“The poor are the incarnation of Christ,” Archbishop Óscar A. Romero wrote as a seminarian in 1941. This month, the Archdiocese of San Salvador asks us to reflect on Romero’s youthful epiphany in preparation for the centennial of his birth in 2017. “Through their tattered clothing, their dark gazes, their festering sores, the laughter of the mentally ill, the charitable soul discovers and venerates Christ,” the young Romero wrote. Pope Francis echoed the sentiment in his Lenten Message this year: “In the poor and outcast we see Christ’s face; by loving and helping the poor, we love and serve Christ.”
Together, Francis and Romero provide us a spiritual typology of poverty, helping us to understand why Christians should care about the poor. Francis considers poverty as a subcategory of what he calls destitution. “Destitution is not the same as poverty,” writes the Pontiff. Destitution takes three prominent forms: (1) spiritual destitution, (2) moral destitution, and (3) material destitution. “Material destitution is what is normally called poverty,” writes Francis, and is more or less the result of the other species of destitution, as spiritual destitution leads to moral destitution which leads to material destitution.
For this reason, Romero calls poverty “a divine accusation”—because, like the proverbial canary in the coalmine, it serves to point out an underlying corrupt condition; ultimately, what Francis calls “spiritual destitution.” Romero: “The existence of poverty as a lack of what is necessary is an indictment ... a denunciation of the fact that there are poor people, that there are people who are hungry, that there are people who suffer ... why do these realities exist?”
Spiritual destitution, writes Francis, is that “which we experience when we turn away from God and reject his love” and “the Gospel is the real antidote to spiritual destitution.” Because spiritual destitution is the ultimate cause of material destitution (poverty), the Gospel is also the real antidote to material destitution or poverty. Herein lies the connection between material poverty in the world, and the Church’s concern, which is otherworldly.
Romero: “Jesus comes into the midst of this situation not with weapons or with some political revolutionary movement but rather presents a doctrine that encompasses the great liberation from sin, a doctrine that promises eternal life.” And Francis: “wherever we go, we are called as Christians to proclaim the liberating news that forgiveness for sins committed is possible, that God is greater than our sinfulness, that he freely loves us at all times and that we were made for communion and eternal life.” To improve the lot of the poor, we have to root out sin.
Because poverty is material destitution, we arrest it by assuming spiritual poverty which constitutes not destitution, but the quintessential Christian virtue. This poverty is “a commitment” and a veritable “spirituality,” Romero tells us—a commitment to stand by the poor, and a spirituality because we choose godliness over worldly, material wealth.
“The Christian who does not want to live this commitment of solidarity with the poor,” Romero admonishes, “is not worthy to be called Christian.”