Are we morally obliged to eliminate poverty?

I was reading an Anthony Trollope short story recently. It’s set around Christmas time, and part of it relates how the pastor of a parish tries to make sure the needs of the poor are met and, if possible, that each of them is provided somewhat more than the necessities, so that they can feast a little on Christmas Day.

The pastor does this by taking up subscriptions for the purpose from the local gentry and farmers. At one point it is said that the pastor is not a rich man, so when the farmers don’t cough up quite enough, he doesn’t have the means to take the burden entirely on himself. As a result, one of the poor families must resign itself to having just enough to eat on Christmas, but not enough extra to constitute a feast.

Meanwhile the pastor lives in a nice, comfortable house, with servants.

The pastor’s complaint is not that some people are rich, while others are poor. His complaint is just that those who are better off, aren’t offering enough to let the poor have something extra for Christmas.

Which got me thinking:  Why didn’t the pastor feel guilty that he lived in this nice, probably relatively large house, with servants and a yearly stipend that enabled him to live in relative luxury, while others, including widows and orphans, were just getting by?

It appeared from this story, that the obligation felt by the pastor and the farmers and gentry, was not to make poor people no longer poor, but merely to make sure they didn’t go hungry — as well as making sure they had enough to celebrate with during Christmas, presumably so that they themselves could celebrate in good conscience.

And it seemed to me that this was correct:  In all the exhortations to almsgiving in the scriptures and the writings of the saints, I don’t recall anyone abhorring inequalities in wealth per se. What is abhorred is rich people living in splendor while others go hungry or die of cold or what have you. You don’t have to make the poor not poor, you just can’t let them starve.

I drafted the first part of this post long ago, but was brought back to it by this post on the Vox Nova blog. The same author had previously written a post titled something like, “Is it a mortal sin to be wealthy?”

We will always feel a tension between what we are doing and what we could do. No matter how poor we are, we can always do more for others than we’re doing. We can always be kinder, more patient, more generous. Does this mean we must all become paupers as long as paupers exist? If anyone is poor, is it therefore a sin to be well off?

I decided to check St. Thomas Aquinas, who seems to have analyzed everything about good and evil and religious obligations. What St. Thomas has to say on the matter is basically the following:

1.  It’s more important to give “spiritual alms” than corporal alms. Since it’s more important to take care of the spirit than the body, therefore the spiritual works of mercy are of more importance than the corporal works of mercy. It’s more important to turn someone from his sin than to relieve his hunger.

Now obviously, if someone’s hunger is extreme — i.e. he is sick or dying from lack of food — you need to succor his health before anything else. But once he has enough to eat and is not in imminent danger or extreme pain, the top priority should be to make sure he is instructed if he is ignorant; counseled if he is doubtful; reproofed if he is living in sin, etc. In other words, it’s more important to improve his spiritual condition than his economic condition.

2.  Corporal alms nevertheless have a good spiritual effect, on both giver and receiver:  On the giver when they are given out of love, and on the receiver when he is moved to pray for his benefactor.

3.  Almsgiving is a matter of precept — but only to a certain extent. (By a “matter of precept” is meant something that we are specifically instructed and required to do.)

St. Thomas says that almsgiving is a matter of precept insofar as one has surplus from which to give, after taking care of his own needs and the needs of those for whom he is responsible (and “needs,” says St. Thomas, includes maintaining one’s station in life); when someone’s need is extreme, in other words he is in danger of illness, injury or death if he doesn’t receive help; and when without our aid he will not receive the help he needs. In those circumstances we are obliged to help as a matter of precept, since to let a person die when we could have saved him would be like killing him ourselves.

Otherwise, almsgiving is “a matter of counsel” — we may or may not give alms depending on our inclination or the circumstances.

(See S.T. II-II, Q. 32.)

It’s easy to become scrupulous when there isn’t a clear “yes or no” commandment on a given issue. The Gospel doesn’t require us to give a fixed percentage of our income, such that if we give less then we feel guilty, but if we exceed it our conscience is clear. We can always give more; and if we don’t, why not? Don’t we love our fellow man? Wouldn’t we rather be among the sheep than the goats?

The solution to the conundrum, I think, is to remember that Jesus came to free us, not to enslave us. If we can’t escape guilt no matter how much we give, then we must be looking at it the wrong way. I think St. Thomas puts us on the right track. Giving is an obligation to the extent that we have the means and someone else has the need, and beyond that it’s an option. And by “need” he means need, not mere relative poverty. If you look at the parable of the sheep and the goats, the scenarios Jesus names are extreme:  I was hungry, I was thirsty, I was naked, I was in prison; not, my clothes weren’t as nice as yours and my food was very basic while yours was fancy, therefore off you go to the everlasting flames.

I feel sure that God doesn’t want us to be scrupulous or to feel constantly guilty. That’s not what the Gospel is about. The more we give the better, if charity so moves us; but guilt and fear of punishment are not charity.

4 thoughts on “Are we morally obliged to eliminate poverty?

  1. Excellent post, Agellius. And very timely. The clarity and logic of the Angelic Doctor is unparalleled. It has rubbed off on you. God has blessed you!

    After reading your post, the story of the Widow’s Mite suddenly came to mind. I am inspired to step up my charitable work.


    • I don’t accept that compliment, as kindly as you meant it. : ) However I agree with you that St. Thomas’s clarity is unparalleled. The way I feel sure that I’ve grasped his meaning is when it becomes simple to understand. As hard as he often is to grasp when you first read him, once you “get” a particular teaching you see that it was simple all along. He doesn’t use esoteric words to sound smart, he uses them because once grasped, they make things easy to understand.


  2. I first read this a few days ago and agree that spiritual works of mercy are very important. We found the Peal of Great Price and must share it. However, regarding corporal works of mercy, I couldn’t fully agree; it didn’t “feel right” (scrupulosity?), but who am I to argue with St. Thomas or Agellius? SaintlySages’ reminder that Jesus pointed out that the widow’s offering was more than the others’ because it was all she had only adds to my conundrum. I think I’ll have to come back to it again. Thanks for making me think about this subject (again).
    Princess WL


    • Thanks for commenting, Your Majesty.

      What part do you have a problem with? Is it that almsgiving is a matter of counsel?

      But if it’s not a matter of counsel, then it’s a matter of obligation. But if it’s a matter of obligation, then doesn’t there need to be a specific amount that we’re obliged to give? Otherwise how will we know when we’ve met our obligation? Yet there is no specific amount of alms that Christians are obliged to give.

      One reason I find St. Thomas’ argument (my understanding of it, anyway) persuasive is that it helps to take scrupulosity out of the equation. Scrupulosity arises when you feel obliged to do something, yet can never feel that your obligation has been satisfied. Often (in my opinion) you have that feeling because you mistake matters of counsel for matters of obligation. Matters of counsel lack a specific metric by which you may know when you’ve satisfied them, therefore if you mistake a matter of counsel for an obligation, you end up with an “obligation” that you don’t know how to satisfy.

      (Does that make sense?)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s