Rorate Caeli

The So-Called “Poor Church”: from Vatican II to Pope Francis

Roberto de Mattei
Corrispondenza Romana
June 15, 2015

Pope Francis’ documents, according to the judgment of some theologians, constitute some generic indications of a pastoral and moral nature, devoid of significant magisterial quality. This is one of the reasons such documents are discussed in a freer way than has ever happened with other pontifical texts.  Among the most penetrating analyses of these texts, the study of a philosopher from the University of Perugia, Flavio Cuniberto, should be noted.  His book, Lady Poverty. Pope Francis and the Refoundation of Christianity (Neri Pozza, Vicenza, 2016), is dedicated in particular to the encyclicals Evangeli Gaudium (2013) and Laudato si (2015).  The study to which Professor Cuniberto subjects the texts is that of a scholar who attempts to understand the basic theses, often concealed by deliberately concise and ambiguous language.  On the theme of poverty, Cuniberto, brings to light two contradictions: the first is of a theological-doctrinal nature; the second of a practical nature.

In regard to the first point, he notes that Pope Francis, in contrast to what the Gospel infers, makes of poverty a material condition more than a spiritual one, thus transforming it into a sociological category. These exegeses appear, for example, in the choice of citing for the Sermon on the Mount on the Beatitudes, Luke 6, 20 and not the more precise Mathew 5, 3 (which uses the term “pauperes spiritu” that is, those who live humbly before God). Poverty, though, seems to be simultaneously an evil and a good. In fact, Cuniberto notes, “if poverty as material misery, exclusion and abandonment, is indicated from the very start as an evil to combat - not to say the evil of all evils - and is thus the primary objective of missionary action”, the new Christological significance that Francesco gives it “makes it contemporarily a value and, even more - the supreme and exemplary value.”  We are dealing here, the philosopher stresses, with a complicated muddle. “Why combat poverty and uproot it when it is, on the contrary, a ‘precious treasure’, and even the way to the Kingdom? Is it an enemy to combat or a precious treasure?”(pp. 25-26).

The second knot regards the “structural causes” of poverty. In supposing that it is a radical evil, Pope Bergoglio seems to individuate the basic cause is in “inequality”. The solution indicated to extirpate this evil would be the Marxist and Third –World redistribution of wealth:  take away from the rich and give to the poor.  An egalitarian redistribution which would pass through a greater globalization of resources, no longer reserved to the Western minority, but extended to the entire world.  However, at the base of globalization is the logic of profit, which on one hand is criticised and on the other is proposed as a way of overcoming poverty. Super-capitalism, in order to be fostered, needs a plateau of increasingly extended consumers, but the extension on a grand scale of wealth, ends up fostering inequalities that should be eliminated.

Professor Cuniberto’s book merits reading alongside Don Beniamino Di Martino’s (a Neapolitan scholar) on Poverty and Wealth. Exegeses of Evangelical Texts (Publisher, Domenicana Italiana, Naples 2013). The book is very technical and Don Martino dismantles, through a rigorous analysis of the texts, the theses of a certain theology of pauperism. The expression “against avidity not against wealth” sums up, according to the author, the Gospel teaching that he analyzes.

But what are the origins of the theological, moral and exegetic confusion between spiritual poverty and material poverty? The so-called “Pact of the Catacombs” signed on November 16th 1965 in the Catacombs of Domitilla in Rome, by forty odd Council Fathers who committed themselves to live and fight for a poor and egalitarian Church, cannot be ignored.  Among its founders the group had Paul Gauthier, a priest, (1914-2002) who had been involved in the experience of Cardinal Suhard’s “Worker Priests”, condemned by the Holy See in 1953, and then with the support of a Bishop who was a  Council theologian, Monsignor Georges Hakim, had founded a religious family in Palestine, ‘The Companions of Jesus the Carpenter’ [male and female]. Gauthier was accompanied by his battle-companion, Marie-Thérèse Lacaze, who lived with him after he left the priesthood.

Among those that sustained the movement were Monsignor Charles M. Himmer, Bishop of Tournai (Belgium) who hosted its meetings at the Belgian College in Rome, Dom Helder Camara, who was then Auxiliary Bishop of Rio and afterwards Bishop of Recife and Cardinal Pierre M. Gerlier, Archbishop of Lyons, in close contact with Cardinal Giacomo Lercaro , Archbishop of Bologna, who was represented by his advisor, Giuseppi Dossetti and his Auxiliary Bishop, Monsignor Luigi Bettazzi (The Pact of the Catacombs. The Mission of the Poor in the Church, by Xabier Pizaka e José Antunes da Silva, Publisher, Italian Missionaries, 2015).

Monsignor Bettazzi, the only Italian Bishop still living who was present at Vatican II, was also the only Italian to adhere to the “Pact of the Catacombs”.  Bettazzi, now 93 years old, took part in three sessions at Vatican II and was the Bishop of Ivrea from 1966 to 1999, when he resigned because of age limit. If Dom Helder Camara was the Brazilian “Red Bishop”, Monsignor Bettazzi enters history as the Italian “Red Bishop”.  In July 1976, when it seemed that Communism might take power in Italy, Bettazzi wrote a letter to the then Secretary of the Italian Communist Party, Enrico Berlinguer, in whom he recognised the tendency to realize: “a unique experience of Communism, different from the Communism of other nations” and asked [him] “not to be hostile” to the Church but “to stimulate ” rather “ an evolution according to the needs of the times and the expectations of men, above all the poorest, whom you know better how to interpret at the most opportune time.”  The leader of the Italian Communist Party replied to the Bishop of Ivrea with a letter – Communists and Catholics: Clarity of Principles and Basis of Agreement, published in ‘Rinascita’ of October 14th, 1977.

In this letter Berlinguer denied that the Italian Communist Party professed explicitly the Marxist ideology, as an atheistic, materialistic philosophy and confirmed the possibility of a meeting between Christians and Communists on the level of “de-ideologization”.  It was not a question of thinking in the same way, but to travel along the same path together – Berlinguer affirmed in substance – in the conviction that Marxists are not such in thought, but become so in praxis. The Marxist primacy of praxis has today penetrated inside the Church as an absorption of doctrine into the pastoral.  Further, the Church risks becoming Marxist also by falsifying in praxis the theological concept of poverty. True poverty is the detachment from the goods of this earth, in a way that they are used for the salvation of the soul and not its perdition. All Christians must be detached from goods, as the Kingdom of Heaven is reserved for “the poor in spirit”, and some of these are called to live actual poverty, renouncing possessions and the use of material goods.

Nevertheless, this choice is of value because it is free and is not imposed by anyone. The heretical sects, since the first centuries, have, on the contrary, demanded the sharing of material goods, with the aim of realizing an egalitarian utopia on this earth. Along these lines, there are those today who want to substitute the religious category of the poor in spirit with the sociological one of the materially poor.  Monsignor Luigi Betazzi, author of the small volume, The Church of the Poor from the Council to Pope Francis (Pazzini 2014), on April 4th 2016, received the honorary citizenship of Bologna and could well receive the cardinalship from Pope Francis, under whose pontificate, according to the former Archbishop of Ivrea, the Pact of the Catacombs has been developed “ like a seed of wheat planted underground and cultivated little by little until it bears its fruits.”

[Translation: Francesca Romana]