists and other social scientists have begun to ask whether or not economic growth has led to greater human happiness. The realities of the global world are exposing both the opportunities and the challenges. Environmentalists have documented the harmful effects of current capitalist models of economic growth on climate, animal life, human health, and the earth. They have drawn our attention to the sustainability of current models of economic success. Feminist scholars have shown the harmful effects of neglecting women’s work in subsistence agriculture and the raising of children and maintenance of families in market-based measures of economic growth.
In particular, Miller focuses on poverty: “Economic development scholars have identified the ways that the current economic systems are generating the gap between affluence and extreme poverty.” She points to five ways that the systems are stacked against the very poor, and to United Nations efforts to address those disparities.
The challenge is to develop concerted efforts at addressing poverty, and she points to the tradition of Catholic social teaching (CST) as an important resource. She quotes a Minnesota legislator, a non-Catholic, who described CST this way:
Catholic social teaching is the most systematic and thorough attempt by a religious faith to articulate its positions on social policy…it provides a first lens to look at nearly every social justice issue and seriously influences all our position statements. Catholic social teaching is a gift to the world and people of all faiths.
Miller traces the development of this tradition from its biblical roots through the history of the church, devoting attention to the development of modern Catholic responses to poverty. She explores the major themes of CST and their development in Magisterial teaching up to the present day.
She then turns to the task of Catholic colleges and universities to teach about poverty alleviation. Her call is nothing short of an examination of conscience about the Catholic educational mission:
As part of our mission we also promise that our universities will help our students mature ethically. In our individualistic American culture, this is too often seen as purely personal. Yes, we want our graduates to be honest, loyal, and loving individuals. But our Christian tradition calls us to educate our students to social responsibility, to a political will that understands the meaning of distributive justice and the inherent call to action to bring about a more just and humane world for all of our brothers and sisters, in a spirit of solidarity as well as freedom. Thus, making sure that Catholic social teaching is no longer the best kept secret of the Church is part of our responsibility.
This mission, I propose, calls for the many talents and gifts that are cultivated at great universities. And by “great” I mean not only places where there are people of great talent. I mean also places where those great talents are shared toward common purpose– “turned toward oneness” (uni-versus) because of a shared imagination of what the world can be.
What if, for example, students were exposed to a common curriculum that involved
- understanding the observance of the sabbath year and the jubilee year in ancient Israel, as well as the practice of gleaning, leaving some of the harvest for the poor
- Reflection on why Luke’s portrayal of Jesus’ public ministry begins with an announcement of glad tidings to the poor
- Critical study of the understanding of poverty in the early Church, as a force within the Roman empire.
- Studies of the history of poverty in the West and in other parts of the world, using lenses of history, economics, archaeology, anthropology, sociology, literature, and philosophy
- attention to the emergence of a social theory that re-imagines the poor as those who will inherit God’s greatest blessing?
- studies in the sciences that open up ideas for how to solve some of the problems associated with poverty:
- the biology of clean water
- engineering low cost housing
- urban agriculture
- computer modeling escapes from poverty
- reading literature that deals with themes related to poverty: Walden, Oliver Twist, Black Boy, “Life in the Iron Mills,” The Souls of Black Folk, The Grapes of Wrath, and many others
- considering the impact of Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum, which responded to the destitution wrought in the wake of the industrial revolution, and learning about the development of responses to poverty in Catholic social teaching
There is much to consider if we raise the question, “how might Catholic universities shape a generation of students ready to solve one of the great problems faced by the human family in the twenty-first century?” Think about not only the content of students’ intellectual formation; think also of the ways that studying poverty might spill over into their attitudes toward how they spend their free time and money and their career aspirations. Think of the kids of research that might unfold if universities seeded money for poverty-related studies. Think of the volume of volunteer hours that would be dedicated by students eager to apply their knowledge. Think of the impact on students’ understanding of race and gender, of fair wages, abortion, the U.S. economy, immigration, and the great hope to be generated by investing in the world’s poor. Think about what Catholic business schools might do differently if their main passion was entrepreneurship that lifted people out of poverty. Think of how men and women trained in Catholic law schools might shape public policies that attend to the desperately poor.
Paul Mariani, University Professor of English at Boston College, responded to Sr. Amata’s essay in his usually poetic way. I quote him at some length below.
The cry of the poor, heard by Christ and Father Francis [of Assisi] and Sister Amata—calling out to the world to feed Christ’s sheep if you would truly love Him. Then multiply such instances, such Christ-like instances, by a hundred, a thousandfold, a millionfold, and one begins to see how real change could be had in our world.
You do what you can, remembering that one feeds the hungry not only with bread, but with words and by acts of attention to each person one teaches, if that is the charism one has been given. One serves the hungry not only by offering them a fish, but by teaching them how to fish so that they can in turn feed themselves and others. Or, if you are truly fortunate, you offer them the bread of Christ on a Sunday morning in an old mill town. And—as they receive the precious bread one by one by one—the young, the teenagers, the middle-aged, the elderly, you feel a joy you cannot contain, until you are fighting back tears as the hungry are fed, and you too are fed by their presence. And you understand then that it is as Christ said, a sense of oneness beyond language, all of it wrapped in a shawl of light because we who are poor have been so richly fed.