Impoverished Spirits

Certain ritual encounters have now become standard operating procedure for a new pope. In each of these meetings, Pope Francis has done something surprising, in his low-key, gentle way.

In a Mass celebrated in the Sistine Chapel with the College of Cardinals on the day after his election, the Holy Father raised cautions about clerical ambition—a yellow warning flag that reflected the concerns he had expressed during the papal interregnum about “spiritual worldliness” corrupting the Church, and an unmistakable call to a more energetically evangelical exercise of the priesthood and the episcopate. In a meeting a few days later with thousands of journalists,
the pope reminded his rapt audience that the Church cannot be understood, or reported, as if it were simply another political agency; the Church has to be understood from the inside out, as “the holy People of God making its way to encounter Jesus Christ,” without whom “Peter and the Church would not exist or have reason to exist.” And then came a subtle but unmistakable challenge: journalism, Francis insisted, “demands a particular concern for what is true, good and beautiful.” It can’t be all buzz all the time, and if journalism vulgarizes itself and becomes buzz only, it loses its soul.

Francis in Rome

Statue of St. Francis in Rome

And then came the meeting with the representatives of power, the ambassadors accredited to the Holy See. Here, the Holy Father took the opportunity to explain, once again, his choice of papal name, while using that exercise to make two important points.

Stressing the Church’s care for, and work with, the poor throughout the world, the pope reminded his audience in the Vatican’s Sala Regia that Francis of Assisi knew that there were various forms of poverty. There was the Franciscan work, which belongs to all Christians, to serve “the sick, orphans the homeless and all the marginalized;” that work is a Gospel imperative that also helps “to make society more humane and more just.” And then there was a different form of poverty: the “spiritual poverty of our time”; that poverty is most evident in wealthier societies and manifests itself in what Benedict XVI often called the “dictatorship of relativism”—the worship of the false god of me, myself and I, imposed by state power, often in the name of a misguided and coercive concept of tolerance.

This second form of poverty had to be challenged by a second Franciscan imperative, the responsibility “to build peace.” Yet, as the pope immediately continued: “there is no true peace without the truth! There cannot be true peace if everyone is his own criterion, if everyone can always claim exclusively his own rights, without at the same time caring for the good of others, of everyone, on the basis of the nature that unites every human being on this earth.”

The last phrase—“the nature that unites every human being on this earth”—was the money quote here. For that is precisely what so much of the spiritually impoverished world of radical secularism and lifestyle libertinism now denies: that there is any “human nature” which public policy and law must respect. That’s what those who continue to support “abortion rights” deny. That’s what those who insist that “marriage” can mean any configuration of consenting adults deny. That’s what those who regard children as an optional lifestyle accessory deny. And that’s what those who insist that maleness and femaleness are “cultural constructs,” not givens that disclose deep truths about the human condition, deny.

Those denials, Pope Francis suggested, lead to a spiritual impoverishment that can be as devastating as material poverty. And those denials can lead to conflicts within societies that shatter peace just as much as conflicts between societies.

Pope Francis is no “Brother Sun, Sister Moon” romantic. As an experienced pastor and a man of keen intelligence, he knows that reality-contact is as important for societies as it is for personal mental health. He’ll make the case in a different way than Benedict XVI. But you can count on this pontificate to challenge the dictatorship of relativism in the name of authentic humanism.


This article was originally published at the Denver Catholic Register.

Image credit:

George Weigel


George Weigel is an American author and political and social activist. He currently serves as a Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Weigel was the Founding President of the James Madison Foundation.

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage

  • kirk

    This Pope just gets better all the time! Great article.

  • Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum!

    I am so glad Pope Francis is finally speaking out about the other kind of poverty, that is “spiritual” poverty. This is a BIG step in the right direction, from a Church that has devoted most of its resources over many decades to helping the “material poor” all over the world under its “social justice” banner (i.e., socialism). Somewhere down the ages, the Church must have forgotten its true mission, and that is to save “souls” (spirit). So, is it any wonder that what we have today is a “materialistic” church, rather than a faithful and “spiritual” church (you reap what you sow). But with all due respect, this is just talk from Pope Francis. I will begin to believe him when the next time I am at Sunday mass and there will be a second collection to support a missionary cause to help the “spiritually” poor in Washington, DC (specifically those in the White House….. there are so many of them). Perhaps Cardinal Dolan could spearhead that mission, since many are his buddies. Then, I am sure the donation baskets would overflow with money.


  • One does not fix spiritual poverty with money. At least not in the direct way that money can help physical poverty. Social Justice is only equated with socialism in the minds of liberals and conservatives, that is in the political sphere. Theologically you would not deny that we have a responsibility to the material poor? The manner in which that aid is rendered is open to prudential judgment, but the responsibility exists non the less.

    As the saying goes, “One does not negotiate peace with one’s friends.” Would you prefer that Cardinal Dolan sit in his Cathedral in New York and proclaim anathemas? That would surely be helpful to the situation.