Saturday, August 23, 2008

Beati Pauperes Spiritu

Saint Ambrose Roman Catholic Church, in Saint Louis, Missouri, USA - Beati pauperes spiritu

One of the Eight Beatitudes at Saint Ambrose Church, in Saint Louis, Missouri.
The nature then of Christ's teaching is attested by His own holy statements: that they who wish to arrive at eternal blessedness may understand the steps of ascent to that high happiness. Blessed, He says, are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:3). It would perhaps be doubtful what poor He was speaking of, if in saying blessed are the poor He had added nothing which would explain the sort of poor: and then that poverty by itself would appear sufficient to win the kingdom of heaven which many suffer from hard and heavy necessity. But when He says blessed are the poor in spirit, He shows that the kingdom of heaven must be assigned to those who are recommended by the humility of their spirits rather than by the smallness of their means. Yet it cannot be doubted that this possession of humility is more easily acquired by the poor than the rich: for submissiveness is the companion of those that want, while loftiness of mind dwells with riches. Notwithstanding, even in many of the rich is found that spirit which uses its abundance not for the increasing of its pride but on works of kindness, and counts that for the greatest gain which it expends in the relief of others' hardships. It is given to every kind and rank of men to share in this virtue, because men may be equal in will, though unequal in fortune: and it does not matter how different they are in earthly means, who are found equal in spiritual possessions. Blessed, therefore, is poverty which is not possessed with a love of temporal things, and does not seek to be increased with the riches of the world, but is eager to amass heavenly possessions.
Sermon 95, Saint Leo the Great.


  1. Notwithstanding the stature of St. Leo, it is important to recognize:

    (1) While it is possible to inflict this interpretation on Mt 5.3, it is incompatible with Luke's report of the same event in 6.20.

    (2) Jesus elsewhere makes clear the incompatibility of wealth with the Kingdom (rich man and Lazarus, and others).

    (3) It was not the teaching of the early church, both in the apostolic age (e. g. James) or in the earlier post-apostolic age.

    (4) Leo was an aristocrat, and often prevailed by the assistance of secular authorities.

    All of which is not to diminish the real accomplishments of this Saint, but simply to put this particular passage in perspective.

    Beyond St. Leo, the counsel of St. Francis was absolute.

  2. All of the references to this passage I was able to find in the Fathers and Doctors of the Church had a similar interpretation as that of Saint Leo, and so I feel fairly confident that this is apostolic teaching. I chose his text because it was concise.

    From what I can tell, the authentic Catholic teaching on the Beatitudes includes two standards; one standard of perfection and absolute evangelical poverty for those who are to preach and live the Gospel, and one standard of merely sufficient general precepts for everyone. The Didache, dating from the first century, upholds this view: "For if you are able to bear all the yoke of the Lord, you will be perfect; but if you are not able, what you are able that do."

    I believe you were referring to Saint Francis of Assisi, who apparently held more to the absolutist view of the Sermon.

    I recall a reader who strongly objected to my characterization of certain Catholics as being those who seek a 'comfortable' church. He stated that raising a family is extremely difficult work, and that the sacrifices of this certainly balances the lack of evangelical poverty. It would be extremely difficult to raise a family under such conditions of evangelical poverty as stated by Our Lord, and we ought to be generous in recognizing this.

    The various sects that sprung from the Reformation have differing views of the Beatitudes, from being Absolutists, to the attitude of merely 'feeling bad inside' when an employer submits his workers to crushing poverty and cruel working conditions. I stick to authoritative Catholic sources as much as possible, even though I know varying opinion of varying quality is available elsewhere.

    We ought not damn the rich to Hell. Consider this passage:

    "It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God. Who wondered the more, saying among themselves: Who then can be saved? And Jesus looking on them, saith: With men it is impossible; but not with God: for all things are possible with God."

    "All things are possible with God". Please don't think that I have a Puritan attitude towards wealth, or that I hold to a "health and wealth" gospel. Certainly wealth seems to be a wide road towards damnation, but that means specifically that those who have much will have vastly more required of them. But neither do I hold to the political view that poverty is good and ought to be imposed on the masses.

  3. H-m-m-m. Let's see. You give me an awful lot to respond to.

    (1) Let's deal with the last first. My perspective on politics is like my perspective on war which is like Tertullian's. In other words, a Catholic should have nothing to do with either. Therefore, he/she should have nothing to do with imposing poverty or anything else on the masses. (Yes, I know I'm in the minority.)

    (2) Yes, experience has taught me that raising a family is very, very difficult, perhaps more difficult than a life of prayer and meditation. And I don't see how it can be done responsibly with strict Franciscan absolutism. On the other hand, it can be done with simplicity and minimalism, as opposed to extravagance.

    (3)We had best not damn anyone to hell. It is not our job, and unnecessarily prolongs our confessions.