The PLACE of the
POOR in the CHURCH
José M. Castillo, S.J.
entering thoroughly into the subject, two preliminary observations must be made
– in the interests of honesty and justice.
1. There always have been, and
there continue to be, many people in the Church who are not only concerned with
the poor, but who have, in addition, consecrated their whole lives to being
their advocates. On behalf of the poor, many priests, religious men and women,
lay volunteers, NGO members, people of various beliefs and colours, have
heroically staked their most cherished possessions, their comfort, their
reputation, their safety – in a word, everything that a human being can risk in
2. For a century now, ecclesiastical authority has
been developing a body of “social doctrine.” Especially in the last thirty
years, this teaching has hit upon effective and vigorous formulations promoting
the poor, their rights, their liberties and their dignity, calling for
far-reaching reforms in the global economy, and condemning the repeated
injustices committed against the most defenceless in this world. Furthermore,
the Church continues to proclaim the gospel all over the world.
These two facts are undeniable. And yet, we have
serious reasons to ask: has the Church completely resolved the question of what
her relationship to the poor really means and demands of her?
1. What is the place of the poor in the Church?
In theory the answer is clear. For the Church the poor
are what they were for Jesus: his favourites, the most important, the first in
line. But this is in theory. We all know that in practice the reality is often
For example, what role do the poor play in church
ceremonial? Rest assured, their place is at the entrance to the temple begging
alms! They clearly do not have the choice seats. Still less are they in the
sanctuary. What would they do there? They would only kneel. And what role do
they play at church meetings or assemblies? What place is reserved for them in
pastoral planning sessions, in diocesan synods, in the lofty congregations of
the Roman Curia?
The letter of St. James roundly
condemns those who assign the poor a place inferior to that of the rich
(2,1-4). In the gospels, Jesus scolds the Pharisees in harsh terms for claiming
to occupy the places of honour (Mk 10,37-40; Mt 20,21-23; Mk 9,35. 12,38-39; Lk
20,46. 11,43). In the Christian community, by contrast, the dominant
inclination should be to occupy the last place (Lk 14,78-81), or to be present
at the banquet, not seated in comfort, but serving the other guests (Lk 22,27).
It is obvious that this radicalism cannot last long in the Church, especially
considering the way she came to be organised after the fourth century. Very
quickly the poor retired to the last place they had always occupied; and the
notables regained their preferred first place.
2. What influence do the poor have in the Church?
What influence do the poor have in the important
decisions of the Church? Are the poor consulted? Is their point of view given
any consideration? Does it ever occur to anybody that their point of view may
be important? Do we call upon the poor when the subject under discussion is a
proposal with far reaching effects? Can the poor offer their opinion when there
is a question of appointing a parish priest, or of naming a bishop?
What influence do the poor have, not only in the
decisions of the Church, but especially in the doctrine that is taught and even
imposed on the faithful? To put it more clearly: what influence do the poor
have in theology? That is, do the poor shape the way we understand God, explain
the Gospel, spell out in what Christian salvation consists?
Now, what is surprising is that according to Jesus,
the ones who are unable to grasp who or what God is are precisely “the wise and
intelligent.” And those who are capable of understanding Him are, literally,
“those who have nothing to say,” in view of the fact that this is the precise
meaning of the Greek term, nepioi [the “little ones”], used by scripture
(Mt 11,25). One would have to be blind not to see what Jesus does when he says
this. He calls into question all our theology. For the pure truth purveyed by
theology in the Church is the truth formulated by us – all of us who consider
ourselves wise and intelligent. Correspondingly, in this manner of speaking and
thinking, the nepioi, the only ones who understand the matter, are
afforded no possibility of contributing to the discussion.
In the last analysis, what is at stake is the
understanding that the God who reveals Himself in Jesus Christ is a God who
cannot be reached by simple human effort, or by mere study, or by the
speculation of human beings, no matter how ingenious.
Well, who are they who understand the things of God?
It appears that it is not the “intellectuals,” or the “powerful,” or persons
“of good breeding” (I Cor 1,26). And, to make sure no doubt remains, St. Paul
is most explicit: “God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise, and
God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong, and God chose the lowly
and despised of the world, those who count for nothing” (that is: those who are
on the lowest rungs of the social ladder), “to reduce to nothing those who are
something.” (I Cor 1,27-28).
In this light, the question suggests itself: has
theology, our actual knowledge of God, ever been correctly carried on in the
Church? If the poor do not have, and have never had, anything to say, have we
not been depriving ourselves of the most definitive source of knowledge and
understanding of the Gospel?
3. Do the poor represent a danger for the Church?
Assuredly, for not a few people in “the ecclesiastical
world,” the poor represent a danger for the Church. There is clear evidence for
this on every side.
Throughout the centuries the poor have been the object
of the Church’s assistance and alms, but they have never been the subject of
decisions or doctrine. To be sure, there has been a change in the last thirty
years. First, John XXIII began to speak of the “Church of the poor.” These
words were well received by some of us, but we know of certain professors of
ecclesiology who laughed – literally – at this expression.
It is not difficult to guess what has turned out to be
distasteful and uncomfortable to some people. A Jesus coming from heaven is
admirable, sublime, just what we want. But a Jesus coming from the poor is
neither admirable nor sublime; he is probably a disturbing element and, in any
case, he raises too many questions.
The situation is further complicated by the fact that
during the 70s a theology appeared which placed quite properly the poor at the
centre of attention, at the centre of theological problems and solutions.
For centuries on end, theology has never paid
attention to the poor, except to determine the amount of alms that the wealthy
should give to the needy for the sake of a tranquil conscience, or to exhort
the wealthy to be generous to the unfortunate in this life.
That is why at present it is difficult to get through
our heads a theology which, for the first time in history, dares to say that
the poor have a decisive word to say about God, that the poor ought to be
heard, that our entire theology should be rethought from the starting point of
This has proved to be a great stumbling block in not a
few ecclesiastical circles, some bishops claiming that this theology divides
the Church, theologians bringing their heaviest artillery to bear against what
they consider to be the greatest perversion of theology. All this has become
part of a certain ‘official doctrine’ against Liberation Theology. Undoubtedly
the short life of liberation theology is the clearest proof that, for many “men
of the Church,” the poor constitute a genuine danger when they are taken
seriously and all the logical conclusions drawn.
4. This is not a problem of dogma or of simple
economics, but a problem which touches the core of the human condition.
From start to finish, Jesus lived in a situation of social
marginalisation. It is said of him that he was born in a stable and died on the
cross. To speak of marginalisation is to speak of something that touches the
core of the human condition. For the worst thing about marginalisation is that
it is an affront to the dignity of a human being. It is the absence of rights
and the lack of respect each ordinary person should enjoy. For that matter,
indignity is the worst thing about poverty. Or better, indignity is worse than
poverty itself. People use the expression, “poor but honest.” Honour and
dignity are the most highly prized values among human beings. If we humans are
so eager to have money, it is not only, or even chiefly, for the material
advantages that money provides. Persons and institutions want to have money for
security, power, influence, social status, respectability and finally, for the
fetishist force it wields in our society.
In our contemporary culture, the world turns on the
economy. But in the culture of Jesus’ day, the world turned on honour. It is
clear then why Jesus placed himself in solidarity with groups of people who, in
that society, were precisely the most systematically marginalised: the most
exploited, the most undervalued – even the most hated in the case of the
publicans and sinners – in any case, those who stood for nothing in society,
who had nothing to say in that culture. One further understands why Jesus
challenged the groups who marginalised, undervalued and hated the others.
5. “Religious persons” and the poor
We cannot lose sight of the danger that constantly
threatens “religious persons.” In the contemporary milieu we frequently meet
people who internalise the beliefs and practices of religion so thoroughly that
they acquire a strong sense of self-assurance. Nothing on earth would make them
change the slightest element of their religious convictions. On the contrary,
they consider themselves so solidly in possession of the truth that they
develop a feeling of superiority which leads them to thank God for having
preserved them from all the disorientation and corruption so prevalent in the
For example, it is not unusual to meet “men of the
Church” who are impatient, and even angry, simply because a liturgical norm was
not minutely observed at Mass. But they are not at all concerned that people
are suffering, and even dying, from hunger or abandonment, perhaps right around
the church where the Mass is being celebrated.
Another more eloquent example is to consider how the
theme of the poor and poverty is approached in religious circles. As long as
one talks of assistance and alms, all is well. But complications arise, as Dom
Helder discovered, if we go deeper into the problem. He remarks, “When I give
an alms to a poor man, they call me a saint. But if I ask why are there poor
people, they call me a communist.” To speak of the poor “in depth” is to speak
of economics and politics, which leads us to express an opinion about left
versus right, socialism, dictatorship, democracy, capitalism, neoliberalism,
revolution, war. In this way, to talk of the poor leads us into a situation of
For Jesus, to speak of the poor was to speak of people
who were weak, marginalised, robbed of dignity in the society of his time. His
goal was to situate these people at the centre of his life, at the forefront of
his projects and among his dearest friends. And this is folly for “men of
religion.” It is not only, or even principally, a matter of opening the purse
strings; it threatens our reputation, our dignity, our respectability and our
That is why one finds many in ecclesiastical circles
who are disposed to “assist” the poor, even to “evangelise” the poor. But how
many of us have been really convinced that we have to “learn” from the poor?
And that they are able to “teach” us even about “technical” questions such as
God, Jesus, the Gospel? How many managers in the Church are disposed to seek
advice and support from the poor? And to how many does it occur that the poor
ought to share the burden of responsibility in the governance of parishes, the
diocese, and the whole Church?
Questions such as these can seem to many “men of
religion” to be radical ravings with neither head nor tail, and thus to
constitute a “danger” to the Church. According to them, to let the poor have a
say would be to concede them a primary role, and tantamount to the claim that
society and the functional organisation of the Church should be determined by
the poor. This state of affairs calls into question their carefully fashioned
security, their sense of superiority and their thinly veiled contempt for every
sign of marginalisation or weakness within the system.
When Jesus told the “men of religion” of his day that
“the publicans and prostitutes would go before you into the Kingdom of God” (Mt
21,31), he was guilty of great imprudence. Not only did he insult these
respectable men; he turned religion topsy-turvy. And for the intelligent, this
6. The poor and the Church: a problem, not of persons
but of ecclesiastical structures
These instances of “reticence,” and even of “fear,” on
the part of the ecclesiastical establishment toward the poor and persons on the
margin of the system show up in still another way. There is a clear resistance
among authority-holders in the church to any attempt at involving the poor in
the governance of the church or allowing them to be co-responsible for her
From this attitude springs the systematic rejection of
the development of ecclesial base communities during the past thirty years and
their concomitant project of a Church “of the poor,” of a Church “of the
people,” or similar proposals. As we know, these communities have never claimed
to organise a “parallel” church, have never wanted to divide into “sects,” have
never challenged the authority of the bishops. What is the explanation, then,
of the institution’s reticence and fear regarding the world’s most wretched?
Any manual of church history will describe in abundant
detail the strong influence exercised on the church (more heavy-handed than we
can imagine) by emperors and feudal lords, kings and the powerful of the world,
power holders and politicians, dictators and even tyrants with blood on their
hands. Often enough, these eminent personages were tolerated and even highly
regarded in the higher circles of ecclesiastical power.
Yet, it is considered an intolerable problem whenever
the poor, the wretched of this world, dare to speak up, to participate in some
way in decisions regarding parish matters or in general diocesan policy. The
signal fires are lit and all resources are marshalled to meet the danger. That
is why liberation theology was thought to be such a serious threat and the
reason why steps were taken to neutralise the influence of CELAM in Latin
America, and why the nomination of bishops was subject to meticulous care so as
to ensure that what happened at Medellín and even at Puebla would never happen
again. This is an indication that, in the eyes of those who have influence in
ecclesiastical institutions, the poor are still a danger and a threat to the
The more this attitude cloaks itself in the mantle of
“mystery” and “religion,” and even under the garb of “service of the Church,”
the more clearly we realise that we confront the same deep-seated evil that
Jesus faced, that which He saw as the great danger for all humanity. For this
attitude gives rise to the contempt in which the weak and powerless of this
world have been held. Here is the precise point of departure for the
death-doomed tragedy of the poor. It is at this level that the relationship
between the Church and the poor makes all the difference.
What do the poor ask of the Church?
What challenge does the poor offer the Church in the light of the new
First of all, the Church should have no fear of the
poor. Nor should she leave them out of consideration when it is time to
reflect, to decide, to act, to teach.
At the very least, the Church should pay attention to
the poor and listen to them in the same measure in which she pays attention and
listens to the power-brokers of this world (the wealthy, the wise, the movers
and shakers of the World Order). This is a minimum. She should, therefore, pay
the poor more attention and listen to them more carefully.
The Church should consider the poor, not as passive
recipients of Her attention, but as active subjects – even to the point of
having them present where analyses and decisions are made.
The Church should stop hounding and harassing those
who pursue an option for the poor with the resultant consequences of such a
decision – or those who try to build a world less cruel to the poor and less
unjust to them.
And lastly, once converted to God, the Church should
not place her security on the dubious support of the mighty of this world, but
rather on the slender support of the poor. If this should cause problems, then
the Church ought to realise that she has finally caught up with Her founder.
José M. Castillo Sánchez, S.J.
Comunidad Pedro Arrupe
Paseo de Cartuja 35, 3º +34 958 151 440 (fax)