One of the constant themes of Pope Francis’ pontificate is his emphasis on reaching out to the poor and the marginalized. Those who are “least” in this world are dear to the Holy Father’s heart and he uses every opportunity to exhort believers to go out from beyond the four walls of our churches and serve others in a Christ-like fashion.
In my last column entitled “How to Invest…Like as a Catholic,” I wrote about the importance of where we invest and how that can contribute to the building up of a human-centered economy. In this column, I want to focus on an economic practice of quite a different sort — but equally as important: microfinance.
First off, what is it? Basically, the goal of microfinance is to connect those who are unable to access traditional financial services, such as loans, mortgages, or savings accounts, with the capital required to invest in their families, businesses, and communities. This is how it works:
Individual Catholics and other persons of good will can act as funding sources for various microlenders who, in turn, are the intermediaries that distribute the loans to those who need them. When the loans are paid back, as they often are, the microlenders (and you and I) can lend to other borrowers, which creates a new cycle of positive economic development. You can watch a short video describing this process here from Kiva.org, a popular microfinance organization. These efforts are already bearing fruit and creating economic prosperity.
Catholic Relief Services, for example, has utilized microfinance programs to serve over one million people in 35 different countries, helping participants who otherwise would not be able to save money to do so. Many other churches and NGO’s, including Hope International and World Vision, have also successfully implemented microfinance in countries such as Rwanda and Tanzania. Consider looking into these and other groups to start supporting the microfinance movement.
Of course, microfinance is only a part of the solution to help alleviate poverty and has not been without its own scandals, but it is nonetheless an integral step because it directly empowers the poor to be participants in their own development. This seems to me to be congruent with what Pope Francis has said before on how we should help the poor, not merely focusing on the traditional paradigms of assistance through governmental action or the extension of various aid programs, however important those might be at times, but turning our whole concept of charity on its head.
Too often, Pope Francis says, we treat the poor merely as passive receivers of aid. We do not allow them to become partners alongside us, to share with us the gifts of their lives, not recognizing that they also have something to teach us. In this, we run the risk of our works becoming an arms-length transaction and the opportunity for true communion short-circuited. Pope Francis reminds us that this overly simplistic outlook towards the needy is very harmful and not dignifying either:
Not uncommonly, the poor and needy are regarded as a “burden”, a hindrance to development. At most, they are considered as recipients of aid or compassionate assistance. … They are not seen as brothers and sisters, called to share the gifts of creation, the goods of progress and culture, to be partakers at the same table of the fullness of life, to be protagonists of integral and inclusive development.
If we, through our well-intentioned but incomplete programmatic solutions, treat the poor and needy only at a basic and subsistence level, then we perpetuate cycles of dependency and displace the work, ingenuity, and entrepreneurship that the human person is capable of. Our charity is only a shadow, a small inkling of true love for the poor.
This is, of course, not to say that there are not real problems, catastrophic crises, and other situations where basic needs first must be met before further development can occur. Indeed, many Catholic groups such as Caritas, the Knights of Columbus, and Catholic Relief Services, already perform admirably in this regard to set an example of the necessity of acting in solidarity with the poor and distressed. Concrete works of mercy and charity are an important part of the Church’s ministry, and, by extension, ours too and cannot be ignored.
What microfinance does, though, is provide another outlet for the expression of human talent and creativity. As with many things Catholic, this is not an “either or” solution but one that is “both and.” After all, it is also a “fundamental principle of social philosophy…that one should not withdraw from individuals and commit to the community what they can accomplish by their own enterprise and industry” (Pope Pius XI, Quadragesimo Anno, 79). Pursuing a Catholic microfinance strategy consistent with the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity can allow appropriate development to occur according to the needs of the community and context of the situation.
In all of this, we must remember that man does not live by bread alone. To be truly for the poor, we must start with care for the development of their whole person — spiritual, material, economic, social, etc. We may not, in a utopian way, ever eliminate material poverty and suffering altogether from this world, but we can avoid the danger of the Church being reduced to an NGO or bureaucracy that Pope Francis warns about. Rather, the Church’s teaching encourage us to instead be enthusiastic evangelizers who bring Christ — the greatest treasure and true possession of the Church —to all people and invite them to “come and see” the source of all our charity (John 1:46).
Jesus Christ must always be the foundation of our efforts at serving and loving others. Any other foundation, no matter how well intentioned or meticulously planned, will fall short of caring for the whole human person. A uniquely Catholic microfinance movement informed by the teachings of the Church is a start, but it is not the end. In his recent message to the lay Christian movement, Communion and Liberation, Pope Francis reminds us of just what that end is, of whom we must not ever forget:
The greatest poverty is in fact the lack of Christ, and until we bring Jesus to men we will have done too little for them.