Skip to main content


Martin or Matteo?

A historical look at Protestant and Catholic poverty-fighting

Martin or Matteo?

People queue for food at the Capuchin Day Centre in Dublin. (Str/Reuters/Newscom)

James Whitford, 48, founder and director of the Watered Gardens Gospel Rescue Mission in Joplin, tells stories of rescues from poverty. He tells of Jon, once a homeless addict, who via the help of a mentor gained and keeps a full-time job. Whitford and his volunteers help each lodger at the mission set goals: “He has to be working toward those goals. The end goal is to eliminate homelessness in that individual’s life.”

Kevin Crowley, 83, founder and director of the Capuchin Day Centre in Dublin, does not tell stories, unless pushed. Crowley, a monk within the worldwide, 10,000-member Capuchin Order of Friars, believes it’s wrong to “pry into the personal lives” of the hundreds of poor people who come to his center each day for breakfast, lunch, baby food and diapers, food parcels, and medical/dental help. He sees some of the same people coming year after year and says, “It’s not nice to be putting all sorts of questions to them. They like to be anonymous.”

For more about Whitford’s mission, please see our Q&A in this issue—but the different approaches of these two men with hearts for the poor are more than personal views: They reflect, five centuries after the Protestant Reformation, historically dueling evangelical and Catholic attitudes toward poverty.

Civil rights activists in the 1960s asked each other, “Martin or Malcolm?” The nonviolence of Martin Luther King Jr., or the militance of Malcolm X? During the two decades after Martin Luther in 1517 protested Roman Catholic abuses, Christians concerned about poverty also had a choice: Martin Luther, who left Catholicism, or Matteo da Bascio, who stayed within it and created the Capuchin order of friars, named after the hoods (cappuccio) on the brown robes they wear.

Luther: National Library of the Netherlands • da Bascio: The European Library

Martin Luther (left) and Matteo da Bascio (Luther: National Library of the Netherlands • da Bascio: The European Library)

Martin and Matteo had different attitudes toward poverty. Begging was common at that time: The poor gained a few coins, and donors believed they gained merit in God’s eyes. Luther, though, believed the just shall live by faith, and all should live by work: He called for “the abolition of all begging throughout Christendom.”

Soon in Luther’s Wittenberg, families and friends cared for the poor, with the church as backup. Deacons met weekly to discuss how to place the able-bodied in jobs and help those unable to work. Luther saw no merit in poverty: People of means were to help people in mean circumstances change their lives, work hard, and become well-off themselves. Da Bascio’s Capuchins had a different approach: Their goal was to become poor themselves, and live alongside others who remained poor.

The Capuchins were radical within that resolution. They vowed to own nothing, to wear only robes “made of poor quality cloth,” to “never sleep on a featherbed or on mattresses or between sheets or have a feather pillow under their head,” unless they were very sick. A 1536 discourse on the vows of poverty that Capuchins took stated, “Those who observe them are in good circumstances and continuous merit and thus when they die are certain of salvation. Those who do not observe them are in bad circumstances and continuous disadvantage and are damned when they die.”

Damien Eagers

Kevin Crowley at the Capuchin Day Centre in Dublin (Damien Eagers)

MOST CATHOLIC MONKS did not follow the Capuchin way, but the idea that the poor by being poor were closer to God had deep roots within Roman Catholicism. So did the idea that the rich by giving to the poor won favor with God. I’ve now visited Protestant anti-poverty organizations in more than 100 U.S. cities and seen how most aspire to help their clients move out of poverty, so I asked Friar Crowley how he follows what has happened to regulars at the center he started almost 50 years ago, in 1969.

Answer: He doesn’t. Many alcoholics and addicts eat at the center, ironically located across the street from the Irish-whiskey-glorifying Jameson Distillery, but Crowley said, “We treat everybody the same whether they haven’t got a problem or have a problem. … We give help to those in need without asking any questions.” I asked, “Do you pray with the people who come here?” He responded, “We don’t shove prayer down their throats.” Crowley did say that the center has worship services: “Twice a year.”

Crowley became a priest in 1958, at age 23, after reading and hearing about Francis of Assisi: “I loved him for his humility, his love of nature, and his love of the poor. … He gave me the courage to do exactly, no, to make an effort to do what he did.” When Crowley came to Dublin in the 1960s and saw people begging on the street, “My concern was to make sure no one dies of hunger. This is what I was called to. This is what I wanted to do.”

The idea that the poor by being poor were closer to God had deep roots within Roman Catholicism.

The Day Centre at first occupied two rooms at the back of the Capuchin Friary, where Dublin’s Capuchins live. Crowley fed soup and bread to 50 men, many of them alcoholics. Crowley moved the operation to a separate small building in 1976 and then to a larger building in 1997. He now heads a $5 million operation that offered 398,000 “units of service” in 2016, including breakfast for 250-300 and lunch for 500-600.

In the United States many of the poorest are alcoholics, addicts, or mentally ill, so how prevalent are those ailments among Crowley’s clients? His response: “I don’t know. I don’t go into the details of how many people have mental problems or drinking problems or drug problems. … Our main concern is the dignity of each person. We don’t ask them questions.” The center’s feeding room features faded white walls, a scarred tile floor, and 20 rectangular tables, each of which seats six. Off to one side sits a “family area” for women and children with two security guards standing by.

Crowley’s office, up two flights of stairs, displays a scarred desk, old Post-it Notes on the wall, a mismatched set of chairs, and a photo of him with Pope Francis. I asked Crowley whether he helps some of his daily eaters get jobs, and then follows their progress? He replied, “Some people probably have gotten jobs, but I don’t follow through with that. I’m very concerned about the privacy of each person, and what he does after leaving here, whether he makes good or does badly, that’s his concern.”

Since just about every anti-poverty ministry I’ve visited in the United States makes much of its success stories, I three times asked Crowley for stories. Finally, he told me one: A man in his 60s died about four or five months ago. He had eaten at the Centre off and on since he was 17 or 18. He drank up to 20 cans of beer every day and slept on the streets. Eventually he developed cancer. Crowley’s medical team got him hospitalized. He then entered a hospice and “died in great dignity. He had a good death.”

Crowley’s dedication is admirable, and many in the Irish press have admired it. Even though anti-Catholicism is running high in Ireland after some priestly pederasty scandals, the Capuchin Day Centre receives about 15 percent of its revenue from Ireland’s government and the rest from large and small contributors. It may receive more publicity on Aug. 25 or 26 when Pope Francis makes the first papal trip to Ireland in 40 years. When I interviewed Crowley on March 19, a papal advance team was scouting the Centre as a venue for a visit.

CAPUCHINS HAVE gained admiration in other parts of Europe as well. We don’t know where or on what day Spanish Baroque painter Bartolomé Esteban Murillo was born, but we do know that his father was a barber in Seville, so Murillo was baptized in that then-wealthy city in 1618. This year in Seville, a yearlong celebration of the 400th anniversary of his birth is underway, with the city’s art museum displaying the depictions of Jesus, Mary, John the Baptist, and Catholic leaders that Murillo painted for the Capuchin Convent in Seville.

The simple convent in the 1600s stood in sharp contrast to the Seville Cathedral, finished in 1517 just as Luther was composing his 95 Theses. Peter in Chapter 3 of Acts says, “silver and gold have I none,” but the cathedral, built as silver and gold began pouring into Seville from the Caribbean and South America, has “serious bling,” as one tourist guide puts it. It’s the third-largest church in the world and features the largest and richest altarpiece on earth, with 45 floor-to-ceiling gold-leaf, wood-carved scenes from the life of Christ. Silver sparkles in 80 chapels within the 253,000-square-foot interior.


A view of the lofted ceilings in the Seville Cathedral (Lapas77/Shutterstock)

The cathedral and the Capuchins both had a role to play in countering misery among Spain’s poor. Bishops said the cathedral gave them a view of heaven. The Capuchins helped feed the poorest and featured friars voluntarily accepting deprivation. Seville had no Protestants to emphasize leaving poverty behind. The 1545-1563 Council of Trent, lead agent in Catholicism’s Counter-Reformation, rejected the Protestant repression of begging.

Evangelicals tend to assume Catholic poverty-maintenance would be frustrating. As James Whitford of Joplin says, people are happiest when they are producers, not just consumers. But in medieval Catholicism, which still dominated Spain into the 19th century, the poor were producers of a sort. Paupers prayed for the souls of almsgivers. Beggars, viewed as fruitful in that way, multiplied: They knocked on doors, begged in churches during services, displayed their mutilations, and eloquently cursed those who did not donate.

Medievalism’s alms were an investment. For example, the 1423 will of Hermann Zierenberg set aside money so that each year on the anniversary of his death paupers would pray for his salvation and purportedly save him years in purgatory. Before investing, donors wanted to be sure they received the prayers they paid for, so local officials helped by demanding that paupers pass a “beggars’ exam” testing their ability to recite the Lord’s Prayer, the Ave Maria, the Apostles’ Creed, and the Ten Commandments.

Richard Ford

Convent of the Capuchins, church of San Hermegildo and walls of Seville, 1831 (Richard Ford)

The deal mostly maintained social cohesiveness in Spain up to the 19th century. When traditional faith faded, though, the fabulous Seville altarpiece created more resentment than respect. During a Mass the rich sat facing the dazzle. Behind them sat an ornate choir room and behind that stood the poor, who stood at the back of the cathedral and spoke of hearing a Mass, not seeing it. Early in the 20th century Marxists and anarchists convinced many among the poor to hate Roman Catholicism. During the 1936-1939 Spanish Civil War the masses and their would-be leaders murdered at least 6,800 priests.

Among them were Capuchins. Although they could hardly be seen as exploiters, the anarchist militia burned and sacked the Capuchin convent in Barcelona. Church historians are still uncovering Capuchin stories. On Nov. 22, 2015, Pope Francis honored 26 just-beatified Capuchins “assassinated in Spain during the ferocious persecution against the Church” in 1936 and 1937. Beatification since 1634 has meant a papal claim that a dead person has entered heaven and can now intercede with Christ on behalf of individuals who pray in the dead person’s name.

The cathedral and the Capuchins both had a role to play in countering misery among Spain’s poor.

The Capuchins in Spain never fully recovered from Marxist monkicide. Today, some Capuchins live in Barcelona and Madrid, but in Seville they reside in portraits on the walls of the art museum. I climbed the Seville Cathedral’s 343-foot bell tower and from it could see 3 miles east to the barrio of Los Pajaritos, the poorest neighborhood in all of Spain: The average household income is a bit more than $15,000 per year. Next to Los Pajaritos (“the baby birds”) is another neighborhood, Madre de Dios (“mother of God”) that is almost as poor. Those are the places, like their equivalents in Ireland, where we would expect to spot Capuchins—but reporters who parachute into Los Pajaritos do not find them.

Instead, the spokesmen for Los Pajaritos include Rafael Amarillo, who owns the La Morena bar. He told journalist Vanessa Rodriguez about jobless youth producing only drug sales and botellones, street drinking parties. Similarly, fish market owner Jose Antonio told El Mundo reporter Nacho Gonzalez, “In almost three decades I had never seen so much misery, so many young people treated like dirt. … Politicians have no interest in finding real solutions.”

Jorge Guerrero/AFP/Getty Images

The Los Pajaritos housing project in Seville (Jorge Guerrero/AFP/Getty Images)

Now, the Spanish government hands out alms as clerics did centuries ago. One result: In Spain, as in the United States, many of the richest neighborhoods surround the capital. (The El Viso neighborhood in the Madrid metropolitan area is No. 1, with an average household income of $150,000.) Meanwhile, according to Gonzalez, Los Pajaritos produces drunken men, hungry children, and “pajama ladies” selling their bodies. Salvador Muñiz heads a neighborhood association that encompasses Los Pajaritos and says, “This is a pressure cooker about to burst.”

THE CATHOLIC-PROTESTANT DIVIDE on poverty-fighting was clearer in the 16th century than it is half a millennium later. Some Protestant ministries have forgotten Luther’s anti-begging stipulations and become feed-and-ask-no-questions wards of the state. Some Catholic-based groups, such as the Acton Institute, echo Calvin in seeding entrepreneurial attitudes among the poor and helping them become financially independent. (Disclosure: I’m an Acton senior fellow.)

Still, scholar Sigrun Kahl of Germany’s Max Planck Institute asked in 2004 why the idea of “doing something in return” for social assistance is still strong in historically Protestant countries: Those countries emphasize (at least on paper) welfare-to-work, while historically Catholic countries emphasize permanently integrating the poor into welfare systems. Historically Protestant countries often have time limits for aid and sanctions for those unwilling to work, but such stipulations are rare in historically Catholic countries.

It’s 60 years since Richard Tawney, in a foreword to the 1958 edition of Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, noted the 17th century’s clear “contrast between the social conservatism of Catholic Europe and the strenuous enterprise of Calvinist communities.” Yes, that was a long time ago, but Kahl quotes a social worker even in highly secular Sweden saying, “We Swedes have Luther sitting on our shoulders.”

Do Roman Catholics have a Capuchin sitting on their shoulders? Is the choice still Martin or Matteo?

Marvin Olasky

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. His latest book is Reforming Journalism. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.


You must be a WORLD Member and logged in to the website to comment.
  •  John Cogan's picture
    John Cogan
    Posted: Fri, 04/27/2018 01:02 am

    This is an interesting contrast between these two philosophies of aiding the poor. But I wonder, does either share the gospel? (Whitford has "Gospel" in the mission's name) It is important to help the poor so their needs are met in this world, but the next world will last forever; those who are to live eternally with God must hear the gospel and accept Christ's atoning sacrifice. This is also what Luther preached.

  • Narissara
    Posted: Wed, 05/02/2018 11:13 am

    Excellent point.  My thought is that, while it might not be essential to sharing the gospel, how many opportunities are lost because of the Catholic church's policy of "no questions asked"?  What an individual is struggling with is often the starting point for helping them see their need for Christ.  There does need to be balance.  Trying to fix an individual's problems has the potential for unhealthy relationships where the one ministering could begin to demand accountability to him/her instead of to Christ and forget about the gospel of grace.  

  •  Ed Walkwitz's picture
    Ed Walkwitz
    Posted: Mon, 04/30/2018 11:35 am

    Good encouragement to accountability, instead of just handing out free stuff. I even know of one case where handing out "aid" contributed to a family break up. If the wife, who was divorcing illegitimately, hadn't been able to obtain "assistance," she might have been forced to face the economic realities of divorce, and might have kept her family together.

  • JennyBeth
    Posted: Mon, 04/30/2018 11:37 am

    Interesting analysis. My stance is firmly against treating it as either/or scenario. Those ministries that focus on guiding and enabling the poor to improve their situation do a great deal more good--for those who successfully apply their program--than a simple handout would. But, the ministries that give unconditionally to the needy can help the "failures" the former kind of ministry won't be too eager to publish. There are always people who fall through the cracks of even the best-designed programs, so there's always a need for some catch-all aid.

    And isn't that the way God works with each of us? He gives us more than we deserve, and all of it is meant to make us grateful and faithful sons of our Father, but some of His gifts (e.g., sunshine) are open-handed, whereas some (e.g., joy) we have to cultivate (or, we may say, cooperate with His cultivation). (I'm just now appreciating the irony of my conclusion that, if we grant Olasky's analysis, Catholics and Protestants each exhibit in practice the opposite of their own theology about how we receive God's grace.)

  • WFerguson
    Posted: Wed, 05/02/2018 02:02 pm

    JennyBeth -- I was going to respond to this article, but you said what I was going to say perfectly--including your final observation. You saved me about 15 minutes of writing and editing. :)

  • TacoRag
    Posted: Mon, 05/07/2018 08:47 am

    I sense lots of research went into this article to make it as balanced as it is.

    It illustrates well how two disparite groups of people can have a heart for the poor, care deeply, and yet arrive at opposite approaches.

    As a deacon in my local church, we get walk-in clients expecting the latter approach, who become insulted when we take the former. This article helps provide a basis for understanding where they are coming from.  I plan on sharing this article with the our deacons, not that we would change our desire to not  get emeshed by a "maintenance" approach, but its worth exploring how we sometimes have to say "no".