Pope Francis and Through the Eye of a Needle

Since the ascension of Pope Francis, there has been much debate over the new pontiff’s concern for the poor, social justice, and his desire for a simple life. Executive Editor Rob Tempio sees this discussion as at the very heart of the debate within the Church over wealth between Augustine and the followers of Pelagius detailed in Peter Brown’s award-winning magnum opus, Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550AD:

In his Palm Sunday homily to mark the start of Holy week, Pope Francis enjoined the faithful throngs to lead “simple lives” and reminded them that Christian joy isn’t to be found in “possessing lots of things.” He also relayed something his grandmother used to tell him in Argentina “burial shrouds don’t have pockets” or as he put “you can’t take it with you.” The sentiment in these admonitions echoes Jesus’s claim that no sooner could a rich man enter the gates of heaven, than a camel fit through the eye of a needle.

This teaching of Jesus’s was the centerpiece of a millennia-old internecine struggle within the early Christian Church over the renunciation of wealth. This struggle came to a head in the battle between Bishop of Hippo, St. Augustine, and the followers of the British monk Pelagius who preached radical ideas about wealth and advocated its total renunciation as inimical to the Church’s true mission of ministering to the poor. Augustine eventually won this intellectual battle and the Church went on, following the fall of the Roman Empire, to become among the wealthiest institutions in all of Western Europe. This was thanks to, in no small part, the vast amount of alms and charitable donations it received from those seeking expiation for their sins and entry through the proverbial needle. However, the battle was won, or so it was argued, by accepting the wealth in order to better help the poor and those in need.

This struggle for the soul of Christianity and the role of wealth in the formation of the Catholic Church lies at the center of Peter Brown’s “magnificent” and “magisterial” panorama, Through the Eye of a Needle. With the installation of Pope Francis and his calls for people to reject the “consumer culture” of the modern world and to instead lead simple, austere lives–like that of his namesake–so as to refocus the church’s efforts on social justice for the downtrodden and the poverty-stricken, the time is ripe for a clearer understanding of the Church’s historically vexed relationship with wealth.

–Rob Tempio, Executive Editor and Group Publisher in the Humanities, @robtempio