Archbishop Charles Chaput, formerly of Denver and now in Philadelphia, is one of the most important leaders in the American church. He recently addressed an international gathering of bishops in Mexico City on “The New Evangelization” in the Americas. Here is a very provoking passage from that address on poverty, material and spiritual.
“Of course, poverty in the United States is one thing. Poverty in the favelas of Brazil is another. Many people in my country – even when they understand the economic inequalities of Latin America – have no real experience of the human suffering involved. Many of us who live in the North have no experience of poor health care, poor education, poor housing, poor sanitation, no electricity, serious corruption or mass unemployment – at least, not on the scale common to some other countries of America. We have no experience of crippling foreign debt that prevents basic development. And we have no experience of the gulf between rich and poor that exists in other regions of the hemisphere.
“None of this subtracts from the economic and political progress made across the continent in recent years. But it does reveal to us another kind of poverty. I mean the moral poverty that comes from an advanced culture relentlessly focused on consuming more of everything; a culture built on satisfying the self; a culture that runs on ignoring the needs of other people. That kind of poverty, as Mother Teresa saw so well, is very much alive in my country. It’s like a parasite of the soul. It leaves us constantly eating but constantly hungry for something more – all the while starving the spirit that makes us truly human.
“And like material poverty, moral poverty has consequences. It brings fear of new life, a turning away from children, confused sexuality and broken marriages. It results in greed, depression, ugliness and aggression in our popular culture, and laws without grounding in truth. Real human development takes more – much more – than better science, better management and better consumer goods, though all these things are wonderful in their place. Human happiness can’t be separated from the human thirst for meaning. Material things can’t provide that meaning. Abundance can murder the soul as easily as scarcity can. It’s just a different kind of poverty. This is why [John Paul II’s exhortation] Ecclesia in America rightly wondered “whether a pastoral strategy directed almost exclusively to meeting people’s material needs has not in the end left their hunger for God unsatisfied, making them vulnerable to anything which claims to be of spiritual benefit.”
“To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, the devil is happy to cure our fevers if he can give us cancer in the process. To heal a suffering man is a noble and beautiful thing. But there’s a difference between dulling his pain, and making him whole and well.
“Likewise, solving poverty of the body by replacing it with a starving soul is not a solution.”