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"The Single Divine Plan": Thinking About Poverty | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | Ignatius Insight | December 17, 2008

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"We all share a single divine plan: we are called to form one family in which all—individuals, peoples and nations—model their behavior according to the principles of fraternity and responsibility." — Benedict XVI, "Fighting Poverty to Build Peace," Message for 2009 World Day of Peace, December 8, 2008.

"Certainly we cannot 'build' the Kingdom of God by our own efforts—what we build will always be the kingdom of man with all the limitations proper to our human nature. The Kingdom of God is a gift, and precisely because of this, it is great and beautiful, and constitutes the response to our hope. And we cannot—to use the classical expression—'merit' Heaven through our works. Heaven is always more than we could merit, just as being loved is never something 'merited,' but always a gift. However ... it will always be true that our behavior is not indifferent before God and therefore not indifferent to the unfolding of history." — Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi, #35.

"The future pope's 1985 paper insists that it is mere moralizing, not morality, to dismiss what economics has learned about the market mechanism. But economics cannot find a remedy for the imagination of an evil heart, or a foolish one, for that matter. Ethics founded on religion are the precondition for long-term economic success...." — Spengler, "Benedict XVI Is Magnificently Right", Asia Times, December 9, 2008.


Benedict XVI's 2009 World Day of Peace Message is couched in military terms. "The end of war is peace," Aristotle used to say. Hobbes proposed solving potential war problems that arose out of conflicting ideas and religions by keeping the citizens busy in economic activities and threatening violent death to those who bothered about higher things. But here, in the Pope's message, we are "fighting." "Fighting what?" we ask. We are "fighting," of all things, "poverty," which logically does not have too many arms. This is a very elusive target. Why are we "fighting poverty?" Evidently, to achieve "peace." "Is peace, then," we wonder, "dependent on riches?

The assumption here seems to be that poverty causes wars. Aristotle had said that some men steal because they are hungry. But the real danger comes from those pursuing pleasure or, even worse, those pursuing philosophy of sorts. Economics could deal with the first, but not with the latter two. When we "solve" the problem of poverty, we do not solve the problem of war. It has other roots, more disturbing ones, in the human spirit. We, in fact, may make war more likely, if we are to believe Aristotle, if we unwisely change regimes. Most poor people are not war-like; not a few rich ones are.

In Plato's nomenclature, the economic classes and the military classes had different tasks. Indeed, the military classes arose out of excessive desire in which un-virtuous producers desired more and more of other people's goods. The military was to protect what the economic classes had produced or to take what more they needed from neighbors, by fighting presumably. If one knows human nature, it is not likely that a minimum of civic peace is possible without police and army protecting the basic institutions from those who would destroy them. Many of the worst regimes in history were allowed by those who did not want to admit that they had enemies.

In the Epilogue of A Guide for the Perplexed, E. F. Schumacher remarked that economics is a "solved" problem. We know how to solve the problem of poverty. We just have to apply what we know about markets, justice, innovation, exchange, production, laws, honesty, and profit. The poverty problem, as we know it, is not really economic, but political. There are those in power in poor countries who will not do what it necessary and known to help. This is why knowing human nature is a prerequisite to knowing whether our knowledge of how to solve poverty issues will actually be allowed and will be used.

This latter political problem can never be solved once and for all. It will keep recurring because neither virtue nor knowledge is hereditary. Yet, in the contemporary world, the claim to "solve" poverty problems is almost the spiritual origin of all ideology which claims to have "the" solution if only we apply, by choice or by force, their formula to the social order. The experience of the modern world, however, is that such ideology, under apparently good intentions, rapidly passes into tyranny, much to the mystification of those who would solve all our problems. Indeed, one of the substitutes for God in the modern world is a "vision" of eliminating poverty that is used as justification for dominance.

It has been the custom on January 1st of each year for the Roman pontiff to issue a well-prepared message on the New Year, always directed to world peace. Within the general orbit of peace, various themes are taken up. Christianity is perennially concerned with the poor. This concern, Nietzsche thought, was a sign of weakness; indeed he believed it fostered it. There is something paradoxical here. A rather fine line exists between being "concerned" with the poor and yet knowing little or nothing about how to make them not to be poor. Many efforts designed to assist the poor only make them poorer, or, more often, dependent on a force that is all too dubious in intent. The history of political welfare movements makes a sober read in this regard.

In principle, nothing is wrong with being poor rather than rich. Aristotle wisely said that most folks need some property, some material goods, to practice virtue. When Christ said "the poor you always have with you," he was quite right. Perceptions of poverty and actual poverty, moreover, are not the same. If my neighbor is worth, say, fifty million dollars and I am worth one hundred thousand, I see myself to be relatively poor. I may still have everything I really need and may not want to have more than I do. I know those who are poorer than I who may even envy what I have.

The poor, the rich, and all in-between, moreover, can save their souls. Indeed, some dispute arises about who is more likely to lose their soul, the poor or the rich. The general consensus is that it is the rich whose path in this vale of tears is the more salvifically troublesome. Christianity came into the world to offer salvation to all, rich and poor, but its purpose was not to teach us economics or politics, though, indirectly, it might shed some light on both disciplines and practices. We could figure out economics and politics pretty much by ourselves, as Aristotle taught us.


On first reading, Benedict XVI's latest message seems full of sociological jargon—"gaps," globalization, marginalization, development, human ecology, disarmament, solidarity, redistributionism. I did not see "consumerism," a term almost as variable as "rights" or "values." The term "right to life" is there. I was prepared at first to write this document off as ghost written by some U. N. attached Vatican diplomat. Many an ideologue thinks we can solve the "global" problems if only we increase population control, restrict markets, impose rights everywhere, eliminate national sovereignty, and put everything under the world courts. All of this is the nightmare specter of a world state from which there is no escape. Of course, the Pope will have none of this. Still, except for an occasional mention of "state," the message was almost devoid of any reference to politics. Politics is something that Benedict is usually quite perceptive about.

But as I read this document certain things began to stick out. This document is something of a sleeper. We read, in section two: "In so-called 'poor' societies, economic growth is often hampered by cultural impediments which lead to inefficient use of available resources." This was Schumacher's point. Not infrequently, the resources, both human and natural, of poor societies are vast. What is lacking is both know-how and will, often virtue. Not infrequently religious or cultural practices skewer reasonable growth. In this context then, Benedict adds that respect for the "transcendent dignity of the human person" is what indicates the basis of how to approach poverty. The Pope is not a multi-culturalist; this principle is addressed to every "culture" on the basis of reason.

This World Day of Peace Message pays very close attention to the demographic question. This issue, "over-population," is one of the great justifications of complete political and moral control over individual nations and all mankind. Spengler, continuing his comment on Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger's 1985 lecture, writes:
Underlying the crisis is the Western world's repudiation of life, through a hedonism that puts consumption or "self-realization" ahead of child-rearing. The developed world is shifting from a demographic profile in which the very young (children four years and under) outnumbered the elderly (65 and older), to a profile with 10 times as many retirees as children aged four or younger. Economics simply never has had to confront a situation in which the next generation simply failed to turn up.
It can be argued that the coming problem is really "under—not "over"—population. In this light, Pope Ratzinger in the World Peace Message simply points out matter-of-factly that poor people have made economic advances.
The extermination of millions of unborn children, in the name of the fight against poverty, actually constitutes the destruction of the poorest of all human beings. And yet it remains the case that in 1981, around 40% of the world's population was below the threshold of absolute poverty, while today that percentage has been reduced by as much as a half, and whole peoples have escaped from poverty despite experiencing substantial demographic growth. This goes to show that resources to solve the problem of poverty do exist, even in the face of an increasing population (#3).
In other words, killing off a good percentage of the next generation is a formula for a rapidly aging population who must find needed labor outside its own society even for themselves to survive a little longer. In principle, economic growth and population are not at loggerheads. This is what my 1971 book Human Dignity & Human Numbers was about.

After speaking of child poverty, disarmament, the food crisis, and a common code of ethics, Benedict turns his attention to international commerce. He notes its rapid growth since the Second World War. He points out what seems obvious, that the primary path for poor countries to become richer is through their participation in trade. He notes that poor countries are sometimes closed out of this trade through what are in effect political decisions. This issue not only has to do with trade but with capital and investment. We can suddenly see that any serious downturn in the world's economic system is not only a problem for the rich countries but for the poor ones.

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What comes next in this relatively brief (eight single-spaced pages) Message is remarkable. Ever since John XXIII's Pacem in Terris, (if not the writings of Leo XIII, Pius XI, and Pius XII), the need has been clear of a legal framework in which laws and reliable courts of justice made available the instruments by which commerce and production could operate. A good deal of the burdens on all economies, moreover, comes from crime. The Pope notes this, though it deserves special and detailed treatment, as the example of the drug "trade" in all of Latin America and the world makes clear. It is ironic that one of the "growth" industries is the drug traffic with all its slaughter and corruption, before which even the most determined governments seem often helpless. This is true because the demand for such drugs comes from many, many people who do not discipline their own lives.

The Pope next says something very surprising. "It cannot be denied that policies which place too much emphasis on assistance underlie many of the failures in providing aid to poor countries" (#11). A statement like this comes very rarely from a religious leader. Religion, especially Christianity, has almost a vested interest in "giving" aid without inquiring about the consequences of the aid given. Here we have a Pope telling us, paradoxically, that failures to aid to the poor come from aid. The reason for this problem is that often outside aid, no matter how generously given, undermines local efforts and prices designed to develop local businesses. Like welfare, it conditions people to depend on someone else's help so that eventually no one can help himself or learn how to do so.

What is the right approach? "Investing in the formation of people and developing a specific and well-integrated culture of enterprise would seem at present to be the right approach in the medium and long term." One of the lessons of modern economic growth is that almost anyone in the world can learn it if allowed and encouraged and taught to do so. Another lesson is that nations that once learned it can also forget or become too soft or corrupt to do the work necessary to sustain it. For some time, it has been quite obvious, as Schumacher already said in 1977, that the economic problem is solved. So is the problem of making an automobile.

The lesson of the automobile, as we see every day, is that someone else can learn to do it better and cheaper than we can. In itself, this is a positive thing. We have no "right" to produce inferior things. We can respond by tariff and taxes to force our own people to buy more expensive and less well designed cars. But this avenue just means fostering inefficiency both for ourselves and for others. The use of the phrase "medium and long term," in the Pope's sentence, means that it does take time to train and develop peoples through education and experience, but not that long.


The Pope's next point is even more unexpected. "If economic activities require a favorable context in order to develop, this must not distract attention from the need to generate revenue." That is, people need money. But money is not just something given to us, but something earned. The best way to destroy a man is simply to give him money with no obligation on his part of producing something that earns it.

Catholic social thought has long insisted on the dignity of work, often, it seemed, for its own sake, as if what we produced with the work did not matter. But if I read Genesis correctly, the work by the sweat of our brow, in all its forms, was to be on things that we would not otherwise have unless we figured out a way to have them and then went to the trouble of producing and exchanging them.

The Pope continues with this theme: "While it has been rightly emphasized that increasing per capita income cannot be the ultimate goal of political and economic activity, it is still an important means of attaining the objective of the fight against hunger and absolute poverty." We are also beings who have material needs that must be met in order that we come to be what we are intended to be. These basic needs are not in principle "selfish." They are simply an acknowledgement of what we are. My own understanding of the economy is that economic growth, in which the total amounts of goods and services increases, is the best way to help the poor everywhere. It creates a demand for them to join the economy where they are not "cared for" or "given" what they need, but where they "earn" their living.

Too many people think they are doing what they ought by "giving" to the poor, rather than by making it possible for the poor to provide for themselves. Know-how, no doubt, is a better form of gift. The first way, as the Pope implied, often crushes the poor and makes them utterly dependent. The real problem of modern economies is not, as it is often said, even by the popes, the "increasing gap between rich and poor," but the failure of the whole economy coherently to grow.

One of the principal causes of this growth is a constant stream of new life into the world. This is something, interestingly, that both Locke and Rousseau understood. There will always be changes in the actual persons who are rich, poor, or middle class. But if we took all the riches from the rich (something tax laws sometimes seem bent on doing) and distribute it to the poor, the net effect would be to make everyone poor. It would kill any incentive whereby the things we need are produced and distributed by those who invent or develop ways to do it.

The Pope quite clearly recognizes what is at stake. We have heard a lot of this "redistribution" solution posed of late. This is what Benedict says: "The illusion that a policy of mere redistribution of existing wealth can definitively resolve the problem (of poverty) must be set aside." (See my essay, "Redistributionism", First Principles Journal, November 10, 2008). The point is that "existing wealth" is not enough. What is needed is not a static concept of an unchanging pie, but one of a growing amount. We are to "increase and multiply" precisely so that we will develop ourselves and the world in the process.

Benedict has it right: "In a modern economy, the value of assets is utterly dependent on the capacity to generate revenue in the present and the future. Wealth creation therefore becomes an inescapable duty, which must be kept in mind if the fight against material poverty is to be effective in the long term." The lessons of the current recession seem to suggest that it is the neglect of actual growth in a context of work and not speculation for its own sake that is the problem. We hear a lot about greed and excessive profits, but too little about those ideas and patents and inventions that actually improve human existence by providing ways for everyone to participate in the economy.

The true wealth of the world is not in things, but in the mind of man that knows and in the enterprise of man that goes to the effort to make something happen and to the polities of man that provide a context of law and exchange wherein these things can happen. If there is any priority to the poor, it is that priority that enables them not to be poor. If we do not know what this latter means, we will not help the poor in spite of our good will or political ideologies. "Good development policies depend for their effectiveness on responsible implementation by human agents and on the creation of positive partnership between markets, civil society and States" (#12). It is in the "civil society," not the state apparatus, where most of the really innovative and human exchanges take place, which the background of the state makes possible.

Benedict also provides another caution, which both surprised and delighted me. The term "globalization," which the Pope himself uses, has itself become a kind of ill-defined buzz word that can mean almost anything from totalitarian control of the world through ecology or politics to a sort of fascination with the inter-connectedness of things on this small planet that somehow holds so many of us. Benedict cites John Paul II, who had already said that the term globalization is "notably ambivalent." Benedict adds that the term must be used with "great prudence" (#13).

At this point, the Pope returns to the more spiritual issues that poverty brings up. "We often consider only the superficial and instrumental causes of poverty without attending to those harbored within the human heart, like greed and narrow vision. The problems of development, aid and international cooperation are sometimes addressed without any real attention to the human element, but as merely technical questions—limited, that is, to establishing structures, setting up trade agreements and allocating funding impersonally." Much modern social thought seems to maintain, in the heritage of Rousseau, that structures are the whole problem. Aristotle had it right, as did Plato. Structures are important, but the real problems initiate in the human heart.

The Pope finally returns to a theme that is found in the last part of Deus Caritas Est: "What the fight against poverty really needs are men and women who live in a profoundly fraternal way and are able to accompany individuals, families and communities on journeys of authentic human development." One of the unique things about Benedict is the attention he pays to the inadequacy of bureaucracy and the need of personal attention. This is generally not something that government can supply and one of the additions that Christian revelation teaches politics in its own order.


In the beginning of these reflections I cited a passage from Spe Salvi to the effect that the Kingdom of God is not something that we can build by ourselves, as our ideology insists on thinking. It is initially a gift. Modern political and social theories want to reject this "gift" nature of our destiny as alienating. They seek to accomplish the end of final happiness, the Aristotelian heritage, by human efforts in this world.

As the Pope spells out in this same Encyclical, this inner-worldly definition of happiness is a terrible destiny, a lowering of our sights, and an exclusion of our true destiny beyond this world. But we live in this world and work out our salvation here. The issue of poverty always makes visible to us both the enormous resources in our minds and in our world that are available to us if we would both learn to use them properly and will to sacrifice ourselves to do so.

This world is an abundant place, remarkably so. That it has seven billion minds working within it and on it to keep us in dignity while we are here is the other side of the material abundance, which needs us so that it fulfill its own destiny. The Pope's 2009 World Day of Peace Message "fights" poverty by explaining to us, not its horrors, nor its inevitability. Rather, Benedict is interested in what is available for us to make the lives of most people livable through their own efforts to do something worthwhile for themselves and others. But when all the economic side of poverty considered, such a thing as "spiritual" poverty still exists. This is something Mother Teresa spoke of, as does Benedict. The very poorest are those who lack not goods, but who lack God.

Aristotle had already pointed out that the polity at its best was ordained to leisure, which in turn was concerned with those higher questions of what it is we are and what we are about. It is concerned with our origins, our meaning, with death, and hope. Once poverty has been "fought," to use Benedict's term, then what? This quandary is why he talks of a "journey to ultimate human development." Plato had it right, really. Economics only brings us to the threshold of the human—and the human city, in its turn, only brings us to the city in speech. It was Augustine who brought us finally to the "City of God" But it was also Augustine who told us that the effect of revelation was not just a kind of waiting till the end, but an active help of our neighbors, all of whom have the same ultimate destiny, rich or poor, intelligent or simple.

"Economics cannot find a remedy for the imagination of an evil heart, or of a foolish one, for that matter." Not all our problems are economic ones. Indeed, the greatest ones are, as Aristotle said, in the minds of the philosophers who seek to construct their own world apart from what is and impose it on the rest of us. At bottom, in this Message, Benedict shows that he knows a good bit about economics. But in other writings, by far the greater part of his work, that he knows of metaphysics and theology, of what goes on the heart of man. He knows what God has sent into the world to deal with it in its faults and to lead it to its divine destiny. This latter too, as he shows in his book, Jesus of Nazareth, has something to do with our lot, even our economic lot, in this world, and beyond it.

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Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University.

He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture, and literature including Another Sort of Learning, Idylls and Rambles, A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning, The Life of the Mind (ISI, 2006), The Sum Total of Human Happiness (St. Augustine's Press, 2007), and The Regensburg Lecture (St. Augustine's Press, 2007). His most recent book from Ignatius Press is The Order of Things (Ignatius Press, 2007). His new book, The Mind That Is Catholic: Philosophical and Political Essays, is now available from The Catholic University Press. Read more of his essays on his website.

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