Justice Perspective: Poverty and sinful structures

Wed, Feb 19th 2014 10:00 am
Deacon Don Weigel
Deacon Don Weigel

Back in November 2013, Pope Francis released an "Apostolic Exhortation" called "Evangelii Gaudium," "The Joy of the Gospel." It is as wide in scope as it is daunting in length. As a PDF from the Vatican site, it runs more than 200 pages. This has, I am sure, scared many away from even beginning to read it.

But it is very much worth the effort to go through and read what the pope actually said, and not just what was reported. Much has been made in both the religious press and the secular press about Pope Francis' views, particularly with regard to economics, poverty and social ills. In fact, the majority of attention to "The Joy of the Gospel" is focused exactly on those issues, even though the document really has a lot to say about many other things as well.

Maybe the focus on economics shows us just how tied we are to money and possessions, especially in the United States. This is what the pope means when he talks about the "idolatry of money." And in modern times, this idolatry has not just been the sin of the wealthy few, but has become imbedded in our entire culture.

Whenever the pope talks about the poor, poverty, the need for wealth sharing, and other economic topics, there is a predictable response from some circles that decry his statements as "socialist" or "Marxist," or, probably most demeaning, as "too idealistic." Catholic social teaching, as so plainly explained by Pope Francis, has always focused not just on the individual who is poor, but on the systems and structures that create and maintain poverty, and perhaps that is what is most challenging.

This quote from "The Joy of the Gospel" says it so well: "The need to resolve the structural causes of poverty cannot be delayed ... Welfare projects, which meet certain urgent needs, should be considered merely temporary responses. As long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation and by attacking the structural causes of inequality, no solution will be found for the world's problems or, for that matter, to any problems. Inequality is the root of social ills."

Some try to diminish the pope's observation by stating that there is no "absolute autonomy of markets," and while it is true that every economy has rules and laws that regulate business and markets, is there any question that the structures of our economy are tilted in favor of those on top? These are examples of "structural causes" of poverty and inequality that need to be "radically resolved." Charity efforts like "welfare" and food pantries are only temporary solutions; the structures themselves must be reformed to create true justice.

One result of "The Joy of the Gospel" is that the idea of "structural sin" is once again being discussed. It is not only people who are sinful, but entire structures and social orders can be sinful to the extent that they diminish human dignity, marginalize individuals or groups, and deprive people of their due as members of the human family.

How our economic structures must change in order to be in line with Gospel values is a conversation that we should have in our parishes and in our public forums. But the fact is that they must change in order to address the idolatry of money and the structural causes of poverty and bring people into solidarity with one another.

Deacon Don Weigel is the associate public policy coordinator at Catholic Charities of Western New York and an instructor at Christ the King Seminary. He may be reached via email.  

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