Pope Francis’ Admirable War on Poverty

This article appeared on Cato​.org on October 1, 2014.

I am an atheist, but have never wavered in my conviction that persons with religious beliefs are entitled to the same freedom of choice as me. And in my vocation as a reporter, the person who has most influenced me was the late Frances Sweeney, a deeply religious Catholic editor of a penetratingly independent Boston newspaper where I first became a journalist in my teens.

Boston was then the most anti‐​Semitic city in the country, and in the Jewish ghetto where I grew up, boys knew if they walked alone down those streets at night, they could lose teeth from invading avengers of Christ’s death. I even lost some teeth.

Yet Frances Sweeney, in her newspaper and in public meetings, persistently criticized the city’s Catholic leadership for its continued silence on this bigotry. Threatened once with excommunication by Cardinal William O’Connell for her attacks, she nonetheless persisted in her criticism.

I was one of those teenage reporters who exposed some of the financiers of that anti‐​Semitism in her newspaper.

So I now have no hesitation, though still an atheist, in being drawn to a Catholic Church that, according to Pope Francis, “is poor and for the poor.”

In his first Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), presented last November, Pope Francis wrote: “Our faith in Christ, who became poor, and was always close to the poor and the outcast, is the basis of our concern for the integral development of society’s most neglected members …

“It means working to eliminate the structural causes of poverty and to promote the integral development of the poor, as well as small daily acts of solidarity in meeting the real needs which we encounter.”

Then, a Pope Francis advance: “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 … This means education, access to health care, and above all, employment, for it is through free, creative, participatory and mutually supportive labour that human beings express and enhance the dignity of their lives.”

And dig this: “A just wage enables them to have adequate access to all the other goods which are destined for our common use.”

Lest you think Pope Francis was focusing solely on secular changes, he emphasized: “For the Church, the option for the poor is primarily a theological category rather than a cultural, sociological, political or philosophical one.

“God shows the poor ‘his first mercy.’ This divine preference has consequences for the faith life of all Christians, since we are called to have ‘this mind … which was in Jesus Christ’ …

“Inspired by this, the Church has made an option for the poor which is understood as a ‘special form of primacy in the exercise of Christian charity, to which the whole tradition of the Church bears witness’ …

“This is why I want a Church which is poor and for the poor. They have much to teach us. Not only do they share in the sensus fidei (sense of the faith), but in their difficulties they know the suffering Christ. We need to let ourselves be evangelized by them.”

Then, a challenge administered by Pope Francis. How many of you — of all backgrounds — agree with this?

Said Francis: “Growth in justice requires more than economic growth, while presupposing such growth: it requires decisions, programmes, mechanisms and processes specifically geared to a better distribution of income, the creation of sources of employment and an integral promotion of the poor which goes beyond a simple welfare mentality …

“Let us not leave in our wake a swath of destruction and death which will affect our own lives and those of future generations.”

To further illuminate some of Pope Francis’ global war on poverty, here are some facts about poverty in the United States:

“In 2013, the official poverty rate was 14.5 percent … There were 45.3 million people in poverty” (cen​sus​.gov).

“More than 16 million children in the United States — 22 percent of all children — live in families with incomes below the federal poverty level — $23,550 a year for a family of four. Research shows that, on average, families need an income of about twice that level to cover basic expenses. Using this standard, 45 percent of children live in low‐​income families.

“Most of these children have parents who work, but low wages and unstable employment leave their families struggling to make ends meet” (National Center for Children in Poverty, nccp​.org).

And, as if you didn’t know: “Poverty can impede children’s ability to learn and contribute to social, emotional and behavior problems.

“Poverty also can contribute to poor health and mental health. Risks are greatest for children who experience poverty when they are young and/​or experience deep and persistent poverty.

“Research is clear that poverty is the single greatest threat to children’s well‐​being. But effective public policies — to make work pay for low‐​income parents and to provide high‐​quality early care and learning experiences for their children — can make a difference. Investments in the most vulnerable children are also critical” (nccp​.org).

During this year’s midterm elections, and, of course, the all‐​encompassing 2016 elections, look and see how many candidates have anything specific and meaningful to propose about our poverty across the board.

I’d also be interested in how many refer to Pope Francis on this crucial subject. One doesn’t have to be Catholic to bring this pope into such a vital conversation about our future.

Nat Hentoff

Nat Hentoff is a nationally renowned authority on the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights. He is a member of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and the Cato Institute, where he is a senior fellow.