The Social Justice and Ecology Secretariat of the Jesuit Curia in Rome


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The PLACE of the POOR in the CHURCH*

The PLACE of the POOR in the CHURCH*


José M. Castillo, S.J.





Before 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 this world.


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 different.


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 the poor.


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 world.


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 conflict.


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 supposed power.


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 was inconceivable.



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 decisions.


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[1].


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 Church.


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.



7. Conclusion


What do the poor ask of the Church? What challenge does the poor offer the Church in the light of the new millennium?


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)

18012 Granada                                                                                                   



* Based on the text of José M. Castillo, S.J., “Escuchar lo que Dicen los Pobres a la Iglesia” (Listing to what the Poor Say to the Church), Cuadernos Cristianisme i Justícia, n. 88 (March 1999), pp. 32.

[1] To cite only one recent sad example: the Vatican was the only state in the world to recognise the military government that staged the coup d’état toppling the democratically elected president of Haiti, J. F. Aristide.