Sometimes, the Church’s call to embrace voluntary poverty and her emphasis on the poor and oppressed can seem counterproductive. After all, growing in virtue is an important part of the Christian life—and wealth would seem to be conducive to such an end. Or, if not wealth (since the wealthy are hardly exemplars of virtue) at least a moderate amount of affluence. With middle-class prosperity comes a certain respectability. By contrast, the lives of the poor are often chaotic and messy.
Part of this seeming paradox stems from a conflation of poverty and destitution. While the Church calls for poverty, she does not endorse destitution; destitution really does make a life of virtue more difficult to achieve. Similarly, even moderate poverty can be spiritually oppressive in today’s culture. Our society is focused on the accumulation of wealth, and so the poor are despised and marginalized. Those who can’t engage in conspicuous consumption are seen as inferior and even morally deficient. This is why we need “a poor Church for the poor”; the Church should be a society in which the poor are treated with respect and dignity. For more on this, see my recent essay on whether the poor are “busted” or “blessed”.
It should also be remarked that the virtues of the well-to-do are often an illusion. Pope Francis has often said that we should go out to the peripheries. We should go to aid the poor, certainly; but most of all, Pope Francis calls us to go to the peripheries to encounter the world as it really is. At the peripheries, we can escape the distorting smog of wealth and power. With sharpened vision, we will see defects and problems that we never noticed before.
What is true for society as a whole is also true for the individual. At the peripheries, we are more likely to see ourselves as we really are. Stripped of the finery provided by wealth, we will discover the true state of our spiritual muscles. For most of us, this unveiling will be an unpleasant and unsettling experience! It is easy to act virtuously when everything is going smoothly, but the real test of virtue comes when the going becomes rough. At the same time, the peripheries can also provide the setting for amazing acts of charity and trust that are called forward by the difficulties of daily life.
As I’ve explained elsewhere, wealth is the opposite of community. Wealth gives individuals power and makes them independent of others. They can choose their companions, choose their location, and have as much or as little company as they please. It is easy for them to retreat into personal pursuits or private rooms if they want to “get away from it all”.
By contrast, the poor need the support of a community, and can’t be as picky about who they interact with. Such unintentional community is going to be messy. Living in close quarters will generate friction. Tempers will be lost, and personal idiosyncrasies will grate on others. This might be mistaken for a lack of virtue when, in fact, it is the only way in which virtue can be developed. Community is a school of virtue in which development occurs through failure. If we don’t know our own faults, we won’t know where to focus our efforts. By making spiritual flaws apparent, a community can save individuals from falling into pride; the most serious spiritual disease is thinking that one is well. Jesus was gentle to sinners, but severe toward those who “were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else.”
It is important to remember that no amount of virtue will ultimately save us. Before God, we are all sinners, and we are all dependent on his mercy. At the same time, none of us can truly judge our own virtue, let alone that of others. C. S. Lewis writes:
Most of the man’s psychological make up is probably due to his body: when his body dies all that will fall off him, and the real central man, the thing that chose, that made the best or the worst of this raw material, will stand naked. All sorts of nice things we thought our own, but which were really due to a good digestion, will fall off some of us; all sorts of nasty things which were due to complexes or bad health will fall off others. We shall then, for the first time, see every one as he really was. There will be surprises.—Mere Christianity
And I could add “all sorts of nice things that were the result of wealth and education will fall off of us; all sorts of nasty things that were the result of destitution or ignorance will fall off of others.” Certainly, there will be many surprises in store. We can, however, get some of those surprises out of the way now, while there is still time to change the results. By stripping away illusory virtues, poverty and community remind us of our inherent weaknesses. At the same time, such an unvarnished experience of reality will give us more insight into human nature. The experience of weakness in an authentic community is tempered by love. Having received the love of others even when we were at our worst, we will be able to adopt a merciful outlook toward the weaknesses of others. In a small way, we will be able to see with the mind of God, who “knows what is in man”, but whose love is nevertheless beyond our imagining.