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Inequality, Religion and the Limits of Civil Society

The comments from my last blog entry turned in the direction of civil society and religion. We seem to be living in a new Gilded Age, an era of massive economic inequality with no apparent end in sight. Can the influence of religion – via the indirect influence of civil society – address and perhaps ameliorate this condition? I am pessimistic about this possibility.

My pessimism is informed by a re-reading of James Scott’s masterful work Weapons of the Weak. Scott is a scholar of Political Science, but his work pursues an ethnographic approach. His study of the lives of Indonesian peasants against the backdrop of the so-called “Green Revolution” of the 1970s is informative for our purposes, since it shows how civil society provides material that can be forged into a conceptual arsenal for the defense of the poor. For Scott, such weapons are rarely wielded in open rebellion; peasants defend their interests against the rich, but their resistance is for the most part anonymous and subtle. “They reject the denigrating characterizations the rich deploy against them” (304), by means of a subtle reframing and redefinition, a reorientation of common beliefs and practices that among other things exposes hypocrisy.

Religion is part of this redefinition. Under economic pressures that presaged some of the neoliberal changes that have occurred under globalization, the rich landowners in Scott’s Indonesian village stopped engaging in customary rituals of compassion like the Islamic tithe, or zakat. From their stance, this was a step forward, a way of bypassing an old form of redistribution that had no rational purpose. For the peasants who relied on the tithe and other expressions of charity, however, the change was disruptive. They appealed to the past and to specifically religious practices that encouraged social solidarity. Civil society here worked to empower the poor; peasants could (and did) argue that ending the post-harvest zakat was a breach of religious obligation.

Scott’s example shows us that religious traditions can aid in exposing the euphemisms that circulate around power wherever it operates. It shows us in a very specific way that civil society can aid in exposing the allegedly “natural” and “inevitable” changes of neoliberalism. This doesn’t mean that the poor will win the battle of ideas; it does suggest that they can under certain circumstances have the power to describe their world in a way that corresponds with their material interests.

Abstract discussions of “civil society” can lead us away from a more straightforward interrogation: does the lived, situated, particular practice of American Catholicism allow for marginalized men and women to see their lives differently? Does it empower them? Does it allow them to (restating the quote above) “reject the denigrating characterizations the rich deploy against them”? Does it expose and reject the naturalization of market processes? Does it offer the same kind of symbolic power that the peasants in Scott’s Indonesian village were able to wield?

The difficulty of these questions is nothing in comparison with the difficulty of the lives of the poor. Many of you work with them; I’m interested to hear what you have to say.

About the Author

Robert Geroux is a political theorist.



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Robert, I mostly share your pessimism.  I don't work with the poor, but I don't see how any reasonable observer can believe that the contemporary culture of American Catholicism does much to help them beyond enjoining the usual trinity of Hard Work, Sobriety, and Thrift.  It's become an adjunct of what I've called elsewhere Chrapitalism:  the amalgamation of Christianity and capitalism, first forged by Puritans, continued by 19th-century evangelicals, and virtually completed by evangelicals and Catholic conservatives in the last quarter of the 20th century.  Under the auspices of Novak, Neuhaus, Sirico, et. al., God and Mammon have composed their ancient differences, and signed a mutually lucrative commercial deal.  

Sure, there's a part of American Catholicism that doesn't engage in "denigrating characterization" of the poor:  the Catholic Workers, the much-maligned "peace and justice" types (sure to be much-maligned again on this post), your occasional hierarch who isn't obssessed with abortion and gay marriage.  But for most other Catholics, the poor are still to be lamented, lectured, regulated, and harassed, certainly not to be helped or -- God forbid -- imitated in any way.  (Let me forstall the inevitable ad hominem attacks by conceding that no, I'm not good at imitating the poor either.)

I do take hope from Pope Francis -- maybe his word and example will inspire, or at least shame, many of us to assist and even imitate the poor.  But like you, Robert, I fear that a lot of this trajectory is irreversible at this point.  

I don't know to what extent American Catholics perceive that the mission of their church should be to empower the poor to "“reject the denigrating characterizations the rich deploy against them"

Having said that, though, to Gene McCarraher's list of Catholic Workers, Pax Christi, et al, can we add: each proclamation of the Gospel, each baptism, each celebration of the Eucharist, as a subsersive act against the reign of mammon?


Jim P. -- At the risk of sounding Obamaton, yes we can.  I only wish that more Catholics would enlarge their sacramental imagination to encompass the poor.  That would have radical political implications, to say the least. 



Why do projects addressing civil society have to be abstract?  In Guinea, the ABA Rule of Law Program and the Washington-based NGO Global Rights have been doing highly practical work with their Guinean partners establising functioning civil-society programs aimed at alleviating poverty and injustice to local people from combinations of national kleptocrats and foreign natural-resource developers.  These programs are vey much in the spirit of empowering the loal villagers to "reject the denigrating characterizations the rich deploy aganst them."  In this, the new civil-society structures work with the support of the local imams, there being no distincton between civil and religious life (and no Christians exept visitors in the local communities, nor for hundreds of km around, either).    Mark L


The church has always obsessed about the poor. Looking at the Gospel there is not doubt that it is God's mandate to take care of the poor. But there is geting around it. Thus accelarating in the fourth and fifth centureies the bishops insisted that one had to support the poor. But the way to do it was not to give it to the poor as Jesus said. Rather one was to give it to the church who would give take care of the poor. In fact if you gave to the church your sins were more rapidly forgiven. Trouble is the bishops felt that the first way to help would be to build  oversize churches (basilicas) so the poor would always have a place to worship. Secondly those with means were to help the monks first who were praying for  and providing services to the poor. Clearly much of the time the money did not trickle down to the poor.  Thus in the French Revolution starving people beat and killed priests and nuns who clearly lived  more comfortably than the poor--on donations. The people hardly made number 1 on Mazlows hierarchy of needs. Thus today Cardinal Dolan can build a 187 million  dollar cathedral and be quite comfortable that this is the right thing to do even if Dasani has to sleep with roaches and rats.. So it is okay to give handouts to the clergy but not to the poor ---who made their own beds...

So religion can help with inequality but why should it. Because who is going to service the Cardinal and attain Maslow'sw 2 lowest need?


... does the lived, situated, particular practice of American Catholicism allow for marginalized men and women to see their lives differently? Does it empower them? Does it allow them to (restating the quote above) “reject the denigrating characterizations the rich deploy against them”? Does it expose and reject the naturalization of market processes? Does it offer the same kind of symbolic power that the peasants in Scott’s Indonesian village were able to wield?

This is a fascinating series of questions, but I don't know how you answer it without some kind of hard data of the kind that Scott has done. FWIW, I browed six bulletins from the local parish to see what it might say about these questions on a local level and made a list, in descending order of space allotted to various topics:

Schedules (Mass, confession, marriage prep, CCD, committee meetings, personnel contact numbers)

Prayer lists (sick and those serving in the armed forces)

Money (raffles, fish fries, quilt raffles, notices, parish budget, diocesan appeal)

Recreation (senior group trips to casino, CCD trip to living nativity, parish potluck

Activities in other parishes/churches

Food bank drive 


Commercial promotions (Christmas bazaars in other parishes, vendors selling religious items after Mass

Jokes ("A little boy asks his Sunday School teacher ...")

CCD news

Call for contribution to Thanksgiving and Christmas baskets at Methodist Church


If the bulletins reflect the parish's concerns and priorities, my conclusion is that the poor are not "us," are to be helped indirectly (through the food bank and Methodist ladies), and fun and money are major concerns.

Jean - that is an interesting and enlightening exercise.

I alluded to this very indirectly in my previous comment, so now let me just state this baldly: whatever the Catholic church is, it is not a social service agency whose sole or primary mission is to help the poor, as we we usually conceive of helping the poor (e.g. giving the poor food or shelter).

In saying this, it needs to be noted immediately that helping the poor does figure into its mission somehow, in some way.  Helping the poor is one strand, or one implication, of the church's mission - but helping the poor is not its single focus.  Pursuant to that particular aspect/implication of its mission, the Catholic church has created social service agencies whose mission is to help the poor.  So I'm asking readers to please not construe my bald statement as claiming that the mission of the church, whatever it is, has nothing whatever to do with helping the poor.

I don't think Robert's questions can be answered, though, without first noting that, whatever the church is about, it is about a good deal more than the concerns he broaches in his post.  The church does many things that are related only indirectly, sometime very indirectly, to helping the poor and oppressed.  If the mission of the church is "Help the poor and oppressed - period", then the church is open to just criticism for all the time and resources it spends on activities that don't seem directed toward that mission.  But if that is not its mission, then it can scarcely be criticized on that basis.

In my view,  the contents of your bulletin - sacramental life (mass times, baptisms) and building a community of disciples (prayer lists, faith formation, obituaries, potluck, jokes, fundraising) - are as important to the church's mission as directly helping the poor (food bank, Christmas baskets).

Jim, I appreciate your points, and find your analysis of my parish's bulletins far more charitable than my own. 

The Prime Directive to love God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself, and that has many facets as you suggest. However, I'm drawn to Catholic Christianity largely because the poor have a special place in the scheme of things. Blessed are the poor in spirit, camel through the eye of the needle, leave your nets and follow me, and all that--that's in every Christian denomination. But Catholics seem to mean it. And I think the number of poor and humble people who've been canonized underscores it.

Jean - for sure.  The passage that comes to mind as I think about this in the context of Robert's post is Luke's account of his appearance in the synagogue.

He came to Nazareth, where he had grown up, and went according to his custom into the synagogue on the sabbath day. He stood up to read and was handed a scroll of the prophet Isaiah. He unrolled the scroll and found the passage where it was written:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,*

because he has anointed me

to bring glad tidings to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives

and recovery of sight to the blind,

to let the oppressed go free,

and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.”

Rolling up the scroll, he handed it back to the attendant and sat down, and the eyes of all in the synagogue looked intently at him.

He said to them, “Today this scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.”



The central mission of the church is to take care of the poor and downtrodden. The passage you quoted from Luke proves this point. Mary also says the "poor will be filled with good things and the rich will go away empty. " The other things are not as important as this. Every parish should have a specific activity to take care of the poor and downtrodden. The early church knew this. Even after Constantine the church officials  knew this. The problem is they diverted the money for the poor and used it for basilicas and taking care of clergy and monks. Both of whom have always lived better than the poor. Religious orders take vows of poverty but do not live it the way poor people do. So;

1. A moratorium should take effect on building cathedrals and large churches. 

2 Clergy and monks should be self supporting.

3. All money collected should be used to help the downtrodden. 


Our saintly maid loved people and knew a large number of us.  She seemed to enjoy everyone except people who were bad to children.  She would help  poor people directly.  If she knew that a poor person needed clothes or something, she'd ask a well-to-do friend for it and give it to the poor one.  She was much beloved by all.  Above all she loved the Lord.  

"Each individual Christian and every community is called to be an instrument of God for the liberation and promotion of the poor, and for enabling them to be fully a part of society. This demands that we be docile and attentive to the cry of the poor and to come to their aid." (Evangelii Gaudium, 187)

Don't blame me. That's Pope Francis, paras 186-217 if you can't find it. Minimally, it means we can't slough off the responsibility for the poor on social service agencies. In fact, Pope Francis has said something like, if we simply replicate social service agencies, the church becomes an NGO and is no longer a church. It has been said that his predecessores taught the same thing Francis does, and they did. But the way he does it, it's a lot harder to neuter the teaching with suburban analysis.

If the Mass is done right, it helps the poor, including the poor people who attend it. As I sit here thinking about it on a Thursday afternoon, I realize that I can tell you off the top of my head what five parishioners are doing with the poor in three initiatives through or for the parish right now at this moment. A lot of other parishioners are relaxing now at after a morning of serving this week's share of the 6,600 families served each year by the food pantry.

Is that picture true for every parish? Alas, no. But I fullly believe it can be if we make it so, and that  Pope Francis wants to make it so;

Bill, I'm with you in spirit, but in helping the downtrodden, I think we have to make sure we're not depriving them of the art and beauty with which churches enrich their lives. I'm thinking of some wonderful old churches built by Poles, Czechs, Italians, and other immigrants in Michigan. These structures were a way to honor Christ and reflect something of the glory of heaven. And when you walk in there, you feel you are part of a promise that that glory could one day be available to you.

By all means, feed the poor, not just their stomachs, but their senses and spirits, too!

Bill, I can pick out passages from other Gospel writers (e.g. Matthew's Great Commission, John 3:16) that seem to emphasize other aspects of church life: faith and belief, discipleship, sacramental life, proclamation, the role of the Holy Spirit, etc.  Note that none of these things contradicts the Luke passage.  I think you oversimplify, though, when you claim that "The central mission of the church is to take care of the poor and downtrodden".  The church is multidimensional.  I agree that caring for the poor is one of those dimensions, and the church should be criticized - or better yet, reformed - when it neglects that dimension.  My asertion is that the church isn't a single-focus social service agency, and because its mission encompasses dimensions other than directly caring for the poor, it shouldn't be criticized for attending to those other dimensions.

To bring the topic back to the original post: I think the whether the American Catholic Church fosters a sense of worth and dignity among the poor is certainly an interesting one. What parishes DO (as captured in my bulletin analysis) may reflect the level of activity aimed at the poor. However, what the poor HEAR at Mass and HOW they interpret it strikes me as equally important. My impression is that Father does not address this topic in any immediate way by referring to those in need in the parish. Possibly he doesn't want to embarrass people (because, as we discussed on a previous post, most of us who are hard up are ashamed of it).

On the whole the clergy and religious have been massive failures with reference to the Poor. Augustine, Jerome and others catered to the wealthy and insisted that the money for the poor go through them. We see how that went. At the French Revolution the people killed the clergy and religious because they were upset at the privileged lives they were living while the people starved. Jim the passage from look supersedes everything else.  Who do you think John 3 16 applies to if not first and foremost the poor. 

And why do you think so many American Hispanics are with Pentecostals and others. They were not welcome in the Catholic church. That is crucial, abysmal failure. Other than CRS there is not much for the poor. Let us see how Francis leads the way. 

Oh,  Bill,

Basil the Great? John Chrysostom? "No one is justified in keeping for his exclusive use what he does not need, when others lack necessities." That's Pope Paul VI. In addition to CRS, there is CCHD, which is much more controversial and therefore much more in need of support. There is plenty of poors' gold in the deposit of faith. There may not be enough pastors willing to put up with the garbage a pastor has to put up with if he holds up some of the gold in his homilies. But that is a different question.



Much was done despite the system  BXVI had the words also while Francis walks the talk. We have to  reevaluate our way of giving. We have to strip the Empire to get back to the gosopel. 

Jean Hughes Raber: > ... and all that -- that's in every Christian denominatiion.  But Catholics seem to mean it.

Two thought:  1.  Does not th cmmon, centraal postion of the teachings about the poor - across wide ranges of issues over other matters of form and content - show tat this is at the vey heart of how all Christians are called to live?

2.  Surely you do not mean to say that non-Catholic Christians do not mean it?   That simply is not a sustainable position.  How did the '60's song go:  "singng songs and carying signs,/Mostly say hurray for our side."

Mark L.

I just resubscribed to Commonweal after a fairly long hiatus, and your reply is almost the first thing I read after coming back.

Thank you! "Chrapitalism" is a pretty brilliant descriptor. You have whetted my appetite for the many  intelligent voices I've so missed hearing in this publication.

It is interesting to compare non profit groups to the poor. The poor are taxed while non profits are not. Non profits own millions of acres of land and property for which they pay no taxes. Many of them collect rents from the poor. If the poor cannot pay the rent they are evicted while Non profits can afford to own property that many wealthy cannot afford. Hospitals are no longer the charitable organization they used to be. They are viciously for profit. Many states are examining the non profits which take a large tax base from the government which monies could be used for people's welfare. ETc

Perhaps pertinent to this topic: this piece describing the protests going on in Kiev, and the role of religious leaders to help sustain the peaceful protesters in the face of violence by the secret police, seems to be an example of religion working through civil society to bring about justic.

These type of articles and posts demonstrate that Commonweal is just a left-wing political propaganda organ which is using the Catholic religion for political purposes.  Two of the biggest contributors to the income gap and poverty is the education gap and the ethnic culture gap.  When Commonweal strongly condemns Obama, the Democrat Party, and its Education Union bosses for confining the poor children in lower income areas to horrible schools so they can use school funds as political slush funds, I will rethink my position.  When Commonweal condemns the black communities for tolerating behavior that locks black youth into poverty, I will rethink my position.  When Commonweal condemns Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson as money grubbing poverty pimps that have done more damage to the black community than any white person alive, then I will rethink my position. 

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