A reader not of the Faith who happened, since the installation of Pope Francis, to glance through almost any issue of L’Osservatore Romano, Vatican City’s official newspaper, might well conclude that the conclave that met in the Sistine Chapel last spring elected a social worker instead of a cardinal as the successor to Benedict XVI. (Canon law does allow for such a thing, however improbable; one need not be a cardinal, or even a priest, to be papabile.) The theme of the weekly edition of the paper, which I take, for the past six months has been the plight of the victimized European poor ravaged by economic austerity, the suffering of the Third World poor abandoned by the West and the other wealthy nations, the ordeal of migrants and refugees refused entry to civilized countries or confined there in camps, and the personal duty to express “solidarity” to beggars in the act of giving alms. The paper naturally reflects the tenor of the new papacy, conveyed by the first pope to take the name of the saintly friar, preacher, and founder of the Franciscan order in the early 13th century, Saint Francis of Assisi, whose name is readily associated, among people who cannot identify Saint Augustine of Hippo or the authors of the four Gospels, with the suffering poor and ministering animals. Francis was certainly a great saint; it is surprising, indeed, that his name had not been previously claimed by at least one of the present Pope’s predecessors. This makes it all the more necessary that the Church’s two Francises, separated by eight centuries, should not be Disneyized by sentimental popular Catholicism and politicized by the left-wing Church’s “option for the poor” and the vast international lobby of socialist politicians, bureaucrats, and international charities, as well endowed with funds as they are with political clout. Neither Christ nor Saint Francis could have confused the poor people of their time with what today are called “the poor,” which is exactly what Flannery O’Connor said we all are. There is reason to doubt whether Pope Francis appreciates the distinction. (L’Osservatore Romano, in a recent spread, had kind words for “liberation theology,” the heretical Latin American doctrine publicly condemned by John Paul II and Benedict XVI.)
For Christ, as for Christians (and everyone else) until recent times, the fact of poverty was not a problem: It was a condition. The world cannot and should not revolve around poor people and their problems; it never has, and it never will. Among the sayings of Christ one hears quoted least often nowadays is His observation that “ye have the poor always with you.” The implication of the new papal emphasis on “the poor” is that poverty as a quantity and poor people in their numbers can be significantly reduced, if only “we” would set our minds and our wallets to the task. But Francis is certainly mistaken if he believes, as he apparently does believe, in the possibility of any such thing. Rather the opposite: It is almost a certainty that there will never again be as few poor people in the world—absolutely and relatively speaking—as there are today. Genetics, culture, demography, and ecology (the last two related to the first two) ensure a future increase, perhaps even an explosion, of poverty in Third World countries that further industrialization may alleviate in the short run but can only aggravate in the long one. In the developed world, on the other hand, the result of more than a century of social-welfare legislation, economic development, and technical progress is the formation of an underclass that looks increasingly to be a self-perpetuating one, even as a very small percentage of exceptional individuals fight free of it. The culture of poverty in the West is a phenomenon the existence of which after so extended a period is probably maintained by a process of natural selection over generations, as well as by personal preference. The Western poor, after all, are poor only in relative terms, certainly in comparison with the poor of the Third World but also with middle-class people in their own countries. When poor Americans were absolutely poor, they were lean and fit, healthy from physical labor in construction and agriculture. Now that they are relatively poor, they are obese, diabetic, alcoholic, unexercised, and venereal. They have money enough to enable them to eat and drink and smoke and “experiment” with drugs even more than the rest of us do, buy fancy cars, flat-screen televisions, and smartphones like the rest of us, dress in a cheaper imitation of the rest of us (bargain slob rather than designer slob), and have access to an education in certain ways not so inferior to what their economic superiors enjoy. (Ghetto children study Ebonics; white college students get degrees in the graphic novel, gender issues, and LGBT studies.) The culture of poverty is supported by local, state, and federal welfare, allowing those of its members who so wish to survive on it, while augmenting perhaps their monthly government checks by illegal activity of various kinds. Until recently, the color of the culture of poverty was, substantially, color. Today, for reasons Charles Murray has explored, the culture of poverty is increasingly white. In the case of white poor and colored poor alike, the underclass is perpetuated by the ubiquitous post-Christian, hedonistic morality preached—but not practiced—by the middle and upper classes, and by the exploding complexity and sophistication of postindustrial industrialism, the Digital Revolution. Honest labor is honest labor, and simple manual labor used to be an important part of that. But the number—originally the overwhelming number—of manual jobs available to simple, noncerebral people from the dawn of human history has been shrinking at a rapidly accelerating rate over the past 20 years. Modern technology has succeeded in creating machines so “smart” that only people of above-average intelligence, and considerable training, can operate them. This is another of many examples (mostly provided by the Industrial Revolution, which made no sense from the beginning) of how human intelligence has outsmarted, by overreaching, itself. It is human truth that the poor not only will be with us always, but have always been with us. The agricultural societies industrialism replaced knew their share of poverty and degradation, though Marx does not acknowledge the fact in his graphic descriptions, in Das Kapital, of working conditions in the factories of the first half of the 19th century. Still, it was the Industrial Revolution that provoked the modern concept of society, and replaced an awareness of social conditions with the recognition of social “problems.” Industrial society did not create poverty, but neither did it fulfill the promise of ending it. Rather, it has institutionalized it according to its own structure, just as agricultural society did, but with this exception: Industrialism, by breaking through the Malthusian cycle that governed human history from the prehistorical era of the hunter-gatherers to about 1800, has produced and supported more people and so, in absolute numbers, more poor people as well.
Thus, the Third World poor, condemned by Third World culture and their own numbers, are largely beyond help from anyone else, while the First World underclass is likely unimprovable, economically as well as culturally. What is to be done? Pope Francis seems to perceive a moral imperative to launch an international War on Poverty, led by the G-20, perhaps—yet another grand Coalition of the Willing. If so, he ignores the fact that every Western democracy since the Great War has been waging a war on poverty of its own, though it took an American president to confer so grandiose a name on an equally grandiose effort, and that the history of the past century has shown this collective War on Poverty to be an integral part of a general War on Civilization. It is natural that societies, seeking to uplift, necessarily stoop to the task, and that a related case of lock-joint should prevent them from regaining a fully upright position. Historically, armed warfare has been attended by moral and other laxities, and modern bureaucratic warfare now produces the same effect. One reason is the liberal tendency to allow sympathy to relax into excuse and indulgence (the perverse opposite of what liberals call “blaming the victim”), in this way lowering standards and expectations in respect of the behavior of the people one aims to aid and improve—and of the whole of society along with it. Another is the sentimental temptation, exaggerated by democratism, to glorify the sufferer, to view him as if he had chosen his own suffering in order to sanctify the rest of us—which, if such were indeed the case, would make humanitarian intervention on his behalf a contradiction in terms, as if the witnesses to the Crucifixion had lifted the dying Christ down from the Cross. Lastly, the Western obsession, centuries old at this point, with the Other makes “the poor” and the culture of poverty an object of fascination, admiration, and prudently limited emulation. The 18th century had its Persians (among others) for its inspiration, the late-19th and early-20th its Tahitians and Samoans, and the late-20th century its Poor, whom it seems we would have had to invent, had they not been with us already. Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty was a direct result of the civil-rights movement that immediately preceded it in a logical way, “the poor” and the black being to so great an extent overlapping categories. For liberals, young liberals especially, “the poor” and black became models in almost every respect except for their bank accounts, their social comportment, dress, and music especially. The causative link between these two wars—the Civil Rights War and the War on Poverty—and the degradation of American civilization since the late 1950’s and 60’s, far from being deniable, is openly claimed by the left, which has celebrated it and institutionalized the transformation. “Nostalgie de la boue” and “l’état de nature” are two ways of putting it. Water always seeks its level is another.
The world has better things to do than waste its energies and its talents, squander its attention and its imagination, on futile efforts to eradicate poverty and salvage the often savage class we call “the poor.” Charity is a personal virtue, as the Bible demonstrates; and while humanity, which is a necessary virtue of civilization, requires that society make every reasonable attempt to ameliorate the condition of the genuinely poor, providing for their needs is properly the business of charitable and devout individuals, and the churches—as indeed it used to be. The business of the world is the construction of civilization, and the business of civilization maintaining civilization, a task that requires an insistence upon standards of excellence in each of its parts. “The poor” we shall have with us always. There is no such guarantee regarding civilized men, women, and children, whose existence is always contingent on a complexity of factors, not necessarily including money. Every civilized person is necessarily acquainted with other civilized people, public scrutiny of whose bank accounts would categorize them, in statistical terms, with “the poor.”