Pope Francis asserted in a message released by the Vatican Thursday that poverty is not the natural condition of man but is always the fruit of someone else’s sin.
“Poverty is not brought on by itself, but is caused by selfishness, pride, greed and injustice,” the pope has written for his Message for the Second World Day of the Poor, which will be celebrated this year on November 18, with the theme: “This poor man cried and the Lord heard him.”
“These are evils as old as man himself, but also sins in which the innocents are caught up, leading to consequences on the social level which are dramatic,” Francis insists. “God’s liberating action is an act of salvation towards those who manifest their sadness and distress to Him.”
“Each individual Christian and every community is called to be an instrument of God for the liberation and promotion of the poor, and for enabling them to be fully a part of society,” he writes.
In his analysis of poverty, the pontiff echoes the work of the Peruvian theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez, whom the pope recently praised publicly.
In his groundbreaking 1971 book, A Theology of Liberation, Gutiérrez asserted that the root cause of poverty is “the injustice of oppressors.”
“Poverty is not caused by fate,” he insisted, but is always caused by the actions of others. Sin is “the ultimate cause of poverty,” he stated.
“Poverty is an expression of a sin, that is, of a negation of love. It is therefore incompatible with the coming of the Kingdom of God, a Kingdom of love and justice. Poverty is an evil, a scandalous condition, which in our times has taken on enormous proportions,” he wrote.
The “us and them” divide between the poor and the wealthy will always be a relationship between oppressors and the oppressed, Gutiérrez argued, and, therefore, the Church must make a choice.
“In today’s world the solidarity and protest of which we are speaking have an evident and inevitable ‘political’ character insofar as they imply liberation. To be with the oppressed is to be against the oppressor,” he wrote.
The pope’s claim that poverty is unnatural, a phenomenon that is produced by “greed and injustice” is popular in today’s world but not immediately self-evident. In fact, it is contradicted by the economic history of the world.
Man comes into the world naked and vulnerable, possessing nothing at all. His poverty is not created; it is simply an accident of birth.
Nations, too, are naturally poor. Prior to the industrial revolution, the Economist points out, “wealth gaps between countries were modest: income per person in the world’s ten richest countries was only six times higher than that in the ten poorest.”
All of that changed as “incomes accelerated in western Europe and then America,” the article continues, and the distance between these countries and others grew.
“By the 1970s average income per person in the ten richest countries was around 40 times higher than that in the ten poorest,” it asserts.
Or as one reads in Our World in Data, from “the long-term perspective of social history, we know that economic prosperity and lasting economic growth is a very recent achievement for humanity.”
The current poverty of the poorer nations is not, by and large, a result of the exploitation by the wealthy (though this has occasionally occurred), but rather the result of staying behind while others advanced.
Study of the causes of poverty will always be a fruitless endeavor since it is based in the mistaken belief that poverty is not man’s natural state.
The study of wealth creation—how individuals and nations rose from a natural state of indigence to one of prosperity—is a far more productive pursuit because it explores a process that can be repeated to the benefit of many.
As counterintuitive as it may seem, the study of wealth creation and its implementation will always do more for the poor than sterile studies of why poverty exists and who is to blame.
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