Poverty that Dehumanizes, Poverty that Sanctifies
Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God (Micah 6:8)
CBCP Lenten Message 2014
As we begin this Lenten Season in the Year of the Laity, we invite you, our brothers and sisters, to reflect on poverty, particularly the types that contradict God’s Kingdom as well as those other types that promote and establish the Kingdom. We do this following the lead of our Holy Father, Pope Francis, whose own Lenten Message takes its inspiration from St. Paul writing about our Lord Jesus Christ: “He became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (cf. 2 Cor 8:9).
There are many forms of poverty. Those that degrade and dehumanize, we are to reject and work against. Those that paradoxically humanize and sanctify, we are to embrace and through them, by God’s grace, be transformed. We encounter such opposing forms of poverty on three dimensions of human existence: material, moral, and spiritual. Allow us now to describe them in a framework that may help us all observe this season of grace more generously and fruitfully.
Poverty that degrades and dehumanizes
In his earthly life, Jesus was no stranger to poverty. He knew well how people suffered from it and he tirelessly went about lightening their burdens: “Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness” (Mt. 9:35).
He worked against this kind of poverty because it degrades and dehumanizes humanity; deforming the very ones created lovingly in God’s image and amounting to a grave insult hurled at God. Such poverty continues to undermine and threaten our existence.
In his apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis declares in no uncertain terms, “No to an economy of exclusion!” (EG 53) This exclusion is the defining characteristic of poverty in our country and in the world today. As the Pope has stressed, “Poverty in the world is a scandal. In a world where there is so much wealth, so many resources to feed everyone, it is unfathomable that there are so many hungry children, that there are so many children without an education, so many poor persons. Poverty today is a cry.”[i]
Indeed, it is a great scandal that takes us all to task.[ii]
No to Material Destitution
In the material dimension, poverty that degrades and dehumanizes exists for individuals and families as destitution, which is an exclusion from the basic needs of life. In the past few years the poverty rate of the country has hovered at over 20% according to the National Statistics Coordinating Board (NSCB). This means that one in every five Filipinos are in households earning less than the level of income needed for a family to meet its minimum food and non-food requirements. While the poverty rate has gone down from its peak of 29.7% in the early 90s, to have such a huge segment of our population living in such abject poverty is an unacceptable scandal. These official figures are further enhanced by the real life perceptions of people. In its survey on poverty for the last quarter of 2013, the Social Weather Stations (SWS) reports that 55% of respondents actually consider themselves poor, up from 50% the previous quarter. Clearly, many people see themselves as being excluded from opportunities to live a decent life.
No to various faces of the Economy of Exclusion
On the societal level, the scandal of material poverty can be seen in various faces of the economy of exclusion.
Exclusion from gainful livelihood. The appalling poverty rate is aggravated by the exclusion of many Filipinos from opportunities for economic advancement. The latest Labor Force Survey pegs unemployment at 6.5% of the national workforce and, more tellingly, underemployment at 17.9% (the latter being the percentage of the workforce that is employed but looking for additional work).
Exclusion from sufficient shelter. Shelter is another basic right to which people are denied when poverty strikes. The Subdivision and Housing Developers’ Association has estimated that the housing shortfall between 2001 to 2011 has reached 3.93 million units. The estimates of informal settlers alone run from anywhere between 1 to 3 million households, not counting those rendered homeless by recent natural and man-made calamities.
Exclusion from rural development. Centuries of inequitable land ownership, peace issues, and lack of livelihood opportunities have excluded poor rural folk from genuine progress, driving them into the cities in search of a better life. Sadly, the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program Extension with Reforms (CARPER) is set to expire this June 2014, with land acquisition and distribution targets still unmet.
Exclusion from adequate health care. The poor, who can avail of health care at only public hospitals and local government health centers, are at risk of being further excluded from access to basic health care with the proposed privatization of leading public health institutions such as the Dr. Jose Fabella Memorial Hospital and the National Orthopedic Hospital. Especially vulnerable are children and the elderly, unless government continues to aspire for the ideal of “universal health coverage.”
Exclusion from quality education. While we have had good progress in battling illiteracy, further improvements can be made. The International Labor Organization reports that, in 2010 to 2012, out of every ten grade 1 pupils six finish elementary school and only four are able to finish high school. Overcrowding in schools, large classroom sizes, and double to triple shifts are chronic problems in basic and secondary education. Quality higher education, in particular, is an elusive dream for many. Our Catholic schools in the rural areas continue to suffer from the departure of our well trained teachers in the pursuit of higher monetary gain.
Other faces of poverty. The foregoing are some of the most familiar faces of poverty, but other aspects of poverty also cause concern. In the aftermath of typhoons, droughts, and earthquakes, it is poor Filipinos who are most profoundly affected and further excluded from a decent life. Despite recent progress in the peace accords between the MILF and the Philippine Government, the ravages of war (as seen in the MNLF Zamboanga incursion and the long standing NPA rebellion) continue to affect the poorest who are often caught in the crossfire. The destruction of the environment due to illegal logging and both large and small scale mining disadvantage the poor, especially our indigenous communities, who are often excluded from the benefits of such economic activities. We suffer from ecological poverty due to our neglect of the gifts of creation entrusted to us by God.
No to Consumerism
On the level of a global ethos, the scandal of material poverty shows itself in the ever-growing influence of consumerism. Pope Francis laments that “The great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience” (EG 2). In the end, such poverty leads to a self-inflicted emptiness.
No to Moral Destitution
In the moral dimension, poverty can be debilitating on the same three levels.
Individually, one can experience dehumanizing poverty as a slavery to vice or sin. “How much pain is caused in families because one of their members—often a young person—is in thrall to alcohol, drugs, gambling or pornography! How many people no longer see meaning in life or prospects for the future, how many have lost hope! And how many are plunged into this destitution by unjust social conditions, by unemployment, which takes away their dignity as breadwinners, and by lack of equal access to education and health care. In such cases, moral destitution can be considered impending suicide.”[iii]
On the societal level, moral poverty confronts us everywhere as the malady of corruption. As we have written repeatedly, “We face today a crisis of truth and the pervading cancer of corruption. We must seek the truth and we must restore integrity.”[iv] More recently, on the pork barrel issue, we renewed the call for vigilance and self-critique, “Our protests should not just emanate from the bad feeling that we have been personally or communally transgressed, violated or duped. It should come rather from the realization that God has been offended and we have become less holy as a people because of this.… We are not just victims of a corrupt system. We have all, in one way or another, contributed to this worsening social cancer—through our indifferent silence or through our cooperation when we were benefiting from the sweet cake of graft and corruption.”[v]
Most widely, as a global ethos, we experience moral destitution as inequality. We see this in the critique of capitalism that Pope Francis makes: “In this context, some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting” (EG, 54).
No to Spiritual Destitution
Material destitution constitutes a scandal. Moral destitution frustrates our striving to respond to God’s call of love. But spiritual destitution is the form of poverty that threatens the core of our relationship with God. Individually, we experience it as loneliness and hopelessness. Mother Teresa declares from her vast experience of being among the poorest of the poor that “the most terrible poverty is loneliness and the feeling of being unloved.” Moreover, she is convinced: “We can cure physical diseases with medicine, but the only cure for loneliness, despair, and hopelessness is love…. The poverty in the West is a different kind of poverty—it is not only a poverty of loneliness but also of spirituality. There’s a hunger for love, as there is a hunger for God.”[vi]
Then, as a society, we see this poverty in religious intolerance. The Pope has spoken out adamantly against it, which exists even within the Church: “The Lord created us in His image and likeness, and we are the image of the Lord, and He does good and all of us have this commandment at heart: do good and do not do evil. All of us. ‘But, Father, this [person] is not Catholic! He cannot do good.’ Yes, he can. He must. Not can: must! Because he has this commandment within him.… [T]his ‘closing off’ that imagines that those outside…cannot do good is a wall that leads to war and…killing in the name of God… [which] is blasphemy.”[vii]
Globally, spiritual destitution appears as relativism and the loss of a sense of transcendence. According to Pope Francis, “It is the spiritual poverty of our time, which afflicts the so-called richer countries particularly seriously. It…makes everyone his own criterion and endangers the coexistence of peoples.… There cannot be true peace if everyone is his own criterion, if everyone can always claim exclusively his own rights, without at the same time caring for the good of others, of everyone, on the basis of the nature that unites every human being on this earth.”[viii]
Poverty that Humanizes and Sanctifies
Poverty that degrades and dehumanizes is all around us. One can be disheartened by all this especially in the midst of struggling against. However, the Christian believes that “the Gospel is the real antidote to spiritual destitution.” Pope Francis precisely encourages the faithful to affirm “that God is greater than our sinfulness, that he freely loves us at all times and that we were made for communion and eternal life.”[ix] In the great wisdom that only God possesses, the Gospel proclaims that Jesus resoundingly defeats this poverty by practicing another kind of poverty, namely, the poverty that humanizes or makes one fully human, the poverty that sanctifies or conforms one to his own likeness. This life-giving poverty also has material, moral, and spiritual forms.
Yes to Simplicity, Commitment, and Surrender to God
Material poverty that humanizes and sanctifies is experienced in simplicity of life. Not all are called to choose a life of actual poverty. Many among the laity, the clergy, and the religious do so admirably, whether as individuals or in community, and as a result give a powerful witness to the Gospel. However, all are called to live lives that are marked by a consistent and liberating detachment from such worldly goods as material possessions, resources, power, and social status—a detachment that allows us to be sensitive and to respond to those with less possessions, less resources, less power, lower status.
Such a readiness and ability to respond to those in need finds a stable expression in the moral poverty of acommitment to the Good, the Just, and the True. It is a sustained yearning to participate in the establishment of the Kingdom manifested in concrete decisions and patterns of behavior that always look beyond the private realm of self and family toward the public world of neighbor and society. It is the natural consequence of professing a faith in a God who identifies with the little ones. After all, “how does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods, and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” (1 Jn 3:17).
Finally, humanizing and sanctifying poverty endures in its spiritual form as surrender to God (Ps 9:10, Prov. 3:5-6). According to PCP II, to be a Church of the Poor means “a Church that embraces and practices the evangelical spirit of poverty, which combines detachment from possessions with a profound trust in the Lord as the sole source of salvation. While the Lord does not want anyone to be materially poor, he wants all his followers to be ‘poor in Spirit’.”[x]
Christ’s Invitation, especially to the Laity
This Lenten season, Christ invites all, but especially the laity, to oppose degrading and dehumanizing poverty and to embrace humanizing and sanctifying poverty. In other words, he invites us to imitate his example. We fight poverty with poverty only because Christ has shown us the way. “Our faith in Christ, who became poor, and was always close to the poor and the outcast, is the basis of our concern for the integral development of society’s most neglected members” (EG, 186). Much more needs to be done in translating this faith into effective action, in achieving “a greater penetration of Christian values in the social, political and economic sectors,” which in the mind of Pope Francis is where the Church relies on the laity (EG 102).
Particularly, we are invited to practice material poverty by taking up a simple lifestyle and works of mercy and justice that attend to the poor and aim for an economy of inclusion, for what the Nobel laureate Amartya Sen calls “total human development.” We are to exercise moral poverty by strengthening our resolve to practice solidarity with the neglected and to denounce injustice and all forms of radical inequality. We are to embrace spiritual poverty by deepening our rootedness in Christ, whose poverty alone enriches us. “Let us not forget,” Pope Francis insists, “that real poverty hurts… I distrust a charity that costs nothing and does not hurt.”[xi] At the same time, “We may be sure that none of our acts of love will be lost, nor any of our acts of sincere concern for others. No single act of love for God will be lost, no generous effort is meaningless, no painful endurance is wasted” (EG 279).
May the Lord bless your Lenten observance and send you forth with love and joy.
May Mary, Mother of the Poor show you the way to the heart of Jesus, our pearl of great price!
For the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, March 5, 2014 Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent
(SGD)+SOCRATES B. VILLEGAS
Archbishop of Lingayen Dagupan
President, Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines