This is a translation of the Latin-language speech delivered at the Nov. 5 ecumenical council meeting by James J. Norris, president of the International Catholic Migration Commission and assistant to the executive director of Catholic Relief Services-National Catholic Welfare Conference.
In the last decade the problem of poverty — one of the oldest and deepest that confronts the Christian conscience — has taken on a new shape, new dimensions and new urgency. “The poor you have always with you”— yes, but today the poor are with us in a new and revolutionary context, because modern science, medicine and technology have helped to bring about a single economy, a neighborhood that is interdependent but largely lacking the institutions and the policies that express solidarity, compassion and human obligation.
In this lopsided community, one small group of nations has become immensely wealthy. These nations represent 16 percent of the world’s peoples, and they own 70 percent of its wealth. They are the nations grouped around the North Atlantic, which are Christian by tradition, if not always in practice. For the first time in history they foresee rising prosperity — rich today, they will be richer tomorrow.
Meanwhile, three-quarters of the human race live in a state of poverty bordering on or below the subsistence level.
The gap between the rich and the poor is rapidly widening — side by side the rich grow richer and the poor grow poorer, in a single world community. This is a wholly unprecedented historical fact, and it presents the Christian conscience of the western nations with a challenge, because for the first time in history it is accepted as a fact that, given time, they have the means to wipe out poverty in the rest of the world.
There will be no meaning to their Christian profession or humane traditions if they forget that wealth is a trust and that property carries social obligations and that riches on the scale of the West’s modern riches must be redeemed by generosity.
A number of Churches, private, governmental and international agencies have been attempting to alleviate the problems of poverty and hunger in the world; nevertheless, the constantly widening gap between the rich and the poor demands now a sustained, realistic, dedicated campaign to bring full Christian activity to bear upon these problems.
All Christian communions are involved and therefore the opportunity is offered to all to unite in these efforts and bring joint influence to bear to encourage governments to continue and expand their policies for providing capital and technical assistance. No other group is likely to have the staying power needed for this long, arduous and often disappointing work.
World poverty will not be wiped out speedily, nor will the problem of development be solved in anything short of several generations. Our Christian peoples must not become weary of well-doing.
But the goal will be reached if in each wealthy country there is brought into being a strong, committed, well-informed and courageous group of men of good will who are prepared to see world poverty as one of the great central concerns of our time and press steadily and vocally for the policies in aid, in trade and in the transfer of skills that will lessen the widening gap between the rich and the poor.
This problem is not only the concern of the wealthy nations. In our complex 20th-century world, the developing nations, to progress effectively, need the capital, the knowledge, and the technical assistance of the more economically developed countries, but as wise leaders in those countries insist, the development must come from the local resources, both material and human, which God has given these lands.
Recently, a bishop from one of these lands said to me, “My people live not only in poverty but in permanent misery.” This type of utter poverty brings with it other human sufferings. The first is hunger — a constant, gnawing hunger that is never satisfied day or night. Poverty brings diseases that cannot be cured because there are no medical services. Poverty brings illiteracy in lands where the great majority of people cannot read or write. Poverty brings bad housing “slums” that breed crime and sin. Poverty means that a mother looks at her newborn infant knowing that it will probably die before the year is out. For millions of people, poverty means that life expectancy is 35 years. For millions of people, living in this kind of poverty, death is a sweet release.
A loving human family does not permit its members to suffer in this way. When all the members of our Christian family become aware of the extent of suffering and privation among the poor of the world surely they will make certain that their wealthy lands will not fail to respond to their Christian obligation.
From this ecumenical council could come a clarion call for action which would involve the creation of a structure that would devise the kind of institutions, contacts, forms of cooperation and policy, which the Church can adopt, to secure full Catholic participation in the worldwide attack on poverty.
This great gathering of bishops represents every continent and every country on earth. Since world poverty affects all humanity, the great contribution of our universal Church can be a world-encircling manifestation of brotherly love, bringing effectively to bear the social teaching of the Church on the problem which our beloved Holy Father discussed in his Christmas message last year when he said that hunger is the principal problem in the world today and concluded with these words: “’Unless this heart-rending situation is relieved, we must foresee that it will grow worse, not better. … Even though we are not given Christ’s miraculous power of materially multiplying bread for the world’s hunger, still we can take to heart the plea that rises from the masses, still oppressed and languishing with misery, and to feel it vibrate in us with the very pity which was felt by the heart of Christ which is both divine and completely human: Misereor super turbam. … ‘I have compassion on the multitude. … They have nothing to eat.’
“We make our own the sufferings of the poor. And we hope that this our sympathy may itself become capable of enkindling that new love which, by means of a specially planned economy, will multiply the bread needed to feed the world.”