June 27, 2014

Popes, Poverty, and Proselytization: A Problem for the New Evangelization?

Sometimes it’s difficult to make sense of all the messages coming from the Vatican. One day we raise our eyebrows at (inaccurate) attempts to accuse Pope Francis of universalist teachings and the next we find our hearts warmed by his approachability and his interactions with the poor and sick.

At last week’s United States Council of Catholic Bishops General Assembly, George Mason University law professor Helen Alvaré attempted to make sense of Pope Benedict and Pope Francis with regards to their views on poverty in relation to the new evangelization. Her address provided both analysis of the two Popes’ beliefs and statements and practical steps of implementing the ideals they advocate.

Alvaré noted three key themes regarding the recent papal views on poverty. First, both Francis and Benedict have exhorted the Church to “integrate services to the poor with an introduction to the person of Jesus.” Pope Benedict has said, “Our charitable services must not just be another form of organized social assistance, but visibly express love for man and be nourished by an encounter with Christ.” Alvaré also quoted Pope Francis: “We must not operate as a compassionate NGO, but as the Church, the Bride of Christ.” She clarified Francis’ statement by saying Francis believes a “crucified and in poverty” Jesus, or a Jesus portrayed as suffering, must be the primary image proclaimed to the poor and destitute. He also believes that word choice, tone, body language, and even church organization and structure must reflect the message of Jesus the Church attempts to convey so in addition to hearing a message, the poor see a “beautiful thing [we] are excited to share.”

Second, both popes have emphasized paying greater attention to those on the periphery. Alvaré expanded this point by evoking Pope Francis’ view on poverty, saying, “In his Lenten address, Francis emphasizes that there is more than one kind of poverty…poverty can be spiritual (being without God), moral (being a slave to sin) or material (which is what we regularly think of when we think of poverty, but which Pope Francis suggests might better be termed ‘destitution.’). All should provoke a particular offer of the gift of Jesus Christ.” The final theme Alvaré highlighted is an urging to “remember what the poor have to offer,” namely a genuine dependence on the grace and providence of God.

Having established these themes, Alvaré began to speculate on some potential methods of implementing this “marriage of responses to poverty with the new evangelization.” She pointed out the obvious first step: simply introducing Jesus. However, she contends this can be done both by introducing Jesus by name and by conveying stories that share the truth of Jesus as well: “I think there is another option: sharing Jesus – what his life, death and resurrection mean for us and for the world – but also attempting language and images that can act as a bridge for people depending upon their background and circumstances.”

After encouraging all involved with the work of the Catholic Church to ask themselves the classic question, “What would Jesus do?” Alvaré suggested religious symbols could powerfully convey Christian truths to the poor and destitute. She pointed to the crucifix as an example in her own testimony of the power of imagery, and she also claimed religious garb can convey the same message. She told the story of a nun who, when asked about seemingly random people opening up to her in conversation, said, “They know I’m theirs, because they know I’m God’s.” Having church services at particular locations could also convey the truths of solidarity Pope Francis wishes to convey to the poor.

From here, Alvaré cited potential challenges to implementing this new “marriage.” People might have a difficult time trusting God to do the work of salvation in a denomination that she admits values hard work. She also pointed to the demographic trend of poor and immigrant groups of people (the types of people Pope Francis wants to reach in particular) decreasing their involvement in organized forms of religion. There are several natural difficulties of showing solidarity with the poor, such as physical discomfort in particular environments and sacrificing time and status. The final challenge Alvaré mentions involves the potential harm to the Church’s witness with the current cultural shift over views of sexuality and marriage: “The state, leading interest groups, and privileged cultural institutions are preoccupied with sexual expression, divorced from children.”

However, this new obsession with sexual expression also comprises Alvaré’s first hope for the new movement. She sees the current cultural environment as an opportunity to “reportray” traditional notions of marriage, especially to include the value of traditional family units on the development and well-being of children. In fact, here she made one of her clearest connections to Francis’ teachings about poverty when she said, “The current fixation on sexual expression divorced from children provides us the opportunity (and the imperative) to dig deeper, to be brilliant and creative, in order to answer a situation near the heart of each type of poverty – material, moral and spiritual – the loss of the understanding of the natural resource that is the relationship between the man and the woman. The obscuring of the meaning and the goods provided by this relationship provokes an opportunity to articulate winsomely our beautiful and pivotal – but also complex and underestimated – teachings about how the male-female pair images God, models Christ’s relationship with the Church, and founds the school of love…the same love that informs, that impels the creation and operation of our charitable works.”

Alvaré also finds hope in the idea of making room for God to speak, as she said, “we are facilitating unleashing the most powerful force possible for effective solidarity.” Her other hopes lie in a new or fresh “conversion” of “those who perform Christian service,” and in the possibility of proclaiming Christ in the public sphere.

Whether or not we realize it, poverty affects all of us. As Pope Francis implies, poverty does not simply mean a lack of material goods; this mindset, which Alvaré suggests is predominant in Western thinking, keeps our blinders on to our own poverty in spirit or morality despite our material wealth. Poverty, in all of its forms, has a number of causes, including but not limited to broken systems (e.g. the depravity of all humanity, oppressive government regimes, poor law enforcement) and poor choices (e.g. sinful actions, poor investment). But regardless of our shortcomings, Christ’s redemptive work is the ultimate act of poverty alleviation – He not only gives all of Himself, He commands us to do the same, no matter how little we have to offer or the broken state of our offerings.

At this point, some might stop me and point to Matthew 26:11 and Mark 14:7 where Jesus says, “The poor will always be with you,” to disregard this conversation about Catholic poverty alleviation initiatives. Join me in looking at the rest of the story of Jesus’ anointing at Bethany. The disciples criticized this intrusive woman for “wasting” the perfume rather than selling it and giving the money to the poor. Jesus did not respond, “The poor will always be with you,” as a fatalistic prediction but as a comparison: “…but you will not always have me.” The rest of the verse shows us that Jesus valued the woman’s extravagant act of worship, even if it caused a delay in charitable work. Jesus even says, “Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.” Apparently this woman did something pretty important.

In His response to His disciples, Jesus seems to be quoting Deuteronomy 15:11, which begins similarly: “There will always be poor people in the land…” However, this commandment issued to the people of Israel did not excuse their greed; in fact, it commanded their generosity: “…Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.”

The woman who made the incredible sacrifice of anointing Jesus with expensive perfume did not seek charity, nor did she seek to be remembered. Her goal was to give what little she had of value as an act of worship. Kudos to the papacy for their efforts to reiterate Jesus and His Gospel and to build the kingdom by addressing the brokenness of our humanity. Let us remember the great sacrifice the woman made in Bethany, and let us never forget the God-given command to give everything that we have for the sake of God’s kingdom, just like Jesus did.

Soli Deo Gloria

To watch a video of Alvaré’s presentation, click here and select “Morning Session, Part 1, June 12, 2014.”


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