Poverty According to Francis. Virtue and Vice Together

It is the cornerstone of the magisterium of the pope. Who exalts it as a salvific value, but at the same time condemns it as an enemy to be fought. A philosopher analyzes this unresolved contradiction of the pontificate

by Sandro Magister

ROME, July 11, 2016 – The reception of the major magisterial acts of Pope Francis ranges between two extremes.

On one side there is the almost universal chorus of applause that his environmentalist encyclical “Laudato Si’” enjoys, especially outside of Catholicism.

On the other side there is the ever more conflictual dispute, in this case above all within the Church, stirred up by the post-synodal apostolic exhortation “Amoris Laetitia.”

While in the middle there is the tranquil acceptance, without excesses for or against, of that other cornerstone of the pontificate of Francis which is presented above all in the exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium” and is condensed in the formula of the “Church that is poor and for the poor.”

A couple of months ago, however, a book was released that, without making a splash but while garnering growing attention for the clarity and acumen of its analysis, puts this very question in the spotlight:

> F. Cuniberto, “Madonna povertà. Papa Francesco e la rifondazione del cristianesimo”, Neri Pozza Editore, Vicenza, 2016

The author, Flavio Cuniberto, teaches esthetics at the university of Perugia. His studies range from philosophy to modern and contemporary literature, especially German, with forays into Platonism, into Judaism, into Islamic thought, and with particular interest in the questions of modernity.

In the poverty exalted by Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Professor Cuniberto sees a twofold contradiction, the first of a theological nature, the second of a practical character.

In the first case he observes that Francis, at the very same time as he elevates poverty to a theological category, on the model of the “kenosis” of the Son of God made man, in reality treats it as a material more than spiritual condition, in a markedly sociological sense: the poverty of the “peripheries” and of those excluded from wealth.

The second contradiction is instead between poverty as a salvific value and at the same time as an enemy to be fought, to defeat which Bergoglio moreover indicates remedies that “rehash old third-worldist templates” disconnected from reality.

There is no need, in fact, to be supporters of free market capitalism – Professor Cuniberto is not – to recognize that it has however lifted from poverty an endless mass of people who have become part of the new middle classes.

And this, for example, is precisely one of the facts that Pope Francis does not see.

On July 12, 2015, asked point-blank by a German journalist on the return flight from Paraguay to explain why he never talks about the middle classes, Francis effectively admitted the “mistake” of overlooking them in his analyses, but he added that in his judgment these classes “are becoming ever smaller,” crushed by the polarization between rich and poor.

Below is how Professor Cuniberto analyzes and contests these contradictions in some passages of the book, which naturally is much more thorough and a must-read.


Poverty: enemy to be fought or precious treasure?

by Flavio Cuniberto

Debatable on the theological-exegetical level, this interpretation of poverty [made by Pope Francis] generates a tangle that is very similar to a brain teaser.

If in fact poverty as material misery, exclusion, abandonment is indicated from the beginning as an evil to be fought, not to say the evil of evils, and is therefore the primary objective of missionary action, the Christological meaning of poverty however makes it at the same time a value, and indeed the supreme and exemplary value. If beatitude, meaning the possession of the Kingdom, is proclaimed to the poor, if the very existence of the poor possesses a “salvific power” to which the Christian must adhere (because he thus adheres to Christ himself), it becomes difficult to think of poverty as a mere enemy to be fought, as a mere passivity to be eliminated.

Why fight poverty and uproot it, when it is on the contrary a “precious treasure,” and even the way to the Kingdom? Enemy to be fought or precious treasure? Social rejects to be integrated or mysterious figures of the Incarnation? The discussion seems to spiral into this bottomless contradiction.

Let’s suppose – this is obviously a utopian vision – that the missionary action oriented by the “option for the poor” could ultimately obtain the declared aim of freeing the poor from their condition of social exclusion, or in brief of eliminating poverty. What would become, at that point, of poverty as a Christic model, of poverty as a mysterious spiritual resource from which the grace of Christ can be drawn? Of the poverty without which one cannot enter the Kingdom of heaven? The spring would dry up, the model would be sacrificed to an ideal – entirely of the Enlightenment and modernity – of generalized progress, which in abolishing the pockets of poverty would finally lead to the New Jerusalem of the free and equal upon the earth. Is this really the aim of “Evangelii Gaudium”? The elimination of material poverty?


But let’s set the question aside to move on to a second and no less formidable tangle. “Evangelii Gaudium” at nos. 186-204 directly competes with the socio-economic system of advanced capitalism, indicated as the “structural cause” of mass poverty. Here the thesis of the document becomes drastic and can be boiled down to a dry formula: the essential cause of poverty is inequality, “unfairness,” “hunger is the result of a poor distribution of goods and income” (191). [. . .]

The substantial naivety of the discourse is in part masked by that which seems to be a point-blank attack on “free market dogmas”: we can no longer trust, we read, “in the unseen forces and the invisible hand of the market” (204). It is the classic “third-worldist” thesis (whether it is a classic Marxist thesis remains to be seen: the Marxian praise of the enterprising and modernizing bourgeoisie introduces a complex nuance that evades easy characterization).

Here however it is not a matter of initiating an economic-theoretical dispute on the advantages and disadvantages of the free market model, or on the advantages and disadvantages of the “correct” capitalist model in the sense of social solidarity. [. . .]

The question rather concerns the overall tenor of the analysis proposed by the document: an analysis that appears to be upheld by a theoretical and lexical instrumentalization that is strangely backward with respect to the geo-economic situation that is referenced. [. . .]

The thesis according to which the race for profit on the part of the “markets” would at the same time provoke growing inequality and growing impoverishment is in fact too easy a thesis, which ignores the subtle mechanisms of what is called “globalization.” The commonplace that would have on one side a rich world that is ever more rich and a poor world that is ever more poor can lead to a false diagnosis. [. . .]

We must in fact observe that the globalization, or modernization, of the planet in reality pursues an objective opposite to the one denounced by the pontifical document.

The logic of the market economy is more subtle than the “enhungering” framework. And it is so in that it rests, as is known, on the paradigm of unlimited growth: the logic of growing profit implies a system of growing consumption, where the growth of consumption is made possible and at the same time necessary by the continual and unstoppable progress of technology. [. . .] And since the average level of consumption in the advanced West is already very high – and the margins of growth are limited – the big money globalizes its strategies in view of as large a community of evolved consumers as possible. [. . .] In other terms, economic-financial globalization presupposes not indeed the exclusion of the masses, but on the contrary their growing inclusion precisely in the dynamics of mass consumption. [. . .]

It is a process that involves an increase and not a reduction of social inequality: the widespread growth in levels of consumption involves a growth of profits and a growing concentration of these in the hands of limited financial elites.

But the commonplace according to which the growth of the social divide involves in itself an impoverishment of the lower layer is a mistaken “topos,” or rather backward with respect to the current horizons of the globalized economy.

In the “BRIC” countries and the like, a broad and growing middle class is being formed that can be compared, in terms of consumption levels, to the middle class of Western societies. In the course of recent decades millions of Chinese, Indians, Turks, etc. have emerged from a condition of ancestral poverty – consumption at a minimal level, of pure subsistence or less – to reach a condition of relative prosperity (according to Western parameters) and in any case of non-poverty. [. . .]


To summarize. The problem is not what may be the most effective strategy to fight poverty by eliminating its structural causes. The response, in fact, is simple: under current conditions it is the modernization, on technological and capitalistic bases, of the economic structure.

The problem is instead another: it is rather how to evaluate an emergence from poverty that unfolds, precisely, in the forms imposed by the modernization and globalization of lifestyles. [. . .] It is how to evaluate the form of life – not more poor but less poor – generated by the process of modernization, [. . .] a process that appears unstoppable, and that tends to sweep away every factor of ethical-religious resistance, as well as political. [. . .]

To this question “Evangelii Gaudium” does not give a reply, or better: it does not give one because it does not pose the question. [. . .]

The diagnosis, apparently very severe, that the exhortation proposes of the capitalist West thus ends up being a reassuring analysis: because, in relaunching old slogans of easy consumption, it seems to ignore the subtle mechanisms of the market and the devious nature of the strategies put into effect by the capitalist West to realize the hoped-for Global Village, a massive, omnipervasive media propaganda the aim of which is to propose-impose as good, desirable, necessary, objects of consumption thought up and commercialized for the sole purpose of fostering the “growth” of consumption itself, and as a result the growth of profits. [. . .]

On this aspect of the technological-economic “machine,” “Evangelii Gaudium” is silent, as if poverty did not also decline in terms of mental slavery, of forced consumption. [. . .] In praising the new media the magisterium does not realize that it is praising the Trojan Horse contrived by the big money to conquer the strongholds of ancient poverty and turn it into the religion of consumption.


Two recent articles from http://www.chiesa on poverty and wealth in the words and actions of Pope Francis, and on his political vision:

> Welcome, Wealthy. Francis Receives Them With Open Arms (11.3.2016)

> “The People, Mystical Category.” The Political Vision of the South American Pope (20.4.2016)


English translation by Matthew Sherry, Ballwin, Missouri, U.S.A.


About abyssum

I am a retired Roman Catholic Bishop, Bishop Emeritus of Corpus Christi, Texas
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