The Dark Side of Voluntary Poverty?

THE POVERTY OF RICHES: ST. FRANCIS OF ASSISI RECONSIDERED. By Kenneth Baxter Wolf (Oxford University Press, 200 Madison Ave., New York, N.Y. 10016, 2003), 208 pp. HB $45.00.

The emergence of a commercial economy in the High Middle Ages created new spiritual challenges for many medieval Christians, who wondered how to reconcile Christ’s instructions to the rich man in the gospel with the emerging profit economy. The mendicant orders, the Franciscans and Dominicans, emerged in large part as a response to the concerns of this new environment. Kenneth Baxter Wolf, a history professor at Pomona College, considers the implications of the voluntary poverty that the mendicants championed, offering a controversial reappraisal of St. Francis of Assisi’s relationship to the poor. At the outset of the work, which is part of the Oxford Studies in Historical Theology series, Wolf notes how Francis is one of the most popular saints the Catholic Church has ever produced—appealing even to various secular audiences. This appeal, however, has led many to overlook the implications of his voluntary poverty on the involuntary poor.

According to Wolf, Francis’s conception of voluntary poverty as a spiritual discipline opened a new way to salvation for the rich, but prevented the poor from using their own involuntary poverty as a means to securing salvation. Besides being excluded from the spiritual benefits of poverty, the poor also received little benefit from Francis’s apostolic poverty. As Wolf sees it, the Franciscan founder did little to raise people’s opinions of the involuntary poor. Moreover, Francis actually hurt the poor with his concept of apostolic poverty. Being moved by their example or desiring spiritual benefits, almsgivers were more likely to donate to Francis and his fellow friars instead of the ordinary poor.

Wolf examines how Francis dealt with lepers to support this point. Leprosy was sometimes viewed in the Middle Ages as a punishment for sinful behavior or as an indication that someone was already damned. Wolf believes that this outlook prompted medieval Christians to remove lepers from society, eschewing the obvious reason that people were afraid of contracting this disease. Therefore, by embracing the leper and living among lepers, Francis was more interested in demonstrating his own rejection of the material world than in alleviating their plight (as I once heard Wolf describe it in a lecture, “Giving a metaphorical middle finger to medieval society.” This explanation is ridiculous on several levels. First of all, these are not mutually exclusive ideas. Moreover, the story of Francis and the leper specifically relates that he not only embraced the leper, but gave him money as well—thereby providing him with the material assistance which Wolf claims was neglected. Furthermore, by embracing the leper and residing with lepers, Francis was setting an example of how a Christian should treat all people regardless of their affliction. To present Francis as merely using the poor and suffering as a way to refashion himself, is reducing all his activity to power relations. Somewhere Michel Foucault is applauding.

Unfortunately, Wolf maintains this flawed methodology throughout the book. The coarse tunic which Francis wore is viewed as a vehicle through which he displayed his rejection of material comfort and reaped spiritual benefits, instead of an exercise in sacrifice and mortification. The author goes on to suggest that charitable distribution was clearly ancillary to the spiritual program of the friars. This analysis is short sighted and naive. Even if we accept Wolf’s basic premise, Francis by himself hardly averted many resources from the poor. Moreover, the author appears to miss the essence of the early Franciscans. Their voluntary poverty meant that they had no wealth—so they themselves owned nothing to give to the poor. However, there are plenty of examples even in Francis’s own life of the saint giving food and clothing to the destitute when he received these things through begging. The early Franciscans were not social workers and never presented themselves as such. They were a religious order whose spirituality was rooted in their rejection of material goods.

Franco Zeffirelli’s Brother Sun, Sister Moon has been rightfully criticized over the years for presenting Francis as a hippie of the 1960s (with a Donovan soundtrack to boot) instead of as a medieval ascetic. In arguing for this radical reinterpretation of Franciscan poverty, Wolf too seems more concerned with refashioning Francis according to modern theories—perhaps for the purposes of a new book. Unfortunately, like Zeffirelli’s film, Wolf fails to assess and present the founder of the Franciscans within his own historical context.

Vincent Ryan
St. Louis University
Saint Louis, Mo

Book Reviews About Book Reviews

Expert and interested readers can review our Books Received page to see what is available and for instructions on how to review for HPR.