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Francis and the world: poverty

[ by Charles Cameron — “sell all that thou hast and give to the poor” in the context of a pope named Francis — the tremendous possibilities & complexities of the situation — proposal for a roundtable ]

St Francis: his patchwork habit, and a portrait by El Greco

There’s a comedy routine going the innernet rounds featuring Sarah Silverman, in which she suggests “Sell the Vatican, feed the world” as her solution to world hunger. How can I put this? It’s funny if you like gross, and gross if you prefer fine — which is my side of the coin, so I won’t inflict her video on you, through you can click through and see it.

More seriously there’s the Harvard theologian, Harvey Cox. In his book The Seduction of the Spirit (pp 244-46), Cox has a great fictional press release that begins:

Rome and Geneva, Oct. 5, 1975, UPI. In a historic joint encyclical issued today by both the Vatican and the World Council of Churches, both religious bodies announced that they were beginning “forthwith” to divest themselves of all earthly possessions. The unprecedented pastoral letter, the first ever issued by both groups at once, was known in Rome as Lucrum Salax, after the first two words in its Latin text, “dirty money.” In Geneva the encyclical, recently adopted by a special session of the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches, appeared in French, German, English, Russian and Swahili. The document is signed, shattering another precedent, not only by Pope Paul VI and several other members of the WCC’s Central Committee, it also bears the signatures of hundreds of laymen from various parts of the world, including Juan Gonzales, a parishioner of San Martin de Porres, a small Catholic church in Bolivia, and by Franklin P. Jones, a sharecropper and a deacon in the Mount Pigsah A.M.E. Zion Church of Meridian, Mississippi. The statement was released today, it was explained, because October fifth is the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi who, it was pointed out by Vatican and WCC theologians, actually did obey the command of Jesus to sell all his worldly goods and follow him. …

Behind both Silverman and Cox, there’s the instruction Christ gives to the man who “had great possessions” who asked him what more – beyond following the commandments – he needed to do to inherit eternal life:

Then Jesus beholding him loved him, and said unto him, One thing thou lackest: go thy way, sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, take up the cross, and follow me.

Saint Francis of Assisi famously took that suggestion seriously and acted on it. And now we have a pope who has taken the name Francis as his papal name, who is known for his own forms of humility and austerity — and who made his priorities clear during his first press conference:

I would like a poor church and a church for the poor.


Saint Francis, whose name the Pope has taken, was known as the “poverello” or little poor one, and the new pope’s choice of name, according to the Vaticanista John Allen Jr, signifies “poverty, humility, simplicity and rebuilding the Catholic Church.”

Simplicity and lack of ostentation would seem to be both habitual with and characteristic of Pope Francis too, of whom it has been said, “This is a man who goes into the shantytowns and cooks with the people … I think the world is going to discover a very new style of being pope.”

COL. Pat Lang, a blogger and a Catholic with whom many Zenpundit readers will also be familiar, liked what he saw in early reports from the Vatican after the new pope’s choice of name was announced, and he had given his first blessing from the balcony:

The name choice is significant. This man rode the bus back to the clerical hotel last night. He rode the bus with his former colleagues and let his limo follow along behind. Once at the hotel, he went to his room, collected his things and went down to the front desk to pay his bill in person. When reminded that he was now the proprietor and need not pay the bill, he said that he wanted to make sure that they all pay their bills. It will be interesting to see how he has the papal apartments decorated or if he lives there at all. Vatican City is a big place, he could live anywhere within it.

COL. Lang also noted that a new pope, inspired by Francis of Assisi, might have a profound impact on the world as a whole:

The possibilities for this man to lead by example on issues of poverty and the spread of the Good News of the gospels is virtually unlimited.

It’s that “virtually unlimited impact” I’d like to investigate here.


Let’s take a look at some of the things our man has said which may throw further light on his current thinking.

In 2007, the then cardinal archbishop of Buenos Aires said:

We live in the most unequal part of the world, which has grown the most yet reduced misery the least. The unjust distribution of goods persists, creating a situation of social sin that cries out to Heaven and limits the possibilities of a fuller life for so many of our brothers.

As the Australian Lowy Institute for International Policy recently noted:

As a Latin American, he represents the region with the most practising Catholics but also one with vast experience of poverty. A Vatican that is much more vested in addressing poverty might see more concerted Church pressure on developed countries to improve their aid and trade policies and provide more opportunities to developing countries. In a world still beset by financial crises, this kind of advocacy from the leader of the world’s largest faith could prove decisive.

In 2009, the archbishop said:

human rights are violated by unfair economic structures that create huge inequalities

And here’s a little more nuance, from the BBC report of the pope’s first press opportunity since he became pope:

The Pope said he had been inspired to take the name Francis by a Brazilian colleague who embraced him and whispered “don’t forget the poor” when it was announced that he had been elected Pope.

He said he immediately thought of St Francis of Assisi, the Italian founder of the Franciscan Order who was devoted to the poor.

As well as representing poverty and peace, he said St Francis “loved and looked after” creation – and he noted that humanity was “not having a good relationship with nature at the moment”

So there’s a real possibility here that we might see the Catholic Church under the guidance of Pope Francis throwing its not inconsiderable influence behind the teaching of his predecessor’s encyclical on social justice, Caritas in Veritate, in which he declared “Every economic decision has a moral consequence” and “The market is not, and must not become, the place where the strong subdue the weak.”

Could the senior bishops and princes of the church do without their limousines, as Pope Francis himself appears to have done while a cardinal archbishop? I am trying to suggest that there almost certainly are cuts that could be made, and good works of the kind commanded by Christ facilitated as a result:

I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me. … Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.


Thus far we have been discussing hopes and possibilities in the realm of ideas and ideals. That’s the realm in which good thing begin, but then they have to get grounded, which is where all manner of details — obstacles and irritations, foibles and fumbles and sheer human nature — come in.

And that’s when things begin to get interesting.

Plenty of people have “liked” the new pope’s humility and concern with the world’s poor, sick and malnourished, but more interesting than the slogan Sarah Silverman offers is the real possibility of effecting change. It’s all very well to say, as Silverman does, “Sell the Vatican, feed the world” – but it’s not “genius” to suggest that, although she appears to think it is, and you can tell by the tone of the rest of her routine that she’s wooing her own comedic audience, not the pope…

Pope Francis, however, does indeed appear to be intent on feeding the poor, and if he is, the question arises:

What’s the most efficacious way to do that, without losing those of the church’s material possessions which are authentically useful in propagating love, forgiveness and understanding?


That’s a complex question, pitting the selfish and selfless interests of multiple very interested parties with and against one another, vastly cross-disciplinary in the different realms it touches on, deeply and richly complex and riddle with potential feedback loops and unintended consequences…

And thus a perfect, paradigmatic instance of the kind of problems our complexly-interwoven world more and more frequently faces. Which is why I would like to explore it, in the company of a diverse group of good hearts and bright minds.

My guess is that it’s a question the Pope himself must take quite an interest in — indeed, as the Anglican blogger known as Cranmer notes:

Both Pope Francis and [the Anglican primate] Archbishop Justin Welby have considerable knowledge of and interest in the worlds of finance, banking and welfare. Both grasp the value of free markets, liberal economies and the production of wealth. But both also understand the need for an ethical framework which recognises the dignity and freedom of the individual. They are both concerned with excessive inequality and know of the dangers to society posed by unregulated banking and unrestrained finance. They are likely to work together toward a moral economic framework.

Presumably selling Catholic hospitals to the highest bidder might not necessarily be the best way to care for the sick… So considerable thought, insight — and let’s go for baroque, inspiration and grace — is called for in building a practical answer to our question..


I haven’t gone into all the many areas that such a task would involve as yet, but to make sure I wasn’t being too foolish I did broach the topic with a friend.

Michael is a an appraiser, consultant, dealer and freelance writer on art and antiques who was at one time head of rare books and manuscripts at Phillips Fine Art Auctioneers in New York, and also brings to this topic a grounding in in matters ecclesiastical, his father having been both Canon Treasurer at Canterbury Cathedral — the Mother Church of the global Anglican Communion and seat of the original Archbishop of Canterbury, St. Augustine — which gave him overall responsibility for the cathedral “treasures,” its fabric and associated buildings.

I talked with Michael about the Catholic Church’s art treasures. I said I would hate to see the Sistine Chapel sold to some Howard Hughes think-alike, let alone “transported” like London Bridge and rebuilt in Vegas with neon highlights. I remember the Bamiyan Buddhas, I grieve for the old Abbey of Monte Cassino, I regret the destruction of the Sufi shrines of Timbuktu…

But there are lesser artworks that could perhaps be sold, although the question arises of what a large scale sell-off would do to the world art market – and hence to the ability of the church to capitalize on the value of such works.

I don’t want to preempt Michael’s possible more detailed response to these questions, but it was pretty clear from talking with him that all manner of moral, ethical and legal issues would be involved in dealing with the Church’s artistic patrimony alone — without even scratching the surface of its educational interests, all those hospitals, its real estate holdings and so forth.


Two last questions:

How rich is the Church?

Matt Yglesias at Slate asked this question this week, and his first paragraph read:

Pope Francis is not just the spiritual leader of one of the world’s major religions: He’s also the head of what’s probably the wealthiest institution in the entire world. The Catholic Church’s global spending matches the annual revenues of the planet’s largest firms, and its assets—huge amounts of real estate, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Vatican City, some of the world’s greatest art—surely exceed those of any corporation by an order of magnitude.

Writing of the American Church (USA) alone, and referencing a detailed 2012 Economist article, he suggests:

Our best window into the overall financial picture of American Catholicism comes from a 2012 investigation by the Economist, which offered a rough-and-ready estimate of $170 billion in annual spending, of which almost $150 billion is associated with church-affiliated hospitals and institutions of higher education. The operating budget for ordinary parishes, at around $11 billion a year, is a relatively small share, and Catholic Charities is a smaller share still.

Apple and General Motors, by way of comparison, each had revenue of about $150 billion worldwide in Fiscal Year 2012.

The new pope, it appears, will “oversee a massive religious business whose holdings are worth billions of dollars” — I’m quoting another interesting source here, Kevin Roose‘s The Vatican’s Financial Empire in Charts from New York magazine earlier this week — “but whose finances on a yearly basis are often rocky.”

For details, see Roose’s article and accompanying charts…


And finally:

What do I propose?

There’s an opportunity here, as I see it, for the human race to lurch a few steps in a positive direction. And the more caring intelligence that’s broiught to bear on this possibility, the greater the chances of success.

But who should do the caring thinking?

I imagine the pope himself has some ideas, and some bright friends to discuss them with. I imagine the Jesuits could provide quite a wonk tank. But it’s my guess that the intricately networked diversity of the blogosphere will have some interesting contributions to make. So I’m floating the idea of an online round-table on the papacy and poverty as a starting point.

I’m not going into the details of exactly how and who and where at this point. I’m posting this first on Zenpundit, because it’s my online home — but if you like the idea, I’d encourage you to link to this post or report it, discuss it with your friends, get the word out, tweet it up.

If there’s interest, we’ll take it from there…

13 Responses to “Francis and the world: poverty”

  1. Lexington Green Says:

    If the Catholic Church sold its cathedrals and let them be used as theme parks, casinos, whatever, would be better off?  Certainly it could sell some paintings, but it is a one time sale and it’s gone.  Is that really smart?  The personal austerity of the leaders could be done even if they served as stewards of priceless treasures.  As to the various commercial holdings of the church, transparency regarding what it has would be good, then management so that it produces a stream of revenue that can be used for charitable works.  If you sold it all off, as Francis flung aside the rich garments his father gave him, you get a one-time windfall of cash for the poor, then, nothing.  Is that really smart?  The gesture of liquidating the Vatican’s assets in a one time fire sale is not likely the best way to be a steward of those assets for the poor.  An austere life, dispensing with trappings of power, personal closeness to the poor, are all things that the leadership could do without making an ultimately destructive, if temporarily attractive, gesture.


  2. J.ScottShipman Says:

    A story attributed to St. Francis of Assisi on meeting the Pope. The Pope showed St Francis all of the silver and gold amassed, and Assisi acknowledged by reminding the Pope the Church was no longer “taking” the poor by the hand. Here is the reference from Acts:
    Now Peter and John went up together into the temple at the hour of prayer, being the ninth hour.

    2 And a certain man lame from his mother’s womb was carried, whom they laid daily at the gate of the temple which is called Beautiful, to ask alms of them that entered into the temple;

    3 Who seeing Peter and John about to go into the temple asked an alms.

    4 And Peter, fastening his eyes upon him with John, said, Look on us.

    5 And he gave heed unto them, expecting to receive something of them.

    6 Then Peter said, Silver and gold have I none; but such as I have give I thee: In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth rise up and walk.

    7 And he took him by the right hand, and lifted him up: and immediately his feet and ankle bones received strength.

    8 And he leaping up stood, and walked, and entered with them into the temple, walking, and leaping, and praising God.
    For both rich and poor, the state of the soul matters more than stuff. The poor, like the rich, need the Gospel. I suspect Pope Francis will act accordingly.

  3. Charles Cameron Says:

    [ Scott’s post arrived while I was responding here to Lex ]
    Is my writing really that obscure, Lex?
    I am decidedly not advocating a fire sale of anything.  I am suggesting that a large (and largely unthinking) part of the public thinks “Hey, the Church is rich — why don’t they just sell everything off and feed the poor.”  I think that selling what one possesses and feeding the poor is undeniably something that Christ spoke of.  And I think that while St Francis may have done just that, an institution what has sacraments to administer, education to deliver, hospitals to staff and much else besides is a very, very different matter.
    I am suggesting that it might be worth while to give some considered attention to the question of what would be disastrous and what would be helpful in that regard. And that a “round table” of bright and diverse people, roughly along the lines of the Afghan round table of a few years back, might be very productive in terms of ideas and understandings. Which in turn might be of benefit to the Church and the poor.  And which would be an example of the kind of multi-disciplinary discussion we need to have on dozens of other topics of considerable importance to the world we live in and our children will inherit.

  4. Mr. X Says:

    Given Cyprus as a test case for our own future bank accounts/IRAs/401ks getting plundered here in the land of It Can’t Happen Here, we should all contemplate what poverty could mean.

  5. Mr. X Says:


    This is my response too to those who criticize the Russian Orthodox Church over too much allegedly being spent on Christ the Savior Cathedral and other symbols of its post-Soviet revival.

    Would it be better off if Patriarch Kirill lived under a bridge? is the ‘lavish’ apartment he lives in downtown Moscow really registered under his name, anymore than Pope Francis owns his Vatican apartment? And was that expensive watch the Patriarch’s employee foolishly airbrushed off his wrist a gift? Should it have been sold and the proceeds donated to the poor? We all know of an episode in the New Testament when a person suggested as much, and he was acting with bad motives (which is not to say everyone who suggests more personal humility from the Patriarch would be in order is Judas).

    In fact, my gut feeling is that the expensive watch was a gift from none other than Vladimir Yakunin, head of Russian Railways. Which in a roundabout way means that the American taxpayer, at least via the Northern Supply Route to Afghanistan of NATO materiel, partially funded said watch in so far as Yakunin’s personal fortune is tied in with RR.

    I would certainly pray though for a Patriarch who cannot be remotely tied to the ‘KGB’ due to his age to succeed Kirill when the Lord should decide to take him. But then again the Church’s professional critics will simply move on to another angle of attack, and still insist it is far too close to the Russian State. Which is certainly their right. I simply think a revival of some Byzantine traditions is badly needed in Russia particularly if the State is to weed out the worst bribe takers and actors.

  6. Lexington Green Says:

    “…some considered attention to the question of what would be disastrous and what would be helpful in that regard…”  It is certainly possible that Francis will undertake something along these lines.  It may even be a good idea.  Whether he will convene a roundtable or something like it is unknowable.  St. Francis himself, knowing that radical poverty, of the sort he lived, was incompatible with an order that had to carry on and preach and teach and have a communal identity.  Going to sleep each night with not a cent to your name and trusting Christ to provide is possible personal choice, but not an institutional one.  The problem with the Church today is not that it has too much wealth or too many art treasures, but that it is opaque, and perceived as corrupt and top-heavy and its leaders do not seem very Christ-like.  I hope Francis can change both the substance and the perception.  (And I was not sure what you were advocating — perhaps I did not read carefully enough.)

  7. zen Says:

    I am suggesting that a large (and largely unthinking) part of the public thinks “Hey, the Church is rich — why don’t they just sell everything off and feed the poor.” 
    The poor will always be with us. Unique historical sites, once destroyed or dismantled, will not.
    I am not the greatest expert on Christian scripture, but I recall from Sunday school a passage where Christ rebukes an apostle who has chastised a woman for pouring an expensive perfume (or perfumed oil, most likely) over Jesus rather than selling it and giving the proceeds to the poor. The Roman Curia is unlikely to have a garage sale featuring relics, antiquities and paintings by the great masters – though this is an old idea.

  8. Charles Cameron Says:

    I think Lex gets my point when he writes:

    Going to sleep each night with not a cent to your name and trusting Christ to provide is possible personal choice, but not an institutional one.  

    Likewise, I think Zen hits my target when he says:

    The poor will always be with us. Unique historical sites, once destroyed or dismantled, will not.

    And similarly, Scott, when he says:

    For both rich and poor, the state of the soul matters more than stuff. The poor, like the rich, need the Gospel. I suspect Pope Francis will act accordingly.

    Those would be my starting points.
    My own next question is: what would the parameters of choice for this institution be, should it wish to act wisely in a “Franciscan” spirit — in a manner that was institutionally appropriate?  
    I think it’s an important issue, because the perception of “business as usual” will not (IMO) serve the church’s purposes, nor benefit the poor.  And I think it’s the sort of issue that would make for a fine “distributed forum” discussion — the sort of multi-party conversation we need to get good at as a society if we are to tackle the many problems of a complexly interwoven world.
    I said that I imagined the Vatican or the Jesuits would have some of their own brighter spirits thinking about this sort of thing, but what I was proposing was a little different – an independent round-table here in the blogosphere.  
    I watched Zen and friends pull off an amazing feat in going from blog discussions to book in what Pundita called “Think Tank 2.0”, and similar fine group discussions of nuclear weapons, of Afghanistan 2050 and of Clausewitz more recently — and I guess ever since I joined Howard Rheingold’s Brainstorms almost fifteen years ago, I’ve been wanting to see a sort of informal think tank, not tied nor indebted to any one party or other affiliation, grow as the “next step” in networked thinking.  I tried to encourage that sort of cross-blog interaction while I was with SocialEdge, and I’m still trying.
    The story of the woman pouring ointment over Christ’s feet is a personal favorite of mine (John 12.2-8):

    Then took Mary a pound of ointment of spikenard, very costly, and anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped his feet with her hair: and the house was filled with the odour of the ointment. Then saith one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, which should betray him, Why was not this ointment sold for three hundred pence, and given to the poor? This he said, not that he cared for the poor; but because he was a thief, and had the bag, and bare what was put therein. Then said Jesus, Let her alone: against the day of my burying hath she kept this. For the poor always ye have with you; but me ye have not always.

    I should have included it in my original post. My thanks to Zen for reminding me…

  9. Ralph H. Says:

    As long as we’re doing business analytics on the Vatican, it’s long been obvious what they need to do to grow market share:  abandon some non-scriptural doctrine.  Demote clerical celibacy & exclusion of women from the priesthood to the status of non-binding tradition, abandon the notion that contraception and non-procreative sex is sin, and accept the scientific evidence that homosexuals are as God made them.  At a stroke you would bring back into the Church millions of fallen-away Catholics — a revenue stream that would do so much more for the Pope’s beloved poor.

  10. Anthony Judge Says:

    For an excellent analysis of the dubious realities behind the current  poverty signals of Pope Francis, read George Monbiot (Cardinal Sins) 

  11. Charles Cameron Says:

    Thanks for joining us, Anthony — as you know, I have a very high regard for your work.
    George Monbiot’s picture pf Pope Francis is certainly unflattering:

    Pope Francis knew what poverty and oppression looked like: several times a year he celebrated mass in Buenos Aires’s 21-24 slum. Yet, as leader of the Jesuits in Argentina, he denounced liberation theology, and insisted that the priests seeking to defend and mobilise the poor remove themselves from the slums, shutting down their political activity.
    He now maintains that he “would like a church that is poor and is for the poor.” But does this mean giving food to the poor, or does it mean also asking why they are poor? The dictatorships of Latin America waged a war against the poor, which continued in many places after those governments collapsed. Different factions of the Catholic Church took opposing sides in this war. Whatever the stated intentions of those who attacked and suppressed liberation theology, in practical terms they were the allies of tyrants, land-grabbers, debt slavers and death squads. For all his ostentatious humility, Pope Francis was on the wrong side.

    Against that, I would set these paragraphs from the Guardian’s consideration of the same question:

    For some with impeccable human-rights credentials, such as Argentina’s 1980 Nobel peace prize-winner Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, himself a victim of the dictatorship, who was tortured and held without trial for 14 months in 1977, Bergoglio is stainless. “There were bishops who were accomplices, but not Bergoglio,” he says. “There is no link relating him to the dictatorship.”
    Pérez Esquivel is certainly right regarding the charge of collaboration. There were bishops and priests who sided openly with the dictatorship; Bergoglio was not among them. As a matter of fact, with his ascension to the throne of Rome, various witnesses have started coming forward to paint a formerly unseen picture of Bergoglio moving secretly behind the scenes to rescue a number of priests whose lives were in danger from the military death squads that began roaming Argentina.
    “I was the exact prototype of what used to be called “third world” priests,” says Miguel La Civita, who in 1976 was a close collaborator of Bishop Enrique Angelelli, murdered by the dictatorship for his work organising the poor into labour unions and manufacturing cooperatives in the northern province of La Rioja. “After Angelelli’s murder, Bergoglio put us under his protection,” La Civita says. He claims Bergoglio was secretly active “helping people who were persecuted by the military”, hiding them at the school he headed in Buenos Aires.

    I’ll leave it at that.
    I’m hopeful. Let’s see what Pope Francis manages to accomplish…

  12. Mr. X Says:

    Charles, yes the story of the woman who poured perfume on Jesus during his Passion Week is very prominent, as much in the Orthodox Church as well as in the Catholic Church, not only because it is the moment Orthodox priests say the devil entered Judas into accepting the thirty pieces of silver to betray Jesus (as expressed in the Holy Tuesday, but also the deeper meaning that it was the moment Jesus accepted the perfume in preparation for His burial — the ‘trampling down death by death’ of the Paschal troparia, or what Catholics call ‘He descended into Hell’. That is the reference of course to Christ liberating many Old Testament figures who had sat in a kind of purgatory like state awaiting the One promised by the Old Testament prophets. There is an Orthodox book called Christ the Conqueror of Hell which goes into greater exegesis on this subject and the reference in 2nd Peter to it. The Orthodox would say the perfume that was poured on Jesus is commemorated too at every Divine Liturgy when the priest spreads the incense among the parishioners who cross themselves in recognition of the sweet smell of holiness that Christ conveys. Among the Greek Orthodox, the soldier-saint Demetrios from the Eastern (Greek speaking) Roman Empire is known as the Myrh Bearer because his body did not decay upon being opened many months after his martyrdom, but released a sweet Myrh-like smell. The Sunday of the Myrh Bearing Women also follows Pascha to cap the Bright Week following Easter.

  13. zen Says:

    I would like to add, that whatever motivations that some of the liberation theology priests had, not all of them were admirable characters or victims of right-wing repression. Some were brutal thugs in their own right and intellectual courtiers to Marxist dictatorships

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