The Other I

March 25, 2013

Serving the poor might be a bad idea

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion — theotheri @ 4:42 pm

The new Pope Francis said that he wanted to focus the church on service to the poor.  At first this sounds wonderful.  Which is why I’ve been trying to figure out why it is making me so uncomfortable.

First of all, I worry about defining the poor.  What qualifies someone as being poor enough to deserve service?  We are all poor in the sense that we all need each other.  We all need love and caring and forgiveness.  We all need to work with others – even when we work alone.  We need forgiveness, we need others to enjoy us, we need others to appreciate what we try to do for them.  We need them to remember us, we need them to share their insights and skills, we need support, even if it is to do no more than deliver our daily mail.  Or email and social network messages.  We all need that birthday card, that telephone call, that text message, that smile from a neighbor.

I also worry about this implication that I am a holier person, a better Christian, if I serve the poor.   Why?  Am I holier if I serve the poor than if I am a creative physicist?  if I discover how to use electricity?  if I share a great musical talent?  or paint great pictures ?  if I develop a business that provides thousands of jobs?  If I am a dedicated teacher on a good salary?  Am I holier if I serve the poor than if I am myself poor?  Is being poor intrinsically better than being middle class?  or even a rich philanthropist?  Is it better for me to be poor or to serve the poor than to use my particular talents which may, actually, make a lot of money?

I worry too about what serving the poor as a primary focus pushes out of first place.  I’m afraid that a goal like “serving the poor” still  leaves too much room for discrimination – in terms of gender, ethnicity, color, religion, age.  Of course I’m not against helping the poor.  And I’m glad if a focus on serving the poor means that the Roman Church will be less obsessed with doctrinal issues like gay marriage, consenting homosexual relationships, birth control, papal infallibility, and the plethora of beliefs which the church has insisted are necessary for salvation, beliefs that seem to the Vatican are more critical to true Christianity than loving our fellow creatures.

But I’ve been around a long time, and I’m afraid it might not mean any of these things.

I would feel less uneasy if the pope had made love his primary focus.  That would not have excluded giving a loaf of bread to someone in need, it would not have excluded teaching, or caring for the sick.  But it would have been a great deal less patronizing.  Which ones of us want to be “served” because we are poor?   Look at the expression on the face of the young man whose foot is being kissed by the pope.  Perhaps I am projecting, but what I see on that face is the expression of someone who is not at all sure he’s not being used.  There’s no way I would want someone kissing my foot on the grounds that I’m among the needy poor.  It’s demeaning.

Love, as a primary focus, instead of serving the poor, also would have made it much more obvious that discrimination in relation someone who is of a different religious, sexual, or ethnic persuasion is against the basic Christian commitment above all to love.  It would not have distinguished between the poor and those who aren’t poor.  It would not have suggested to the Christian who is “serving the poor” that he or she is in some way superior to those being served.

No matter what our talents, what our economic condition, what our social status, we all need to serve and to be served, we all need to be needed.  And so I don’t like this materialist division between the poor and those who supposedly aren’t.

We are all in this together.  We need each other.

We all need to love and to be loved.







  1. Did not realize a simple statement could trigger a train of thoughts like this!! And u are not wrong.


    Comment by tskraghu — March 25, 2013 @ 4:50 pm | Reply

    • Thank you so much for understanding – and for letting me know.


      Comment by theotheri — March 25, 2013 @ 5:22 pm | Reply

  2. I thought it was a pretty good focus for the new Pope to pick. He could have gone down the road of all the “religious” obsessions you mentioned that are quite… I dunno… Pharisee? if you know what i mean.
    “Poor” is an interesting one, biblically speaking: Happy are the poor for they shall see God, the widow and her gift of two coins, Jesus’ assertion “the poor will aways be with us.”
    Interesting post.
    I might have a think on that.


    Comment by sanstorm — March 25, 2013 @ 6:06 pm | Reply

    • As you know, when Jesus said that the poor will always be with us, he was answering the objections of his disciples to Mary Magdalene washing Jesus’ feet with expensive perfumes. They were saying that the cost of buying the expensive foot wash could have been better spent on the poor. What Jesus was saying is that serving the poor doesn’t always deserve top priority – that there are other values that sometimes even take priority over the poor, or over Martha’s cooking and housekeeping.

      I would be most interested to hear any further thoughts you have on this topic. But it might be one of those questions that takes a lot of time to think about. It has for me.


      Comment by theotheri — March 25, 2013 @ 9:50 pm | Reply

      • Yes. I have a lot of thoughts buzzing, but none of them are settling just yet.


        Comment by sanstorm — March 25, 2013 @ 10:21 pm

  3. You should send this to a newspaper for publication.


    Comment by pianomusicman — March 25, 2013 @ 6:58 pm | Reply

    • I wondered what your thoughts might be in relation to this post. Reading between the lines, I’m assuming you agree.

      But oh Musicman, you know I am hopeless when it comes to promoting my own work! To what newspaper would you send it? Really?


      Comment by theotheri — March 25, 2013 @ 9:59 pm | Reply

  4. To the Guardian and the Independent and maybe the Times (of London, of course). As an op-ed. With your cv credits of course. It’s a very thoughtful piece, the kind of thing they should publish if for no other reason than to get a discussion going.

    I do wonder, though, what HH means by helping the poor, especially in view of what he may or may have done against the priests who were trying to do exactly that in the 1970s and ’80s in Argentina, albeit out of what the present and past popes saw as Marxist motives–redistribution of wealth and all that. I had a Jesuit teacher who ended up in Chile at one point and was slapped down pretty quickly when he expressed chagrin at the coziness of the Church and the bastards running the country.


    Comment by pianomusicman — March 26, 2013 @ 1:55 am | Reply

    • I have been madly thinking up excuses for NOT writing to the Guardian, Independent, Times, Huffington Press or National Catholic Reporter ever since I had to admit to myself that it’s a good idea. It’s a topic that has been an issue for me ever since I realized that taking the vow of poverty as a nun did not make me poor in any sense of the term.

      My latest excuse is that the photograph to which I refer in my post is from the Daily Telegraph. I know: it’s very lame, and I don’t think I’m going to be able to convince myself that I can get away with it. And if it did start a discussion, I for one would find it fascinating – if it’s not hijacked.

      Thank you for the challenge (she said heroically.)


      Comment by Terry Sissons — March 27, 2013 @ 4:31 pm | Reply

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