The Hard Sayings of the Gospel
What Gospel teaching won’t you hear about at a typical parish? Conservatives lament the lack of sermons addressing the worthy reception of the Eucharist and the evils of abortion. Progressives decry the lack of sermon on social justice and care for the poor.
I’ve heard sermons on abortion and on helping the poor, and I’ve heard plenty of “asking sermons” in which priests urge the faithful to support the parish with time, talent, and treasure. I’ve only heard one sermon, though, on the spiritual dangers of owning a lot of “treasure”. That sermon, I should add, was given by a visiting priest. He said that he could only speak on such a dangerous topic because he’d be gone by the morning!
The Gospels strongly emphasize voluntary poverty. The rich young ruler went away sad, because he would not give up his possessions. The rich man, unlike Lazarus, had his good things in this life and eternal fire in the afterlife. God called the man with his bulging barns a fool. The poor are blessed, according to Christ. The Pharisees, who loved money, sneered at God incarnate.
The Misuse of a Teaching
In a wealthy and powerful country, the topic of Gospel poverty tends to be avoided. It might annoy the rich and cause them to leave the Church. Someone recently told me, however, that Gospel poverty is preached to the poor in the Global South. According to him, in poor countries poverty is preached to the poor and oppressed as a way to keep them subservient and to distract them from the injustice of their oppressors. I don’t know how common this misuse of the Gospel poverty concept is. What is certain is that it is a misuse.
Serving the Poor to the point of Poverty
The path to heaven for the rich, the only way for them to fit through the needle, is to serve the poor. Such service has to go far beyond that asked by the time-talent-and-treasure sermons. In general, the rich are only too happy to give donations, so long as they don’t impede their lifestyles. They give of their surplus, not of their need, as Christ pointed out. Fr. Dubay, speaking of this, says:
“We may consider a concrete example. At Mass one Sunday morning in October a serious, deeply religious couple hear that the following week there is going to be a collection for the foreign missions. As they drive home Mrs. Jones is likely to say, “Bill, do you think we could afford something like $20 or $30 for this collection?” After some musing Mr. Jones may well respond that he, too, thinks they could afford that amount as their contribution. While most would indeed consider Mr. and Mrs. Jones a generous couple, we must note something significant. When both of them used the expression “we could afford”, they meant “without changing significantly our level of consumption.” They did not mean “we could afford $20 or $30 if we dine out less frequently or give up smoking or cocktails, or if we cancel our vacation trip, or sell one of our sports cars.”—Happy Are You Poor, pp. 84-85
While we might not consider ourselves “rich”, the average American is wealthy by world and historical standards. If we are able to spend money on unnecessary items, then we are wealthy by Gospel standards. St. Paul writes to Timothy “For we brought nothing into the world, just as we shall not be able to take anything out of it. If we have food and clothing, we shall be content with that.” (1 Timothy 6:7-8) The Church calls us to put the needs of those who lack food, clothing, and basic shelter ahead of our desires for recreation, amusement, and fashion.
If the “asking sermons” were really heeded, the rich would become poor. In the body, would the hand ornament itself while the foot bled to death? In the family, would a brother take an expensive vacation while his sister starved to death? This is the meaning of the parable of the unjust steward: the rich are to make friends for themselves with the mammon of iniquity. The rich are to give it to the poor, and it is the friendship of the poor that will get the rich into heaven.
Is this a Swap?
Wouldn’t such a giving away of wealth merely swap the conditions of the rich and poor? No, for two reasons. Practically, there are more poor than rich. Every wealthy individual who gives up a mansion could build many modest homes in the Third World, without making anybody wealthy. “There is enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for anyone’s greed.”
Theoretically speaking, such a “swap” isn’t desirable. From a Gospel perspective, wealth is undesirable, but so is destitution. Destitution is the lack of necessary goods and is bad for the soul just as it is bad for the body. We’re composite creatures, and damage to one part of ourselves is likely to reflect onto the other. The Christian ideal is that of Acts, where we see the rich selling what they have to give to the poor, and where “none of them lacked anything”.
Lifting the Poor out of Destitution
This highlights the folly of preaching Gospel poverty to the destitute. The poor, hungry and persecuted are indeed blessed. Why is this so? Because Jesus identifies himself with them. He lived among the poor, had nowhere to lay his head, and died on a cross. This identification means that as we treat the poor, so we treat Christ.
By all means, the Church should preach the dignity of the oppressed and poor—and the Church must warn their oppressors that eternal ruin may befall them if they do not recognize that dignity and act upon it.
Pontius Pilate was famously indifferent to the truth, and he refused to sacrifice his personal safety and ambitions to protect Truth himself in the guise of a poor, suffering Man before him. If Pilate had seen the face of God in the marginalized, he would have been a transfigured man. As it is, barring a last-minute conversion, we can suppose that his second face-to-face encounter with Christ was not a pleasant one.
The Interconnected Gospel
As it turns out, the neglected or misused topic of Gospel poverty has a close connection to the other “hard sayings” mentioned earlier, to social justice and abortion and the worthy reception of the Eucharist. Social justice without an embrace of Gospel poverty is a farce. The wealthy, merely by reason of their wealth, are unjust and oppressive. From the teaching of Church Fathers such as Basil the Great and John Chrysostom, through Thomas Aquinas and the medieval scholastics, right up to the teachings of Pope Francis and the Catechism of St. John Paul II, the Church has taught the universal destination of human goods. The surplus wealth of the rich belongs to the poor, not due to charity, but due to justice. Those who keep what belongs to another are unjust and commit the sin of theft.
This injustice makes the wealthy guilty of murder; they are responsible for the deaths of those whom they should have helped, including the many children aborted because their parents face economic hardship.
Such callousness to the life of others turns the Eucharist from the sacrament of life into the potential for damnation. St. Paul warns that those who receive unworthily eat and drink damnation upon themselves. What is not so well known is that this warning was given to a community which was not honoring the poor among them. In First Corinthians, St. Paul explains that our reception of the Eucharist makes us into one body in Christ. As members of the same body, we must care for one another.
The Epistle of James on Gospel Poverty
This Christian stance on wealth can be clearly seen in the following quotations from the Epistle of James: he calls the poor blessed, calls on the Church to feed and clothe them, and warns of the coming condemnation of the rich who do not aid the poor.
1:27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world . . .
2:1-6 My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court?
2:14-16 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?
5:1-5 Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure for the last days. Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter.
For more on Gospel Poverty, see our outline of Fr. Dubay’s Happy Are You Poor.
During my discussion with Tim Keller, we talked about “family traditions”, ways to bring the Faith into the home and make it come alive. I have many fond memories of my family’s traditions. For instance, on Holy Thursday evening we would “strip the house” by removing pictures, decorations (and clutter!) in imitation of the stripping of the altars in the churches. The absence of usual items about the house was very striking and made Good Friday feel different. On Easter Sunday we lit a special vanilla scented candle that was only burned on that day. That smell is now the smell of Easter for us. At Epiphany, three of us would dress up as the three kings and process with our gifts to place in front of the Nativity set. As well as many traditions tied to the liturgical year, we had other traditions associated with birthdays and anniversaries.
When my mother and two of my siblings became chronically ill, it was difficult to keep these traditions going. Many of them were scaled down or discontinued. This was unfortunate on many levels, but particularly because they could have helped to dispel the depression that chronic sickness in a home can produce.
This problem goes far beyond family traditions. Chronic illness puts an individual or family into survival mode. All sorts of things get dropped, from social interaction to hobbies and recreation, simply because there isn’t the time or energy for them. The chronically ill can become invisible, dropping out of society and disappearing into their homes; they are rarely missed or remembered. They often feel abandoned by friends and family and by the Church.
A supportive community can at least partially solve this problem. In Tim Keller’s community, the whole community participates in various traditional activities. Such community participation would make it easier for families dealing with chronic illness to participate in religious and social rituals.
Unfortunately, chronic illness makes it harder for a family or community to participate in or form community. Beyond the obvious drain on time and energy discussed above, the chronically ill face many unique challenges that can make it hard for them to find community.
Healthy members of a community or social group can unconsciously push the sick (and their family members) away. Particularly in our culture, there is a lot of pressure on individuals to “get over” things. People feel the need to “put a cheerful face on it” so that one doesn’t “drag the whole group down.” Compassion literally means “suffering with” and is by definition an uncomfortable emotion. The sick or sorrowful act as a sort of “memento mori”, an unpleasant reminder of the troubles of life, that many people would rather not encounter.
Even if a group makes every effort to be accommodating, these cultural mentalities can cause the sick to feel that they are “being a burden” and withdraw from social interaction. In our culture, being independent and self-sufficient is honored as a virtue, and those who are forced into dependency feel that they are failures. This is the result of a certain “muscular Christianity” which ignores the fact that we are all totally dependent on God’s mercy.
The physical disabilities that accompany chronic illness, of course, can also hamper social interactions. These disabilities may not be obvious to those who haven’t suffered from them, and so are not taken into account. For instance, I know three people, two family members and a friend, who are unable to be out in the sun for more than a few minutes due to lupus and other chronic conditions. This of course makes certain social activities impossible for them, and family members have to choose whether to go to events and leave them behind. (Maybe this one is more obvious to me because I live in Colorado, where the Sun is like a giant hairdryer in the sky!)
The necessity for a special diet is a particularly difficult physical disability. In our episode on cult mentalities, Peter DeGeode and I discussed the way that the dietary restrictions in the Old Testament kept the Chosen People separate from surrounding groups. Sharing food is a “material sacrament” that helps a group to bond. Those who need a special diet can’t participate in it, leaving them feeling left out and uncomfortable. To make matters worse, people sometimes misunderstand this need as a mere preference or fad, and try to “encourage” sick people to “just try things!” This can lead to awkward and unpleasant situations.
These difficulties can be overcome, but it is impossible to do so if the community is based on human strength instead of Divine grace. Both Tim Keller and Jack Sharpe discussed this spiritual danger that can infect intentional Christian communities. A community can see itself as made up of a spiritual “elite”, as superior to those around it. Instead, a community should realize that it is made up of weak and broken human beings who are dependent on God’s grace. This spiritual humility can translate into greater acceptance of the physical and mental weaknesses of others.
Pope Francis has repeatedly stressed the importance of “going to the peripheries”, of paying attention to the marginalized. This is critically important for community building. We’ve previously discussed the necessity of reaching out to the poor to prevent an intentional community from becoming a “Christian suburb.” The chronically ill should be seen as a particular kind of “periphery”.
If those in a community do not reach out the marginalized, they are not heeding the words of Christ.
“Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’
Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”‘Matthew 25:34-40
Due to the social invisibility of the chronically ill, community members should consider active and intentional outreach to them. Without such active outreach, it is unlikely that they will become part of a community.
How can a community do a better job of incorporating the chronically ill? What spiritual advantages can this encounter with the periphery bring to a community? We’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic! Leave a comment below, or contact us.
Header Image: Last Judgement, 5th-century mosaic from Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna. Photo by Lawrence OP, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Which came first, the Christian Culture or the Converted Christian? Or, more precisely, which comes first; a way of life inspired by the Gospel or a personal encounter and relationship with Christ?
At first, this seems like an easy question. Of course, an encounter with Christ has to come before an individual starts following Christ! And if an individual doesn’t love Christ, what motivation would there be to follow Christ’s commands?
Encountering Christ through Culture
It becomes more complicated, however, when we consider how most individuals encounter Christ. Jesus is no longer with us in the way he was 2000 years ago, but he left us a Church that is supposed to present him to the world. Part of our duty as members of the Mystical Body is to show Christ’s love to others, and one of the ways we do this is by building a Christian culture. That’s what the Early Christians did; they built a social way of life that was informed by the Gospel. By doing so, they made the love of Christ palpable and appealing to outsiders. They also produced a subculture where, as Peter Maurin would say, “it is easier to be good”.
This website promotes the building of Christian communities as a means of evangelization; to effectively evangelize, such communities must have a culture that is deeply informed by Christianity. Evangelization means giving good news—and our good news is a Person. Through our community way of life, as Tim Keller explained in a recent podcast episode, outsiders are able to meet Christ. So in a certain way, the Christian culture does come first. This also holds true for children being raised in the Faith; their first encounter with Christ will be through the witness of their family and community.
Culture can be Dangerous
Despite all this, there can be a certain danger in putting the cultural aspect first. For one thing, those raised in such a setting won’t necessarily have a personal encounter with Christ that results in conversion. A Christian culture (whether in a subculture or in the wider society) can actually end up acting as a sort of substitute for true discipleship. The result can be a society where everyone “goes through the motions” but where charity has gone cold. A merely cultural Christianity can be more dangerous than a secular hedonistic culture because those in a Christian culture think they already understand the Gospel message.
Don’t Blame the Culture for the Failure of the Church
While the cultural aspect is usually first in time, it shouldn’t be first in our imagination. Instead, we should focus on our personal relationship with Christ. That relationship should motivate us to build that “world in which it is easier to be good”—for others! Of course, it might be easier for us as well, but that shouldn’t be our primary motivation. If it is, we can end up blaming “the culture” or “the world” or “the church” for our problems. We might imagine that if only conditions were better, we’d be better. In reality, we bring ourselves and all of our weaknesses and failings into any new circumstances. (In a recent podcast episode with members of the Bruderhof, we discussed following Christ as the primary motivation for building community.)
Live in the Moment!
We can end up wasting a lot of time trying to provide ideal cultural conditions for ourselves and our families. If we’re always looking forward to an imagined future, we’ll miss the many comings of Christ in our daily lives. Even from a more temporal viewpoint, a focus on an imagined ideal future is a mistake. I was once lamenting the lack of community in the modern world, and a friend said to me, “Everyone lives in a community! Of course, it might be rather dysfunctional!” It is usually better to work with what we have rather than attempting to find the ideal life.
A focus on cultural influences can also make us fearful; it can erode our trust in God. Christians can be tempted to doubt God’s goodness when they find themselves in less than ideal circumstances. In a hostile cultural setting, they can feel that God has betrayed or abandoned them. We shouldn’t focus so much on the chaos in our society and Church that we forget Christ’s promises. He promised that the gates of hell will not prevail over the Church and that he will be with us till the end of time. God is a loving father and gives each of us everything that we need to achieve salvation.
“The Good Life”
Seeking ideal conditions can easily degenerate into a selfish pursuit of “The Good Life”. Christians sometimes try to justify a comfortable, aesthetic existence as being helpful for spiritual and cultural development. This mentality can blur the Christian call to aid the poor. Feeding the poor has to take primacy over art and other cultural experiences. If we find that we can’t pray in less than harmonious settings, then we should question the true strength of our relationship with Christ.
In the end, an overemphasis on the cultural aspect is Pelagian. We can end up trusting in good works or institutions or rituals to save us. The world is a broken place, and we can’t redeem it or ourselves by our own efforts. We need a Savior. While many come to Christ through an experience of Christian culture, Christ is all-powerful and can meet us anywhere. (It is just like any relationship; loving relationships can start under the strangest conditions!)
Encounter and Discipleship
The Christian life is all about discipleship, and the first disciples were some of those exceptions to the rule of cultural primacy. When Jesus called his first disciples, they weren’t part of a Christian culture, but they had an encounter with Christ and responded to it generously. The first Christian culture grew from their encounter with Christ. The early disciples were on fire with love and enthusiasm, and gave their lives to provide a witness to others so that they could meet Jesus. Similarly, we should live as witnesses, letting our love of Christ become incarnate in our lives.
As I discussed in my last blog post, Catholic progressives and reactionaries are mirror images of one another. Neither faction has the humility to remain loyal to the message of the Gospel as proclaimed by the Church. Instead, each faction claims power over the Gospel message.
The Local Bishop
How can we be sure that we really are staying loyal to the Church? Today the Church is full of factions, each claiming to speak for the Magisterium. What does loyalty look like in this situation?
In such difficult times, we can learn from the saints of the past, who also wrestled with these questions. Early in the second century, St. Ignatius of Antioch wrote seven letters to Christian churches while on his way to martyrdom in Rome. A persistent theme in these letters is the importance of unity, which, according to Ignatius, is to be guaranteed by staying close to the bishop of the local church.
For instance, in his letter to the church in Ephesus, he writes:
“For we can have no life apart from Jesus Christ; and as he represents the mind of the Father, so our bishops, even those who are stationed in the remotest parts of the world, represent the mind of Jesus Christ. That is why it is proper for your conduct and your practices to correspond closely with the mind of the bishop.”
And further on, he writes:
“Anyone who absents himself from the congregation convicts himself at once of arrogance and becomes self-excommunicate. And since it is written that God opposes the proud, let us take care to show no disloyalty to the bishop, so as to be loyal servants of God.”
Similarly, in his letter to the Magnesians, he writes:
“Allow nothing whatever to exist among you that could give rise to any divisions. Maintain absolute unity with your bishop and leaders as an example to others and a lesson in the avoidance of corruption. In the same way as the Lord was wholly one with the Father, and never acted independently of him, either in person or through the Apostles, so you yourself must never act independently of your bishop and clergy. All quotations from St. Ignatius were taken from the Penguin Classics edition of Early Christian Writings, translated by Maxwell Staniforth.
Of course, the local bishop is a sure guide only insofar as he is teaching in union with all the other bishops, and particularly with the Pope, the bishop of Rome. In the late second century, Saint Irenaeus of Lyons wrote Against Heresies, in which he said that it was a matter of necessity that every local church should agree with the Roman church due to its greater authority.
This does not mean we have to agree with every single thing the Pope does. Obviously, Popes can make mistakes in practical matters, in who they appoint, and so on. It does mean, however, that we have to remain respectful in our attitude toward the Pope; and that we have to “give religious submission of mind and will” to his official teachings. Lumen Gentium paragraph 25: “In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent. This … Continue reading
St. Catherine of Siena is a great example of the correct attitude toward the papacy. She saw that the decision of the popes to live in Avignon was doing grave damage to the Church, and she worked tirelessly to convince the Pope to return to Rome. At the same time, she remained unswervingly loyal to the Pope, and never attempted to alienate her fellow Catholics from him.
A similar stance can be seen in the life of St. Thomas More. St. Thomas lived under some scandalous popes, and he was not afraid to oppose corruption in the Church. Yet he ultimately gave his life in defense of papal supremacy.
From Theory to Practice
To imitate the fidelity shown by the saints, we need to be mindful of our speech, careful in our media consumption, discerning in our choice of guides, faithful in our prayers, intentional in finding inspiration, and concrete in our charitable action.
We should avoid speaking in a negative way about other Christians, but particularly about the Holy Father.
Personally, I like Pope Francis. I am inspired by his teaching, and I hold that most of the controversy about what he says and does has been stirred up by the media for political reasons. If you’ve got questions about things Pope Francis has done or said, I’d be happy to pass along resources that I’ve found to be helpful in understanding him. In particular, I think it is important to realize that his teaching is in continuity with the teaching of previous popes.
But even if I disagreed with him, I would still think a Catholic should not speak negatively about the Holy Father. What good can we do by speaking ill of him? What harm does it do if others think well of him? By speaking negatively about the Holy Father, critics are setting themselves in judgment over him and run the risk of doing serious damage to the Church if their necessarily limited assessment of the situation turns out to be incorrect.
Speaking in general about the dangers of rash judgment, St. Thomas Aquinas says “He who interprets doubtful matters for the best, may happen to be deceived more often than not; yet it is better to err frequently through thinking well of a wicked man, than to err less frequently through having an evil opinion of a good man, because in the latter case an injury is inflicted, but not in the former.” Summa Theologica, the second part of the second part, Article 60, question 4.
Certain kinds of Catholic media make it very difficult to stay attached to the Church and loyal to the Pope. Any news outlets that exist primarily to retail gossip, scandal, and outrage should be avoided. In general, it might be better to read less about current events in the Church. (If you do follow Church news, it might be better to read the blandest, least opinionated news site you can find.) Instead, read solid works of Christian spirituality, the lives of the saints, the Bible (and Bible commentary), The Catechism of the Catholic Church, the Church Fathers . . . there are so many worthwhile things to read! In contrast, the latest controversy will probably be entirely forgotten in a few year’s time, with nobody being any better off for it. The definitive take on any event or person is written after all the players are dead; reading current events is always less informative than reading history.
I’d also propose three questions that can guide discernment of whether Catholic writers or speakers are speaking with the mind of the Church.
- Do they stay loyal to the Pope? As discussed above, this doesn’t mean they have to agree with every single thing he does and says. But if they are trying to turn public opinion against him, or talk about “resisting” him, they have crossed the line. This sort of talk only produces schismatic attitudes and infighting, which makes sharing the Gospel with others more difficult. Who would want to join a Church when those inside hate their leaders?
- Do they stay loyal to Church teaching? Would they accept everything laid out in the Catechism of the Catholic Church? Many Catholics who claim to stay loyal to the Pope refuse to accept Church teaching on various issues. But if they are not loyal to the teaching, then they are not really loyal to the Church.
- Do they stay clear of partisan politics? This test is primarily relevant to the USA. Since both of our major political parties are out of line with Church teaching on certain points (I outlined this in my “cult politics” article), a writer or speaker who is too tightly associated with either of these parties is less likely to be able to preach the Gospel in its fullness.
Pray with the Church
The Liturgy of the Hours is the prayer of the Church; by praying it, we join countless other Catholics around the world in prayer. The Office of Readings provides daily selections from the Bible and from our rich Christian heritage, a sort of daily theme suggested for our reflection. Of course, most of us don’t have enough time to pray the whole Liturgy of the Hours every day, but it is fairly easy to pray one or two of the “hours”; despite the name, each is only about ten minutes long.
Personally, I was really moved when I watched Pope Francis’ special Urbi et Orbi blessing during the pandemic and again when I watched the Holy Week Services live-streamed from the Vatican. Watching these events really helped me to feel connected with the Holy Father and the Church around the world.
Try to seek out and read inspiring stories about Christians living out the Gospel, instead of depressing stories about scandals and infighting. From missionaries spreading the Word of God to charitable organizations caring for the homeless, Christian heroes are out there. They just don’t make as much noise! For example, I recently came across the fascinating story of John Bradburne, the most prolific poet in the English language. He was a third-order Franciscan who spent the last ten years of his life caring for lepers in Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia). When war broke out, he refused to leave the lepers and was shot by guerrilla fighters.
Love your Neighbor
Beyond all these more theoretical and spiritual practices, it is important to really live out the mission of the Church in daily life. We’ll ultimately be judged by what we do, not by what we think about the latest controversies. By serving the poor and evangelizing with our lives, we are making contact with Christ who is present in the least of his brothers and sisters. Pope Francis calls us to renew our commitment to loving service of the poor, and that’s something all Christians should be able to agree on. As C. S. Lewis put it, “one usually gets on better with people when one is making plans than when one is talking about nothing in particular”. By participating in the mission, we’ll not only find it easier to stay spiritually in union with the Church but we’ll also be working to actually solve the problems of the world.
Header Image: Portrait of Thomas More by Holbein in the Public Domain; Pope Francis, Casa Rosada CC BY-SA 2.0; Catherine of Sienna, Uffizi Galleries, CC BY-SA 2.0
References ↑1 All quotations from St. Ignatius were taken from the Penguin Classics edition of Early Christian Writings, translated by Maxwell Staniforth. ↑2 Lumen Gentium paragraph 25: “In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent. This religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra; that is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will.” ↑3 Summa Theologica, the second part of the second part, Article 60, question 4.
In a recent blog post (Cult Politics), I discussed the spiritual dangers of the American political scene, and explained why this website isn’t “right” or “left.” This post is a follow-up addressing “ecclesiastical politics.”
When Jesus was on earth, he was opposed by two groups: the Pharisees and the Sadducees. These groups were very different from one another. The Pharisees were moral and legal rigorists, concerned with maintaining the purity of the Jewish traditions. The Sadducees were compromisers interested in worldly power, and they rejected many aspects of the Jewish traditions. Despite all their disagreements, however, they were ultimately united in their opposition to Christ.
These two groups could be taken as exemplifying two basic temptations that can distort Christ’s message. Today, these tendencies are embodied in two groups that threaten the unity of the Church: the reactionaries and the progressives. The progressives water down the message of the Gospel to enable cooperation with the world. In contrast, the reactionaries emphasize externals instead of the spirit of the Gospel.
Despite their surface contrasts, both fail to properly understand the Christian message, the Incarnation of the Word. Our message is not a bunch of words, but rather is a person, The Word of God. Being founded on the Eternal Word, our message can’t change with the changing times. Reactionaries justify their rigidity and inflexibility by pointing to this changelessness of the Gospel message. They fail, however, to take into account the issue of “translation.” Much as a concept or subject can be represented by many different words and phrases in different languages and contexts, so too the Word of God needs to be “translated” into different expressions to effectively evangelize and Christianize different cultures, times, and social contexts. Further, the eternal, unchanging Word has been entrusted to the fallible and changeable human beings who make up the Mystical Body, and so there are two further issues that reactionaries ignore: development and corruption. Limited human minds can’t fully take in the one Word of God, and so the message develops over time as we come to understand it more fully; that is the point of the Church’s tradition. Due to original sin, the humans who make up the Mystical Body can also introduce distortions into the message, which then needs to be reformed and renewed by going back to the sources. Since reactionaries fail to grasp this, they mistake a certain way of thought and a certain set of customs for The Word Itself. In doing so they become idolators rather than Christians.
Progressives, on the other hand, realize that the presentation of the message has to change and develop over time, but they draw the false conclusion that the message itself changes along with the external form. Instead of seeing the message as an eternal standard against which to measure our attempts, they set about changing the standard, often in the name of mercy. Mercy, however, is the virtue that should inform our attitude toward weak human beings struggling to archive perfection. It has nothing to do with changing the standard we are struggling towards. By attempting to change the message, they too set up an idol: they adore their own understanding of who God is, instead of submitting themselves in humility to the Gospel message.
Both factions are ultimately seeking power over the message and therefore over others. For the progressive, the ability to reshape the message at will gives this power; the progressive becomes not a messenger of God, but an oracle. The progressive leader gets to determine in what ways the message should be reshaped for the current times. The reactionary claims to be absolutely bound to his traditions and unable to deviate from them. This too, however, is a way to gain power, since it insulates the reactionary leader from having to deal with legitimate renewal, reform, development, and diversity. Much as Christ challenged the power of the Pharisees over the common people, the reactionary feels threatened by any suggestion of change or growth. The reactionary figure typically rejects any criticism and refuses to dialog with those who are different. Further, the reactionary can end up acting in “colonial” ways, imposing his preferred liturgical, theological, and artistic styles on other social or ethnic groups, without reflecting that diversity in non-essentials can actually show forth the glory of God.
In a more “political” sense, progressives and reactionaries are also linked with one another. They feed off of one another, each using the excesses of the other to justify their own dissent. Each points out the errors of the other, ignoring the reality that there are many ways to be in error. Anything that leads us away from Christ is to be rejected, no matter what ideological label it bears.
Both groups also end up wasting a lot of energy fixating on inessentials, though for opposite reasons. The best example of this is the ongoing “liturgy wars” which have been dividing our parishes and wasting resources on endless church remodels, as the influence of each side ebbs and flows. The Sacrifice of the Mass and the other Sacraments are, of course, the summit of Catholic spirituality. But the Gospel says nothing about liturgical details, and a focus on these things ironically distracts from the very realities the liturgy is supposed to represent. (For instance, an ongoing debate over the “right” way to receive Holy Communion makes the Sacrament of Unity itself a cause of division.)
Another example is the way the two camps debate about the Church’s teaching on sexual morality. Unlike liturgical details, sexual morality is mentioned by the Gospel and is a serious matter. Still, without a loving, personal relationship with Christ, Christians will find it very difficult to follow the moral law in any area, let alone sexual morality. And seen in isolation from the love of Christ, the rules may seem repellent or simply incomprehensible to outsiders. If both sides spent more time spreading the message of Christ’s transforming, personal love for every human person, they might find that the moral issues wouldn’t be as contentious or troublesome. The progressives would find that they didn’t need to relax the moral code to keep the membership up, and the reactionaries would be able to ground their moral strictures on a much more attractive foundation. As it is, while the progressives claim that reactionaries are too fixated on sexual morality, the fact of the matter is that they are both too fixated on it, though in different ways.
This points to the solution to the division and confusion created by these factions: stay close to Christ. To do so, we’ll have to give up our desire for control. It isn’t just reactionary or progressive leaders who cling to power; we all want a tame, predictable, controllable God who fits our expectations. That was the temptation of the Israelites at Mount Sinai; they built the golden calf because they wanted a god they could comprehend and “box in.” We all reach a certain level in the spiritual life and then want to stick there.
If we stay close to Christ, however, we’ll always be moved out of our comfort zones. Thinking with the mind of Christ will put us at odds with the world around us, just as he was at odds with the Sadducees. It will also shake the internal certainties, habits, and routines of our own groups, just as he disturbed the traditions of the Pharisees. He is a God of surprises.
How can we be sure, though, that we are thinking with the mind of Christ? As Catholics, we believe that Scripture and Tradition are sure guides . . . but only as interpreted by the living Magisterium of the Church. To accept this we have to have the humility to reconcile ourselves to authority. Submitting to authority does not mean turning off our minds, but it does mean that we can’t set ourselves up as interpreters of the Magisterium. We can’t confine ourselves to the past teaching of the Church while rejecting the present teaching; this will close us off to the possibility of being surprised or challenged. Neither can we reject the present teaching in the name of some imagined future development that is not sanctioned by the living Church. Only the present moment is truly real for us, and our Lord is not a God of the dead past or the vague future, but a God of the living present.
In our next blog post, we will discuss thinking with the mind of the Church and how loyalty to the Holy Father can help to keep us close to Christ.
Why this website is not “Liberal” or “Conservative”
“Small minds pit truth against truth, large minds do not.”—Fr. Dubay, in “Happy Are You Poor”
As we discussed in our last podcast episode, cult members tend to see all outsiders as malevolent and untrustworthy. The cult sees itself as fundamentally righteous, and therefore above criticism. Such thinking produces hate and fear directed at outsiders. It also produces blindness to any problems within the group, or within the individuals who make it up.
In a subtler form, this mentality is the constant temptation of the devout Christian. It is the fault of the Pharisee who “thanked God he was not like other men.” The devout are tempted to fixate on the obvious moral failings of “inferior” outsiders, while ignoring their own more subtle sins of pride, rash judgment, and envy. It is always tempting to ignore our own flaws by focusing on those of others.
In the United States today, both of the major political parties have developed this cult-like, pharisaic attitude. Increasingly, the members of both parties see their opponents not merely as mistaken, but as maliciously bent on destroying the country. As with any cult, this fixation on the “evil outsiders” makes party members increasingly unlikely to see internal flaws.
When Christians are drawn into the cult-like world of political ideology, it increases their danger of becoming Pharisees. A conservative friend was lamenting the lack of “really good sermons.” As our conversation progressed, it became clear that in his mind, a “really good sermon” was one focused on abortion or homosexuality; in other words, a sermon that challenged those he saw as outsiders but did not challenge him. Of course, there is a liberal counterpart to this, which laments the fact that sermons aren’t aimed at xenophobia or greed. Political ideologies have divided Christians into opposing groups, each of which sees Christianity as being primarily about defeating “the other guys” instead of about a loving and humble relationship with God and our neighbors.
Both political parties are corrupting because they are “totalitarian.” Just as nothing in a cult member’s life is separate from the cult, political ideologies are increasingly affecting every area of life, from healthcare to education. Religion is no exception. Political platforms often determine the stances that Christians take. This is a serious problem, as the letter to the Hebrews warns us: “Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teaching.” The Christian message does not align with either of the major political parties.
Political ideology contrasted with the Gospel
Jesus tells us: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.” Is this the message of any political leaders today? Do they not rather encourage their followers to seek revenge, to hate opponents, and wish for their downfall? Don’t they encourage a fixation getting what is owed us?
Jesus tells us: “Happy are you poor”; and “It will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven.” Is this the message of either political party today? Or do they rather hold out promises of ever-increasing material wealth to those who vote for them?
Jesus tells us: “But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.” Do our political parties encourage us to become angry, to call our brothers and sisters fools… and worse?
Before his Passion, Christ prayed that we might be one as he and the Father are one. Our political parties, on the other hand, produce division; it is their basic strategy, just as it is the basic strategy of the cult.
St. James tells us: “Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.” Jesus tells us that the sheep and the goats will be divided depending on how they served the poor. Yet Jesus also tells us: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” Neither of our major political parties upholds both social justice and the sanctity of marriage.
The Gospel message can’t be divided up. Christians can’t pick and choose the truths they accept, but this is what both political parties want us to do. C. S. Lewis said, “The devil always sends errors into the world in pairs—pairs of opposites. And he always encourages us to spend a lot of time thinking which is the worse. You see why, of course? He relies on your extra dislike of the one error to draw you gradually into the opposite one.”
We can’t let ideology warp our understanding of the Gospel. Instead, we must “be transformed by the renewal of our minds, so that we may discern what is the will of God, what is good and perfect and true.”
This website strives to serve this renewal by providing a place where those with different viewpoints can interact in friendship. Please join our mission, and pray for unity among Christians.
Prayer from Fratelli Tutti
O God, Trinity of love, from the profound communion of your divine life, pour out upon us a torrent of fraternal love. Grant us the love reflected in the actions of Jesus, in his family of Nazareth, and in the early Christian community. Grant that we Christians may live the Gospel, discovering Christ in each human being, recognizing him crucified in the sufferings of the abandoned and forgotten of our world, and risen in each brother or sister who makes a new start. Come, Holy Spirit, show us your beauty, reflected in all the peoples of the earth, so that we may discover anew that all are important and all are necessary, different faces of the one humanity that God so loves. Amen.
“As members of one and the same mystical body of Christ, Christians are bound to one another and must bear one another’s burdens.”—Pope Francis
Bearing the burdens of another in a community is a difficult thing, particularly if those burdens come in the form of grief, shame, or exclusion; yet as St. Paul tells is in Galatians 6:2, sharing burdens fulfills the law of Christ—or in other words, it enables us to become Christ-like. Jesus “did not deem equality with God something to be grasped at” and instead came to share the burden of human existence in humble solidarity with us, not even shrinking from death and from “being made sin” for the salvation of sinners. He was “reckoned among the ungodly” and took our curse upon himself; “cursed is every one that hangs upon a tree.” Jesus presented himself to be baptized in the Jordan, even though John’s baptism signified repentance of sin; Jesus was sinless, but “got in line” with the sinners nonetheless. This association with sinners continued throughout his life, even though it drew down upon him the ire of the Pharisees. He healed the man with the withered hand, even though the result was a plot against his life. He restored Lazarus to life, though this action precipitated his own execution. Even the subtle details of the Gospels show Christ’s solidarity; in Mark chapter 1, he heals a leper, a man whose disease caused exclusion from the community. Now the leper was able to reenter the town . . . and the result was that Christ was unable to enter the town himself! In a certain symbolic way, Jesus had exchanged roles with the leper.
The Christian calling to bear burdens can help us during these troubled times in the Church. Today individual Christians are often shamed before the world by the sins of prominent Christians. In the autumn of 2017, I left a traditionalist community in order to gain a greater unity with the Catholic Church. The group I belonged to wasn’t formally schismatic, but fostered an extremely separatist, schismatic mentality. I rejoiced to suddenly find fellowship with so many fellow Catholics from whom I would have previously held aloof; I rejoiced to find myself truly united with a local church under a local bishop, unhampered by a sense of superiority or grievance. Then the scandals broke in the summer of 2018, and I saw the other side of the coin; I was grieved and mortified to the depth of my soul, not only by the crimes and cover-ups and the resulting divisions in the Church, but by the fact that I was in some way associated with all this rot. I felt deceived; I’d given up my insular world of traditionalism for the wider Church, and this was what I got! Then it dawned on me that if I’d remained a traditionalist, I wouldn’t have been feeling this hurt; I would have merely shrugged, or even worse felt a certain satisfaction, shaking my head knowingly over the corruption of the Church. The fact that a wound inflicted on the Church hurt me was a sign that I was “connected”, that I was alive in Christ by being alive to my fellow Christians; the traditionalist numbness of heart had thawed, and I could feel again; and as anybody knows, the thawing of chilled fingers is an unpleasant sensation!
There is a great temptation to freeze and harden our hearts against all the betrayal and malice in the world, but that is not the way of Christ, who loved those who hated him and died for us “while we were yet enemies”. A solidarity with others in and through Christ will lead to a sharing in his suffering. Hardness of heart was not the way of the saints. St. Paul tells us that in addition to all his physical hardships, he feels “the daily pressure upon me of my anxiety for all the churches.” He goes on to say “Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant?” In fact, this sharing of burdens may, in a certain sense, be the purpose having an institutional Church; if we were each alone before God, we might be able to fool ourselves into thinking that we were doing just fine, and didn’t have to “account for” all these other people, might be able to imagine that we weren’t our brother’s keeper.
Even harder than bearing one another’s burdens, but just as essential, is letting others carry our burdens. Our culture tells us to be self-reliant; even if we’re in the depths of despair, we respond to the question “How are you?” with a casual “OK”. We’re embarrassed if others find out that we are suffering financial difficulties, and don’t want to “be a bother”. Compassion, after all, means “suffering with,” so if we receive compassion, we’ve caused someone pain. There is a lot of pressure on us to just “get over” things so that we don’t “drag everybody down.” We honor the “self-made man” who isn’t reliant on others, is always “OK.” In the Christian life, however, being able to receive is even more important than being able to give; it is more connected to humility. We’re all weak and helpless before God, and receive everything from him as a free gift. That’s why the message of Christ is to the poor and the weak, not the rich and strong; the rich can become contented in their wealth and feel self-sufficient. Wealth doesn’t mean just a large bank account; anything we have, such as skills, knowledge, even virtues, can become an obstacle to humble dependence on God. In one sense, the repentant thief who asked Jesus to remember him is the archetypal Christian; a man who knew his own total failure, but was willing to ask for mercy. As C. S. Lewis said in The Great Divorce, none of us will get our “rights;” we’ll get something much better than that!
In this, as in sharing the burden of others, Christ is again our exemplar. As God, he was all-powerful, yet he accepted service from others; from the beginning of life when he received care and teaching and nurture from Mary and Joseph, to the end of his life when he was strengthened by an angel, required assistance to carry the cross to Calvary, and was buried in another man’s tomb.
These virtues, so necessary in living the Christian life, are even more necessary in building Christian community. In our last podcast, Aaron Pott spoke movingly about how humbling it is to have the burden of his family borne by other community members, and about how in the close proximity of community life, he is unable to wear a “good Christian mask” in order to hide his weaknesses. The sharing and bearing of burdens that community necessitates is certainly difficult and painful at times, and I’ve often failed to properly carry the shared burdens of others. Perhaps that is one of the key values of community life; it helps to show us our weaknesses, but it also helps us to encounter the unconditional love of God through the love of community members who are willing to receive us as we are, burdens and all.
In podcast episode 6, we discussed the danger of agendas; we always have to be doing something for some reason, to produce some result. Father Simon Tugwell, in his book The Beatitudes, observes that we’ve become suspicious about doing things simply because they’re enjoyable or because we want to do them. He points out that we come up with pseudo-justifications: taking walks for “exercise,” or riding a motorcycle “for the experience,” or having tea with someone “in case he wants to talk.” Worst of all, he says, we “go all solemn and declare something to be ‘important’.” (I think this dynamic is particularly prevalent in aesthetic matters; it sometimes seems we can’t just enjoy a particular style of art or music without claiming it to be the only “proper” style, to be defended at all costs against imaginary barbarians.) Fr. Simon goes on to explain that in one sense, God doesn’t have “a purpose” for what he does; he “is his own purpose”!
Why do we have this inability to relax, this need to feel “busy” and “important”? Perhaps it is that we are uncertain of our value before God, or even before ourselves. We may say that we are pro-life, and that a feeble child with Down’s Syndrome is just as valuable as the most brilliant scholar or powerful ruler, but when it comes to valuing our own lives, we are not so sure; we feel that we have to do something to earn God’s love and validate our own worth.
The reality, however, is that we are feeble, inconsequential, and precisely because of this, God loves us tenderly, no matter what our mistakes and failings may be. A few years ago, a transitional deacon preaching at our parish told the story of his visit to “Purgatory Island” in Northwestern Ireland, spending three days barefoot and fasting, praying constantly, in a harsh environment. On his last evening, he stood looking out over the ocean and presenting himself and all his spiritual exercises to God. And all God said was, “I like your smile!” He came to understand that God wasn’t impressed by all the heroics, but instead that God loved him for himself, for who he was.
These two themes, the danger of agendas and the unmerited quality of God’s love, are beautifully brought together in a short story by J. R. R. Tolkien, Leaf by Niggle. Niggle is a little man, an artist who has a vast project underway; a great picture of a tree in a landscape. The painting becomes the lens through which he comes to view both his own identity and that of others; in particular, his burdensome neighbor becomes a mere obstacle to the completion of his painting. And yet as the story unfolds, he comes to realize both the relative unimportance of his plans and dreams, and the great and merciful love of One who “knows we are but clay”, and yet gives us more than we could ever dream. In the final analysis, Niggle “was never supposed to be very much, anyway” but his very insignificance was transformed into beatitude by the mercy of God.
Leaf by Niggle is both a beautiful meditation on the true meaning of life and a cautionary tale, warning us against measuring our own worth, or the worth of others, against our self-imposed agendas. The warning is particularly critical for those of us with a “mission” for cultural renewal or evangelization or Christian community building. Our projects and imposed agendas can become self-defeating, dividing us from reality and from the true meaning of things. We can come to see others not as splendid, unique beings made in the image of God, but as mere allies or enemies of our projects. We can become proselytizers rather than evangelizers, always trying to advance our ultimately petty projects instead of bringing the “good news” of God’s love to others. The time we “waste” with friends or with God is the truly important time. Every useful activity is for the sake of the “useless”: for rest, for leisure, ultimately for beatitude. What, after all, is the purpose of happiness? In the end, all projects, ideologies, “purposes” will pass away; there are no purposes in Heaven.
Photo by Andreas F. Borchert / CC BY 4.0
In podcast episode 5, while discussing the economics of Christian community, I said, “I would prefer to use as few words as possible to describe what we are doing [building local economies based on justice and charity].” This of course was rather ironic, coming in the middle of an hour long conversation involving some 8,000 words! In context, however, the “words” referred to are ideological or political “labels,” such as “conservative” or “socialist.” This preference for “not naming” stems from several different principles.
Most pragmatically, “naming” oneself or one’s movement can unnecessarily antagonize others. We live in a time of polarization and division which has affected our nation, world, and Church; as Pope Francis says in Fratelli Tutti, “Nowadays it has become impossible for someone to express a view on any subject without being categorized one way or the other, either to be unfairly discredited or to be praised to the skies.” (Paragraph 156) Since the kinds of local projects I’m advocating are not “liberal” or “conservative,” “Democrat” or “Republican,” “Left” or “Right,” it would be counter productive to antagonize neighbors by the use of such labels.
This unnecessary divisiveness among neighbors points to something deeper; these labels are divisive precisely because they are unreal, false universals that prevent us from interacting with the glorious diversity of reality, blinding us to the particular persons and situations around us. Saying “Democrat” or “Conservative” allows us to homogenize and write off millions of fellow human beings, but the neighbors next door are not Democrats or Republicans, even if they might identify as such; they are human beings like us, made in the image of God, with many interests, cares, and concerns beyond politics or ideology. We share more than we might realize, particularly at the local level. Abstraction, naming, categorizing, gives a certain kind of power. Yet that power comes at the cost of isolation and depersonalization, making hatred and division much more likely.
As Christians, our relationship with Christ should be our sole identity; “Here there cannot be Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free man, but Christ is all, and in all.” (Colossians 3:11) And for the Christian, there can only be one fundamental outlook on others, an outlook of love. Ideologies are unloveable; erroneous ideologies may need to be opposed by the light of the Gospel message. This opposition, however, can’t be applied to the human beings around us. Deeper than any political, ideological, racial or even religious division, we all share a fundamental unity as members of the human race, as Pope Francis has reminded us in his recent encyclical. He challenges us to show a radical respect for others: “At a time when various forms of fundamentalist intolerance are damaging relationships between individuals, groups and peoples, let us be committed to living and teaching the value of respect for others, a love capable of welcoming differences, and the priority of the dignity of every human being over his or her ideas, opinions, practices and even sins.” (Fratelli Tutti, paragraph 191) A good first step towards practicing such respect and love would be to drop divisive labels and embrace the freedom that comes from a shared identity as children of God.
A version of this essay was presented at Denver Faith and Culture in 2017
How should Christians relate to God’s creation? First and foremost, we should be thankful for it, we should be in awe of it; but our relationship with creation goes beyond that of an admiring spectator. We are part of creation, and we interact with it. We are called on to tend the garden, to rule over the beasts of the earth; in short, we are called on to practice economics.
“Economics” comes from the same Greek root word which gives us the word ecology: oikos, the home. Economics studies the provisioning of the home, the feeding of the family. Ecology studies the home God has made for us.
All economic activities start with the gift of the land given to us by God, because economics consists in the application of labor, human effort, to the land. Similarly, all economic activity should end in the giving of gifts, the tribute of worship to God and the gift of food and shelter to family and neighbor.
In our efforts to redeem society, we must realize the primacy of economics. Leisure is first in intention, but economics is the first in order of actuality. If we are not able to feed and clothe ourselves, we will not be able to produce art or liturgy or politics. Similarly, if a society’s economic order is unjust and works against human dignity, the culture of leisure in that society will become degraded.
Today, our economic system is brutal, unsustainable, and unjust. Simply by participating in our economy we are supporting injustice, the enslavement of the poor and the destruction of the environment. This injustice will undermine all our cultural efforts, which will become just another trendy hobby of the rich. In the end, we will have built a “good life” that would have been familiar in the ancient world; leisure and culture for the upper class, slavery for the others. If we can not restore a right relationship to the land, none of our other attempts at societal renewal will bear fruit.
There are many ways a society can organize its economic relationship to the land, ranging from the clan solidarity of hunting tribes to the vast slave empires of antiquity, and these various forms largely determine the type of culture a given society will produce.
I purpose that in our quest for a just economy we can learn from one form in particular, that of the peasant.
Today the word carries connotations of poverty and backwardness, but all it truly means is production for consumption instead of for trade. It is a simplification of economics in which an individual family or small group of families controls all the economic factors; land, labor, capital, and consumption. Cutting down a tree to heat one’s house is an example of peasant economics. So long as the primary focus is on self-provisioning, it is still peasant production. The adjective “peasant” says nothing as such about technology use or wealth.
I’d hasten to add that many goods can not be produced this way, and no healthy society can consist solely of peasant production. Primary goods, such as food, shelter, and clothing, as well as the tools to produce these, can and have been provided by peasant villages. There is a bit of a blurry line here, I admit; there was division of labor in a peasant village. A blacksmith may shoe his own horse, but will spend much of his time shoeing horses for others. However, the blacksmith is part of the village; he will live his whole life with the other villagers. Just so, there was some division of labor in most peasant families. But the focus was on the self provisioning of the unit. In this way, the village can be seen as the literal and functional extension of the family. Secondary goods, such as computers, television sets, smart phones, and fluorescent lights can not be produced in a peasant fashion, not solely because of their complexity but because of the economies of scale necessary to their manufacture. Secondary goods, however, are not essential to life, and can’t be allowed to dominate the economic order to the detriment of primary goods.
We are called to live lives of Christian poverty, though not of destitution. As Matthew’s Gospel tells us, God knows we have need of “all these things”; the primary goods of food, clothing and shelter. But as Luke’s Gospel warns us: “Woe to you who are rich, for you are receiving your comfort in full.” And as Matthew’s Gospel warns us, our wealth can make entrance to heaven as difficult as the passage of a camel through a needle. If we are to be followers of Christ who came to earth poor and humble, we must shun unnecessary wealth. Some secondary goods are necessary for a full life, but when we live in a society where the bulk of our income is spent on secondary goods, we can guess we have made a mistake. A life spent seeking for comfort and fashion instead of sufficiency is not a Christian life.
In fact, because we spend so much on secondary goods our primary goods are shoddy and unsustainable. In the USA we spend less than ten percent of our income on food, and then wonder why farmers can’t make a living and our soil is eroding away. Italians spend 30 percent of their income on food, because they still realize the food is important. If we want a right relationship with the land we must stop spending our lives in a hunt for secondary consumer goods.
It also should be noted that I’m not advocating the rejection of any technology that can’t be produced by a peasant village; I am advocating relegating such technology to its proper place in society. Also, the Gospel condemnation of wealth is a hard saying. It will take a long journey of Faith to arrive at Christian poverty. But when we find ourselves living much more comfortably and wielding much more power than the rich of Christ’s time, we must begin to ask some hard questions. I don’t have all the answers; each Christian must discern with much prayer their proper relationship to wealth.
In exchange for relocalizing our production and eliminating surplus secondary goods, what will we gain? A better quality of primary goods has already been touched on. Beyond that, simplified peasant economics frees us in many ways, from dependence on markets, from ecological destruction, from the support of empire, and from the financialized imagination.
Among these, the most obvious is freedom from markets. Alternative market farming is currently trendy, and small scale farmers are often locked into an intensive process of providing fancy salads for urbanites. This type of farmer faces competition from “Walmart Organic” with minimum standards and slave worked fields in Mexico or China. The competition has conditioned the customer to expect cheap food, which is only made possible by vast mechanization, government subsidy, debt, ecological destruction and social exploitation. If we eat our own crops and build our own furniture, we can meet our own needs without reference to market values.
Looking farther afield from our individual plots or farms, we should take note of Uncle Sam. Potatoes grown and eaten on the peasant plot are duty free. If we sell our potatoes or tomatoes, taxation will take a cut before we buy our bread and beef. Do we support what our government uses our tax dollars for? From local town councils funding shoddy development to the Pentagon buying million dollar bombs, our taxes fund waste, evil and destruction.
Between the sale of the turnips and the purchase of the bread, our money will presumably sit in a bank. What is the bank up to with our money? Who are they funding? Bureaucrats and other parasites are only too willing to suck the wealth out of our local communities. The less liquid it is, the less they will be able to get. Potatoes grown and consumed on a peasant plot are revolutionary; they threaten the established order while building the new. They free us from the support of empire and exploitation, because they are not financialized or monetized.
At a deeper level, that is exactly the point. Monetization itself is the enemy. In theory the farmer on his combine or the CEO at his desk are providing for their families, just as is the turnip grower. But it is much easier for us to realize this in the third case. Money’s purpose is to abstract; it is artificial and corrupting, becoming an end of its own. It has always been a tool of managers, bureaucrats, and imperialists, given their inability to directly interact with the local, particular, and real.
Proponents of the globalized market economy claim that individual vice or virtue, the quality of the product produced, and its effect on society are irrelevant to the common good. In fact, they do not scruple to base a vision of the common good on the selfishness of individuals, claiming that our evil is magically turned to good by the all powerful hand. But if we let our minds run idle, without direction and intentionality, evil creeps in. Similarly, when our economic life lacks intentionality, evil inhabits it. In fairy tales a snuffed candle may end a life, or a shattered crystal may break a spell. And in our modern economy, such a trivial thing as buying a new shirt may kill another half a world away, or destroy a home we’ve never seen. The Bible says that love of money is the root of all evil. Why love of money, and not of, say, turnips? Because money is pure, abstracted power. We can have an unlimited desire for profit. The love of any real thing, while it can become evil if it is not properly ordered, still involves an outward turning towards something other than self. The love of money, in contrast, easily becomes a love of power and security for oneself, even if one tries to use that power for good.
In contrast, inhabitants of other cultures did not feel this profit motive. Instead, they were motivated by more local and concrete concerns; family, local society, religion. They could, and did, misuse these local relations; but the lines were more clear cut. Greed was not admired as it is today, because the greed of one impacted those around him, not those half a continent away. By avoiding the use of currency, we can strike a huge blow in the favor of reality, sanity, and meaning in our lives. We can “reincarnate” our relationships by dealing in the local and particular instead of the abstract and far away.
As St. John Paul II said, faith that is not inculturated is not truly Faith. There can be no point at which we draw a line: “Faith Stops Here”. Our faith must be central to our economic life. We exist for the glory of God. All else must be subordinated to this. All our work and art and craft should exist to praise him; to support his worship directly, or to feed and clothe ourselves that we may continue to praise him, or to raise up the next generation to praise him here when we have joined the great song of praise in heaven. One can offer even the most futile tasks to God: but weak mortals that we are, we need all the reminding that we can get. And so our goal must be to reconnect the broken cycles of our lives so that every economic act may flow to its proper end of love; love of our families, love of our friends, love of our homeland, and ultimately love of the God in whose image we are made. Human life was broken in a garden, and restored in another. To restore our society, body and soul, we must return to our gardens.