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.
“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
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.
Everyone knows that interacting with other people can be difficult, whether the others in question are family, friends, fellow parishioners, or just the folks across the street. Given that attempts at building community involve increased interaction with others, it should be obvious that expectations of finding “perfection” or “escaping problems” in community life are naive. Someone starting out with such expectations will likely find only dissatisfaction and will soon be looking for another, supposedly better community someplace else. Realism is critical, and there is no way to run away from ourselves; if we have problems in one place or situation, we’ll likely have the same problems wherever we go.
Important as this realism is, I want to go farther and suggest that community is a good way to find troubles and difficulties; not merely in the sense that living in closer contact with others is always a messy and difficult process, but that the trouble of community is in a certain sense the reason community is desirable.
That might sound crazy; why would we want to find trouble? Don’t most people have enough troubles of their own? In fact, that is one of the perceived benefits of wealth; it insulates one from other people’s troubles and allows one to freely choose associates. In podcast three, Peter Land described how he found a greater sense of community among the poor as opposed to the rich. In rich communities, houses and yards are large, and the inhabitants can afford travel, leisure activities, private transportation, and expensive “toys;” the result is that neighbors don’t see one another as much.
The fact that this kind of “social insulation” is only possible for the rich should suggest to us that it is not entirely desirable from a spiritual point of view. (After all, Christ said it was hard for the rich, not the poor, to enter heaven.) In fact, in the same podcast we discussed the different kinds of poverty, and how spiritual poverty often coexists with material wealth, precisely because the wealthy are able to indulge an illusion of being in control, and so are less likely to recognize their dependance on God.
St. Augustine describes how our enemies are given to us by God to “exercise us,” and G. K. Chesterton pointed out that Christ told us to love both our enemies and our neighbors, because they are frequently the same people! In any community, there will be a wide range of personalities and outlooks, and the resulting conflicts will “exercise” us, strengthening our spiritual muscles, and mortifying our selfish inclinations. In fact, just as we only realize the extent of our physical weakness when we start working out, we’re likely to feel that we’re quite saintly and self-less until we start rubbing up against other human beings in all their stubborn contrariness.
On another level, sharing troubles and struggles with others in community is the only way we can develop compassion, which is literally a “suffering with.” St. Paul tells us to bear one another’s burdens, sharing in the joys and sorrows of others; but this is only fully possible in community, by the sharing of a common life. In doing so, we’ll be imitating Christ, who had compassion on the crowds and on humanity in general, to the point of dying with us that we might rise.
If we try to carry the burdens of others by our own strength, we’ll be crushed by the weight; we’ll soon by envying the rich their insulated suburban lives. If we carry the burdens of others as a participation in the sufferings of Christ, we are bearing the burden of Christ, carrying His yoke, which is ultimately easy and light because He bears it with us. As Christ promised, where two or three are gathered in His name, He is there among us, in the sacred reality of the Mystical Body of Christ. Our neighbors are not just training exercises for us; they are part of us, and we are part of them; with them, for them, we lay down our lives so that we may rise again to eternal life with Christ our Head.
Developing three themes from the podcast episodes
Working together, particularly outdoors, is a wonderful way to build team spirit. The ability of shared work to create bonds stems from its material, physical aspect. All human community depends on the material world; our unique, individual souls can only communicate and relate by means of our physical bodies. We participate in many different, overlapping communities, all based on physicality, from families to neighborhood to nations. Eating together is almost a sacred thing; even the very word “companion” derives from “those who share bread.” Even in the supernatural realm of salvation, where we might expect a greater focus on the spiritual, we are redeemed by Christ “God in the Flesh” who walked and spoke with us, died and rose in the body, and founded a visible, material Church that is joined by means of the sacramental use of material elements.
As we attempt to build community, we need to keep in mind that humans are both (spiritual) individuals and (physical) social beings. Cults and totalitarian regimes do not allow for the proper freedom of the individual, but an excessive focus on the individual can warp our understanding of society. Today, we’re in danger of building over-spiritualized, intellectual cliques of people “just like us”, instead of genuine communities based on physical proximity, with all the diverse “messiness” of opinion and outlook that this entails.
As physical beings in a material world, we experience fear, including fear of the future. In podcast two, we briefly discussed the phenomena of “prepping”: preparing to survive natural disasters or societal collapse, typically by stockpiling food and weapons in a remote location. I certainly don’t want to dismiss the concerns about the future which motivate prepping; the future does look dark and preppers correctly note that our society lacks sustainability and resilience. Most of us couldn’t function with an extended blackout, let alone societal collapse.
Despite the looming possibility of hard times ahead, I think that prepping is a deeply flawed reaction. I could make many practical arguments against classic prepping; to mention just the most obvious, preppers tend to have an obsession with apocalyptic scenarios involving sudden and total social collapse, sometimes to the exclusion of more probable situations. There are also many philosophical and spiritual problems with “prepping” as generally practiced. (For one thing, large stockpiles of food are suspiciously reminiscent of the rich fool in the Gospel parable, who has food saved up “for many years”!)
I want to focus here on the prepping attitude towards the future. The prepper does have a point: the current state of society is seriously flawed in many ways. In fact, the instability that concerns the prepper is merely a symptom or result of flawed conditions in the here and now; the current state of our society is not desirable, regardless of whether or not it might break down in the future. We should start living differently right now, instead of waiting till for our dysfunctional lifestyles become impossible. “Right living” is almost always composed of actions which are beneficial on many different levels. Getting to know one’s neighbors may indeed be a good preparation for facing disaster together, but that’s a very backward way of looking at it! By all means, raise vegetables and learn skills, not because of future-oriented fear, but rather because of a desire to live rightly in the present. Like the Rich Fool, we do not know if we’ll survive the night, and thus a single-minded focus on the future is out of place for the Christian. “Prepping” has been a cultural phenomena since the sixties; in that time, many preppers have come and gone, dying before they were able to put their stockpiles into action, wasting the resources** that could have strengthened their communities and fed the poor . . . not to mention providing them with “treasure in Heaven!” (Not that we should become “spiritual preppers” trying obsessively to “earn” Heaven by stocking up merits. Nobody can “earn” Heaven. Just as community based on trust is better than individual stockpiling at providing earthly security, we’ll ultimately enter Heaven through trust in the mercy of God. If we obsessively focus on “avoiding hell” our spiritual life will become stunted and legalistic; a better focus is on loving God and neighbor in the present moment. Both Heaven and hell start now, as C.S. Lewis points out in The Great Divorce.)
The prepper’s preparations are disconnected from day to day life; a similar lack of integration is one of the defining marks of the modern world. Our lives are scattered, fragmented, compartmentalized; work over here, recreation over there, religion and politics and friends and neighbors and relatives and education all neatly placed in separate compartments. This lack of integration creates stress and overload in life, and can lead to a deep lack of integrity; different sets of principles are operational in each context, leading to a lack of moral and intellectual consistency.
As we build community, we need to strive for integration, taking care that our projects knit back together the shards of life instead of producing further fragmentation. As mentioned in the podcast, our projects should not be “one more thing,” another compartment, another thing to “do;” instead they should provide an overarching framework, bringing neighbors back together, working and praying and playing together in a particular, local place, in that present moment which is the only one we truly possess.
*T.E.O.T.W.A.W.K.I.: an acronym meaning “The End of the World as We Know It.” Used by prepper and survivalist groups.
**None of this, of course, applies to prudent precautions against bad weather, power outages, or other routine situations. For instance, the government recommends keeping a few weeks of food and water and some other supplies on hand. Sensible precautions of this sort are actually an act of charity, ensuring that you do not become more problem for society to deal with in a stressful time. This is very different from stocking years of food for a “black swan” event which may never come.
“If I ascend to heaven, You are there; If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, You are there.”Psalm 139:8
Suburbia has many structural flaws, as we discussed in the last podcast; but no matter how flawed our environment may be, God is with us.
A few years ago I caught a bus to make an all-day visit to a local adoration chapel. The bus route lay through miles of suburban sprawl; shopping malls, gas stations, parking lots, car dealerships; imposed, artificial order and tacky tidiness, interspersed with litter and overgrown weeds, bits of land that nobody took care of (not that anybody actually cared for the lawn around the car dealership or the sign for the shopping mall; all the kempt landscapes were just one step away from abandonment or neglect.) From an elevated section of roadway, I looked out over vast residential areas, isolated by convoluted roads and HOA fences; hundreds of roofs all alike, too new for trees to have softened their outlines, bleak under a wintery sky. As I walked from the bus stop to the church, I crossed a freeway overpass roaring with traffic; superficial attempts at upscale design of curbs and medians contrasted with utilitarian electrical transmission towers and the all-pervasive litter. The church was in keeping with the setting; an oddly shaped, hulking building, islanded in a sea of parking lots and lawns. By the time I got to the chapel, the waste and dysfunction and sheer folly of the surroundings had thoroughly depressed me.
Yet as I slipped in I was washed clean by that indefinable feeling of peace and stillness that lives in places of prayer; He was there. And so were my brothers and sisters in Christ; all day long a steady stream of adorers came to visit the Lord, dropping out of their roaring suburban traffic and busy, fragmented suburban lives into the stillness which is a foretaste of eternity. Before I left that day, I had received the most intense experience of God in my life.
If we can’t find God while living in Suburbia (and in the persons of suburbanites), we are unlikely to find Him elsewhere; for without having found Him, all our attempts, our community building projects or model villages, will merely expand Babel. God is here, right now, not far away or long ago. And we are here too, with all our glaring evil and surprising good. We will not leave ourselves behind by moving to a new setting; if we are lazy, distracted, tepid, callous here and now, we’ll be so elsewhere.
Instead, the new world we’re called to build must flow from a change of heart, as Peter Land pointed out in the last podcast; all the change of scene in the world won’t cut it. A spiritual writer once said “We are given no encouragement at all to entertain our feeling that if only we did not get these headaches, if only we had nicer neighbors, if only we knew how to pray, if only we were more humble, everything would go swimmingly. We do not have to work out how to get ourselves into a good position for having a relationship with God . . . The newness inherent in any situation of encounter with God is brought by him, not us.”
All things work for the good for those who love God, even such bad things as suburbia; and from the hearts of those who love God good things flow forth . . . including a world that is better than suburbia!