After approximately 1600 years of the Catholic Church, the Pope is suddenly a hot topic again. The high priest has infatuated the public and won a lot of praise in the secular media for bringing new popularity to an institution long plagued by scandals and out-of-date dogmas. Evidently, God’s representative on earth still has an important role to play in the enlightened modern world – not so much as a legislator over condoms and abortions, but as a moral authority who issues warnings about the “idolatry of money” and the sins of the capitalist business world. This confuses a few pundits, but not the earthly powers. They know what a good thing it is to have those without power believing in a Lord in Heaven who gives them orders and leadership.
Holy the poor!
What’s up with the new Pope’s emphasis on the poor? In his first encyclical, he says there is too much greed, people are looking for easy gains and selfish. He wants the church to be a tribune of the poor and stresses concern for the marginalized. The message of his papacy is: go to where the suffering is greatest. What the poor need – above anything else – is charity. That is something quite different than finding out the cause of poverty and getting rid of it.
Charity doesn’t get rid of poverty, but keeps it going. It doesn’t eliminate poverty because it doesn’t change the way wealth is distributed, much less put the means of production in the hands of the poor. First, it offers the donor a good feeling about himself in a way that paying taxes doesn’t. Second, it is whimsical and depends on the personal will to be charitable. The poor can’t rely on it the way they can on a state program.
The Pope’s exhortation – “go out and help the poor and suffering” – tosses all different types of suffering together: illness and death are the same as exclusion from wealth. These are all cases of one and the same thing: suffering. Charity for God’s children does not mean those excluded from wealth or the means of production, but something more like a cancer patient on whom the Christian can demonstrate the virtues of love and compassion. It is practiced in abstraction from the causes of poverty. It deals only with the symptoms of suffering, which have one cause: sin. The earth is just a vale of tears; that’s life.
Saying that sinfulness is the reason for poverty is different than saying that the political economic system is hostile to the interests of the poor. Instead, greed or materialism is held responsible. What is wrong with “greed” as an explanation of poverty? Many people who are greedy, but they do not have power over the livelihoods of others. That requires a whole political economic system. If greed is responsible for poverty, then poverty is something that can never be gotten rid of by an economy planned for meeting needs. It’s unalterable.
If the reason for charity is to fight against sin, it’s also hard to practice without an object. Charity needs the poor because that’s the Christian’s passage into heaven. Christians are not for poverty in the sense that they want people to be poor; that’s already taken care of by the capitalist economy and the state. When Christianity says things like the poor shall inherit the earth, it is saying: the poor are holy. They need charity. This is different than saying: poverty has to be eliminated.
When Christianity says the meek shall inherit the earth, that means that God’s people are those who make no demands. One must show humility, not put forward one’s needs. This is how the poor are celebrated by the church: poverty is a sign of weakness. Why else would anyone be poor? A call for class struggle is far from compatible with the Christian virtues.
If the poor need nothing so much as Christian charity, the flip side is that the Pope and the Church need nothing so much as the poor. That’s how to restore the reputation of the church: no more red Prada shoes and lavish ceremonies; bring the church back to the people and restore its credibility. In the competition for souls, the church needs bodies, especially in Latin America where evangelists have made strides. Go to the poor because the vast majority of the world’s population is poor and becoming poorer.
The need for God
When the Pope talks about poverty and wealth, he is not seeking an explanation. He is a man of faith. That means he doesn’t want an explanation. Faith is different than a scientific finding; a faith can’t be refuted. One can only refute a purported logical statement. That’s why atheists always go down a wrong road in trying to refute Christians. But the need for faith and something like a God can be argued with. Where does this need come from? Why do people want a God?
God’s existence is not a proposal, but an expression of faith and the need for God. “You can only understand if you believe,” the Pope says. “He works in mysterious ways.” Christians and all believers want a God because they are driven by the search for meaning. Its their desire for a God to be there. They use the effects of belief for their reason. They tie it to a feeling: “It makes me happy that the world is meaningful.” People who feel a desire to believe in God always give the same reason: peace of mind. It gives them a feeling of meaning as to what life is all about. It makes them feel good that God is there.
Their big question is: why? The nature of the explanation they are liking for is not really what’s going on in the economy or politics, but an explanation of everything. There’s one reason for everything in the natural world, in relations between people – for everything. That’s what gives them “peace of mind.” Not material security, but rather being at peace or coming to terms with the world; not getting rid of suffering, but being at peace with suffering.
Christianity and its successor, Islam, offer icing on the cake: eternal happiness; the attraction that if this world sucks, it can’t be everything. There must be more to it. Believers want happiness in spite of everything. They want to be comfortable with this world.
Why oh why?
Their big question “what’s it all about, God?” is logically nonsensical: one reason for everything explains nothing. All it is is a description of the world with the heading “this comes from God, Allah, nothingness,” etc. It doesn’t explain this or that, but everything. Saying that “everything has a reason” helps a person come to terms with something. It’s not looking for a reason for this or that, but a good reason, i.e. one that allows you to accept something.
The first big mistake, not just of religious people but all kinds of spiritual types, is ultimately the need for faith. “There’s got to be some Higher Being out there.” This is a poetic way of saying that there must be a reason for everything that happens here that ties it all together and gives it meaning. It doesn’t matter what kind of a Being the believer postulates – they have one answer: there’s a reason behind all reasons.
When asking for a meaning of life, believers do not want to hear that the meaning of life is to make capitalists rich, to be a cheap cost factor that works hard and gets paid very little. They are not asking a real question or trying to understand the world, but something else. They have ideas about what they have to do in the morning, go to work, etc. But they are looking for a reason beyond all these reasons. They want to come to terms with everything; to know that everything has a reason, some reason. The meaning they are looking for is meaningless, but gives them a reason to accept everything. That’s a fatal mistake.
Their starting point is that they are dissatisfied. Faith looks for satisfaction, but its not a satisfaction they have control over. Its different from saying: I am dissatisfied and need a revolution to get it so that I can then be the subject of my own life. Instead, it searches for good feelings in not taking control, but in knowing something else is in control. This insures subservience. They don’t say: I am serving some other interest that is keeping me poor and precarious. They say: I am serving God. This satisfaction with not being in control and ok with that insures obedience.
The search for meaning
is not confined to religious people and their disowned fundamentalist cousins, but widespread. They are all joined by the same motivation: I am spiritual; I would like to believe. The Christian answer for what the Hereafter looks like is unsatisfactory for many modern people who come up with different answers as soon as heaven seems unscientific. But even for those who don’t believe in Heaven, there is the need for something like it, so that the need for it can survive while they reject any specific notion as to what it might look like.
The search for meaning is a case where the answers given are not as interesting as the search itself. Some people go from Buddhism to Christianity, back and forth, getting meaning from the search for meaning itself. They are satisfied with authenticity, with being true to their Self: “it’s the journey, not the destination.” But its hard to find satisfaction in a search for satisfaction. It is perpetually dissatisfied, which is why it is constantly spurred onward. As Hegel put it: “Spirit is unrest.”
The search for meaning (in whatever guise) is in knowing that I am not in control, but what is in control is not the powerful who rule over me and make me their pawn, but something that makes me feel like part of something greater: “God loves you so much he made you.” One is not the subject of any old ruler, but something glorious. It confirms one is not in control and that makes one feel at peace. Its gives a good reason for what has to do anyway. It doesn’t free a person from having to work the next day for somebody else’s enrichment, but allows them a feeling of freedom in relation to the real authorities.
And one is equal with the rulers because we are all subordinated to the same God. Ultimately, my boss is not in charge, but God. This is the feeling of peace and freedom. One finds a new perspective on reality. One does not change the world, but interprets it. Its the same reality, but given a new outlook.
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Charity does not criticize the reason some have money and others don’t, but says those with money should help those without it. That’s why it’s wrong-headed to contrast the Pope’s message of concern for the poor with his support for the former junta in Argentina, as if he had two sides. The only rule a pope rails against is one that doesn’t give free reign to the papacy, like the former eastern bloc states or China today.
The Pope’s message to the poor is: precisely because your everyday reality is unsatisfactory and disappointing, you should look for the meaning of life by serving a higher being. Then your poverty is even a good condition for true faith. That’s a blessing for any ruler!
Geoffrey McDonald edits Ruthless Criticism.