Why the Poor Belong to Us

By Appleby, R. Scott | U.S. Catholic, August 1999 | Go to article overview

Why the Poor Belong to Us


Appleby, R. Scott, U.S. Catholic


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.

EIGHTH IN A 10-PART SERIES ON CHURCH HISTORY

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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

Why the Poor Belong to Us
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen
Items saved from this article
  • Highlights & Notes
  • Citations
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Search by... Author
    Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.