Clerics for the Poor

Christ of Maryknoll by Br. Robert Lentz, OFM

Christ of Maryknoll by Br. Robert Lentz, OFM

The recent accession of Pope Francis reminds me of the South American bishops and priests who fought for the rights of those in deep penury in the 1960s and 70s. These were the days of the “slum bishop” Helder Camara, the late archbishop of Recife, Brazil. Camara lived among the poor, dressed very humbly, and refused to live in the bishop’s house or even drive a car. A true ascetic, he lived in the slums themselves, founding, among many other things, a bank for the poor. The dictatorship hired an assassin to murder the him. The assassin, on seeing the bishop’s humble abode in the slums, refused to kill him, and in fact, asked for for a confession! He was one of the many brave priests and nuns who were hated by parties ranging from brutal military dictatorships to conservative sects within Catholicism that, against their very faith, defended the wealthy well before the poor.

During those days, a contemporary of Camera, a theologian and Dominican priest named Frei Betto was arrested by the dictatorship and tortured. As he recounted in his memoir, during the torture sessions, they asked him, “How can a Christian collaborate with a communist?”

He replied, “For me, men are not divided into believers and atheists, but between oppressors and oppressed, between those who want to keep this unjust society and those who want to struggle for justice.”

They responded, “Have you forgotten that Marx considered religion to be the opium of the people?”

He responded, “It is the bourgeoisie which has turned religion into an opium of the people by preaching a God, lord of the heavens only, while taking possession of the earth for itself.”

Pope Francis certainly isn’t as radical as Betto. It’s obvious, though, that this deep concern for the poor is part of this priest’s very nature. Such concern is further indicated by his contributions to the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace on the Global Economy, where the Vatican makes it quite clear, especially through a recent publication that went nearly unreported, that libertarian teachings on the economy (also known as the “Austrian School”) are anathema to Catholicism. Indeed the document calls for a global regulating economic body to tame the more destructive elements of capitalism that cause great harm especially to those living in poverty.

Note: The document decries European “liberalism.” In Europe, the term “liberal” is synonymous with the American term “libertarian”. An American “liberal” is certainly not a European “liberal” by any means. The document is diplomatic but direct on the harm that libertarianism poses to society.

An excellent article on the release of the above document by the Rev Tom Reese, S.J.:


Regarding Accusations of the Poor as “Sucking off the System”

I came across a posting somewhere that used coded language to blast the poor for being parasites that “suck off then system” and that the increase on those living in poverty due to this great recession represents an increase of parasitical activities to the point where that’s pretty much everything that’s going on.

This is the worst recession since the Great Depression. In fact, as it’s labeled by some economists as a depression, by the very definition of a recession/depression, how could anyone *not* expect a spike in such necessities as unemployment compensation and food stamps as during the worst economic crises in 80 years? Or for that matter, welfare, of which the vast majority of funding goes to helping children living in poverty?

Labeling such assistance with emotionally negative labels is the equivalent of blaming the poor for being poor, or the unemployed for being unemployed when there are close to three people unemployed for every open job in this country (certainly an improvement over 2010 (5:1) and 2011 (4:1), but not good enough by a long shot). It’s the equivalent of labeling the poor as “parasites” as Ayn Rand loved to do. It’s also the furthest thing possible from Jesus’ teachings. After all, his very first public statement as that He was came to “bring good news to the poor”. Would that we all should show such respect for the dignity of those living in poverty, rather than inferring that they are “parasites”.