The Medieval Church on the Duties of the Rich to the Poor

Cardinal-designate Vincent Nichols, who has attacked fellow Catholic Iain Duncan Smith's benefit cuts as a "disgrace". [Image: Liverpool Echo]

Vincent Nichols, Roman Catholic Bishop of Westminster

Last Sunday, the Roman Catholic bishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, criticised the government welfare reforms for their attacks on the poor. Needless to say, this annoyed the Prime Minster, who has now declared his belief in the essential morality of the government’s welfare reforms. Previous churchmen, both Roman Catholic and Protestant, have criticised the government’s attacks on the poor and vulnerable. Dr Robert Runcie, the Archbishop of Canterbury, criticised Margaret Thatcher, as has his successor, Justin Welby, attacked Cameron. I can also remember the Church of Scotland looking mightily unimpressed when Thatcher addressed them on St Paul’s text, ‘If a man does not work, he shall not eat’. There’s a lot of theological discussion about that text, and it certainly is not a pretext for denying the unemployed benefit.

There was considerable debate during the Middle Ages about the moral status of wealth, whether the unemployed should be given alms to support themselves if they were not working, and the relationship between the rich and the poor. There was a belief in the Middle Ages that the rich had the moral duty to support the poor, with damnation as a possible consequence if they did not.

One of the major Middle English texts that debated this question was Dives and Pauper, a dialogue between a rich and poor man. In it, Pauper says

All that the rich man has passing his honest living after the degree of his dispensation it is other mens and not his, and he shall give well hard reckoning thereof at the doom… [the Last Judgement] For rich men and lords in this world be God’s bailiffs and God’s reeve to ordain [=provide] for the poor folk and for to sustain the poor folk.

The Fathers of the Church believed that superfluous wealth belonged to the poor. The great medieval theologian and philosopher, Thomas Aquinas, stated that

According to natural law goods that are held in superabundance by some people should be used for the maintenance of the poor. This is the principle enunciated by Ambrose … It is the bread of the poor you are holding back; it is the clothes of the naked which you are hoarding; it is the relief and liberation of the wretched which you are thwarting by burying your money away.

St. Basil, in his sermon ‘On Mercy and Justice’, stated that if the rich did not making offering to God to feed the poor, they would be accused of robbery. This was reflected in another of Pauper’s statements

Withholding of alms from the poor needy folk is theft in the sight of God, for the covetous rich withdraw from the poor folk what belongs to them and misappropriate the poor men’s goods, with which they should be succoured.

Ambrose went further and stated that those, who did not provide food for the starving killed them. Pauper also made the same statement when he referred to the Fifth Commandment: Thou shalt not kill.

If any man or woman dies for lack of help, then all who should have helped, or might have helped, or knew the person’s plight, but who would not help are guilty of manslaughter.

Mrs Thatcher herself was personally very generous, and part of her argument was that private charity could provide better relief to the poor, that state support. She also believed that it was more moral, because there was an element of choice involved. Now Albertus Magnus, Aquinas’ predecessor, believed that almsgiving should also be a matter of personal choice, but that this only involved donations beyond the moral compulsion to provide for the poor out of superfluous wealth.

Unfortunately, at various times during its history the Church has not lived up to its moral responsibility to provide for the poor. This was certainly the case during the Thirteenth century, when a number of churchmen attacked their clergy for taking the money provided for poor relief. The result was that in many parishes the lay congregation put up ‘poor tables’ in parish churchyards, on which bread was to be doled out to the poor. There was a feeling amongst some churchmen that the poor had rights. Just as a vassal had the feudal right of diffidatio, or rebellion against an unjust overlord, so the poor could also spiritually rebel against the rich. Johannes Teutonicus declared that a pauper had the right to denounce a rich man publicly and excommunicate him. By the 16th century the belief had developed that God paid particular attention to the prayers of the poor against the rich. If a pauper was refused alms, and so prayed to God for His help or judgement against the rich person, who had refused him, his prayer would be answered answer the rich miser suffer as a consequence.

Nor at various periods in history was almsgiving entirely voluntary. In France during the 17th century it was compulsory for parishioners to donate to poor relief in their parish. In England giving was supposed to be voluntary, but it was strongly urged by the clergy in their sermons.

Cameron has maintained that his welfare reforms are moral. I’ve reblogged a piece by Mike over at Vox Political, which shows that Cameron and his wretched policies are morally bankrupt. As for the statement of Ambrose, Basil and the rest of the Church Fathers that refusing to support the starving makes a person responsible for their murder, it should be borne in mind that so far as many as 38,000 per year may have died as a result of being refused benefits by Cameron and the Coalition. The poor are very definitely being denied their rights. In this argument between His Grace the Bishop of Westminster and Cameron, the moral authority and traditions of Fathers are very definitely on the good bishop’s side, not Cameron’s.

Let the wailing, grinding and gnashing of teeth at Tory Central Office now begin.

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12 Responses to “The Medieval Church on the Duties of the Rich to the Poor”

  1. jeffrey davies Says:

    but you cannot beat greed and that’s in abundance with this lot

  2. beastrabban Says:

    Too right, Jeffrey!

  3. Mike Sivier Says:

    Reblogged this on Vox Political and commented:
    I love the lines quoted from Thomas Aquinas: “Goods that are held in superabundance by some people should be used for the maintenance of the poor… It is the bread of the poor you are holding back; it is the clothes of the naked which you are hoarding; it is the relief and liberation of the wretched which you are thwarting.” The only words missing are: “… Iain Duncan Smith and David Cameron.”

  4. The Medieval Church on the Duties of the Rich to the Poor | Vox Political Says:

    […] [… and, since WordPress seems to have arbitrarily decided not to reblog anything other than the titles of articles and my own comments, you can find those words here:…%5D […]

  5. amnesiaclinic Says:

    A very interesting post. A start would be to get it into every parish magazine in the land, to the WI and the Mothers’ Union for a start.

    Well done!!


    • Helen Maddock Says:

      Damn good idea! We need to engage the chattering classes, the uninformed. I will be asking my local churches to do just this….should be interesting to say the least. Thanks.

  6. amnesiaclinic Says:

    Reblogged this on amnesiaclinic.

  7. jeffrey davies Says:

    trouble is they have mark carney in the bank fiddling the figures a failed bankster from Canada helping George rob us more but we aint rich so if a bank went burst it would be the rich who suffered has of it we might lose a few grand but some would lose a dam site more and it this robbing from the poor to pay to keep caviar on their tables yep greed jeff3

  8. beastrabban Says:

    Thanks, Amnesiaclinic.

    And you’re right, Jeffrey, we do have a problem with the banksters helping George Osborne rob us.

  9. The Medieval Church on the Duties of the Rich t... Says:

    […] Vincent Nichols, Roman Catholic Bishop of Westminster Last Sunday, the Roman Catholic bishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, criticised the government welfare reforms for their attacks on the poor.  […]

  10. rainbowwarriorlizzie Says:


  11. The Swans New Party Says:

    The rich are not the source of money for the poor in today’s UK, even thought they pay the lion share of Income Tax, even with the 5% Cut from 2013 for the richest 300,000.

    Everyone is a taxpayer in or out of work, from the 75% of personal taxation that comes from myriad stealth taxes, even on food.

    Welfare Reform and its £500 million per contracts on such as Atos is taking the money that the poor have given to the political class, that was th eonly way we could live.

    Only by co-operating together than the lower third in income survive.

    National debt has increased under the Tories just as much as under Labour who started Welfare Reform back before 2005.

    We live within a Weimar Republic and Moneyweek says no government has ever solved that amount of debt and not crashed the economy.

    We are already in a Greece and Europe’s solution just flattened that nation, and the rest of southern and Eastern Europe.

    We have a war going on between Empire Europe and the Russian Empire on the resources of the Ukraine, with the people fighting each other.

    The morality of politicians morally stealing the people’s own money from themselves of Welfare Reform, Bedroom Tax (when us the taxpayer pay the bedroom tax of politicians) and all the cost of private contracts delivering welfare reform (and the next good (sic) idea is to privatise delivery of the state pension), is beggaring the nation, and threatens rich and poor alike.

    Politicians are just wallowing in a life of wealth and privilege that threatens all income levels equally in the nation, on the money of the 100% of adults who are the taxpayers in the nation.

    We could crash today or crash next year, but the one way to prevent the crash is to do things differently that any of the political class today can offer.

    Are we going to sit and starve and freeze, while the thief of our money, morally speaking, of our political class threaten us all?

    Make a whole new way of doing politics, not trapped in a world centuries old of right and left, with The Swans

    And oh by the way to remind the Christian clergy of their duty under Christ our Lord, here are his words in the Bible on the clergy’s mission:

    Matthew 25:35-40 (New International Version)
    35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
    37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
    40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

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