Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Why the Poor Belong to Us

Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Why the Poor Belong to Us

Article excerpt

The Catholic Church has always believed in caring for the poor as a means of encountering God. For much of U.S. history, that meant caring for its own.


The poor you have with you always," Jesus informs Judas in the Gospel of John (12:8). "But you will not always have me." Jesus-sayings cast in this "either/or" mode have always caused problems for Catholics. We are, after all, the quintessential Christians of the "both/ and." We insist on retaining both sides of the divine dialectic: grace and nature, faith and works, revelation and reason, Roman and Catholic, and so on.

Thus, the church typically refused to choose between contemplation of Christ, on the one hand, and concern for the poor, on the other. Instead, Catholics have insisted that the two commitments go hand in hand: One who presumes to love and serve the Lord encounters him in the destitute.

For, in the manner of his life and certainly in his ignoble death, the crucified Messiah not only embraced but embodied the dregs of humanity. He became "one of us," not only human but lowest-common-denominator human: bowery bum, disgraced criminal, deranged madman with messianic delusions. The Lord God did not disdain the soiled but irrepressible dignity of the poor but revealed it to be the abode of the sacred. In so doing God stretched the dialectic to the breaking point of paradox: Divinity is most fully revealed in humanity, a humanity at its most vulnerable and impoverished.

Catholics are hardly the only Christians to place commitment to the poor at the heart of their religious mission. But we rank second to none in our sacralization of poverty, in our insistence that the poor have a special, even mystical, relationship to God. The conviction that the poor actually have something to teach the rest of us, as well as a leg up in the race for heaven, can be seen in everything from the vows of poverty taken by Roman Catholic religious to the identification of sainthood with "Holy Mother Poverty," as Saint Francis of Assisi called his particular approach to the imitation of Christ.

For two thirds of the history of Roman Catholicism in the United States, placing the poor on a pedestal came naturally: We were the poor!

From 1820 to 1920, the United States attracted 33.6 million immigrants, the majority of whom were Catholic (including approximately 4 million Irish Catholics, 2 million German Catholics, 2 million or more Italian Catholics, and about the same number of Polish Catholics). Not all Catholic immigrants were poor in body, but most were poor in spirit. If not financial hardship, they experienced loneliness, social alienation, and political marginalization. Few first-generation immigrants received adequate health care or other social services. As early as 1866, the U.S. Catholic bishops acknowledged the indigence of their flock, confessing the "melancholy" and "very humiliating" fact that "a very large portion of the vicious and idle youth of our principal cities are the children of Catholic parents."

That began to change in the last quarter of the 19th century, as American Catholics developed an extended network of institutions and services aimed at taking care of "their own." Bishops, priests, and communities of men and (especially) women religious were galvanized into action by the encroachments of Protestant "child savers"--home missionaries and WASP social reformers who attempted to "rescue" Catholic children from the poverty and presumed degeneracy of their parents, as well as from the anti-democratic Catholic Church and its "absolutist" pope. Nuns focused their efforts on establishing and staffing institutions that housed and/or educated thousands of infants and children in New York and other major cities--not only orphans, but offspring whose parents could not support them.

"The leading motive was to save the souls of the children and their parents, but the importance of material provision and service was never undervalued," write historians Dorothy M. …

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