Thought for the Day - 17/02/2014 - Clifford Longley
Pope Francis has said his ambition is for the Church to be "a church of and for the poor." The Rev Colin Morris, former President of the Methodist Conference, once coined a similar thought, declaring that "you cannot preach the Gospel from the rich to the poor."
What the head of the Catholic Church and the former head of the Methodist Church meant was that the "medium" - the person speaking and the institution they represent - is an inseparable part of the "message". Hence to be credible, the Church has to be "of the poor" as well as "for the poor".
There is a very long tradition of Church leaders speaking up for the poor, both in this country and abroad. The latest remarks from Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster - soon to be Cardinal Nichols of Westminster - are consistent with that, and also consistent with his own long-term interest in the tradition of moral and political engagement which goes under the banner of Catholic Social Teaching.
Like the Church of England, the Catholic Church has a professional presence 24/7 in virtually all of Britain's poorest communities. Archbishop Nichols said on Saturday that the strict way that benefit sanctions are being enforced, including the withholding of benefits altogether, were leaving some poor people stranded - though obviously there have to be some rules and regulations to see that the criteria for benefits are complied with.
But on the fundamentals, Church and Government are in agreement - that the way out of poverty is through employment, and the way into employment is through education. One of the decisions of the first Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Wiseman, when he was appointed in 1850, was that the building of new schools and colleges had to take priority over the building of new churches.
When Jesus said "blessed are the poor in spirit" he didn't mean that real grinding poverty is a good thing in itself. Poverty isn't something to wallow in, but something to escape from. He did mean that wealth has its own psychological and spiritual snags and snares.
When he told a rich young man - who was evidently getting a bit above himself, ie not very poor in spirit - to sell everything he possessed and give the proceeds to the poor, the Gospel tells us the young man didn't like the advice and "walked sorrowfully away".
Similarly, when Pope Francis attacked the way the poor are exploited by the economic system, the modern equivalents of the rich young man reacted similarly. Some wealthy Catholics in America have threatened to withdraw their donations to the Church in protest at Pope Francis's trenchant message. I doubt that will persuade him to change his mind.