The Church on Poverty – A Brief Introduction

The Church has a long tradition of teaching on the poor and poverty (see the Catechism, esp 2442-2449), especially in relation to economic systems and values. A lot of this teaching is specific and deals with detailed questions about economic decisions, policies – both national and international and examines big questions on economic theories and philosophies. In a broader sense it is more helpful, as an introduction to get a feel for some of the key principles and beliefs that underlie these more content and historically specific teachings.

Love for the poor is incompatible with immoderate love of riches or their selfish use.

– Catechism of the Catholic Church: 2445

There are some key elements of Catholic Social Teaching that frame the Church’s response to poverty, they are solidarity, preferential option for the poor and the universal destination of goods. As always, the beginning point for all the social teaching is human dignity. It is the right of every human to be treated in accordance with their innate dignity and society ought to be ordered towards that good. Socio-economic structures which put and keep people in poverty and disadvantage therefore are inherently unjust and require change.

The Church believes that all of Creation is a gift given equally to all of humanity to be shared in such a way that every person has the necessary resources to live a life that reflects their dignity – this includes not just material basics but also opportunities to fulfill ones potential. So while the Church consistently upholds the right to private property, that right is not absolute and should always be ordered towards common use and the duty to share, and most especially to not take more than you need. In that regard, poverty precisely because it is largely the outcome of structural decisions about who gets how much is a violation of this principle.

The principle of solidarity is connected not just to the material deprivation people in poverty experience but also to the exclusion, shaming and powerlessness that accompanies it. Truly being in solidarity with those in poverty therefore is as much about accompanying and relieving their material poverty, but also truly seeing God in them and recognising their shared and equal human dignity.  Pope John Paul II reminds us that solidarity is a holistic state, a state to bring about the common good; it is a commitment to work for the social, economic, cultural and environmental conditions which allow each and everyone one of us to reach our potential. It is about truly standing with and loving the whole person.

Those who oppresses the poor show contempt to their Maker, but those who are kind to the needy honour Him.

Prov. 14:31

Closely connected to this is the belief in a preferential option for the poor, which is a deliberate choice to be on the side of the poor, just as we see in the Gospel. It is an obligation of love that sees decision making think of the poor first, not as some afterthought. As the Australian Bishops reminded us in their 1996 Social Justice Statement, ‘A New Beginning‘, ‘it includes a willingness and readiness on the part of the better off to share their wealth and their power.’

In a broader sense our tradition, like the Gospel it grows from, is always calling us to see the world from the perspective of the poor, forgotten, marginalised and outcast and to be like Jesus in accompanying them, being in true relationship with them and working for a kingdom where the poor come first. We are reminded time and again in Scripture that God is on the side of the poor, not because they are superior, but because poverty is an affront to God’s design for us and he stands with and wants justice for those whom the world has discarded and diminished in such a way.

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The Church, both Australian and universal, has a very rich literature on issues of poverty, most especially on the values and approaches that should underpin our economic systems. The below list of select reading will give you a deeper insight and a better sense of the detail in the Church’s view on this very broad topic.

Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference Social Justice Statements:

Papal Encyclicals, Letters, Exhortations, Speeches, Church Documents

  • Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. See especially Part II, Chapter 7, ‘Economic Life’ and Chapter 9, ‘The International Community’.
  • 1891 Rerum Novarum – “Of New Things” – Leo XIII. Landmark Encylical.  Examines working conditions in industrialised countries and insists on workers’ rights. The Church, employers & workers should work together to build a just society.
  • 1931 Quadragesimo Anno – “On the Fortieth Year” – Pius X. Celebrates 40 years of Rerum Novarum. Explores the reconstruction of the social order at the time of major economic depression: QA criticises abuses of capitalism & communism. Unity between capital & labour. Ownership brings social responsibilities. Subsidiarity.
  • 1967 Populorum Progressio – “The Development of Peoples” Paul VI.   Deals with structural poverty, aid and trade. Limits put on profit motive and the right to private property. Christians to strive for international justice.
  • 1987 Sollicitudo Rei Socialis – “The Social Concern of the Church” – John Paul II.  Updates Populorum Progressio with analysis of global development: North/South divide blamed on confrontation between capitalism and Marxism. Conversion from ‘Structures of sin’ towards solidarity and option for the poor.
  • 1991 Centesimus Annus – “The One Hundredth Year” – John Paul II. Celebrates 100 years of Rerum Novarum Reviews CST and major events of the last century, constantly affirming human dignity and human rights, justice and peace. The fall of Marxism does not signify a victory for capitalism.
  • 2009 Caritas in Veritate – “Charity in Truth” – BenedictXVI.  Updates Populorum Progressio with a comprehensive review of development and some reflection on the economic crisis and business ethics. Provides a theological framework for CST.
  • 2015 Laudato Si’ – “Praised Be to You” – Encyclical Letter on the Care for Our Common Home  –  Francis.  Laudato Si’ is a letter to all people about our our global family and our common home, which encourages us to “acknowledge the appeal, immensity and urgency of the challenge we face.”   It speaks to our need to enter into dialogue with each other, share our resources and be responsible stewards of creation.
  • World Day of the Poor – instituted by Pope Francis to be celebrated every November from 2017. Each year he releases a message for the Day.