Poverty and Wealth: Obligations of Both the Poor and the Rich

One of the characteristics of Christianity from its earliest days has been the fact that it is embraced by both rich and poor. This is, of course, according to the preaching of our Lord Jesus Christ, who offers His salvation to all. We know that in choosing His apostles, Jesus chose not only relatively poor fishermen but also a physician and a tax collector. We are all familiar with the magnificently written Letters of Saint Paul. Although we know that they were written under divine inspiration, the Church teaches us that the sacred writers can maintain their own style in presenting God's word without error. Saint Paul must have been a somewhat learned, talented and successful man to have written words of such beauty!

When we read the history of the early centuries of the Church, we see its care for the poor and needy, according to the message of Jesus: "Amen I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me" (Matthew 25:40). However, we also see the acceptance of the Christian message from among the members of the Roman nobility, military and ruling class. For instance, a number of the early saints such as Saint Agnes and Saint Cecilia, who were both virgins and martyrs for the sake of Christ, were from the Roman nobility. Many of the most ancient Churches of Rome reflect the fact that they were originally houses belonging to noble families, which were used for Christian worship during the Roman persecutions of the early centuries. When Christianity was given freedom and even made the official religion of the Roman Empire by the Emperor Constantine, the earliest Roman churches were built over many of these houses.

An entirely new standard

There is no doubt that the teaching of Jesus Christ brought about a fundamental difference in the way both rich and poor are called to fidelity. Cardinal Richard J. Cushing, Archbishop of Boston from 1944 to 1970, had a very special love for children who were mentally and physically challenged. He not only showed them a wonderful love and affection, but also saw to it that schools and residences were established to care for their special needs. At the dedication of one of these, Saint Coletta's Chapel in Jefferson, Wisconsin, he gave a wonderful address on the characteristics of Christianity we are speaking of. He said: "The civilization of Sparta was great; some philosophers and historians expect to find it heroic. But it was a civilization for the most privileged, not for the ‘least.' So was the civilization of Rome. So was the civilization of Egypt. So were the great civilizations of the Orient. These were civilizations for the ‘most,' not for the ‘least.' And then Jesus came. He set up an entirely new standard: ‘For as much as you have done it to the least of these, you have done it unto Me.'"

You may have heard of a Concordance of Holy Scripture. There are a number of these books available but they all have the same basic structural idea. They arrange the Scriptures according to topic and then give all the references to that subject in both the Old and the New Testaments. Not only is it a handy reference tool, it also indicates at a glance the frequency with which a particular topic is addressed. If you were to look up both "rich" and "poor" in a Concordance, you will notice that the references to the poor found in Scripture are much more positive than references to the rich! However, as we will see, this does not mean that those who are rich are condemned and those who are poor are automatically blessed. Since the Scriptures are God's Wisdom, they often point out the very basic fact that great wealth often carries great danger with it. Saint Paul presents this truth in this way: "Those who want to be rich are falling into temptation and into a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires, which plunge them into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all evils, and some people in their desire for it have strayed from the faith and have pierced themselves with many pains" (1 Timothy 6:9 -10).

The proper use of wealth

The fact that great wealth brings many dangers with it does not mean that it is automatically evil. The Church has always defended the right of public property, especially in the famous social encyclicals of the Popes of the last century. She has similarly condemned any type of class warfare, such as that which is sometimes encouraged by the false system of communism. Many people, possessing great wealth, have done a great deal of good with that wealth. We know that many of the works of charity performed in Christ's name throughout this Archdiocese are assisted through the generosity of those whom God has blessed with wealth and success as well as the individual giver who can only give a small amount but does so in a spirit of generosity. I think especially of groups such as the Stewards of Saint John Neumann, the Papal Foundation, Business Leadership Organized for Catholic Education (BLOCS) and the Special Gifts program of the Catholic Charities Appeal, all of whom assist the charitable and educational works of Christ's Church in inestimable ways. They are living out the words of Jesus, found in Saint Luke's Gospel: "Much will be required of the person entrusted with much, and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more" (Luke 12:48).

The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of the Second Vatican Council summarizes the Christian attitude toward the riches of this world by placing it within the context of the universal call to holiness, to which all are called within the sphere of each person's individual vocation. The Catechism of the Catholic Church quotes this document of the Council. It is a good summary for this section of our topic. The Catechism states: "All Christ's faithful are to ‘direct their affections rightly, lest they be hindered in their pursuit of perfect charity by the use of worldly things and by an adherence to riches which is contrary to the spirit of evangelical poverty'" (Catechism, 2545).

The poor are not exempt from charity

We are all aware of the Gospel of the widow's mite. Jesus did not say that the widow should not have given, on account of her poverty. He praised her gift and stated that it had great worth before God because she had given not from her surplus but from what little she had to live on. "Amen, I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all the other contributors to the treasury. For they have all contributed from their surplus wealth, but she, from her poverty, has contributed all she had, her whole livelihood" (Mark 12:44).

To give a more contemporary illustration, we can speak of a famous American cathedral. Many are familiar with Saint Patrick's Cathedral in New York City. It stands on one of the most famous corners in the world and it is admired by many for its soaring Gothic architecture. Yet, it is necessary to recall that it is said to have been built "by the pennies of Irish immigrant laborers." They gave of their meager wages and they built a Cathedral! This illustrates one of the reasons why we should never deprive anyone of the opportunity and honor of giving to a worthy cause. In doing so, we are allowing those who do not possess great wealth to live out the message of the Gospel in their own way. They might even wind up building, or preserving, a Cathedral!

Preferential option for the poor

The teaching of Jesus in the Gospels and the constant teaching of the Church remind us of the special place that the poor must have in the heart of every Christian. In fact, in the second half of the last century, a phrase was introduced that sought to summarize this Gospel mandate: "a preferential option for the poor." The Church seeks to place herself especially at the side of those who are weak and helpless, since they often do not have many advocates to come to their aid. In an Encyclical written by Pope John Paul II to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of a famous social encyclical of Pope Paul VI, Populorum Progressio, Pope John Paul not only explained this preferential option for the poor but also gave us an excellent summary of this week's topic.

Let us conclude with his words:
"The exercise of solidarity within each society is valid when its members recognize one another as persons. Those who are more influential, because they have a greater share of goods and common services, should feel responsible for the weaker and be ready to share with them all they possess. Those who are weaker, for their part, in the same spirit of solidarity, should not adopt a purely passive attitude or one that is destructive of the social fabric, but, while claiming their legitimate rights, should do what they can for the good of all. The intermediate groups, in their turn, should not selfishly insist on their particular interests, but respect the interests of others.

"Positive signs in the contemporary world are the growing awareness of the solidarity of the poor among themselves, their efforts to support one another, and their public demonstrations on the social scene which, without recourse to violence, present their own needs and rights in the face of the inefficiency or corruption of the public authorities. By virtue of her own evangelical duty the Church feels called to take her stand beside the poor, to discern the justice of their requests, and to help satisfy them, without losing sight of the good of groups in the context of the common good" (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, 39).

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