Part I of this series I summarized the theory of Sigrun Kahl, who argues that European states have shaped their welfare policies in part because of the influence of Catholic, Lutheran, and Calvinist doctrines regarding poverty.
Dr. Kahl’s paper, “The Religious Roots of Modern Poverty Policy: Catholic, Lutheran, and Reformed Protestant Traditions Compared”, was the source of my summaries. In this post, I’d like to expand on Dr. Kahl’s explanation of the Catholic position on poverty. Specifically, I will argue that even though theology may shape social policy, theology itself is shaped by the social landscape in which it develops.
Catholic theology developed during a period of decline in the Roman Empire. As the central power of the government diminished, the central power of the church increased. Church leaders modeled a great deal of the Church's structure on the Roman system. Poverty was the state of most people living in the Roman Empire. Those initially attracted to Catholicism were those with no political power and almost no autonomy: slaves, women, and the poor. The structure of the early church grew out of its efforts to care for its members. Feeding widows and orphans and materially supporting those who spread the gospel required an organized system of funding. Thus the theology of giving up one’s material wealth to the church made sense. “And all that believed were together, and had all things common.” (Acts 2:44, KJV) The theology of care for the poor was articulated in one of the first pieces of Christian writing, the letter of James.
“What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,’ but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But someone will say, ‘You have faith, and I have works.’ Show me your faith without works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” (James 2:14-18, KJV)
Even as Catholicism spread throughout Europe, it fit in easily with the feudal system in which the majority of people were impoverished. Characterizing charity as a salvific deed, the Church successfully convinced the wealthy to contribute large sums of money, land, and precious gifts to the central Church as well as to local monasteries and cathedrals. Much of this wealth was spent increasing the power of the Church, but care for the poor remained a central mission.
Closely tied to the theology of care for the poor was the tradition of hospitality to the stranger. Both religious institutions and private residences were expected to offer food and a place to sleep to travelers. Pilgrims, both rich and poor, could expect welcome at monasteries and manor homes along a pilgrimage route. In urban areas, the Church opened hospitals to care for the poor for longer periods of time. Because so many people were poor and there was no social mobility, poverty was not seen as a fallen state. Indeed, Christian theology at the time taught that one’s social status was determined by God. If you were born into a wealthy family, God had chosen you for leadership over the masses. The divine right of kings grew out of this theology. Men were born to be kings because God had made their birth into a royal family happen.
However, most people are born into poverty. It wasn't until recent times that people born poor could work their way out of poverty. In ancient times, people were born in poverty, people lived in poverty, and they died in poverty. There was no shame in being poor because it was so common and impossible to overcome.
Finally, Catholic theology teaches that heaven is a communal affair. The body of Christ, which is his people, will be saved together. Individuals might earn damnation, but no one goes to heaven alone. It is a community effort. This theology of community would exert great influence over how wealth and poverty were understood in Catholic countries and how social programs in Catholic states were designed.
In Catholicism, poverty is a blessed state. The poverty of Christ is held up as a model for Catholics. Men and women joining religious orders take a vow of poverty. This doctrine grew out of the social conditions of the ancient world in which poverty was the condition of most people. A condition determined by a God who oversaw which family a child would be born into. Consequently, if God determined that you should be poor, then there should be no shame in it.
Sigrun Kahl maintains that the particular Catholic theology of poverty has led to Catholic nations leaving the bulk of poverty relief up to the churches and other private charities. This may be true. My point is that the theology which shaped a social welfare program was itself shaped by the social conditions in which the theology was devised.