David McLoughlin: A Response to Pope's call to be a Church for the Poor

David McLoughlin

David McLoughlin

Dr David McLoughlin, Senior Lecturer in Theology at Newman University gave the following lecture  at last Saturday's Justice and Peace AGM 2014 at CAFOD's offices in Southwark.

A Response to Pope Francis call to be a Church for the Poor

The Poor - “God’s heart has a special place for the poor, so much so that he himself 'became poor' (2 Cor. 8:9). The entire history of our redemption is marked by the presence of the poor. Salvation came to us from the 'yes' uttered by a lowly maiden from a small town on the fringes of a great empire.” (#197)

“Without the preferential option for the poor, ‘the proclamation of the Gospel, which is itself the prime form of charity, risks being misunderstood or submerged by the ocean of words which daily engulfs us in today’s society of mass communications’” (#199)

The “signs of the times” and an Economics of Exclusion

Francis drawing on the inspiration of Gaudium et Spes asks everyone to look at the signs of the times and simply points to the dire circumstances of so many of our brothers and sisters. He speaks of an economics of exclusion and suggests that “trickle down” theories of economic growth—where the profits of the rich will inevitably aid the situation of the poor—actually do not work. He doesn’t provide arguments for this and the American Christian right have gone for him on this calling him a Marxist. But he doesn’t need to argue it, as it has been done brilliantly in the recent work of the French Economist Thomas Piketty whose “Capital in the Twenty-first Century” in 577, for the most part, readable pages draws on empirical data from 30 countries to explore the 300 year history of the rise of capitalism. He shows a consistent pattern - returns to capital rise faster that economies can grow. In the midst of economic struggle the wealthier get wealthier and inequality will inevitably widen to the point of economic and political unsustainability unless some forms of redistribution of income and wealth are developed. Piketty and Francis need to chat.

Francis suggests a globalisation of indifference has emerged underpinning global economics. With a culture of prosperity that deadens us (EG 53). He suggests that the primacy of the person has been all too often replaced with an idolatry of money. And so while he is calling us all to be missionary through the call of our Baptism. He suggests that there must be a Social Dimension to Evangelization (EG 176-258) which is “universal and inclusive” and calls for a personal solidarity from all the baptised with the poor. At the forefront of true community is the Church’s special inclusion of the poor into her everyday life; and then comes the commitment to civil peace, and the social dialogue that makes such harmony possible. As Spirit-filled Evangelizers (EG 259-88), people of Pentecost, we are all called to receive the Spirit to become spirit bearers to all those who do not yet know themselves as “God’s people.” The mass of humanity who are still poor in so many ways.
In the process he makes clear the idea of church needs a certain de-constructing:

“I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting, and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined, and from clinging to its own security. I do not want a Church concerned with being at the centre, and then ends by being caught up in a web of obsessions and procedures. If something should rightly disturb us, and trouble our consciences, it is the fact that so many of our brothers and sisters are living without the strength, light, and consolation born of friendship with Jesus Christ, without a community of faith to support them, without meaning, and a goal in life. More than by fear of going astray, my hope is that we will be moved by the fear of remaining shut up within structures which give us a false sense of security, within rules which make us harsh judges, within habits which make us feel safe, while at our door people are starving, and Jesus does not tire of saying to us: “Give them something to eat” (Mk 6:37; EG 49).

This notion of a “bruised and dirty Church” a messy church has provoked serious opposition from the American Christian right: with the vitriolic blogger, Rush Limbaugh calling Evangelii Gaudium “pure Marxism” (see Rush’s website for November 27, 2013)

Christian tradition has never upheld the right to private ownership as absolute and untouchable. It has always understood this right within the broader context of the right, common to all, to use the goods of the whole of creation: the right to private property is subordinated to the right of common use, to the fact that goods are meant for everyone.

John Paul II (in his Laborem Exercens 14) maintains that we are never pure possessors of God’s good creation, but partakers only, and, thus, even what we may think we “own” is still ultimately God’s. And, Pope Benedict (in his Caritas in Veritate 42) has called us all to see that globalization enables new possibilities for richer countries to be more attentive to the needs of poorer countries. So, much of what Pope Francis is doing in Evangelii Gaudium is continuing the same Catholic social teaching upheld by Popes Benedict XVI and John Paul II, reminding the world that profits are always to be subordinated to people, and that the bottom line is never to compromise human dignity or the common good. He calls for a “revolution of tenderness” (EG 88) and each Christian’s responsibility to recognize “the sacred grandeur of our neighbour, of finding God in every human being” (EG 92).

Private charity, however wonderful and holy it is, can never be enough.

“Solidarity” is a little worn and at times poorly understood, but it refers to something more than a few sporadic acts of generosity. It presumes the creation of a new mindset which thinks in terms of community and the priority of the life of all over the appropriation of goods by a few.” (EG 188)
The poor also need justice.

Renewed sense of the priority of the Kingdom : Evangelli Gaudium read in the light of Gaudium et Spes.

Francis is clearly drawing on themes from Gaudium et Spes, which in 3, 92 speaks of the Church’s role in the world as one of service, in particular the service of unity among all peoples. The perspective is outward looking and the Church is seen as working alongside others to build a better world. In doing this the Church points, in the middle of strife and struggle, to the Kingdom inaugurated in Christ but still coming. In the pursuit of this, alongside its commitment to proclaim the Gospel and celebrate the sacraments, the Church is called to a diakonia that includes the struggle for a new social order. The understanding here is that the kingdom is transformative of all reality and the Church is to serve this transformation.
Elsewhere in Lumen Gentium (5) and Gaudium et Spes (45) the Church is placed in a clear relation of subordination to the Kingdom:

Whether it aids the world or whether it benefits from it the Church has but one sole purpose – that the Kingdom of God may come and the salvation of the human race be accomplished. (GS 45)

Any simple identification leads precisely to that triumphalistic model of the Church which the Council rejected. Karl Rahner sharpened this tension:

The Kingdom of God itself is coming to be in the history of the world (not only in that of the Church) whenever obedience to God occurs in grace as the acceptance of God’s self-communication…. For [of] this Kingdom of God in the World, which of course can never simply be identified with any particular objective secular phenomenon, the Church is a part, because of course the Church itself is in the world and in its members makes world history. Above all, however, the Church is precisely its special fundamental sacrament, i.e., the eschatological and efficacious manifestation (sign) in redemptive history that in the unity, activity, fraternity, etc., of the world, the Kingdom of God is at hand.

Globalisation as Economic and as Human

This is a theme that has been addressed by Pope Francis and a number of his Jesuit brethren and in doing so they are drawing out a major theme of the Jewish and Christian scriptures. The Hebrew Bible opens with a universal vision of all earthlings (Adam plays on adamah the malleable rich ground of the great river deltas) as created in the image of God. Not just Kings as in Egypt but all the sons and daughters of Adam are imago dei (image of God). Jesus renews this universal insight in his metaphor of God as Abba and in his practice of recognising the truly human as capable of revealing the divine cf. the parables. Then in the resurrection, humanity is taken into the divine life itself such that human and divine cannot be separate ever again. So at the heart of Judaism and Christianity is a perception of the truly human as the locus of the presence of God.

At present we work with rather different universal perspectives. Economic globalisation is based on a perception of the human as homo consumptor. An artificial construct based on the subverting of previously held values as in moderation, saving, working to live and not vice versa. The gospel of consumerism deliberately creates false expectations and offers to satisfy them. Rifkin in his The End of Work reminded us that Coca Cola was originally designed as a mild analgesic. Cadler bought the patent from the Atlanta based pharmaceutical business and cleverly set in motion one of the most effective globalised consumerist movements with the words: “Only some people have headaches and only for some of the time; on the other hand there is something everyone has all the time: thirst”.

Globalised consumerism elevates competition as a given of the human order. This has the consequences we see daily in the shifting of business and factories from the developed world to the developing world, where labour is young, cheap and unprotected and where legislation on health and safety, on ecological and social issues, is virtually non-existent or merely rudimentary. In the process, human values are put to one side: democracy, human rights, equality. Where security lies in possession, then the threat to one’s possessions is a threat to one’s security and, indeed, identity. The dispossessed then themselves become a threat, as in migrants – economic, political and other.

But who can change this? Jon Sobrino, Francis’ brother Jesuit, proposes globalisation’s victims. Sobrino suggests that what has increased through the process of globalisation is not the included but the excluded. Here I’m reading Francis “economics of exclusion” through Sobrino. There is no easy, optimistic emergence of a one-world family but rather further cruel divisions between the haves and the have-nots. Although interestingly, the haves may be the young consumers of the new Peking, and the have-nots - the unmarried black mother on a Chicago ghetto estate in the midst of one of the wealthiest cities on the planet.

Sobrino, recognising that globalisation has a certain ambiguity, speaks in terms of the need for a principle of redemption that might turn the dynamic of globalisation into a beneficial salvific reality. Salvation in the scriptures comes from the mikroi, the little ones: a sterile old woman, the liberated slaves that become Israel, a marginal Jewish craft worker from a village that never appeared on a map. For Sobrino, “Weakness and littleness are at the heart of the dynamic of salvation: they are its bearers and not just its beneficiaries” (p.106). He draws on the theme of the suffering servant in whom fragility, poverty and victimhood coalesce in order that the servant can wipe away sin and bring salvation. Sobrino asks whether it might not be possible for the victims of globalisation to be its redemption. What is clear is that if these victims are not kept within the discussion there will not be a globalisation that respects human being as such. This it seesm to me is the implication of Piketty’s analysis too. Sobrino is exploring the possibility of a new theological insight: “since the servant of Yahweh has not been viewed historically as a present, collective and historical reality, while the salvation he brings to the world today has even less been considered in historical terms” (p.107). Only with the poor at the centre of concern and social organisation can we hope for a redeemed world. This is a t the core of Francis teaching.

For Sobrino the crucified peoples are today’s servants carrying the sin of the world, in part globalisation, on their shoulders. Echoing words of the late Archbishop Oscar Romero, he sees the victims as “the Pierced God”.

In this context the suffering servant is simultaneously the suffering people and Christ the liberator. It is not enough that the poor act as the judges of those who oppress them, they must also offer them salvation (Cf. Peter’s speech before the Sanhedrin in Acts 3:12f). Another brother Jesuit, Aloysius Pieris, develops the same theme in a 2001 article where he sees the mission of the powerless and rejected as alone able to save and free the rich and the strong. The first Jesuit ordained from Cameroon, M Veng, assassinated in 1995 has a similar message:

The Church of Africa, because it is African, has a mission to the universal Church. The Church of Africa is the pierced heart of Christ in this torn body of the universal church…through its poverty and humility it must remind its sister churches of the essentials of the Beatitudes and proclaim the good news of liberation to those who have succumbed to the temptation of power, wealth and domination.

However Francis knows well from his own youthful mistakes that this is not a simple process when we have contemporary examples of the leaders of the poor colluding with the very forces that destroy their people, as in African Bishops’ unwillingness to address the realistic use of condoms in the Aids crisis in their continent.
But in what way can the victim’s of globalisation be seen to have, or exercise, a dynamic or potential for redemption? Sobrino suggest three points of reflection: “truth, solidarity and the civilisation of poverty” (p.108). Which resonate well with Francis vision in chapter 4 of The Inclusion of the Poor in Society (186-216)


The logic of globalisation assumes that those who are saved are those with economic power. Scripture suggests, however, that it is the victim who summons to salvation, as in John’s crucified Christ who “draws all things to himself” (Jn. 12:32; 19:37). It was the assassination of Fr Rutilio Grande in El Salvador in 1977 that brought to the attention of the world the then unknown truth that catechists, workers, students and peasants were being brutalised, tortured and murdered on an horrendous scale. Rutilio Grande and many victims since have been “the light to the nations” (Is. 42:6; 49:6) condemning and unmasking the political lies that hid them.

So unmasking the truth and accepting it as truth is a first step (cf. Rom 1:18). Sobrino goes on:
A globalisation without truth – worse, contrary to truth – cannot humanise and, furthermore, cannot “globalise” but can only “exclude”. Lies and deceit deny the very reality of the situation. And so “Africa does not exist”: it has been excluded from reality by the counter-globalisation of silence. Lies and deceit also produce divisions and antagonism, and so Cuba cannot be a nation open to others: its way is blocked by the counter-globalisation of untruth. Lies and deceit are absolutely no help to making human values universal. (p.109)

Who will remember the stories of the victims, if not the Church?

For Sobrino this massive suffering of the innocent, which for its continuance depends on the collusion of the powers, whether they be of economics, politics, the media, or the academy, this collusion is the mysterium iniquitatis. And of course the victims are not all saints. The child victims of Congo without home and family become child soldiers and kill to eat.
Sobrino in opening up this line of thought is all too well aware that his fellow, North American, Catholic theologian Michel Novak sees the suffering servant elsewhere. Novak’s reading of Is. 53: 2-3 is somewhat different:

He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces…” I should like to apply this text to the modern business corporation, an excessively despised incarnation of the presence of God in this world.

I would like to come back to this idea of the Church as a truthful space in relation to the shared hearing of the word in the liturgy which Francis dedicates a whole section of Evangelii Gaudium to (58-88).


There is an image of globalisation in the Gospels in the eschatological banquet where all rich and poor will have a place. This is anticipated in Jesus’ own scandalous open table fellowship. This sense of shared fellowship cannot easily be seen writ large on the world stage. UN statistics show a growing discrepancy between the income and culture of rich and poor. The relative earnings of rich and poor were 30 to 1 in 1960, 60 to 1 in 1990 and 74 to 1 in 1997. A study by the World Institute for Development Economics Research at the United Nations University reports that the richest 1% of adults alone owned 40% of global assets in the year 2000. The three richest people in the world possess more financial assets than the lowest 48 nations combined. A report by Oxfam (Working for the Few, Published: 20 January 2014) claims that the 85 wealthiest individuals in the world have a combined wealth equal to that of the bottom 50% of the world's population, or about 3.5 billion people.

Solidarity involves mutual support among unequals such that the world becomes a home for all. This involves the experience of gift or grace which Jesus taught in his stories, and enacted in his healings and meals (and which Benedict emphasised in his Caritas in Veritate): We become human not just by “making” ourselves but by allowing ourselves to be “made” by others, as in the story of Oscar Schindler and the Jewish workers he saved from the holocaust. The Church bears witness to this dynamic of gift in its sacraments where we discover ourselves Christian by grace and not virtue.

The civilisation of poverty

Through its history of saints, of religious life, of communities of outreach and care the Church bears witness to a civilisation of poverty, in contrast to the civilisation of wealth. Here the Church, at its best, appears as a contrast society. The tramp has as much right to a place within the eucharistic assembly as the headmistress, the theologian or the Pope. This shift of perspective bears remembering and becomes necessary because of the growing global awareness of the lack of correlation of populations to necessary resources, and the clear message that the civilisation of wealth cannot guarantee its vision of life to all. Necessary also because the civilisation of wealth has not self evidently humanised peoples and nations.

“The poor,” Francis says, “have much to teach us…they know the suffering Christ. We need to let ourselves be evangelized by them.” (EG 198)

The often destructive dynamic of capital-wealth needs a different saving dynamic to supplant it. Such a dynamic will focus on the shared universal satisfaction of fundamental needs and the enabling of freedoms, personal and communal. It will not be stifled by the stimulated desire to possess the unnecessary when so many desperately need so little. The result would be a flourishing of a new human spirit at present stifled by the false stimulation of wants as needs.

What is at stake here is a more human globalisation. For Sobrino this will involve:

• the truth that summons the many
• the solidarity of mutual support among unequals
• the civilisation of poverty that brings humanisation with it

These principles while utopic are, Sobrino believes, already to be found naturally among the victims of the world. And they are being quite clearly advocated by Francis.

But where can ideas such as these be rehearsed, revisioned, renewed? I suggest that it is in the remembering that is at the heart of all Eucharist but sadly which has so often forgotten its cosmic and universal dimension in its all too parochial settings. “Blessed are those who are called to his supper” Francis reminds us that those who are called are all too often outside our Parish framework. Those who are called is a reference to all those who have gone before us and all those who are yet to come. Precisely not blessed are we – this little holy huddle of the just. In every Eucharist we are one with the victims of history, who are, primarily as Walter Benjamin reminds us, the makers of history, and our remembering of them alongside our remembering of the dangerous memory of Jesus, the victim, is the continuation of their redemption in history, as we refuse to allow their memory to be annihilated. Nothing is forgotten in the memory of God. In the Eucharist we weave new bonds of solidarity across time and place.

Within the Eucharist we try to grasp the ever-changing moment in a wider horizon of shared significant memories. We remember the exodus of the Hebrew migrant workers from oppression in Egypt to freedom in a new land. We recall the words of the prophets, renaming the memory and rekindling its vision of freedom for all the powerless: the widow the orphan and the stranger. We celebrate the life and dying and rising of Jesus, spelling out that freedom in one human life, and the coming of the Spirit to enable the struggle for life, for freedom and dignity to continue. How we remember all this reflects our understanding of life’s meaning. If time is only equal instants expressing eternity in traditional formal liturgy, then all time is equal and history is going nowhere, history is meaningless. But Francis suggests a different model of time as a creative horizon opening before us. (EG 222)

In George Orwell’s terrifying vision of the future, 1984, the slogan of the Party, which controls everyone and everything, is:

Who controls the past controls the future:
who controls the present controls the past.

With no developed sense of memory we are helpless before the forces of domination, we lose any sense of solidarity and of the possibilities of collective social transformation for ourselves, for those who come after us, but also for the victims who went before. Francis calls us to remember who we are, to remember how we have been touched by Jesus word and life.
It is narrative, the significant stories we tell again and again, which enable us to find meaning in time. In Eucharist we bring our remembrance of our time and the remembrance of the story of God in Christ together. In this dual remembering, his story and ours can merge and mutually interpenetrate one another, provoking us to find renewed shared meaning in the time in which we live. We do this remembering in a variety of places and groups: our movements, our unions, the community of scholarship, our families, but above all the weekly communal Eucharist.

Our remembering of the past in liturgy is of a past still present, a kairos time whose influence and effect still endures. The memory enkindles hope that the reality of life in Christ can be made real in the present and in the future that together we can construct. The remembering that takes place in the Eucharist makes the psychological arrow of time point in two directions, “remembering his holy sufferings and his resurrection from the dead and his return to heaven…and his glorious fearful coming again” (Eucharistic prayer of St. Basil). Our vision remains open-ended.

Christian remembering defies the scientific and industrial mechanistic focus of time and the seemingly all-embracing and defining reality of globalised economics. We remember the future. Those who have gone before us are ahead of us in the life of the ever-present God. Liturgy remembers the future as present. In liturgy time and eternity are present to one another and the Christ life is renewed in the present. The kingdom continues to break in and out of the present. The frame of “time as money” or “time as productivity” is broken open to the feel of a different rhythm, a more contemplative vision of the world. In this shared vision, constantly struggled for and always in need of renewal, men and women freely co-operate with God’s Spirit in the incarnating of Christ’s freedom in all times.

This ritual remembering with its powerful open symbols allow the secular and the sacred to intermingle with all sorts of unforeseen conclusions. And the tongue-tied find a new language of performance and action. What Francis calls the “priority of reality over ideas”. The ways we remember, the stories we tell of ourselves as we gather around the eucharistic table are always potentially subversive and transformative events. They provoke us to see our times with new eyes and enable us to engage the world with clearer vision and renewed hope.

May it be so.

 See also: ICN 11 May 2014 Call to be a ‘Church of the poor’ at national J&P meeting  www.indcatholicnews.com/news.php?viewStory=24704

Virtual Plater website on Catholic Social Teaching: www.virtualplater.org.uk

Tags: CAFOD, Dr David McLoughlin, Justice and Peace AGM 2014, Pope Francis0D0A0D0A0D0AA Response to Pope Francis call to be a Church for the Poor.0D0A, so much so that he himself 'became poor' 2 Cor. 8:9. The entire history of our, Southwark

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