I’ve been taking a bit of a summer break from blogging and podcasting. In the meantime, I’ve been creating an online course that draws on the work of Fr. Thomas Dubay to outline the practice and theory of voluntary poverty. In particular, I tried to highlight connections between voluntary poverty and other aspects of the Catholic Faith.
I’m also hoping that this course will help to build more community among the readers of this site. Participants in the course are encouraged to interact in the comment box under each lesson and in the associated group chat.
The course can be used in a self-guided manner, at your own pace. You can join and access all the course material on the Smart Catholics website at this link: https://members.smartcatholics.com/courses/7633351/about
For those who prefer in-person discussion, the lessons of the course will also be the basis for a series of discussion meetings offered in collaboration with the Living Communion Initiative. (The Living Communion Initiative is a project of the Simone Weil Catholic Worker House; check out our interview with them for more information on their work.)
The meetings will be held on Mondays at 8 p.m. (EDT) from September 12th to October 17th. See the full schedule below. Note that the meetings on September 12th and October 3rd will be combined meetings with the First Monday gatherings of the Living Communion Initiative, and so will have a slightly different format than the others. If you can’t make all the discussion meetings, feel free to attend these two as stand-alone events. The other meetings will go into greater depth with a smaller group.
Contact me if you’d like to participate in the meetings, and I will put you on an email list to receive the zoom links and meeting reminders. Feel free to participate in the discussion meetings even if you haven’t finished all the course material. I will highlight the most important material for each meeting in the reminder emails.
- September 12th (Living Communion Gathering): The Theory of Voluntary Poverty, the Call to Love God and Neighbor. This meeting will be an overview of the first half of the course, sections 1 and 2, with a particular focus on lesson 1. It will focus on the call to “universal radicality”: we are all called to be saints, and we can’t keep any aspect of our lives separate from this call. In particular, the love of neighbor to which Jesus calls us has concrete implications for how we live our lives.
- September 19th: This meeting will cover the rest of section one, lessons 2-4 in the course. They are grouped together as “problems and presuppositions”: the presuppositions of the world on one hand, and the presuppositions of the Gospel on the other.
- September 26th: This meeting will cover all of section two, lessons 5-8 in the course. They are grouped together because they are all about what voluntary poverty is (and is not) and why the Church values poverty.
- October 3rd (Living Communion Gathering): The Practice of Voluntary Poverty, An Economy of Community. This will be another stand-alone meeting previewing the second half of the course. In particular, we will be discussing: Father Dubay’s “levels of radicality”; what voluntary poverty looks like for the laity; and the “economy of communion”.
- October 10th: This meeting will cover section three, lessons 9-10 in the course. They are outlining what, concretely, voluntary poverty demands.
- October 17th: This meeting will cover Sections four and five, lessons 11 and 12 in the course. These lessons cover how voluntary poverty applies to different states in life, the joy that poverty brings, and a final wrap-up of the course. There will be an opportunity to discuss what each participant learned from the course, and a discussion of practical applications of Fr. Dubay’s insights in daily life.
A few weeks ago, Steve Skojec posted an essay to his substack that bore the provocative title “Busted Are the Poor”. The tagline encapsulates the message of his essay: “Christ said the poor are blessed, but poverty makes most of us miserable.” As the editor of a blog entitled “Happy Are You Poor”, I felt that this called for a response! Yet I don’t completely disagree with Skojec. In fact, I think he makes many valid and instructive points. It certainly is true that poverty makes many people miserable. As Skojec personally experienced, poverty can even have negative spiritual effects. It can make people selfish, discontented, angry, and depressed. How can it still be true that the poor are blessed?
A Confusion of Terms
Father Dubay, the author of the book Happy Are You Poor and the unofficial patron of this blog, can provide some insight. Addressing the disagreements that swirl around the concept of voluntary poverty, he cited the following quote from St. John Henry Newman: “Half the controversies in the world are verbal ones; and could they be brought to a plain issue, they would be brought to a prompt termination…When men understand each other’s meaning, they see, for the most part, that controversy is either superfluous or hopeless.”
In this case, I think there is a lot of superficial confusion that can be cleared up by a careful definition of terms. To begin with, the concept of “blessing” itself can be confusing. Christ says that the poor are blessed, but poverty is a mere negative. As such, it has no value in itself. It is only valuable insofar as it prepares the way for something else. Just as silence can be valuable if it leads to prayer, poverty can be valuable if it clears the way for discipleship. Fr. Dubay uses the example of readiness to read to illustrate this. By itself, such readiness is not valuable. A child who is ready to learn reading still can’t read, but such readiness is a prerequisite for eventual learning. Poverty is a prerequisite for true discipleship, but it does not necessarily lead to such discipleship. The poor merely possess a certain readiness for discipleship.
Further, this readiness can be negated by other factors. As Skojec points out, the material circumstances of the poor can hamper their spiritual development. And here it is important to draw another distinction. While poverty can be spiritually beneficial, destitution and a lack of security are generally harmful to a person’s spiritual life just as they are harmful to a person’s physical life. Skojec says that his family was not destitute while growing up, but it appears that he experienced destitution later in life: a lack of the basic necessities for a good human life. He writes:
During one particularly rough patch, when my wife was pregnant with our fifth child, I was working 50-60 hours a week in a state with no mandatory overtime pay and no benefits. It wasn’t enough to cover food, utilities, rent, and all of our other expenses. We couldn’t afford living room furniture, so we sat on an old air mattress that kept deflating on the hard tile floor. The front two tires on our van wound up blowing out because the rubber had worn paper thin. The generosity of a stranger who was reading my blog at the time and offered to loan me a couple thousand dollars is the only reason we got out of that situation. We broke our lease, moved across country into my parents’ cramped 1-bedroom basement apartment with all five of those kids, and stayed there for a year until I had saved up enough, with the help of a loan from one of my brothers, to put down on a house. The son my wife was pregnant with at the time is named Jude because a novena to St. Jude I was praying was answered. The petition I was praying for was that our food stamps would be renewed. My pregnant wife and small kids needed nutritious food, not borderline spoiled garbage from the “manager’s special” section of the ghetto grocer. My son Ivan was so excited the first time we were able to buy fresh fruit again that summer. I gave him a bag of oranges, and you’d have thought it was Christmas.
The Gospel’s call to embrace voluntary poverty is not a call to embrace destitution. A few saints do have a special calling to embrace destitution, usually as an act of solidarity with the destitute. In general, however, we are not called to embrace destitution; in fact, we are called to eliminate destitution through charitable giving.
It is true that destitution can make it harder to attain sanctity, or even a decent human life, in the here and now. There is yet another meaning to the term “blessed” that should be considered, however. God seems to favor society’s outcasts and rejects. It may well be the case that a homeless drug addict is nearer to the kingdom of God than many prosperous and devout Christians who seem to have everything together. In the Gospel, this can be seen in the stories of the Good Thief and the Samaritan Woman. They were social outcasts and sinners, yet they recognized Christ while the Pharisees failed to do so. Similarly, Lazarus was admitted to the company of Abraham, while the rich man burned in hell; Abraham explained that during their earthly life, Lazarus had received bad things, while the rich man had received good things. Now their roles were reversed.
This Gospel teaching does not mean that we should tolerate destitution, or that we should stop striving for virtue and discipline in all areas of life. It is merely a warning against judging solely from the standpoint of this life. Even spiritual successes can be dangerous if we put our trust in them. We’re all equally beggars before God; none of us merited our own creation, and none of us can merit our eventual salvation.
Security, Good and Bad
The lack of security that so often accompanies poverty is a complicated issue. Like destitution, a lack of security can be spiritually corrosive, particularly for children. Some people say that a lack of security is a good thing; according to them, it leads to greater trust in God. Should we really put our security in anything other than God? There’s a certain truth to this, but I think such people are missing a crucial point. Steve Skojec writes:
Jamie was more successful than I was early on, but we kept having kids every two years like good Catholics do, and she’d have to stop working to take care of babies or risk leaving them in the care of others. This situation made me upset every time we found out we were expecting again, which took a toll on our relationship. We frequently couldn’t cover all our bills, and were constantly floating late payments…So while yes, being poor makes people more dependent on God — you’ll rarely pray harder than when you’re about to be evicted or don’t have enough to eat — I’m just not sure that’s the best way to experience religion. One of the most important things I had to learn was to do for myself, and that meant not expecting God to do it for me. I believe I’ve written about this before, but the notion that we “can do nothing without God” needlessly debilitates people, sometimes keeping them from recognizing their own ability to help themselves. Praying for a raise isn’t the same thing as asking your boss for one. Novenas for a good job aren’t the same thing as building the skillset you need to land the position. And resigning yourself to poverty because you don’t want to be overly attached to money or material possessions means you’ll always be mired in mediocrity. If you don’t have the ambition you need to properly provide for yourself and the ones you love, how is that a virtue? How is the mentality that you’re blessed because you’re poor not just an excuse not to do your best?
Skojec is right to criticize the platitudes about trusting in God; it can all come across as very patronizing to the poor. In reaction to this, he advocates a certain kind of self-reliance and self-sufficiency. Both positions miss a fundamental point. Jesus didn’t come to give humanity a code of ethics that individuals could adopt at will; rather, he came to found the community of the Church. Within that community, we’re supposed to be as tightly joined to one another as the members of a physical body. For an isolated individual or family, poverty entails a damaging lack of security. The only way to attain security as an individual is through the accumulation of wealth.
The pursuit of such individual security is harshly condemned by the Gospel. What is often missed, however, is that Christians are called to replace the individual security based on accumulating wealth with the security that comes from being part of a loving community. The rich fool with his barns was condemned, while the first Christian communities described in Acts shared their goods to such an extent that “there was no needy person among them”. (Acts 4:34) If we’re going to tell the poor to trust in God, then we have to get busy and ensure that their trust is not in vain. We have to act as the agents of God’s providence; otherwise, as St. James tells us, our faith is dead. (James 2:14-17)
A friend told me that when he was growing up in a “Little Italy” of tenement dwellers on the East Coast his family and friends were all poor, but nobody was ever allowed to go hungry; the community looked after its own. Currently, the Church is failing to even live up to the standards set by merely human communities. The call to embrace poverty goes hand in hand with the call to build radical Christian community. (It is also notable that this is a “pro-life” issue. Steve and Jamie Skojec choose to have a large family. Such generosity is commendable, but too often the parents of large families end up burnt out by the strain. Today, individual families are on their own; in more traditional cultures nuclear families were supported by networks of extended family and local community.)
At the same time, a commitment to voluntary poverty does not prevent individuals from striving for excellence in their professions. In fact, voluntary poverty does not even rule out making a lot of money! Let’s imagine a hypothetical businessman who runs his company in accordance with Catholic principles. He pays all his workers a generous living wage and offers family-friendly benefits, his products are of high quality and are sustainably produced, he avoids undercutting his competitors, and he reinvests surplus wealth in his company’s local community. Even though his high principles put him at a disadvantage against unscrupulous competitors who off-shore jobs and pillage local communities, his commitment to honesty has paid off and his company is making a huge profit. So far, our businessman is an exemplar of Christian virtue.
Now he is able to pay himself a large salary. Everything depends on what he does with this income. If he uses it to amuse himself or live in luxury, he is not living a truly Christian life. But if he provides for his family’s modest needs and then gives the rest of his income to charity, he would be living a life of voluntary poverty in accordance with the Gospel. In any discussion of voluntary poverty, the stress should be on the word voluntary.
Still, it should be noted that many people will not achieve such success, no matter how hard they work. Skojec says “When you believe in abundance, and that there’s more out there for the taking if you just go out and get it, suddenly the stuff you have isn’t such a big deal anymore. Suddenly, you don’t feel like you need to cling to it for dear life.” Believing in abundance will only get one so far. For one thing, our hypothetical businessman is rather rare today; our whole economy is stacked against those who bring their Faith into their business dealings. For another, many people struggle with some kind of disability or handicap. The Christian community exists to make sure that the weak are not crushed by the burden of life, burdens that they might not be able to carry by themselves.
You Can not Worship God and Mammon
The idol of the USA is Mammon: the individualistic pursuit of wealth, power, and status. In such a society, the poor are outcasts. They are not able to worship at the sacred shrine, and so lack a sense of self-worth and dignity. Skojec recounts his experience of being rejected as a child:
I’m the oldest, but I rarely got new clothes, and when I did, they were usually from a clearance bin. Most of my apparel was of the hand-me-down variety, and it usually arrived in large black trash bags, the collected cast-offs from my more well-to-do older cousins. I got made fun of a lot in school because of my clothes, or the fact that I wore whatever generic sneakers my mom could grab for cheap from K-Mart instead of Nikes or Reeboks. It was the age of Air Jordans and Reebok pumps, after all. None of this Spaulding crap. So I started picking up jobs as early as I could. Babysitting at 14 turned into mowing the parish cemetery at 15 and then working at the local hardware store at 16. I quit football after my freshman year so I could work. The wages were garbage, but I worked as much as they’d let me, and it felt good to go the mall and buy my own clothes, my own shoes, and my own video games. I could even go to the movies, or go out to eat at the Chinese buffet. I had to go alone most of the time, but at least I got to go.
Whatever else that school may have been teaching, it was effectively training new acolytes for the worship of Mammon. Jesus said that the poor are blessed, but he also said that no one can serve both God and Mammon. In the USA, most of us are subconsciously trying to serve both. Not surprisingly, such divided loyalties come with quite a bit of mental anguish. As the young Steve Skojec found, Mammon is a hard master, and its servants mercilessly persecute those who can’t or won’t serve their god. There was no logical reason for Steve to have been ashamed of his generic sneakers; in some societies, he would have been seen as fortunate for having shoes at all! And it isn’t as if the name brands are that much better at protecting one’s feet. Rather, he suffered embarrassment and rejection simply because he was not able to afford a meaningless status symbol.
Whether our poverty is voluntary or involuntary, few of us can resist the societal pressure to worship Mammon. We all tend to give the well-to-do more respect. Nor is this a recent problem. In his Letter, St. James warns the early Christian communities to beware of making distinctions based on wealth and fashionable clothing. He directs them to honor the poor members of the community. Without such a truly counter-cultural community, the poor will indeed tend to become mentally and spiritually “busted” by their interactions with the worshipers of Mammon.
A Community that Builds One Another Up
As Skojec points out, not all of the poor end up busted. Almost miraculously, some of them are supernaturally generous and unselfish:
It must be acknowledged, though, that there is another group of people: the truly, inexplicably generous…Poor folk who give freely and without reserve. People who will give you the coat off their back on an icy day, or the last bowl of soup in the pot even though they don’t know where the next meal will come from. They exist, and they are mysterious. Almost inexplicable, humanly speaking. These people are truly next level. They’re the ones I really admire. They’re the truly blessed poor. The ones whose wisdom we could all stand to benefit from, if we can only understand how it works.
I think that such generosity truly is a mystery; a mystery of God’s grace. Such people represent the Christian ideal. Most of us, however, are not able to achieve this ideal without assistance. That is the purpose of the Church. As Christians, we are called to “build one another up in Christ”. Through a personal experience of God’s love mediated by the Christian community, we can grow in the trust necessary to embrace voluntary poverty. No one can give what they do not have. To pour ourselves out in love of God and neighbor, we must first receive this love through those around us.
The call to embrace voluntary poverty is one of the hardest teachings in the Gospel. It is widely rejected by otherwise devout Christians. In part, such rejection stems from mere misunderstanding. Gospel poverty is often equated with destitution, but it does not entail a lack of basic necessities. In fact, Gospel poverty calls us to aid the destitute by sharing generously with them.
Other objections have more of a basis in actual fact. One of the main concerns people have about embracing poverty is that poverty seems to entail a lack of security. Wealth is fundamentally oriented to security; savings accounts and insurance policies are designed to protect us from unforeseen disasters. In particular, parents desire security and stability for their children, and wealth seems to be the only way to attain this goal.
Some would respond to this concern by claiming that such a lack of security is a good thing. They would say that our security should be found in God alone and that putting our trust in created things is inimical to putting our trust in God. After all, we will have to give up any created security at the end of our lives when we will be called to surrender ourselves completely to the mercy of God. If we haven’t practiced such surrender during our lives, how will we achieve it at death?
There is some truth to this position; however, it ignores several critical points. Some people are called to embrace destitution and a total lack of security for the sake of God. But for most of us, and particularly for children, material security is important.
Today, most of us seek our security through what I will call the “individual method”, which is based on wealth. We are advised to make investments, build up savings, purchase insurance, gain marketable skills, and even choose a house based on the likely resale value. This personal accumulation of wealth is supposed to provide for the upbringing of children, support us during retirement, and protect us in the case of disasters and misfortune.
“Prepping” is a good example of this pursuit of individual security. Preppers store up vast amounts of food, weapons, and other supplies to ensure that they will survive any disasters in the future. This may seem extreme, but prepping can serve to highlight certain fundamental tendencies in our society. The American Dream is based on achieving individual wealth and then enjoying a comfortable and secure suburban life, isolated from the problems of other people. While the prepper seeks security and isolation in a bunker full of food, the suburbanite seeks it in a house with a two-car garage, insulated from neighbors by lawns and winding drives and paid for by a well-stocked bank account.
In fact, our society is so oriented toward this kind of individual security that even Christians have come to see pursuing it as praiseworthy and virtuous. Given our social conditions, such a mistake is understandable. But it is undeniable that this individual search for security is harshly condemned by the Gospels. Perhaps the clearest example of this condemnation is the parable of the rich fool in Luke 12:13-21. He built bigger barns to store his vast wealth; this wealth, he thought, would make him secure and comfortable for many years. But God responded to these thoughts of his, saying “You fool, this night your life will be demanded of you; and the things you have prepared, to whom will they belong?”
Christians should avoid such hoarding of wealth not merely because it is spiritually dangerous, but because it signals a lack of charity. Effective hoarding depends on protecting wealth from others. If we save up wealth for a future that may never come, we can’t use it now to help those who are in need. Why should the hypothetical needs of our future be considered more important than their real needs in the present?
There is, however, another way of attaining security: what I will call “the communal method.” This method of achieving security is common in more traditional cultures, and is actually recommended by the Gospel. It is based on giving generously in the present while trusting in the goodness of the community to provide for the future.
The Amish, for instance, condemn the practice of insurance. They feel that it displays a lack of trust in God. And due to their cohesive communities, they don’t need insurance. When disaster strikes, the community comes together to help those who are affected. If a house or barn burns down, the community has the skills and ability to rebuild it.
This kind of tightly-knit community used to be much more common. A friend of mine told me about his experience growing up in an ethnic neighborhood community on the East Coast. He said that while they were all poor tenement dwellers, nobody would have ever been allowed to go hungry in his neighborhood.
The Early Church provided this sort of community-based security. The Acts of the Apostles describes how the wealthy members sold their property to provide for the needs of all, and local churches sent aid to areas that were suffering from famine. Monastic orders have continued this practice of communal security.
Depending on a community for security is not opposed to trusting in God. God works through secondary causes. In fact, the Christian community is supposed to show the world the love that God has for each one of us. As the Mystical Body of Christ, when we care for one another we are participating in God’s work of creation and redemption.
Of course, this security strategy depends on having a community! St. James condemns the Christian who would ignore a brother or sister who was in need of food or clothing. But today, we don’t know who among us might be in need. We hardly know our neighbors and our fellow parishioners. For all we know, the family in the next pew over has just had their power shut off or is struggling to buy groceries.
In this way, Gospel poverty and intentional community are the flip sides of the same coin. Poverty makes community desirable. If we are individually wealthy, we may come to feel that we don’t need others. By contrast, in poorer countries, community is still valued. An acquaintance recently told me that in Honduras the people tend to look out for one another, despite all their other problems. As he put it, in Honduras they have “small houses and large plazas”; the public sphere is emphasized. By contrast, here in the USA, we have large houses while in many places the public square is non-existent.
At the same time, community makes voluntary poverty survivable. We can achieve a certain simplicity of life by ourselves. It is fairly easy to cut back on unnecessary travel, avoid buying luxury goodsn and switch to buying second-hand clothing. But to follow this teaching fully we need a supportive community. We can’t escape our dependency on insurance and individual wealth without assistance.
All the Gospel precepts were given to a community rather than to disconnected individuals. Christ came to found a Church, not to provide a list of ethical statements. Without a community, we are unable to fully live out the Christian life. For this reason, rebuilding community needs to be a priority for Christians going forward. This rebuilding doesn’t need to come in the form of grandiose projects. Rather, it should start simply. Get to know fellow parishioners. Invite them over to talk, eat, and pray. Spend time with one another. While such gatherings may seem futile in the face of the challenges facing us today, Christ promised that where two or three are gathered in his name, he would be in the midst of them. Only by gathering together with Christ will we find true security, both in this life and in the next.
As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine grinds on, there has been a global outpouring of support. Faced with the horrors of war, we feel called to do something to help or at least to show our solidarity. Voluntary poverty can serve both as an act of solidarity with those who are suffering and as a practical response to the effects of the war on the global economy.
While the destruction of Ukrainian cities gets more attention in the media, a crisis is developing in poorer countries around the globe. The world is facing a food, fuel, and fertilizer shortage. For most of us in the USA, this is likely to prove only a minor inconvenience. For those in the poorer countries of the Global South, it is life-threatening. By embracing voluntary poverty and cutting back our own consumption, we can free up supplies for those in need. Judicious donations can transfer our unused “purchasing power” to those who would otherwise be unable to afford basic necessities.
Together, Ukraine and Russia produce a third of the world’s wheat and barley exports, and more than two-thirds of the world’s sunflower seed oil. As the war disrupts farming and transport, and sanctions hamper shipping, these supplies are in danger of disappearing. This will have catastrophic effects on countries that depend on food imports, particularly in Africa and the Middle East.
At the same time, 26 million tons of grain are fed to livestock every year in the USA alone. This represents a massive waste of calories, since the resulting meat, eggs, and dairy products contain many fewer calories than the original grains. If we all reduced our consumption of animal products, this grain would be available to feed human beings. Such a reduction would bring our consumption more into line with the global average meat consumption. An average person in the USA consumes more than 250 pounds of meat a year, while the world average is closer to 75 pounds. Feeding less grain to livestock would also reduce the environmental impact of American farming and promote better living conditions for farm animals.
Our alcohol consumption also wastes a lot of grain. Every year, the USA grows two million acres of barley for producing beer and other alcoholic drinks. By reducing our alcohol consumption, we can free up some of that land for more productive uses.
Our appetite for alcohol, however, is dwarfed by that of our vehicles. Every year, 5 billion bushels of corn are turned into ethanol to fuel American vehicles. This is a terribly inefficient way to produce fuel since the amount of energy used in the production process is so large. It is notable that most other countries do not use grains in this way; ethanol production in the USA is the result of aggressive lobbying by agribusiness interests. It is not efficient enough to be profitable on its own.
Gasoline prices have also gone up around the world, since Russia is a major oil exporter. By limiting our travel, we can help to reduce these prices and keep poorer countries from being priced out of the market for transportation fuel.
Russia is the largest exporter of nitrogen fertilizer in the world, and also a key exporter of natural gas, which is critical for fertilizer manufacturing. As the prices of fertilizer skyrocket, small farmers are being pushed out of business by growing costs.
Americans “cultivate” 63,000 square miles of lawn! All that lawn uses a lot of fertilizer—around 90 million pounds of it! Now would be a good time to skip fertilizing useless, decorative lawns to save fertilizer for more important uses. This would help to lower food costs, which are being pushed higher by fertilizer prices.
It is said that the world is facing a food shortage. This isn’t really true. Despite the effects of the war, there is plenty of food to go around—but we Americans are feeding all the food to our cows and cars! Our “need” for cheap meat and travel is depriving other people of the food they need to survive, and contributing to the ongoing degradation of the environment that we all depend on for survival. Faced with this reality, the only Christian response is an embrace of voluntary poverty. In Gaudium et Spes the teaching of the Church on this matter is laid out very clearly:
God intended the earth with everything contained in it for the use of all human beings and peoples. Thus, under the leadership of justice and in the company of charity, created goods should be in abundance for all in like manner… In using them, therefore, man should regard the external things that he legitimately possesses not only as his own but also as common in the sense that they should be able to benefit not only him but also others. On the other hand, the right of having a share of earthly goods sufficient for oneself and one’s family belongs to everyone. The Fathers and Doctors of the Church held this opinion, teaching that men are obliged to come to the relief of the poor and to do so not merely out of their superfluous goods…Since there are so many people prostrate with hunger in the world, this sacred council urges all, both individuals and governments, to remember the aphorism of the Fathers, “Feed the man dying of hunger, because if you have not fed him, you have killed him”.
This is a matter, not of charity, but of justice. It is unjust to consume more than our fair share of the world’s resources, particularly during a time of crisis. If we consume more, some other person will have to consume less. While we don’t know these invisible “others”, God knows them, and Christ identifies himself with them. When we stand before Christ, will he say to us “I was hungry, and you fed me”, or will he say “I was hungry, but my food was wasted because of your greed”?
We all struggle with attachments. Such attachments can transform perfectly harmless or even commendable relationships and activities into spiritual hazards. That is why Christians are called to be detached. Without the freedom that detachment brings, we will be unable to follow Christ in a sacrificial way.
In a way, the modern world is very detached. The average American moves frequently, leaving behind family, friends, and neighborhood to start fresh in a new location. Friendships tend to last only during a particular phase of life; college friends are likely to drift apart as life goes on. We’ve become much less likely to make long term commitments of any sort.
Such rootlessness undermines the possibility of authentic community. The absence of community, in turn, makes a fully Christian life impossible. In this way, the rootlessness of the modern world erodes Christian practice. This leads to a seeming contradiction. The rootedness of community is a direct challenge to the rootless detachment of the modern world—and yet detachment is essential to the Christian life. Should Christians value the ties to particular people and places that are formed in community? If so, how are such ties compatible with Christian detachment?
The Identities Shaped by Love
Thinking about the nature of love and identity can help us to answer these questions. Our true identities are shaped by what we love. Casual acquaintances might know my name, and my hair color, and where I live; but they don’t really know “who” I am. To know “who” I am, they would need to know about my loves: my attachment to particular persons and places, my religious and social commitments, and even my hobbies and interests. All of these relationships represent different kinds of love.
Love is an inherently risky thing that is almost always accompanied by suffering. We suffer when those we love are harmed or threatened, because we’ve given our hearts to them. We are also willing to undergo suffering for the sake of love. “Compassion” literally means “suffering with”. Being near a suffering person is uncomfortable, since their suffering tends to “rub off” on us. Those who lack love tend to move away when another is suffering, while those who love draw nearer in solidarity.
Our relationship with Christ is the ultimate source of our identity as Christians. Christ isn’t content to take second place in our lives; rather, he demands our whole heart and soul. We can’t wall this relationship off into a tidy category labeled “religion”, side by side with other categories labeled “work”, “politics”, “family”, and “sports”.
Given the all-embracing nature of the Christian identity, it might seem that we shouldn’t have any other loves or identities in our lives. It might seem that we shouldn’t give our hearts to anyone else, or at least that such gifts of love should be seen as merely an indirect way of loving Christ. For example, parents might participate in some game or other activity merely to show love for their children. They might privately think the game is boring and interminable, but go through the motions to please the children. Similarly, we might see human relationships as mere ways to please Jesus. He has told us that whatever is done for others will be taken as done for him. Obviously, we need to act in a generous and charitable manner toward all. But should we let our hearts become entangled in the messiness of mundane reality?
While some Christian thinkers have indeed disparaged natural human relationships, such disdain is not part of the authentic Christian tradition. Instead, we are called to truly love others. In doing so, we are imitating God himself. He loves creatures so fully and so intensely that they are maintained in being by his loving glance. There is no need for him to create; but he freely gives his love. In Jesus Christ, God even experienced the suffering that love so often entails. Out of compassion, he suffered in solidarity with his creatures.
Of course, we can love creatures inordinately; such inordinate love becomes an obstacle to the love of God. Our loves need to be properly ordered. But the heart has an infinite capacity for love. Just because we love created beings does not mean that we have less love “left over” for God.
Christian detachment does not oppose an excess of love; rather, it opposes a lack of love. The miser, for instance, is attached to his money; he hoards it carefully and refuses to give it away. The spendthrift, by contrast, is detached from his money; he scatters it about in a prodigal manner. We are supposed to be prodigal with our love. We should throw it about recklessly, just as God did when he created the universe.
Of course, such reckless love entails suffering—which is why we are tempted to avoid it! Giving our hearts to another is dangerous! Instead, we tend to give our hearts to others with a string attached. We try to drag hosts of other creatures about on such strings in a possessive manner, to inflate our egos and make ourselves seem bigger. By doing so, we avoid the risks and sacrifices that come with true self-giving. Such consumptive and possessive attitudes, however, have nothing to do with true love. It is this counterfeit love from which we are called to be detached. Detachment breaks the string and allows us to give love freely, without counting the cost or demanding a return.
Voluntary Poverty, Love, and the Christian Community
In fact, without detachment we are unable to love. Attachments are not solely an obstacle to loving God; they prevent us from freely loving anything. St. Francis of Assisi is the greatest Christian example of voluntary poverty. He gave away everything he had, so that he could freely follow Christ. For that very reason, he was able to love everything around him with a boundless exuberance. He was able to rejoice in things simply being themselves, without plotting ways to achieve dominance and mastery over them.
This highlights the difference between modern rootlessness and Christian detachment. Modern detachment is actually an attachment to the power and freedom of the self. The modern world tells us to carefully remain detached from anything that would hamper our individual freedom of choice. The modern world opposes commitments and roots in favor of self-seeking and so-called “self-realization”. For this reason, our society promotes “freedom” from connections to family and community, and even from religious and marital ties, to protect the free choice of the individual from any exterior constraints. Christian detachment, by contrast, is all about giving oneself to others. We’re called to be detached from our possessions so that we can give them to the poor. We’re called to be detached from our own will for the good of others. Both in religious life and in Christian matrimony, detachment is paradoxically expressed by binding oneself.
We can see how different these two attitudes really are by looking at the differing results. As we’ve already noted, Christian detachment leads to monasticism, life-long marriage, and care for the poor. It promotes care for creation because it leads individuals to see the natural world as something inherently worthy of respect, rather than as something merely intended to serve individual desires. It leads to thriving local communities because Christian detachment promotes unselfish love and cooperation. At the same time, it also leads individuals to leave their own communities and families to bring the good news of the Gospel to the poor.
By contrast, the modern kind of “detachment” leads to a breakdown both of the family and of monastic life. It creates a mass of isolated and disconnected individuals, each pursuing individual goals and personal satisfaction. Family breakdown leads to the warehousing of the elderly in “old folk’s homes”. A lack of care and love for the gifts God has given ends up covering the landscape with landfills. Local communities wither away and can no longer support individuals through times of crisis and need.
Love in the Christian Community
Christ didn’t come to teach ethical principles, but rather to found a community: the Church. In the Gospels, he uses the analogies of a vine with branches and a head with members to portray this community. We’re supposed to be as tightly joined to Christ and to one another as the members of a living organism are bound to one another. Obviously, we wouldn’t want the members of our bodies to be “detached”! Rather, we want the members of our bodies to work together for the good of the whole. The New Testament also uses the analogy of a building to describe our unity with one another. If the elements of a building are detached from one another, the structure falls into ruin. In the concrete reality of a local Christian community, we can practice detachment from our own egos so that, like living stones, we can become attached to one another in the spiritual temple of God. (cf 1 Peter 2:5)
Moving van picture by amy gizienski, CC BY 2.0
A Theology of History by Hans Urs von Balthasar contains the following passage about Christ’s relationship to time and his foreknowledge of future events:
It is not the case that Christ before his Passion was only appearing to live in time…What tells us more than anything else that Jesus’ mode of time is indeed real is the fact that he does not anticipate the will of the Father. He does not do the precise thing which we try to do when we sin, which is to break out of time, within which are contained God’s dispositions for us, in order to arrogate to ourselves a sort of eternity, to “take the long view” and “make sure of things”. Both Irenaeus and Clement consider that original sin consisted in anticipation of this kind; and indeed, at the close of Revelation the reward which the Son bestows upon the victor is that fruit of Paradise which the sinner had to his own hurt stolen in anticipation. (Rev 2:7) God intended man to have all good, but in his, God’s, time; and therefore all disobedience, all sin, consists essentially in breaking out of time…Hence the importance of patience in the New Testament, which becomes the basic constituent of Christianity, more central even than humility…This may be seen from Jesus’s relation to “his hour”, which is the Father’s hour. Essentially, it is the hour that is coming, which, in its coming, is always there and therefore determines everything that happens before it and leads up to it, but still has this determinative character as something that is to come, something that can not be summoned…The concept he has of it—and this kind of knowledge he does have—has for its measure that which the Father reveals of it to him. One can therefore say in general (since “his hour” is the epitome of his mission) that his knowledge as God-man is measured by his mission. The knowledge is not itself the measure, but that which is measured; whereas his mission is the measure that measures all else. His perfection is his obedience, which does not anticipate. The use of his capacities has to be adapted to this standard. To regard Christ’s knowledge as though he carried out his actions in time from some vantage point of eternity—rather like a chess-player of genius who quickly foresees the whole course of the game, and simply moves his men through a game which for him is already over—would be to do away entirely with his temporality and so with his obedience, his patience, the merit of his redemptive existence; he would no longer be the model of a Christain existence and of Christian faith.
Of course, von Balthasar is not denying that Jesus was God, and as God knew all things. There are many passages in the Gospels that show Jesus predicting the future. He is God! And yet he is also fully human. He did not let his status as God obliterate his humanity. As St. Paul says, Jesus “did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.” (Philippians 2:6-7) During the temptation in the desert, Jesus rejected the suggestion to grasp at glory on his own terms. He would indeed rule over all nations and peoples, but only by following the will of the Father that led him to the cross. As von Balthasar points out, Christ showed this humility and obedience by living in the moment. As a man, he could learn and grow. (Luke 2:52) As a man, he could be surprised. (Matthew 8:10, Mark 6:6)
The humility of Christ stems from his love. He loves us so much that he was willing to stoop down to reach us. Even more amazingly, he wishes to raise us to his own level. By incorporation in the Mystical Body, we are being integrated into the very life of the Trinity. This communal reality of the Mystical Body should be the basis of any community building attempt. In particular, I think that reflecting on Christ’s relationship to time and to knowledge can help us avoid certain spiritual errors that are common among those building community.
The Bad World and the Good Community?
Devout Christians often misunderstand the true nature of temptation. We are tempted to obtain good things in the wrong way. That means that we need to be on our guard against spiritual pride and the other vices that can slip in under cover of apparent devotion. Instead, too many Christians are focused on the evils of the world “out there”. They correctly understand that such things as abortion and sexual perversions are contrary to the Gospel; but focusing on these issues can lead to a certain blindness regarding the more subtle forms of evil. This is particularly the case when Christian community is seen as a fortress or ark to hold at bay the evil of the outside world. Such a focus on other people’s sins is spiritually dangerous. It can promote the formation of a comfortable little “shire”, where all kinds of horrible spiritual sins can flourish under the cover of beautiful liturgies and seemingly devout families. Such spiritual pride goes before a fall. Eventually, God will allow the facade to crumble. Like the showy mushrooms that signal the presence of hidden decay, all the more blatant forms of evil will eventually crop up within the community itself.
The Desire for Control
As von Balthasar explains, the desire for control is the most fundamental temptation. The attitude of human beings toward God should be one of humble trust, surrender, and thanksgiving. Instead, we are tempted to doubt God’s goodness. We come to fear that he does not truly care for us, and so we set out to take care of ourselves. This was the temptation in the Garden of Eden: the suggestion that God was untrustworthy.
This desire for control can be seen in the individualism of the modern world. We are told that we need to “go it alone”, to control our own destinies. To do this, we break family and community ties. I recently came across an interesting example of this on social media. A commenter was arguing that young people should not live with their parents. Instead, he urged them to seek independence no matter what the cost. He said that he had moved away from home to live with five roommates and work several different jobs just to make ends meet, but independence was “worth it”. This is obviously absurd. Can anyone be truly independent? Why is sharing the cost of living with five unknown roommates more virtuous than sharing the cost of living with one’s parents?
The deeper, darker reality behind such views is that sharing an apartment with roommates is seen as superior precisely because of the lack of pre-existing ties. Family bonds are not chosen; they are simply given, received as a gift. Roommates, on the other hand, are chosen. They can be left behind when one no longer needs them. Our culture glorifies personal choice and individual freedom, but this leads to a deep unhappiness just as it did in the Garden of Eden.
As people become more and more aware of this fundamental lack in our society, community building starts to look more attractive. The danger is that community will become just another strategy for control. If we enter into a community with our culture’s individualistic mindset, we will fail. Community will be seen as a way to escape the dangers and problems of life, as a way of walling out conflicting ideas. Parents will see community as a way to gain control over children, leaders will see community as a path to power.
In reality, however, community building is about relinquishing individual choice and receiving others as a gift. Any healthy community will contain differing perspectives and temperaments. Such differences will inevitably lead to tension. The Christian way is to accept such difficulties, instead of striking out on an individual search for fulfillment or attempting to coerce community into artificial uniformity.
The Problem with Blueprints
In one sense, “building community” is deeply paradoxical. How can we build something which must be organic? How can we plan for something that depends on the unpredictable nature of human relationships? Von Balthasar’s description of Christ’s knowledge and his relationship to time can help us to navigate this seeming contradiction.
In one sense, Christ foresaw the future. He understood his mission, and that mission required a certain vision of things yet to come. Similarly, as Christians we have a mission. In fact, our mission is a participation in the mission of Christ: showing the love of the Father to the world. Community is a key part of this mission; the pagans in the ancient world saw the love of the Christian community and were attracted by it. To fulfill this mission, we need to think about the future. As Pope Francis says, we need to “dream” of a better world. We need to have a vision of Christian community, or we will remain stuck in the status quo.
Christ’s knowledge, however, did not keep him from truly living in time. He did not attempt to control events by drawing on an eternal perspective. Rather, he was docile to the will of the Father and the promptings of the Holy Spirit in the moment. Similarly, we need to live in the moment and be open to the voice of God. Discernment is essential, and discernment is ultimately a communal process. This means that our initial vision will probably be modified by the people and events we encounter along our path.
To maintain this flexibility, we need to fight the temptation to “grab” for power and control over events. We can’t let the initial vision degenerate into a mere “blueprint” of a future project. Living in the moment can keep this degeneration at bay. Having a meal with friends is a good and beautiful thing. It should be valued for what it is, not as a stepping stone to something in the future. It should not be seen as an opportunity to “build social capital” that can later be “invested” in some project.
Of course, such actions and activities may end up laying the foundation upon which a more intentional community is built. They can only become such a foundation, however, if we value them for what they are. We are to “seek first the kingdom of God”, and “all these things” will be given to us. The “kingdom of God” that we are to seek is “among us” in the here and now, not in some distant future.
And when the future becomes the present, we may be surprised to find that what God has built upon our foundation was not what we had envisioned, but something much better. We will be able to say, like the steward in St. John’s Gospel, “You have kept the good wine until now”.
Perhaps the greatest teaching of the Second Vatican Council is the universal call to holiness. It is, at least, the key to properly understanding the Council, according to Fr. Gaitley’s book The One Thing is Three. What does following this call look like in the modern world? Is it really possible to be a saint in suburbia?
The Little Way of the Morning Offering
Holiness does not consist in grand gestures or extraordinary deeds. Instead, for most of us holiness consists in quiet fidelity to the duties of our state in life. We are called to follow what St. Therese called her “little way”: doing small things with great love. Feeding one’s children, the performance of daily tasks, and casual interactions with others can all become transformed if we do them through, in, with, and for Christ. This is the meaning of the Offertory of the Mass. We offer ourselves along with the bread and wine, to become transformed through God’s grace. In popular Christian piety, this is reflected in the beautiful practice of the Morning Offering prayer.
Concentration Camps, Arms Manufacturing, and the Local Grocery Store
What if one’s daily duties, however, were totally incompatible with the Christian life? As a friend of mine put it, what if one worked as a guard for a Nazi concentration camp? Obviously, it would be absurd to attempt the consecration of such a life by offering it to God.
None of us are engaged in such blatant evil. And yet, there is good reason to wonder if our daily lives can truly be consecrated to the honor of God. What if one works for Northrop Grumman or Lockheed Martin building drones and missiles that our military will use in ways that contradict Catholic Just War theory? What if one works for an insurance company that provides coverage for abortions, or a government agency that advocates for abortion? What if one works for a credit card company or bank that lends money at usurious interest? What if one works for a fossil fuel company that contributes to climate change and the flooding of villages on the other side of the world? Or a so-called “Green” energy company whose lithium and cobalt mines are destroying lives in the Global South?
Quite apart from the dubious nature of so many jobs in the modern world, what if one’s daily routine includes buying produce harvested by exploited migrant workers? Their cries reach the Lord of Hosts, as St. James tells us. What if the clothes one buys cost the life of a sweatshop worker in Bangladesh?
Indeed, all of our work, all of our lives are to some extent destructive. I’m just as much trapped in this as anyone else. I work in graphic design, producing periodicals that make a quick journey from printing press to landfill. What a trivial and irresponsible use of the world’s finite resources, when so many people are going hungry! I contribute to the “great symbol drain”: the over-utilization and consequent misuse of religious imagery. Try as I might, I can’t always avoid funding evil through my purchases. What are we to do with our terribly flawed lives?
The Kingdom of God in our Daily Lives
For most of us, the answer is not to drop everything and “flee to the fields” or “head for the hills”. We have families and commitments that we can not break. We are trapped: in a certain sense, we are prisoners of the systems of evil we can’t escape. And yet we can’t give way to complacency. We can’t surrender to the systems which have imprisoned us. I think the answer must be threefold.
If we feel trapped, we can offer that up for all the other people who are trapped in worse positions. We shouldn’t fall into the mistake of thinking that just because we are trapped we are somehow unable to follow Christ. Christ himself was “trapped” in unjust situations throughout his life. Our situation does not absolve us from doing the small things with great love. The Morning Offering is still relevant, along with all the works of unpretentious virtue that it implies. We should see our offering not as a consecration of the social evil in our lives, but rather as a share in the sorrow of Christ weeping over the evil and ruin of his city.
As Father Simon Tugwell writes in The Beatitudes:
That is often the way it is in life. Life in this world is a trap. Over and over again we find ourselves in situations which constrain us, and there is no true escape. We daydream of ideal choices, but we have to live with and in the trap. We are trapped in working conditions or personal relationships which bring out the worst in us, we are trapped in the consequences of our own or others’ past misdeeds or follies, we are trapped in the social and economic systems in which we live. We have only the mammon of unrighteousness with which to invest for eternal life.
The resulting sense of powerlessness is one of the major psychological pains of our time, and it can easily lead us to despair.
The answer that the Gospel gives is an austere one … It is not by fretting and flapping, but by bearing the cross of our helplessness and frustration, in union with Christ bearing his cross, that we shall find any genuine power for a more satisfying life.
To offer our situation up in solidarity with others who are oppressed by modernity, we need to stay aware of what is happening and not shrink back. It can be more comfortable to ignore the evil in our world, but we can’t give in to that temptation. If this is our cross to bear, as Father Tugwell says, we should experience the pain of it. We have to think about the sweatshop workers, the migrant laborers, the peasants starving after their crops were destroyed by climate change, and the victims of our unjust wars. We should spend time in prayer for and with the suffering and oppressed of the world.
Part of this remembering can consist in small but concrete practices that put us in solidarity with others. Voluntary poverty can play a part in this. So can practices such as refusing to buy items made in China or other countries that lack labor protections. To the extent possible, such practices should be used to distance ourselves from the benefits of oppression. Our “101 Ways to Change Your Life” list provides a range of suggestions for such small changes in lifestyle.
Such small changes and such awareness will help to keep the longing for a better world alive in our hearts. Faithfulness in small things will pave the way for the ability to be faithful in greater things if God wills it so. Ultimately, we long for the coming of Christ, but also for the coming of his reign of peace in the here and now. We need to keep such longing alive so that when the chance comes, we are ready to change our lives to better reflect the Gospel.
Such chances revolve around the power of community. An isolated family is only able to do so much. But if we gather with others who share similar longings, we can begin to escape the reign of sin in our modern world. Together, we can start taking concrete steps toward establishing the reign of Christ in our lives.
Image of downtown Denver by R0uge; CC BY-SA 4.0
I recently had an interesting conversation with Jason Wilde and Peter Land, in which we reflected on the first year of our podcast project and discussed the direction of the project going forward. The conversation will be edited and released as an anniversary podcast episode. In this essay, I want to expand on some of the themes that came up.
Walking as Community
We often think of community as a stable, static thing, rooted in a particular place. Peter Land recently took part in a three day walking pilgrimage, and found a deep sense of community among the participants. It made him reflect on the traveling community that surrounded Christ, and also on voluntary poverty and detachment. When one has to carry one’s belongings, simplicity of life starts to seem more attractive! We’re called to be open to the Holy Spirit, journeying together toward the Kingdom of Heaven. Is the rooted village or neighborhood really the best metaphor for the Christian life? Is such a community even the best setting for the Christian life?
The Dangers of Community
A false sense of security and contentment can certainly be a danger for Christain communities. In my interview with Charles Moore and Rick Burke from the Bruderhof, they pointed out that community members can become attached to their ways of life. They can also slip into seeing the community as an end in itself, as a substitute for following Christ and being open to the Holy Spirit. Communities need to be on guard against becoming self-referential and satisfied with themselves.
A spirit of poverty keeps these problems in check. Although factual frugality of life is necessary, being “poor in spirit” means more than merely living simply. Wealth represents an attempt at control, a grasping at security. The rich fool of Luke 12 thought he was all set once his barns were full of grain, but his security was an illusion. Even without material wealth, we can fall prey to a spirit of wealth that desires control and security on individual terms. To avoid this, the community must practice poverty, but must also exercise a “preferential option” for the poor. Poverty comes in many forms, and there are many ways that communities can reach out to the poor of the surrounding community, whether those in need of food and clothing or merely those in need of a listening ear. The community must refuse to treat anyone as “outsiders”, and instead should see everyone as part of their community in Christ.
By reaching out and entering into the life of others, we are freed from false contentment, security, and routine. The life of Catholic Worker communities provides a good example of this dynamic in practice. Not only do they practice voluntary poverty and service to the poor; they invite “outsiders” to participate in the life of the community and host “round table discussions” that provide a platform for dialogue with a diversity of views.
These same dynamics can affect the Church as a whole. Throughout Church history, there has been the temptation to complacency with how things are, which leads to insular thinking and a focus on the structures of power in the Church rather than on our journey to the Kingdom. As Pope Francis has often reminded us, we are a pilgrim Church on the road with one another, an evangelizing Church reaching out to those on the peripheries. We must never lose sight of the Apocalypse, the coming of the kingdom for which we pray in the Our Father and for which we are called to work in our lives. Only by going beyond ourselves, reaching out toward God and neighbor, can we avoid the stagnation that leads to decay.
The story of the rich young man in Matthew 19 clearly illustrates the dangerous nature of wealth. When the topic comes up, however, many Christians quickly point out that Christ only said “if you would be perfect”, and that it would be “hard” but not “impossible” for the rich to enter heaven. After all, while a camel going through a needle may seem impossible, Christ did say that nothing is impossible with God! Going even further, some have claimed that the eye of the needle was merely the name of a narrow gate or pass, through which a camel could pass, if perhaps with difficulty.
Before addressing this argument, it is important to clarify that Gospel poverty does not entail destitution, the lack of basic necessities. Father Dubay’s book Happy Are You Poor explains this very well. Our summary of his book can be read here.
Necessary for What?
God’s mercy being infinite, it is of course true that voluntary poverty is not “necessary for salvation”. The only thing necessary for salvation is to humbly ask for the mercy of God. Someone can live a totally depraved life and be saved by asking for mercy at the last moment. It should be fairly obvious, however, that the message of the Gospel is not “do whatever you want and then ask for mercy at the last moment”. The real question for the Christian should be: is voluntary poverty an integral part of the Christian life?
Further, there is an interesting aspect to the idea of camels squeezing through a narrow gate. There is much debate as to whether the initial word in the Gospel was “camel” or “cable”, whether an “eye of the needle” gate existed, and so forth. Still, at least some commentators think the saying means that a camel could get through, but only if it was unloaded of all its baggage. After all, the rich are not a distinct species; they are human beings like the rest of us, with the addition of a lot of “stuff”. Christ may have been making a humorous comparison between a heavily burdened camel stuck in a narrow gate, and the wealthy who trudge through life spiritually weighed down by their possessions. The birds and wildflowers are carefree, while the rich need many barns to store their goods.
The inherently burdening nature of wealth, however, is denied by some Christians. According to them, when the Gospel counsels “poverty” what is really meant is mere detachment. They insist that so long as one isn’t inordinately attached to possessions, wealth is harmless or even beneficial.
For one thing, this idea ignores the vital connection between physical reality and spiritual attitudes. As Father Dubay puts it, for wounded human beings “possessing imperceptibly slips into being possessed.” This is a Gnostic age that downplays material reality, an age which is “spiritual but not religious”. Christianity, however, is firmly rooted in the material, and takes physical actions very seriously. It is ironic that many who argue for mere inward detachment are simultaneously engaged in arguing for the importance of concrete, material acts of religion.
Our age is also an extremely individualist one. It is very telling that when the topic of poverty is discussed, the focus tends to be on the effects wealth may or may not have on one’s individual spirituality. The Gospel does not overlook the personal aspect, but puts even more stress on the social aspect of wealth. Whatever loopholes there may be in the story of the rich young man, there are no such loopholes in the picture presented by Matthew 25, James 2:14-17, and 1 John 3. If we don’t love and serve our brothers and sisters, then we don’t love God. This love can’t remain a spiritual thing of “thoughts and prayers”, but demands concrete action.
Christian love is absolutely incompatible with purchasing luxuries for ourselves while our brothers and sisters are starving. Such selfish actions also expose so-called “detachment” that is devoid of practical results as a pious sham. Someone who was truly detached would be only too willing to give surplus wealth away to feed the hungry.
To me, it seems that there is a fairly watertight case for the essential role of voluntary poverty, at least when the social dimension is taken into account. In one sense, however, the very fact that we’re discussing whether it is an essential practice highlights a problem. Here is an aspect of Christian spirituality that is extensively discussed in Sacred Scripture and that has been recommended in glowing terms by numerous saints. Given all this, why are we debating about whether it is essential? It seems rather like a debate about whether a good night’s sleep is important to academic or athletic performance the next day. Sure, you could possibly succeed without it; but why be so quick to dismiss something of such obvious value?
The folly of this dismissal can be seen by comparing Catholic attitudes toward voluntary poverty with Catholic attitudes toward the Rosary. The Rosary is certainly an excellent prayer, but it isn’t mentioned in scripture, and obviously isn’t necessary for living a good Christian life, let alone for salvation. Yet there are Rosary confraternities, books of rosary meditations, programs and articles on how to say the rosary, and organizations dedicated to promoting it. Many Catholics pray the rosary every day. All well and good. The contrast with voluntary poverty, however, is striking. Shouldn’t we put at least as much effort into practicing, promoting, and reflecting on voluntary poverty as we put into practicing, promoting, and reflecting on the Rosary and other non-biblical religious practices? Perhaps if Catholics reclaimed this traditional yet neglected element of the Faith, our Church would be transformed.
Over the past ninety years, the American economy has grown dramatically. It is now 19 times larger than it was in 1930. Its growth is exponential; it is doubling at a more or less fixed rate, which means its absolute growth rate is rapidly increasing. In fact, our economy needs to grow to stay alive; without growth, it crashes. (COVID-19 has temporarily halted, and even reversed, economic growth; it remains to be seen if the economy will “recover” in the coming years.)
This need for growth is problematic in a number of different ways. Most fundamentally, we live on a finite planet, and anything that has to grow forever will eventually run into limits of some sort. In this essay, I want to consider a particular question: how does a growing economy affect the development and existence of communities, whether intentional or organic?
To answer this question, we need to answer another one: why does the economy grow? There are a number of causes driving economic growth. For one thing, our population is also growing. There are more people in the United States today than there were in 1930, and so there are more workers and more demand for goods and services. This population growth isn’t a complete explanation for our economic growth, however; while our economy today is 19 times larger than it was in 1930, our population is less than three times larger than it was in that year. Another reason for this growth is that living standards have risen. Some of this rise is beneficial, since it involves people obtaining better access to basic necessities. This rise, however, is also insufficient to explain the growth of the economy. Even before the disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, homelessness was on the rise, and 10% of American households were experiencing food insecurity, and yet the economy was growing rapidly.
Much of the growth in the modern economy is driven by two factors: increased desires, and commodification.
In our society, we’re constantly bombarded by advertising, and we experience social pressure to “keep up” with the increasingly consumptive lifestyle of those around us. This pressure can make us desire all kinds of things beyond what is necessary for a dignified human life.
Houses today are much bigger than they used to be; while 70 years ago the average new home had 983 square feet of floor space, the average new home in 2020 had 2333 square feet. This extra space is a vacuum crying out to be filled with consumer items of all sorts. In fact, many Americans now find that the space available to them is too small, and the personal storage industry, which hardly existed 70 years ago, has ballooned dramatically.
Fashion contributes to this growth of desires, causing perfectly good clothes and other items to be discarded in favor of the latest and greatest. Software is continually updated, cars are traded in, and “dated” appliances and countertops are scrapped.
Disposable items, mostly made of plastic, are ubiquitous in the United States, and promote economic growth by replacing more durable goods. In general, the faster a given item moves from the store shelf to the landfill, the more the economy grows.
“Economy” literally means “the management of the household”. It is how households and societies support themselves. In this sense, vegetables grown in the backyard for personal consumption are part of the economy, as is the work of a child watching younger siblings. Goods and services of this type, however, are not counted toward the GDP of the formal economy. One of the major ways that the formal economy grows is through commodification, by turning social “capital” of this sort into financial wealth. A good example of this is entertainment. In past times, entertainment was a relatively small proportion of the formal economy; people made most of their own entertainment for free. Now, entertainment has become a multi-billion dollar industry, increasing the size of the economy. There are many similar examples in other areas of the economy; in the past, most cooking, mending, and child care was performed by the informal, social economy instead of by the formal financial economy. Even the basic social interaction of conversation is becoming commodified by social media platforms that see us as an audience for advertising. Every time a social interaction is replaced by a financial transaction, the economy grows.
This growth produces constant disruption on many different levels. People move across the country as the economic prospects in a given location change. Factories are torn down for homes. Farms become suburbs, and suburbs, in turn, are bulldozed to make room for expanding city centers. Businesses have become ephemeral. Even large businesses now have an average lifespan of only 18 years, and small businesses are even more transitory. Whole industries and the skill sets they require quickly become obsolete. This churning disruption boosts economic growth even further.
Effects on Community
It should be fairly obvious that this growth damages community, both directly and indirectly. Commodification in particular destroys the opportunity for community building. There is a certain trade-off: home cooked meals build community better than fast food meals eaten on the go, but the latter produce more economic growth. Increasing desires make it harder to stay in one place and put down roots, since our society penalizes those who are unwilling to be both geographically and socially mobile. The indirect effects of growth are also detrimental; no community can develop if everything is in a state of constant flux.
To build community, we need to push back against the drivers of economic growth. It is literally a matter of life and death. The economy needs to grow, or it will die. If we let the growth machine drive us, its hunger will eat up every scrap of social connection in our lives. The process may make us wealthy (if we’re among the lucky ones who end up on top) but it will leave us spiritually and socially dead.
On the societal scale, those with the skills and aptitude to do so should pursue the transition to a steady-state economy not dependent on growth. We’ve come to see exponential growth as normal, but in a wider historical sense it is deeply abnormal. There are other ways to structure an economy.
We don’t need to wait for social transformation, however. We can reign in our desires by embracing the Christian virtue of voluntary poverty. We can resist the pull of hyper-mobility and the restlessness of the modern world in our personal lives. Perhaps most importantly, we can reverse the trend toward commodification. By working together, making music, cultivating conversation, tending gardens, repairing homes, and enjoying meals, we can knit the severed threads of community life back together.
Postscript: At first glance, it seems that economic contraction also destroys communities. I’ve seen this play out firsthand in the Rust Belt. The reason for such destruction, however, is that economic growth had already destroyed older, non-commercialized ways of life. In a sense, the devastation seen when the economy declines is simply a revelation of the preexisting, underlying destruction.
Our current economic growth appears to be unsustainable. It is very likely that many local communities will face economic contraction in the future. This contraction will be destructive, unless communities can band together, reject the narratives of growth, and find non-commercial, community-based ways to meet their needs.
Port image by Fatlouie CC BY-SA 3.0