The story of the rich young man in Matthew 19 clearly illustrates the dangerous nature of wealth. When the topic comes up, however, many Christians quickly point out that Christ only said “if you would be perfect”, and that it would be “hard” but not “impossible” for the rich to enter heaven. After all, while a camel going through a needle may seem impossible, Christ did say that nothing is impossible with God! Going even further, some have claimed that the eye of the needle was merely the name of a narrow gate or pass, through which a camel could pass, if perhaps with difficulty.
Before addressing this argument, it is important to clarify that Gospel poverty does not entail destitution, the lack of basic necessities. Father Dubay’s book Happy Are You Poor explains this very well. Our summary of his book can be read here.
Necessary for What?
God’s mercy being infinite, it is of course true that voluntary poverty is not “necessary for salvation”. The only thing necessary for salvation is to humbly ask for the mercy of God. Someone can live a totally depraved life and be saved by asking for mercy at the last moment. It should be fairly obvious, however, that the message of the Gospel is not “do whatever you want and then ask for mercy at the last moment”. The real question for the Christian should be: is voluntary poverty an integral part of the Christian life?
Further, there is an interesting aspect to the idea of camels squeezing through a narrow gate. There is much debate as to whether the initial word in the Gospel was “camel” or “cable”, whether an “eye of the needle” gate existed, and so forth. Still, at least some commentators think the saying means that a camel could get through, but only if it was unloaded of all its baggage. After all, the rich are not a distinct species; they are human beings like the rest of us, with the addition of a lot of “stuff”. Christ may have been making a humorous comparison between a heavily burdened camel stuck in a narrow gate, and the wealthy who trudge through life spiritually weighed down by their possessions. The birds and wildflowers are carefree, while the rich need many barns to store their goods.
The inherently burdening nature of wealth, however, is denied by some Christians. According to them, when the Gospel counsels “poverty” what is really meant is mere detachment. They insist that so long as one isn’t inordinately attached to possessions, wealth is harmless or even beneficial.
For one thing, this idea ignores the vital connection between physical reality and spiritual attitudes. As Father Dubay puts it, for wounded human beings “possessing imperceptibly slips into being possessed.” This is a Gnostic age that downplays material reality, an age which is “spiritual but not religious”. Christianity, however, is firmly rooted in the material, and takes physical actions very seriously. It is ironic that many who argue for mere inward detachment are simultaneously engaged in arguing for the importance of concrete, material acts of religion.
Our age is also an extremely individualist one. It is very telling that when the topic of poverty is discussed, the focus tends to be on the effects wealth may or may not have on one’s individual spirituality. The Gospel does not overlook the personal aspect, but puts even more stress on the social aspect of wealth. Whatever loopholes there may be in the story of the rich young man, there are no such loopholes in the picture presented by Matthew 25, James 2:14-17, and 1 John 3. If we don’t love and serve our brothers and sisters, then we don’t love God. This love can’t remain a spiritual thing of “thoughts and prayers”, but demands concrete action.
Christian love is absolutely incompatible with purchasing luxuries for ourselves while our brothers and sisters are starving. Such selfish actions also expose so-called “detachment” that is devoid of practical results as a pious sham. Someone who was truly detached would be only too willing to give surplus wealth away to feed the hungry.
To me, it seems that there is a fairly watertight case for the essential role of voluntary poverty, at least when the social dimension is taken into account. In one sense, however, the very fact that we’re discussing whether it is an essential practice highlights a problem. Here is an aspect of Christian spirituality that is extensively discussed in Sacred Scripture and that has been recommended in glowing terms by numerous saints. Given all this, why are we debating about whether it is essential? It seems rather like a debate about whether a good night’s sleep is important to academic or athletic performance the next day. Sure, you could possibly succeed without it; but why be so quick to dismiss something of such obvious value?
The folly of this dismissal can be seen by comparing Catholic attitudes toward voluntary poverty with Catholic attitudes toward the Rosary. The Rosary is certainly an excellent prayer, but it isn’t mentioned in scripture, and obviously isn’t necessary for living a good Christian life, let alone for salvation. Yet there are Rosary confraternities, books of rosary meditations, programs and articles on how to say the rosary, and organizations dedicated to promoting it. Many Catholics pray the rosary every day. All well and good. The contrast with voluntary poverty, however, is striking. Shouldn’t we put at least as much effort into practicing, promoting, and reflecting on voluntary poverty as we put into practicing, promoting, and reflecting on the Rosary and other non-biblical religious practices? Perhaps if Catholics reclaimed this traditional yet neglected element of the Faith, our Church would be transformed.
In this episode, Malcolm interviews Professor William T. Cavanaugh about his book on Christian economics, Being Consumed.
Before we discussed the book, I asked Professor Cavanaugh to discuss his background. He talked about his academic background in theology and his time working as a lay volunteer in Chile under the Pinochet military dictatorship. His first book, Torture and Eucharist, was inspired by his experience in Chile. It describes torture as the “liturgy” of the military dictatorship, aimed at atomizing society, and the Eucharist as the Church’s liturgy, aimed at building up the body of Christ. He also discussed his work as director of The Center for World Catholicism & Intercultural Theology, a research center on the Church in the Global South. In particular, he mentioned how vibrant the Church is in some of the poorer countries of the Global South, and how just before the pandemic he visited the Catholic seminary of Enugu, Nigeria which has 855 men in formation.
Economics as Moral Theology
Then we turned to discussing Being Consumed. The introduction contains the line “Some Christians may be tempted to assume that economics is a discipline autonomous from theology.” Historically, Christians saw economics as a branch of moral theology. In modern times, by contrast, economics has been treated as a separate science. This makes it easier for Christians to justify immoral economic behavior.
There shouldn’t be any area of our lives which is separate from our Faith. Our economic life, which has such a large impact on our relationships with one another, should definitely be informed by our Faith. In the Old Testament, God’s concern for economic justice is clear. Similarly, as described in the New Testament, the Early Church shared goods in common and cared for the poor.
What is a Free Market?
The first chapter of Being Consumed covers the concept of freedom as applied to the economy. Christians don’t have to oppose the idea of a free market. On the other hand, we should criticize the flawed concept of freedom held by many “free market” theorists. They tend to hold a purely negative view of freedom. A negative view of freedom focuses on an absence of external constraints. For this reason, free market apologists tend to see all economic exchanges as free unless one party directly coerces or deceives the other.
Negative freedom is a necessary component of true freedom. It is not, however, sufficient to make an action truly free. The Christian tradition contains an emphasis on positive freedom. Positive freedom is “freedom for”, as opposed to “freedom from”. During the podcast, Professor Cavanaugh used playing the piano to illustrate these two concepts. In a negative sense, someone is free to play the piano so long as nobody stops them. In a positive sense, only those who have learned to play the piano are really free to do so. Other people can bang on the keys, but are not actually free to play it.
Positive freedom applied to economics means that a truly free market should promote the dignity and well-being of all. Economic transactions that demean human dignity are not truly free.
Further, in judging the freedom of an economic exchange, we need to take into account disparities of power. In Being Consumed, the low wages of many sweatshop workers are used as an illustration of this point. If such workers don’t accept these low wages, they will starve. They aren’t really free in this situation. The multinational companies have a lot of power, and the workers have very little.
In some cases, the workers actually are coerced by a government which intervenes on the side of the corporations. Professor Cavanaugh said that a “free market” often means one in which corporations are free. For instance, the oppressive Pinochet regime supported a supposedly “free” market. Speaking of this situation, the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano said that “people were in prison so that prices could be free.”
The Social Mortgage on Private Property
The Church does accept the legitimacy of private property. In part, this acceptance is a concession to a fallen world. It also stems from a realization of the social benefits that can come from private ownership. The Church does not, however, recognize private property as absolute. Rather, the Church teaches the universal destination of human goods. This means that private property is only legitimate insofar as it serves the common good. Professor Cavanaugh mentioned St. John Paul II’s teaching on the “social mortgage”:
It is necessary to state once more the characteristic principle of Christian social doctrine: the goods of this world are originally meant for all. The right to private property is valid and necessary, but it does not nullify the value of this principle. Private property, in fact, is under a “social mortgage,” which means that it has an intrinsically social function, based upon and justified precisely by the principle of the universal destination of goods.Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, VI, 42
This emphasis on the social purpose of ownership goes all the way back to the Old Testament. The New Testament reiterates this teaching and raises it to a higher level.
Use Value instead of Exchange Value
One of the problems with our current economy is an excessive focus on exchange value. The ultimate purpose of the economy is providing for human needs. Use value is a measure of this kind of fulfillment. Exchange value, on the other hand, is a measure of the salability of an item. A focus on exchange value leads to commodification. Commodities are not seen as useful, but merely as saleable. This can lead to bizarre consequences. Among other examples, I mentioned that at the beginning of the Covid pandemic, many farmers ended up plowing under their crops. The farm operations were designed to sell exclusively to the restaurant trade. With this market opportunity temporarily unavailable, the food had no value as a commodity. At the same time, many people were going hungry. The use value of the food was as high as ever, but due to a focus on exchange value it was unable to be used.
Professor Cavanaugh pointed out that this emphasis on exchange value leads to the proliferation of advertising. We are shown shiny images of things that can be quickly shipped to our doorstep. They arrive in packages with a smile on them. What we don’t see is the conditions under which they are made. Products become more important than the people. This is fundamentally incoherent, since products are designed to serve human beings.
Christians are supposed to be detached from the world. Our modern economy also promotes a kind of detachment. We tend not to be attached to any particular thing. Unlike those in more thrifty cultures, we’re constantly throwing things away and replacing them with the next thing. Christian detachment is supposed to leave us free to become attached to God and attentive to the needs of others. The modern “detachment”, however, leaves us attached to the very process of consumption itself.
The Eucharist as Anti-Consumptive in Being Consumed
Professor Cavanaugh said that he has sometimes been criticized for saying that the Eucharist “does things” apart from the disposition of those receiving. It is of course true that things can be misused, and the Eucharist is no exception. The Eucharist can be, and often is, seen as a merely individual, consumptive experience. Parishes can become “Mass stops” where we go to “get our sacraments.”
The reality of the Eucharist, however, is deeply anti-consumptive. In our current economy, we consume things, thereby taking them into our possession. Our consumption of the Eucharist, however, is the opposite. In the Eucharist, we are taken up into a larger whole. We become part of the body of Christ, which includes all those who receive the Eucharist with us.
Chapter 4 of Being Consumed includes the following line: “Those of us who partake of the Eucharist while ignoring the hungry may be eating and drinking our own damnation.” This is extremely important. We need a holism of life, a certain kind of “Eucharistic Coherence.” We can’t partake in the sacrament of unity and then spend the rest of week exploiting and abusing our brothers and sisters in Christ.
This connection between serving others and partaking in the Eucharist goes back to the Early Church, as seen in the teaching of Basil the Great and John Chrysostom. It goes even further back to St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. We can’t fall into the modern temptation to separate our lives into watertight compartments.
Practical Responses to the Message of Being Consumed
Professor Cavanaugh suggests that in reclaiming our economic lives, we should focus on our problematic detachment from three different aspects of our economy: detachment from production, from producers, and from products.
- To combat our detachment from production, we should take back up the practice of making things for ourselves, even if on a small scale.
- To combat our detachment from producers, we should consider the impact of our economic decisions on others, particularly those who make our goods.
- To combat our detachment from products, we should avoid advertising as much as we can. We should cultivate satisfaction with what we have, instead of searching for the latest model.
Being Consumed is a great examination of the Christian view of economic activity, and is accessible to those without a specialized background. I highly recommend it; we were only able to cover a few of the many concepts discussed in the book. And I’m very grateful to Professor Cavanaugh for joining the discussion.
Header Image: Book Cover image courtesy of Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. Amazon warehouse image from D K, CC BY-NC 2.0