Everything in the news seems to be hyperventillation about politics.  What is worse, it seems to be about trivia that have little or nothing to do with the world wide economic problems, or about trying to fix them. (e.g. a friend on facebook dissing Ryan’s marathon speed instead of the details of his budget).

So I flee to history for escapism, taking advice from Robert Frost:

So when at times the mob is swayed
To carry praise or blame too far,
We may choose something like a star
To stay our minds on and be staid. 

So I go to my inbox with today’s podcasts, which include the daily prayer from a Catholic website, usually psalms and readings.

That is a good way to “choose something like a star” as I can think of.

Today is the day of Gregory the Great, a educated Roman who fled to a monastery in the troubles of the late 500’s and ended up as Pope instead. I always enjoy reading Gregory, whose prose seems a bit more practical and down to earth than a lot of the more mystical saints.

Take this snippet for example: if you think you have problems, consider how he sees his job.

I am forced to consider the affairs of the Church and of the monasteries. I must weigh the lives and acts of individuals. I am responsible for the concerns of our citizens. I must worry about the invasions of roving bands of  barbarians, and beware of the wolves who lie in wait for my flock. I must become an administrator lest the religious go in want. I must put up with certain robbers without losing patience and at times I must deal with them in all charity.

Heh…sounds like the Philippines, where not only do our bishops have to help care for folks in local disasters, but the big shots that our bishops have to “put up with” are robbers, I mean honest men who just want ten percent of the contract as a gift.

So the next time you think the modern world has problems, consider all the trouble Gregory had to put up with, from caring for the aftermath/depopulation from the Plague of Justinian (540) to the invasion of the Lombards…

A lot of folks just gave up and fled to the cities, where alas there were no jobs, so the result was slums full of refugees and poor with only limited ways to care for them.

Back then, Constantinople was supposed to be in charge, but they had their own problems so weren’t much help. (From Wikipedia🙂

In 590, Gregory could wait for Constantinople no longer. He organized the resources of the church into an administration for general relief.  In doing so he evidenced a talent for and intuitive understanding of the principles of accounting, which was not to be invented for centuries…

Gregory began by aggressively requiring his churchmen to seek out and relieve needy persons and reprimanded them if they did not….The church now owned between 1,300 and 1,800 square miles (3,400 and 4,700 km2) of  revenue-generating farmland divided into large sections called patrimonia. It produced goods of all kinds, which were sold, but Gregory intervened and had the goods shipped to Rome for distribution…

Distributions to qualified persons were monthly. However, a certain proportion of the population lived in the streets or were too ill or infirm to pick up their monthly food supply. To them Gregory sent out a small army of charitable persons, mainly monks, every morning with prepared food.

the bad news is that he did the job so well that the locals no longer looked to Constantinople for help or civil leaders to run things,  so the Popes ended up running civil affairs during the “Dark ages”, which eventually led to wealth and the Borgia popes (and the reformation).

If you never heard about Gregory, it is because the Borgias were a better story for our jaded world.

On the other hand, blame Gregory for the fact that most Catholics in the US and Europe support the organized “welfare state” rather than mere alms-giving to beggars (which often misses the very poor who don’t or can’t beg)…

So the Democrats, with their welfare state ideas, are the ones most compatible with Christian ideals.

Or maybe not. Let’s look at some of the nuances.

Gregory’s experience with a distant federal government in Constantinople led to two other ideas in Catholicism:

First, the idea of subsidarity (that the family or the most local government/church should care for problems, only asking for distant help when they are overwhelmed)

And second, the idea that caring for the poor is the duty of the church.

The first idea, that the local government needs to be the place to help local folks, because they are closer to the need and more aware of the reality of what is going on, is an idea that is actually found nowadays in the Republican party, and those who support “states rights”

And the second part? Well, traditionally Catholic institutions will take gifts from the rich or subsidies from the government to help them in their charity work.

Yet this is where the Catholics are feuding with the president.

Obamacare is written in a way that any church related business, even those which are “non profit”, are not considered eligible for a religious exemption. Since Catholic organizations won’t fund birth control and abortion pills, they are facing a possible huge “tax” that will either bankrupt them or force the church to secularize them and no longer run them.

True, the church has a year to think about it, but as one Bishop pointed out, the church laws won’t change in a year, and the cynical merely point out that the one year’s delay in implementing the law merely allows this issue to be ignored in the present election cycle.

But President Obama, by equating “religion” to a building for one hour’s worship on Sunday, ignores the fact that the church has been in the business of caring for people on a large scale since the time of Gregory.

Maybe the President should read history.

Sigh… even in my prayers, I can’t escape the issues that will be discussed in this year’s election.

Oh yes: One side note: it was Gregory who sent Augustine of Canterbury to try to convert the warlike Anglo-Saxons who had taken over a distant Island of Brittania which had once been part of the Roman Empire…

And this brings me to another podcast in my inbox: this week’s HistoryOfEngland podcast discusses the wool trade in the UK.

What has this to do with Gregory?

Gregory sent monks to Brittania, who started monasteries (with their schools etc.) and soon the monasteries were surrounded by towns and businesses, and becoming rich and lazy.

So in 1098, a reform group of monks called the Cistercians were started.

The Cistercians decided to shun rich farmlands and towns and settle in marginal land that no one wanted….and farm it themselves. Soon they were using the latest technology to help them in their work (e.g. the waterwheel is one idea they spread around Europe) and also using the land for grazing meant they enriched the local horse and cattle breeding trade.

But the greatest impact they had on England was sheep: sheep thrived on marginal land so they got rich, as did many middle class people who copied their lead. (This was one of the subplots in Follet’s novel/miniseries The Pillars of Earth).

From Wikipedia:

According to one modern Cistercian, “enterprise and entrepreneurial spirit” have always been a part of the order’s identity, and the Cistercians “were catalysts for development of a market economy” in 12th century Europe.[84]…As the great farmers of those days, many of the improvements in the various farming operations were introduced and propagated by them….

They developed an organised system for selling their farm produce, cattle and horses, and notably contributed to the commercial progress of the countries of western Europe. To the wool and cloth trade, which was especially fostered by the Cistercians, England was largely indebted for the beginnings of her commercial prosperity.[19]

So Republicans, who claim that we need to encouraging policies that help local entrepreneurs, can also point to be following the lead of the church. In addition, the church’s emphasis of honesty and thrift in business practices enable free enterprise to actually work. And, in the long run, free enterprise can eliminate poverty a lot better than just giving out alms, as any of us who live in the “Tiger economies” of Asia knows from personal experience.

Indeed, going back to the chaos confronted by Gregory, one has to realize that without the church’s farm lands being efficiently used to grow food, even Gregory would not have been able to feed the poor of Rome.

Something to remember the next time you hear about evil Republicans hating the poor.


Nancy Reyes is a retired physician living in the rural Philippines.Part of this essay was posted to her blog Finest Kind Clinic and Fishmarket.

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