When Solidarity Goes Wrong
I must have grown up in strange times. In my time, alms to the poor and charitable donations were works of mercy to which the faithful were gently encouraged. In particular, the idea that specific, perfectly legitimate activities were targeted as something whose cost can be saved and “given to the poor instead” were the preserve of populists, but not of ordinary clergy (with some rare exception, like the infamous sale of the Papal Tiara “to give the proceeds to the poor”; but Paul VI did populism all right…).
In those days, every Italian family was visited by a priest two or three times a year, and even agnostics like my father never had any problem in giving generously, then Italy is a place where the role of the Church in helping the poor and keeping together the fabric of the country is (erm, was) well understood by everyone. Still, no priest who ever visited by us ever suggested that we, say, do not go on holiday and “give the money to the poor instead”, then such a prying attitude towards other people’s money is simply not in tune with sound Catholic thinking.
And in fact, it seems to me a mainstay of said sound Catholic thinking that whilst everyone has an obligation to give according to his means and station in life, no one has any right to demand – and even the suggestive “asking” is inappropriate indeed – that such and such expenses be allocated to the poor instead.
This makes perfect sense; then whatever you spend gives a livelihood to someone else. This is why I also never heard a homily implying suggestions like “do not buy new clothes, give the money to the poor instead”, or “you don’t need to eat beef, eat rather beans and give the money to the poor”, lest the poor shopkeeper and butcher, who run perfectly legitimate businesses and might well be good people with fear of The Lord, feel unjustly targeted. The idea is rather that everyone in his conscience decides what he is ready to sacrifice, so that individual charity goes hand in hand with the right of every legitimate activity to aspire to the public’s business. There might be exceptions to this of course, and at some point the purchase of the thirtieth silk suit might be considered potentially inappropriate – depending on one’s means and station in life – even if it helps to pay the tailor’s mortgage. Still, the general rule is to charitably assume that the one who can afford thirty silk suits also helps the poor in accordance to his means, and if he loves to dress this should be, in fact, nobody’s business in the end. Charity isn’t socialism, you see, nor is it the business of the priest to tell people how to spend their money, but merely to remind them to nurture that charitable heart, and give the help to those in need, the Lord’s love and justice expect from everyone.
This is also the reason why priests do not show up in the houses of wealthy donors saying “your country house alone could feed so and so many poor for so many weeks”, perhaps talking the oh so well sounding “preferential option for the poor” Vaticanese, and I do not remember “Brideshead Revisited” (written by a true champion of Catholicism) ending with the sale of the family’s stately home so that social inequalities may be diminished. Again, there can be exceptions, and decadence or ostentation for the sake of it, or for the pride of it, are certainly sinful; but you get the gist.
If you agree with the above you might, like me, find the recent initiative of the new, but already rather hyperactive Pontiff more than somewhat questionable.
If the Holy Father had suggested to his wealthy (or simply well-off) admirers from all over the world (he speaks to the Argentinian ones, but the news echoed everywhere, and in fact applies everywhere; which was, no doubt, the intent) that as they visit him in Rome they may enjoy their holiday, thank The Lord for the possibility to do so and also think in their charity of those who suffer and are in need, I would have found the message eminently charitable as well as eminently sensible.
Unfortunately, the Pope has suggested instead to his Argentinian fans that they do not travel to Rome at all, and give the money to the poor instead.
Now, the Pontiff may think that he is the only person involved in an intercontinental trip to Rome to visit him, but the reality is that he isn’t. From the taxi driver and the airport personnel in Argentina, to the employees and possibly shareholders of the airline, to all the providers of the most various goods and services once at destination, a lot of people are, in fact, directly involved, often with their livelihood. In a place like Rome (I know this, because I was born and raised there) an awful lot of jobs depend on Papal tourism; and I am not talking here solely of those running religious article shops, but of all the supply chain from the hotel to the restaurant, and from the taxi driver to the touristic guide. They, in turn, also spend money, helping the baker, the butcher, and the bookseller; who will pay taxes caring for the hospitals, the police, and so on.
When the Pope suggests to his admirers they do not travel at all, in my eyes he substitutes a legitimate appeal to charity for a very questionable, rather aggressive evaluation of which jobs are justified and which aren’t, and he lets the entire tourism industry in Rome appear as a drain to resources more properly employed for the poor.
If you ask me, there is something very wrong in this kind of attitude, and I am astonished at the way the press – even the Italian one – is lavishing praise on this cheap populism we thought dead with the Seventies. I cannot remember any Pope of the past making such kind of appeals. If you look long enough you will certainly find many examples from lives of the saints etc., but they weren’t Popes and couldn’t (and certainly would now want to) impinge in this way on the livelihood of so many.
I have warned already this pontificate might generate a wave of aggressive populism like we have never seen before.
Apparently, the Holy Father hasn’t lost any time.