Brian Hamilton is a Ph.D. candidate in Christian ethics at the University of Notre Dame, where he studies the history of Christian political thought with a special focus on issues of violence and economic justice. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
From Walter Rauschenbusch to Gustavo Gutiérrez, modern theologians attuned to the realities of poverty have usually kept their distance from classical Christian affirmations of voluntary poverty. They have been concerned, for good reason, that such affirmations romanticize or even reinforce material deprivation and exploitative social arrangements. At best, voluntary poverty is considered not a political but a spiritual practice, meant to cultivate detachment from worldly things and reliance on God. At worst, voluntary poverty is bad politics, ignoring or castigating the real poor in favor of their privileged impersonators.
My dissertation develops an account of voluntary poverty as an egalitarian political practice, drawing on a critical strand of the early Franciscan tradition. Parts of the Franciscan tradition confirm our worries about romanticizing or reinforcing the conditions of involuntary poverty. Yet I also recover from that tradition a way of thinking about voluntary poverty that is responsive to the complex relationship between poverty and social power. I begin not with Francis himself, but with the social movements devoted to the “apostolic life” that swept Europe in the century before Francis’s conversion. Although transformed and partly lost as the Franciscans rose to prominence in the thirteenth century, fragments of the earlier movements’ critical perspective took root in the mature Franciscan theology of poverty.
In the first chapter, following Peter Brown, I argue that the decisive shift between the classical Roman and early Christian economic imagination had to do with the appearance of “the poor” as a social class. This shift had some radical consequences, but “the poor” who appeared were still defined by their passive dependence on broader society. The shock and challenge of the twelfth-century social movements describing themselves as “the poor of Christ” was that they represented an active and contentious poor. In the second chapter, I argue that their contention focused partly on the accumulation of wealth, but it focused equally on hierarchical norms of ecclesial authority and on gendered patterns of social exclusion in medieval religious life.
In the third chapter, I show how Francis of Assisi gave theological expression to the movements’ core contentions. While many of the earlier movements had been judged heretical, Francis worked to articulate their vision of the apostolic life in an orthodox frame. The result was ambiguous: his vision of poverty provides resources both for a critique of certain mainstream practices and for undermining the movements’ challenge.
In the final three chapters, I turn to three important expressions of the mature Franciscan theology of poverty in order to further develop the earlier movements’ contentions. In chapter four, I reclaim from Bonaventure a dialectical account of Christian authority. In chapter five, I reclaim from Clare of Assisi a vision of radical social inclusion based on universal human need. In chapter six, I reclaim from Peter Olivi a critique of private property in favor of what he calls “poor use.” In all three cases, I also show how voluntary poverty could be and was construed against the critical implications I draw from their texts. The concerns of recent theologians are not misplaced, but voluntary poverty can take—and has taken—other forms.
In the conclusion, I suggest that this critical Franciscan account of voluntary poverty speaks directly to contemporary ethical challenges. Its overlapping concern with issues of authority, social participation, and property speaks to current efforts to respond to poverty as a site of intersecting patterns of marginalization. Its voluntariness speaks to our current need for an active, solidaristic, and militant affirmation of the poor.