(Press Release, Pomona College, Office of Public Affairs, March 24, 2003)

Fresh Look at St. Francis
Reveals Irony of Poverty
as Path to Salvation

Arguably the most attractive saint ever produced by the Catholic Church, St. Francis of Assisi has been the subject of countless studies extolling his holy way of life.

Now, for the first time, a book has appeared which takes a close and unusually critical look at the particular kind of sanctity embodied by St. Francis--a sanctity based on the deliberate pursuit of poverty. The Poverty of Riches: St. Francis of Assisi Reconsidered (Oxford University Press, 2003) by Kenneth Baxter Wolf uses the case of Francis--the poverty saint par excellence--to lay bare the ironies and contradictions inherent within the idea of voluntary poverty as a basis for Christian perfection.

"St. Francis has been widely regarded as a perfect embodiment of the gospel, even a second Christ," notes Wolf. "But he is also a man who, by voluntarily assuming a life of extreme poverty, effectively stole salvation from the poor and gave it to the rich. A sort of spiritual Robin Hood working in reverse."

The son of a wealthy cloth merchant, Francis chose at a young age to renounce his wealth and live as a beggar, preaching repentance to his urban audiences. He modeled his new way of life in part on that of Jesus and the apostles and in part on that of the urban poor who lived in Assisi.

Wolf's iconoclastic approach is based on a series of simple but previously unasked questions about the precise nature of Francis's poverty: How did he go about transforming himself from a rich man to a poor one? How successful was this transformation? How did his self-imposed poverty compare to the involuntary poverty of those whom he met in and around Assisi? What did poor people of this type get out of their contact with Francis? What did Francis get out of his contact with them?

Wolf finds that while Francis's conception of poverty as a spiritual discipline may have opened the door to salvation for wealthy Christians like himself, it effectively precluded the idea that the poor could find a path to heaven through their own poverty, which because it was not voluntary, was more apt to be seen as a symptom of their moral turpitude. Based on a thorough reconsideration of the earliest biographies of the saint, as well as Francis's own writings, Wolf's work sheds important new light on the inherent ironies of poverty as a spiritual discipline and its relationship to poverty as a socio-economic affliction.

The following paragraph, excerpted from the book, provides a brief illustration of Wolf's argument:

Francis's extreme love of poverty, pursued for the sake of his own spiritual progress, did surprisingly little to elevate anyone's opinion of the other kind of poverty. On the contrary, to the extent that early thirteenth-century society endorsed Francis's "holy poverty" as the most reliable road to Christian perfection, it potentially made the lives of those suffering from involuntary poverty even more difficult. For one thing, Francis could not help but attract the attention of almsgivers, many of whom appreciated the vicarious spiritual advantages of supporting him in his quest for perfect poverty, as opposed to trying to alleviate the poverty of someone who did not want to be poor. Second, if the kind of "spiritual economy" that Francis epitomized, based as it was on deliberate divestment from this world and investment in the next, required that a Christian have something invested in this world in the first place, how were the poor expected to compete with the rich for entrance into the next life? What were they to give up in order to prove that they were ready to leave this world behind? Under these circumstances, the poor of Assisi inevitably found their role in the drama of salvation reduced to that of providing models for Christians of means like Francis to imitate, models of what--from the perspective of an affluent Umbrian burgher--a life detached from the things of the world would look like. But the similarities between the poverty of the poor and the poverty of the rich could never be more than superficial, for in a religious tradition where sacrifice meant little or nothing unless it was undertaken voluntarily, it was not at all obvious how the plight of the poor poor (as opposed to the formerly rich poor) was to be alleviated in the next world.

Wolf is professor of history at Pomona College. His previous books include Christian Martyrs in Muslim Spain (1988), Conquerors and Chroniclers of Medieval Spain (1990), and Making History: The Normans and Their Historians in Eleventh-Century Italy (1995). He is available for interviews and can be reached at (909) 607-3467 or by e-mail at kenneth_wolf@pomona.edu

Contact (Public Affairs, Pomona College): Deborah Clark, (909) 621-8514

If you are interested in reviewing the book, review copies can be obtained from Brian Hughes at Oxford University Press.