Poverty according to the Catholic Church

My former employer once hosted a researcher from abroad who did a study on the criminalization of children in the context of child protection issues. The opening paragraphs of the draft report touched on the Catholic Church’ strong hold on the country and its people to the extent that what is bad such as poverty and its effects are preached as a blessed thing (“blessed are the poor”) thereby helping to perpetuate the system; in comparison, secular societies of Northern countries (where the researcher hails) have done considerably better in eradicating poverty and closing the gap between rich and poor. It essentially affirms the Weberian paradigm of development. We – technical staff – chuckled at this because it’s true but relegated the decision of retaining them or not to our head of office who is Irish, a Catholic, and a former priest. (These paragraphs were since taken out of the final report.)

Catholic teaching (The Beatitudes) tells believers that “blessed are the poor” and “blessed are the meek and humble.” We need to understand that Jesus does not spoon feeds but often speaks in parables, perhaps to engage human minds into seeking out the individualized meaning of His words. What’s the brain for, right? Otherwise, He should’ve made us all hands, to receive and receive (without thinking). In corporate planning, the parables are like the strategic frameworks from which operational plans of the various business units are designed. There is flexibility for individualized meaning.

Poor in the Gospel really means poor in spirit. Poor in spirit means cultivating a spirit marked with the ability to forgive, to be open and understanding, in short, the basic good things we were taught in kindergarten – kindness, truthfulness, helpfulness, etc. It’s not about material deprivation nor does the Gospel promotes material excesses.

Meek and humble in the Gospel really means freeing oneself from the pride associated with Lucifer’s fall. In other words, “speak your truth quietly and clearly and listen to others.” The test, says a convent superior, is one’s motivation. It’s not about being silent and effacing yourself when speaking up is called for. I notice that Filipinos in general in say a barangay assembly will not say anything when they’re asked if they have concerns to be put into the agenda but when the assembly ends (or before the assembly starts) I hear them fiercely a-buzz with community concerns. That’s not being “meek and humble” in Gospel fashion.

The thing is, Church preachers (especially the Diocese) don’t lay out the whole truth to churchgoers. And so churchgoers are misled into believing that “poor” in the Gospel means it’s OK to not eat three good meals a day, to be deprived of land (because your land is in heaven, my goodness), etc.; that “meek and humble” in the Gospel means it’s OK to suffer in silence in the face of unjust deprivations and abuses.

I’ve a theory that Church preachers fear that if they tell churchgoers the whole truth and nothing but the truth, well, what do you think is the outcome? You’d have a free people, their minds freed from the chains of psychological bondage. And what do a people freed from bondage do? In this light, Church preachers are also chained, chained by their fears projected unto the people. People Power (in EDSA, fronted by Cory) is not because of some miraculous doing as is the notion but a glimpse of what a people freed from bondage can achieve. The Church, leading to the People Power event, momentarily let down its guard and preached the whole truth (though some would say it’s the Church’ not the whole country’s perspective), unfreezing believers’ minds if only for a period thereby moving energy throughout their limbs and stood up they did. But here is another dimension of poverty. Because believers base their actions on the calls of the Church leaders they are like puppets. What Philippine society needs is true freedom which can result from a continuous preaching of the truth by Church preachers at the same time allowing believers to create individualized meaning so that in time believers’ minds would only know freedom. This is what The Beatitudes is about. The teaching is about and has always been based on freedom (the opposite of poverty, according to Amartya Sen).

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