‘Christian Responsibility and World Poverty’

This is the text of an address, “Christian Responsibility and World Poverty,” delivered by Father Arthur McCormack, M.H.M., to a meeting of the German bishops in Rome on Oct. 26.

I am an economist and a demographer. At the same time I am a priest. I would like to suggest, therefore, in considering the problems of world poverty, complicated by the population explosion, that to tackle these problems, we should “marry” the moral force, the moral indignation of the Christian conscience, in face of misery on a world-wide scale, with the exigencies of economics, to translate the Gospel “cup of cold water” into the realities of the economic situation in the 20th century.

We are the more able to do this now, because the world-renowned economists who treat of this subject no longer represent the old-fashioned school of laissez-faire economists, but are filled with the conviction that investment in human beings’ social progress is not only in accord with the dignity of man and modern humanitarian ideals, but also with sound economic theory.

I feel abashed to speak before you, the bishops of Germany, who more than the others in the Church have not only realized the needs of the poorer countries, but have done something about them — something magnificent.

I have here the figures which tell the story of your Misereor, German Caritas, the Adveniat collections, 215 million marks ($54,000,000) was collected by Misereor, for example, between 1959 and the end of 1963. This amount of money represents astonishing generosity. It has been applied with thoroughness and care and, if I may say so, with a strategic sense which has assured that it really reaches the most need and does the most good.

I am not speaking as an armchair economist who looked up a few figures to prepare a talk. On a tour of South America in April 1 learned at first hand of the work of Misereor. The members of the DESAL organization (the movement for Socio-Economic Development in Latin America) helped me very much and allowed me to see the wonderful efforts stimulating self-help which DESAL is making, especially in Santiago, Chile. I spent several hours with the remarkable Father Vekkemans of the DESAL. It is no exaggeration to give to this team a great share of the credit for the election of Eduardo Frei as president of Chile, with a program based on Catholic social principles, which DESAL is constantly applying to the realities of the Chilean situation. DESAL is one of the several thousand projects financed by Misereor. Incidentally, on the same tour I had the chance to go round the terrible slums of most of the big cities of South America, and see with my own eyes the statistics of world hunger and poverty in terms of human misery.

As an Englishman whose country has not done so much as yours, either with regard to private charity or governmental aid, I feel abashed. I have no right to speak to you; it is your kindness which has given me this opportunity. I welcome it very sincerely.

I feel that many in the Church have still not grasped the extent, the importance, and the urgency of these problems. By your example, and perhaps also by your words, you may be the means of making them aware. A revolution in this field is needed. Not indeed with regard to the teaching at the center. Mater et Magistra, Pacem in Terris, and the speeches of our present Holy Father are clear and detailed and splendid directives. But a revolution is needed in the appreciation of this teaching, so that it should reach all levels and all places and be a stimulus to action. “I was hungry and you formed a study group” could still be said of many in the Church.

The need for action is urgent. Perhaps you will bear with me while I sketch briefly that need.

The central problem of our age, one potentially as explosive as the bomb, is the division of the world into the “haves” and the “have-nots.” It is the existence of that “third world” where hunger and poverty are endemic and where, to use the words of the noted English economist Andrew Shonfield, “millions of people live lives well below what most of us would regard as the extreme limit of imaginable poverty.”

Sober expert reports, such as those of P.V. Sukhatme of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, estimate that half the world is suffering from lack of food sufficient in quantity and quality for a healthy existence, and that about one person in seven has literally not enough to eat. This would mean about 400 million people.

But hunger is, of course, only one of the evils summed up in the unemotional word underdevelopment. The misery and degradation of acute poverty include many more human problems. Among the most pressing of these are lack of medical services, of basic education, and of adequate housing and clothing. People’s inability to practice the simple rules of hygiene is another (though much progress has been made in this area in recent years, ironically bringing other problems by sparking off explosive population increase).

Again, there are industrial underdevelopment, lack of employment or concealed unemployment, and lack of the capital and savings to allow a breakthrough of the vicious circle of poverty breeding poverty. Finally, lack of opportunities for improvement and even absence of the desire to improve, caused by decades of malnutrition and disease, complete the picture.

It is estimated that 1M billion people in 100 countries have an annual income per head of only 400 marks [$100]. President Johnson said that anyone under 12,000 marks [$3,000] was in poverty in the United States.

Such poverty has always existed, indeed, in the past it has been worse than it is now. It has not been caused, as some imply, by this country’s population explosion, nor will it be cured even by the most effective birth control campaigns. What is new, as Mr. Nehru has said, is not poverty and misery. The new thing is that people are now aware of their plight, and of the affluence of others, and are determined to correct the situation.

Since the end of World War II, there has been an awakening of the poorer half of the world of such magnitude as to justify Adlai Stevenson’s phrase, “the revolution of rising expectations.” Since then, one billion people have gained their independence. They have not done so in order to starve, but to win for themselves lives free from the degradation of poverty and worthy of their dignity as human beings.

The first action necessary is surely to make known these facts, as Pope John stressed in his speech to the FAO conference in April 1960, when he said:

“Millions of human beings suffer hunger: others who do not strictly speaking go hungry, are underfed: these are the facts. They must be made known, they must be preached from the housetops. Consciences must be awakened to a sense of responsibility that rests on the human community and on each individual, on the most privileged especially. We are all collectively responsible for the undernourished.”

This Sunday, Oct. 25, the Italian television had a program on hunger and poverty throughout the world. Afterwards a reporter went out into the streets of Rome asking people did they know of these facts. Not one did. But when they were told, they all agreed it was their duty to help. There is, I believe, a vast potential of untapped generosity. In this sphere knowledge generates this generosity.

Of course, in face of the vastness of the problems, generosity alone is not enough. This vastness is, however, no reason for pessimism or despair. Leading economists and agriculturalists say that we have at last the means to wipe out poverty. Paul Hoffman, head of the U.N. Special Fund, has said:

“The most challenging, pervasive and explosive idea of this century is that poverty can be wiped out.”

In parenthesis we may note that Lester Pearson of Canada has also said: “The grim fact is … that we prepare for war like precocious giants and for peace like retarded pigmies.”

Barbara Ward, the world-famed economist (a very good Catholic and, I am proud to say, a good friend of mine), said at Oxford University last year:

“Even if the rate of population growth goes at its present dizzy speed, we can still feed the human race in the foreseeable future. Remember this is the first time in history that it has been possible to say this.”

Dr. Lamartine Yates of FAO, after describing the advantages we now have in the war on want, said nearly 10 years ago — it is more true now:

“If this be a fair assessment, it is just about the most exciting prospect for a century-to-be that mankind has ever faced. By comparison most of our other preoccupations appear puny indeed: cold war, class war, color prejudice and so on. What is almost within human grasp is nothing less than the abolition of poverty in the primary strongholds of poverty, the bringing of low income peoples, not to equality of income with the more prosperous countries, but to within hailing distance, so there is no longer a wide social and material gap between them.”

There is no need to multiply expert testimony. The fact is that we have all the technical knowledge, all the material resources, all the financial potential to wipe poverty off the face of the earth in this century or at least in the next 50 years. What is lacking is a sense of urgency, a conviction that we can and must do it.

Can the Church do anything to hasten this? Should she do anything? Is it her role?

It may be well to recall that the First Vatican Council, though it was convened at the height of the industrial revolution, did not issue any guidance on social justice within the industrializing nations. There was no word of hope for the proletariat, for the victimized working class. They could hardly lift their eyes from their misery to rejoice in the definition of papal infallibility.

We may charitably suppose that, if the council had continued, it would have issued a call for social justice. It would have been very remarkable if it had done so, however. Apart from that wonderful pioneer, Bishop von Ketteler of Mainz and some others, there had not up to then been very much interest among bishops in this subject. Indeed, even 20 years later, Pope Leo was ahead of his time when he issued Rerum Novarum, and yet he was too late to prevent the loss of the working class to the Church, in many countries, because it was thought that the Church was not concerned in its plight and was more interested in Church matters than in the world, with its harsh realities.

Today we face the same situation between nations as was faced 100 years ago within nations. Today there are proletariat nations. Vatican II has a magnificent chance, faces a stirring challenge to appeal for international social justice. The council could send forth a clarion call for an all-out war on want, a total war on the conditions that are the scandal of our age; the existence of grinding poverty in the midst of plenty, the fact that in this, the most prosperous century in world history, millions are living lives out of keeping with their human dignity.

Such an effort to mobilize the moral force of the Catholic Church behind a concerted drive to wipe out poverty would of its very nature find great support from other Christian bodies, indeed from all the major religions that believe in the brotherhood of man under the fatherhood of God. This would be ecumenical action about which there could be no controversy.

No one doubts the meaning of our Lord’s injunction to feed the hungry and clothe the naked. In this way a “third world” of help would be mobilized to combat the poverty of the underprivileged “third world.” All men of good will, even those who do not believe in God but are genuinely humane, could be invited to join this crusade. Of course, as I have already suggested, such an approach would have to be geared to the realities of economics and politics. The example of a newly awakened South America shows how this could be done.

I am not a peritus, so I can only wonder if Schema 13 gives the over-riding importance to this central problem of our age by a first high priority treatment of it, and whether concrete proposals, made with all due respect and deference, may be of interest:

  1. To show the concern of the Church and the earnestness of her commitment, some ongoing structure, a sort of war cabinet, to direct this war on want for the Church could be set up. A cardinal of the stature of Cardinal Bea could head this structure. By his personality Cardinal Bea has come to symbolize the Church’s ecumenical concern. In several years he has done much to revolutionize relations between the Churches. An outstanding cardinal as head of the organization I am suggesting could come to symbolize the Church’s concern for world poverty. The functions of such a body would be manifold and vital. I would be willing to suggest some which have already been worked out.
  1. The bishops in council could devote a solemn day to world poverty and pledge themselves to work to eliminate it, perhaps by some symbolic gesture.
  1. The Church could give the moral force, the moral leadership which seems to be lacking, and ensure also that this war on want is not based on political expediency or economic self-interest, but on brotherly love and respect for the dignity of man.
  1. The Church could see to it that a temporal messianism was not sought, that in finding bread for mankind, men would forget that man does not live by bread alone.
  1. She could actively insist at every level that human dignity, the cultural and spiritual heritage of developing nations, is not damaged in the urgent attempt to get rapid economic progress and development.
  1. The Church could arrange for much greater use of her missionary personnel as stimulators of socioeconomic action. These missionaries form the biggest potential cadre of technical assistance in the world today by their knowledge of their people and their needs. This would need balance, of course; priests must do their spiritual duties. But one priest at least in each diocese could be an expert adviser to the bishop and fellow missionaries and indigenous clergy. Not only that: aid channeled through Church agencies and administered through missionaries is often the most effective, economical and secure way of giving help to those most in need.
  1. The Church could preach in season and out of season the duty of the rich countries to share their prosperity, and the duty of the poorer countries to put themselves in a position to receive cooperative help by social reform, political stability, and real concern for the progress of all their people, and not the enrichment of a few.

Should the Church do this? Should priests be engaged in this work at all? This is not an idle question. Perhaps the best answer may be given by applying the parable of the Good Samaritan in modern language to the conditions of today. The priest and Levite were hurrying to Jerusalem to take part in the liturgy of the People of God, the act of divine worship which is man’s first and most important duty. They had not time — and it was not their job — to give emergency aid to the man lying injured by the roadside, still less to give him long-term socioeconomic assistance by arranging for his lodging, etc. They might have missed the sacred ceremonies. They were apparently absolutely right — the only thing is: Our Lord did not think so!

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