“Always side with the poor rather that with the rich, until you are certain of the truth.” Last week, we celebrated the feast day of St. Louis IX, King of France in the 13th century, and patron saint of the Secular Franciscan Order. The quote is from the Office of Reading of the day, and it is from a letter that he wrote to his son. It is meant to remind the son on how to be a king. While in doubt, side with the poor, as they are more in need of protection, and there is a good chance that someone is taking advantage of them. This is the preferential option for the poor. It is not partisanship, as the truth remains to be found. Two wrongs do not make a right, and injustice is overcome through seeking truth, and nothing else. However, the poor are more likely to be taken advantage of than the rich, and we must remember this while we try to understand. And this has been known for some time.
Here is another example of things known for a very long time. The 23rd Canon of the Third Lateran Council, in 1179, just before the birth of St. Francis of Assisi, begins with the following: “Although the Apostles say that we should pay greater honor to our weaker members, certain ecclesiastics, seeking what is their own and not the things of Jesus Christ, do not allow lepers, who cannot dwell with the healthy or come to church with others, to have their own churches.” It goes on to establish the right of leprosaria to function, untroubled by those who want to shut them down— judged by the rest of the canon, for fear of losing funds going to them.
It is one of many examples that show medieval leprosaria to function very much like religious communities, with strong support from the people rather than being abandoned by them. Reality seems to have been not so very different from today: Church leaders knew what the Gospels teach, but there were also some clerics who neglected their evident duties and were in dire need of correction. Not so different from today, really. When the first followers of Francis thought fellowship with the poor and worked in leprosaria, they were doing good ministry and were faithful to the Gospel. But they were not some kind of progressive avant-garde, working against ecclesiastical power structures, trying to be the better Church. They were humble laborers in the Lord’s vineyard, and this is why they inspired so many ordinary people who worked there as well.
There are so many attempts to create the perception of progress by making the past look bad. There is one area of progress, though, and as a scientist, I know it well. The modern age is the age of science, science by way of mathematical abstraction. We have now discovered laws of nature, and applying this knowledge makes our lives easier. But, long before this, we already knew the natural law, and applying this knowledge lets us live our lives well. It is the law of relationships, with each other and with nature, and how to find happiness in life by understanding it through its created, embodied nature. It is the law that recognizes the dignity of each human person, especially when most in need of protection from bodily harm, such as the poor and those suffering from illness. It is the law known for all ages, long before modernity, and it is as valid as it always was.
There is really no possibility of progress in fundamental matters of ethics or the understanding of what it means to live well, but each age finds new opportunities for making grievous mistakes. The error of our age is to believe that just since the laws of nature do not speak of purpose or meaning, our own lives cannot find meaning and purpose in human nature as it is expressed in a natural body. If there were only laws of nature but no natural law, then human beings have license to do as they please—with nature and with each other and with their own body. This, however, is not the way to happiness; it is just the currently preferred way of ruining one’s life.
Our task is not to build a better world through order and progress. Science gives us new knowledge and new powers over nature, but it does not change the fundamental ethical demands on us as we seek to live well. More important than the laws of nature is the natural law, as it has been known for all ages. Only the natural law can provide us with an unchanging point of reference to guide us as we apply the powers that come with knowing the laws of nature. All that remains for us to do is to recognize it, to follow it, and to remain humble as we work. The humility of living in obedience to the unchanging natural law counteracts the hubris of power that comes from knowing the laws of nature. There is humility in work that sustains the world as it is and as it is meant to be, with obedience to truth and knowledge of the suffering of those who are denied the rights that are truthfully theirs, while providing compassionate care for them. This is what it means to humbly work in the Lord’s vineyard, and it is the Christian calling.