Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

The Poverty of Riches: St. Francis of Assisi Reconsidered

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

The Poverty of Riches: St. Francis of Assisi Reconsidered

Article excerpt

The Poverty of Riches: St. Francis of Assist Reconsidered. By Kenneth Baxter Wolf. [Oxford Studies in Historieal Theology.] (New York: Oxford University Press. 2003. Pp. x, 165.)

Wolf contends that Francis of Assisi embraced poverty in a way that made the lives of the involuntary poor harder. In his time, caring for the needy was recognized as meritorious, and several people (like Raymond of Piacenza) were canonized for such activity. Francis began his saintly career in this way, but soon chose to "reject the civic saint model and embrace a different form of imitatio Christi, one that led him to identify with the poor without directly tending to their physical or spiritual needs." The effect on the involuntary poor was resoundingly negative, because Francis, unlike Raymond,"offered his burgher audience a form of religiosity that truly gave them the spiritual upper hand, the moral 'inside track,' in the race to heaven. It was not simply about affluent Christians counteracting the spiritually deleterious effects of wealth by engaging in acts of charity toward the poor. It was about redefining poverty altogether in such a way that only Christians of means could really appreciate it and aspire to it." The involuntary poor were thus doubly neglected, in this life and in the next. Donors chose to increase their own chances of salvation by giving their money to Francis, the meritorious voluntary pauper, rather than to those for whom poverty was not a matter of choice but merely an accident of fate. And, although the Church recognized that psychological detachment from the riches of this world was the important thing and in this sense even those born in squalor could be as meritorious as those who had given a fortune away, the latter were inevitably perceived as having more to work with in assuring themselves a prime spot in heaven. …

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