Posts Tagged ‘Dole Tables’

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

February 21, 2014

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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