VATICAN CITY (RNS) — Pope Francis condemned greed and the ruthless pursuit of profit in a message sent to a Vatican conference on poverty Sunday (Oct. 3), offering his spiritual take on economic issues to a group of economists and faith leaders that included prominent U.S. activist the Rev. William Barber II.
“We can be very attached to money, possess many things, but in the end we will not take them with us,” the pope wrote, according to a Spanish-language version of his written message. “I always remember what my grandmother taught me: ‘The shroud has no pockets.’”
Francis sent the remarks to those assembled at the Vatican for the two-day conference on “Caritas, Social Friendship, and the End of Poverty,” organized by the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences.
In his message, the pope railed against global economic inequality between countries and within national borders, saying the ultimate effect “has a negative economic, political, cultural and even spiritual impact.” In order to counter such trends, he invoked the biblical declaration “blessed are the poor in spirit,” explaining the true “spirit of poverty” should lead believers to use wealth and resources for “the common good, social justice and the care and protection of our common home.”
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“The possessors of goods must use them in a spirit of poverty, reserving the best part for the guest, the sick, the poor, the old, the helpless, the excluded; who are the face, so often forgotten, of Jesus, who we look for when we seek the common good,” Francis wrote. “The development of a society is measured by the ability to urgently help the sufferer.”
The Bishop of Rome concluded by calling for a global movement to “limit all those activities and institutions that, by their own inclination, tend only to profit, especially those Saint John Paul II called ‘structures of sin.’”
Francis’ message was well-received by Barber, a prominent activist who co-chairs the faith-led Poor People’s Campaign and has challenged Republican and Democratic lawmakers to do more to address poverty in the U.S.
Barber referenced the pope — particularly his 2020 encyclical “Fratelli tutti” — in his own address to the conference on Monday. Barber’s speech, which was titled “Coalition-building and bridging religious communities for poverty mitigation,” also alluded to the pontiff’s namesake St. Francis, whose Catholic feast day coincided with Barber’s speech.
“As Francis once walked this land proclaiming good news to the poor, the poor and rejected of my country march and sit-in today to declare the good news that a moral economy is possible in our time,” Barber said, according to his prepared remarks.
Poor People’s Campaign activists have spent years protesting in support of legislation they argue would help poor and low-wealth families but intensified their efforts in 2021. The group staged a series of demonstrations in Texas, Arizona, Washington, D.C. and other locations throughout the summer. They aimed to put pressure on Democratic lawmakers to pass a slate of liberal-leaning proposals pertaining to voting rights and raising the federal minimum wage, among other issues. One peaceful protest outside the U.S. Capitol resulted in hundreds of arrests, including Barber and civil rights icon the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
In a separate interview with Religion News Service, Barber said Vatican conference attendees were aware of pushback from the Poor People’s Campaign and others against Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, the two Democratic lawmakers currently blocking many liberal economic proposals.
He said: “People are looking at the actions of Sinema and Manchin and thinking, ‘What in the world?’”
In his speech, Barber also appeared to echo Francis’ call for a global movement to end poverty.
“The church must have a prophetic moral outcry and must help foster another way of seeing the world,” said the Disciples of Christ minister. “A movement with poor and low-wealth people, moral religious servant leaders, and academic social advocates must push a penetrating moral imagination.”
Barber said his plans for a mass poverty-focused march in Washington, D.C. next June sparked a burst of excitement among conference attendees, whom he cited as repeatedly referring to the current state of global poverty as sinful. After mentioning the march in his speech, Barber said participants from other parts of the world expressed interest in organizing similar events in their countries.
The conference attendees also plan to release a letter addressed to the G20 summit scheduled to take place in Rome at the end of October.
“What’s good about being at a world table is while I may have been from the United States, what we find is that around the world poor people face some of the same obstacles, the same challenges, the same kind of regressive political actions,” he told RNS. “Which is why there’s such a need for low wealth people around the world to have solidarity, to have a movement and, if you will, a worldwide Poor People’s Campaign.”
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Barber was invited to the Vatican by economist and conference co-host Jeffrey Sachs, whom the activist described as a “great supporter” of the Poor People’s Campaign. Sachs has heaped praise on the movement in recent months, describing as “the Lord’s work” a poverty-focused U.S. House of Representatives resolution the campaign helped introduce with lawmakers in May.
The North Carolina pastor tweeted a picture of himself alongside Sachs on Sunday under the caption: “As the church celebrates the Feast of St. Francis, I’m grateful to be at the Vatican with my brother Jeffrey Sachs to talk about the prophetic role of religious leaders in God’s work to end poverty.”
As the church celebrates the Feast of St. Francis, I’m grateful to be at the Vatican with my brother Jeffrey Sachs to talk about the prophetic role of religious leaders in God’s work to end poverty. #PoorPeoplesCampaign pic.twitter.com/IWez9jtxZv
— Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II (@RevDrBarber) October 3, 2021
Sachs, who serves as director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University, has been a recurring speaker at Vatican events under Francis, especially at the Pontifical Academy for Social Sciences, where he has led discussions on climate change and sustainability. While long popular in many liberal circles, his vocal concerns about overpopulation — combined with his warnings of the “absolutely dangerous” repercussions of a Trump re-election — have made him a controversial figure among conservative Catholics.
Sachs, a onetime U.N. climate adviser, was also present when Sen. Bernie Sanders met with the pope while running for president in 2016.
In addition to Barber’s efforts to convince members of Congress to embrace an anti-poverty agenda (particularly Manchin, himself a Catholic), last week the faith-led activist and other Poor People’s Campaign officials publicly requested a meeting on the subject with another prominent Catholic Democrat: President Joe Biden.
It remains to be seen whether Biden, who has endorsed the Poor People’s Campaign in the past, will take the meeting with Barber, who preached at the president’s inaugural prayer service. But even if Biden passes, he may not be able to avoid discussion of faith and poverty this month: he is rumored to be planning a meeting at the end of October with Pope Francis.
Jack Jenkins reported from Washington D.C.