Poverty, Duns Scotus and the New York Times

There is a very interesting (and somewhat humorous) line in the original manuscript of Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain that was edited out because it was one of many seeming tangential soliloquies the young Merton included in his book about John Duns Scotus. While generally overlooked until recently (a scholarly effort that I have been engaged in for some years now), Merton was fascinated with the Medieval Franciscan philosopher-theologian and highly influenced by Scotus.

Merton’s comment has to do with the fact he believed Scotus to be essentially communist in that the Subtle Doctor asserted that it was God’s original intention for no one to own private property, but share all in common. Merton was likely referring to a passage in Scotus’s Oxford commentary (Ordinatio IV, dist. 15, q. 2) where theĀ Subtle Doctor writes: “In the state of innocence neither divine nor natural law provided for distinct ownership of property; on the contrary everything was common.”

It should be stated outright that the negative connotations the term ‘communism’ has today (and really since the McCarthy era of U.S. politics and Cold War rhetoric) was not necessarily present in Merton’s use of the term. Nevertheless, the notion of a classless society and shared resources in a spirit of equity does align itself very clearly with the Christian Gospel and Religious life — something that was not lost on the young Merton, and something that remained with even the more mature Merton decades later.

The reason I thought of this nearly unknown passage from Merton and the subsequent Scotus source is because of today’s New York Times editorial titled, “Poverty and Recovery.” The statistics about poverty in the United States over the last 2+ years is staggering.

In an age when so many of the fiscal and social conservatives, those intent on “eliminating Government spending,” identify their political efforts and agenda with their personal ‘Christian’ faith, a news flash is needed to speak some truth to these politicos: Such action is contrary to the faith, not in the least compatible with their purported Christianity.

Merton and Scotus are correct (insofar as one takes Merton’s youthful and anachronistic comment about Scotus being ‘communist’ in stride) when they assert that it is neither Divine nor so-called Natural law that permits private ownership. Ownership, as Merton writes elsewhere in lecture notes from the early 1960s, is only legitimate when someone has a right to private property. According to both Scripture and the Franciscan theological-philosophical tradition, no one has a right to private property.

Such a reality is simply the product of human convention. It is fallible and it has not always been the case.

Rhetoric oriented to garner support for the elimination of public governmental assistance to the least among us is sinful at best and more accurately described as abhorrent. No one should dare invoke the name of Christ for such clearly anti-Christian movements.

The Times reports: “With 14.5 million people still out of work, and more than 6 million of them jobless for more than six months, reducing federal help now will almost ensure more poverty later. That would impose an even higher cost on the economy and budget because ever poorer households cannot spend and consume.”

Without regard for the moral imperatives explicitly contained within the Christian tradition, it makes little long-term fiscal and societal sense to reduce federal assistance for the poor in our country. It will only allow for more to hit the poverty level and increase the already shameful disparity between the haves and have-nots of this nation.

The gap is set to only grow wider if such behavior persists and the saddest irony is that those who have the most to lose in the process are, it seems, the first in line to be the pawns of the wealthy and powerful, advocating as it were the acceleration of their own abjection.

Tax cuts for the wealthy only makes the rich richer and leaves the poor carrying the heavy crosses imposed on them by the political pharisees who do not condescend to help with burden. The Franciscan perspective on this matter is simple: there is no Divine or Natural right to private property, so no one should complain that those who have more are conscripted to assist those with less. Because, if God did not give some more than others, those with more simply appropriated that wealth on their own accord.

There is only one Gospel and it is the Good News of Jesus Christ, not a self-justifying pseudo-gospel of prosperity.

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