In this episode, Malcolm interviews Peter van Kampen, the author of Live Simply: So That Others Might Simply Live. They discuss the Gospel’s teaching on material wealth and why Christians shouldn’t live lives of luxury while others are starving. You can purchase his book here.
Peter is a cradle Catholic. In college, he become really struck with the Church’s teaching on the universal call to holiness. We are all called to be saints, and Peter wanted to put this calling into practice in his life. Of course, there are many components to striving for holiness; but Peter found that the definition “make love your aim” really sums up what holiness is all about.
As he tried to apply this motto to his life, he began to wonder about the way he spent his money. He was tithing his income, since that seemed to be a basic Christian principle; but after that, he felt free to spend his surplus money as he saw fit. At the same time, he knew that there were charitable organizations that could feed and cloth a child in Africa for a little over a dollar a day. And as Christians, we are called to love others as we love ourselves.
With this in mind, his spending started to seem selfish and inconsistent with his goal of making love his aim. He would find himself spending 15 dollars on an unnecessary restaurant meal or movie, or two dollars on a Coke—and then think about how he’d just wasted the money that could have provided for the basic needs of somebody else.
He eventually confided these concerns to his future wife, Catherine. She challenged him to stop just worrying about it and do something practical. So he decided to implement what he calls his “luxury budget”. He would continue to tithe and would pay for all his basic necessities. Beyond that, he would allow himself only $100 dollars a month for any unnecessary purchases, and the rest of his surplus money would go to charity.
This allowed him to give away more money, and he found that he actually enjoyed living a more simple lifestyle. But it also forced him to ask even more questions. Suddenly, every purchase had to be classified as a necessity or as a luxury—and if it was a luxury, it was going to eat away at that luxury budget.
On a mission trip to Kenya, he encountered real poverty for the first time. This encounter increased his determination to live within the luxury budget he had set—and in fact, he eventually reduced the monthly amount.
Initially, Peter had thought that this attempt to live simply was just a part of his personal spirituality. Eventually, however, while he and Catherine were preparing for a conference, they discovered that the Church actually teaches that wealth is spiritually dangerous and that our surplus money belongs to the poor as a matter of justice.
Once he realized this, he felt free to teach it to others. And he became struck by two things. He found this teaching on simplicity of life everywhere he looked; in official Church documents, in the New Testament, in the writings of the saints and the Fathers of the Church. At the same time, Catholics in the “developed world” simply weren’t talking about this teaching. Most of them had never heard of it, and even explicitly denied that the Church taught anything of the sort. This surprising disconnect is what led Peter to write his book, Live Simply: So That Others Might Simply Live.
During the podcast episode, Peter quoted the following section from the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
2445 Love for the poor is incompatible with immoderate love of riches or their selfish use:
Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure for the last days. Behold, 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. You have condemned, you have killed the righteous man; he does not resist you.237
2446 St. John Chrysostom vigorously recalls this: “Not to enable the poor to share in our goods is to steal from them and deprive them of life. the goods we possess are not ours, but theirs.”238 “The demands of justice must be satisfied first of all; that which is already due in justice is not to be offered as a gift of charity”:239
When we attend to the needs of those in want, we give them what is theirs, not ours. More than performing works of mercy, we are paying a debt of justice.
During the podcast, we talked about the important role of conscience in the Christian life. Each person has to discern what the Church’s teaching on the proper use of material goods means for his or her life. But the importance of conscience does not mean that anything goes! Rather, we each have a duty to form our own conscience properly and apply certain basic principles in each area of life. At the end of the podcast, Peter outlined three principles that should guide our use of material goods.
Every Christian is called to live simply and donate any surplus wealth to the poor.
This does not, however, mean that we must give away what we legitimately need. As Pope Leo XIII said in Rerum Novarum: No one is commanded to distribute to others that which is required for his own needs and those of his household; nor even to give away what is reasonably required to keep up becomingly his condition in life.
We need to be careful, however, that “living becomingly” does not slip into living luxuriously. And this leads to the third principle. St. Basil the Great said: “By a certain wily artifice of the devil, countless pretexts of expenditure are proposed to the rich.” We have to be alert and reject those “pretexts of expenditure”.
A Greater Understanding of Reality
One of the advantages of a simpler way of life is a greater understanding of reality. As inhabitants of the so-called “developed world”, we consume resources at an enormous rate, without being aware of how unusual this is. Historically speaking, even the wealthy consumed much less than we do. The rich at the time of Christ or in the Middle Ages would be amazed by the lifestyle of middle-class North Americans. Even a hundred years ago, people owned many fewer possessions, lived in smaller houses, and generally lived a more strenuous life.
Around the world today, this affluent lifestyle is still an anomaly. Most people have to get by on much less than the average Canadian or American. By embracing a simpler lifestyle, we will not only be able to help the poor; we will be able to recover a sense of gratitude as we realize how blessed we really are.
And we will be able to recover another kind of reality; a realization of our true obligations to God, who has given us everything we have. We are constantly told that we are supposed to be “stewards” of our possessions; such language makes little impression on us, because we don’t think about what the word really means. As stewards, we don’t own anything. Everything truly belongs to God; as the psalms tell us, “The Earth is the Lord’s”. That means we don’t get to decide how to use our possessions; we have a duty to use them for the glory of God and the service of our neighbor. We get annoyed when politicians use our money for their own enjoyment; we should feel the same way about a Christian who uses God’s money for personal enjoyment while other people are starving.
Featured Image: Houses in the Kibera Slum, Nairobi, Kenya; image by Colin Crowley, CC BY 2.0.
In this episode, I interview Tyler Hambley from the Maurin House, a new Catholic Worker House in the suburbs of Minneapolis.
The Hope of the Poor
Tyler’s first experience of Catholic Worker-style life came when he was a divinity student in Durham, North Carolina. He started gathering with a small group to pray vespers every evening at a local Episcopalian church, and over time the group started meeting after vespers for meals. The church grounds had become a sort of hangout for the local homeless population.
One of the intercession at vespers is “let the hope of the poor not be in vain”. As Tyler explained, we have to let our prayers become a lived reality, not just words. In this case, the embodiment of the prayer started by inviting some of the homeless to their community meals. Over time, friendships developed, and eventually, some members of this group started renting housing together and taking in the homeless. Things developed organically until there were three houses with around 20 people living in them as a community.
Over time, however, Tyler and some of the other members of the community began to feel attracted to the Catholic Church. Eventually, Tyler’s family joined another family from the Durham community to start the Maurin House in Columbia Heights, a suburb of Minneapolis.
The writers Stanley Hauerwas and Alasdair MacIntyre had a big influence on Tyler. They taught him the importance of shared practices in community life, of becoming a certain kind of person rather than making certain decisions. Hauerwas says that if one has to make a decision, all may have been lost. If we have to decide whether to act in a virtuous manner, it shows that we are not yet virtuous people. Becoming virtuous means acquiring certain virtuous habits of thought and action.
We can only live as Christians by following a certain tradition as a community. As individuals, the best we can do is try to make good decisions, but as a community we can build a way of life within the Christian tradition.
The Living Tradition
Traditionalism, however, is dangerous, since traditionalists have a flawed understanding of the tradition. They think of it as if it were a static thing that stays unchanged. In reality, however, the tradition is a living thing, a story that we continue. A tradition or culture which is closed off from further experience and further development dies.
The Benedict Option
Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option” is, at least in theory, inspired by MacIntyre’s book After Virtue. There is a lot of good in the Benedict Option idea, but the motivation is flawed. The Benedict Option is presented as an answer to the growing hostility of the surrounding culture. This is the wrong motivation for building community. Fear of the surrounding culture will not produce the kind of practices that will form persons in virtue. (In a recent podcast episode, I discussed the Benedict Option at length with Dr. Cameron Thompson.)
The anger of “culture warrior” Catholics stems from a fear that they will lose access to the comforts and prestige of suburban American culture. The culture warriors are often seen as the opposites of the so-called “liberals”, who are willing to compromise their values to maintain the world’s favor. These two ideologies seem opposed to one another, and yet they are actually the same. Both are unwilling to reject the comfort of our consumer society, embrace voluntary poverty, and follow Christ through self-sacrificing service to the poor.
Radical or Superficial
The real division is not between progressives and conservatives, but between radical Christians and superficial ones. Christianity isn’t compatible with consumerism and the comfortable security obtained through insurance and high-paying jobs. This sort of comfort and security will inevitably undermine the Faith. In contrast, radical communities can provide their members with a different kind of support and security, based on mutual self-sacrifice and trust. For more on this topic, see our blog post about preppers and suburbanites.
The Hospitable Family
Christian parents are called to raise their children, of course. This does not, however, mean that they can ignore the needs of the wider community. In fact, as Tyler mentioned, the Catechism says that Catholic families “should live in such a way that its members learn to care and take responsibility for the young, the old, the sick, the handicapped, and the poor.”
In some ways, care for children and care for the poor are very similar and reinforce one another. Just as Christian couples are called to be open to life and the inconvenient demands it puts on them, we’re all called to be open to aiding the poor in a sacrificial manner. Both kinds of openness are part of building a “culture of life.” In both cases, those who give generously “receive back a hundred fold”. We shouldn’t see the poor or children merely as those we help. Rather, children, the poor, and all the weak and vulnerable mediate Christ for us. That’s a very different perspective than the standard social justice one!
Families living in community can experience a certain amount of tension between the demands of family life and the demands of community. On the other hand, Tyler explained that as a father he feels he needs community. Too much emphasis on the family unit can leave parents as isolated individuals accountable to no one. Accountability and obedience aren’t just for children; parents also need support, guidance, and correction from others.
Advice on Starting a Community
In closing, Tyler gave some advice to those who want to build community. It is best not to start with grand expectations or plans. Instead, it is better to find a few others with similar interests, and start engaging in shared practices: particularly in shared prayer, but also in shared meals and recreation. Out of the friendships that develop a community can grow over time.
Learn more about the Maurin House at their website.
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
In this episode, Malcolm Schluenderfritz and Jason Wilde draw on a wide range of Catholic sources to explain the basic principles of Catholic Social Teaching. We’ve included the sources we’ve quoted below.
What is Catholic Social Teaching?
Catholic Social Teaching (CST) is often misunderstood. When it is brought up, people can be quick to think of economics . . . or of socialism! It is also a complicated topic and isn’t discussed enough.
Humans are social beings. CST is the Church’s teaching on our social interactions. We’re called to live with justice and charity toward our neighbors. The Beatitudes and the Works of Mercy can help us to understand CST, which can be seen as the Works of Mercy applied to society.
Justice and Charity
Without justice, charity is useless. We’d be highly offended if somebody stole our possessions, and then claimed to be charitable when they gave a few of them back! Too often, Christians focus on personal charity but ignore the aspect of justice. The teaching of the Church, going all the way back to St. John Chrysostom, is that feeding the poor is a matter of justice, not merely of charity.
We can also see the works of mercy, the acts of charity, as personal responses to failures of social justice. We have to personally aid the poor, but the Church’s CST also provides us with the tools to analyze and combat wider social injustices.
Framing aid to the needy as a matter of justice rather than charity can be uncomfortable. We all instinctively realize that while even a small amount of charity is laudable, falling even a little short of what justice requires is reprehensible. Instead of feeling uncomfortable, we should take this opportunity to realize our need for a Savior. Only Jesus can save us from the web of evil in the world. We are all somewhat unjust on this side of Heaven.
The Principles of Catholic Social Teaching
All the CST principles are tightly interwoven. They each depend on the others; if we drop one or two of them the others don’t make sense.
The Rights of Workers
The rights of workers are tightly connected to the dignity of every human person, but they are also connected to the dignity of work itself. Through work, we can participate in God’s ongoing act of creation. Work needs to be properly oriented, both to sustaining those who perform it, and ultimately toward leisure. All work is for the sake of not working. It can be difficult to remember this in a culture with a deeply flawed view of work.
Human Rights and Responsibilities
All humans have certain basic rights; most fundamentally, the right to life, and to the basic necessities for living a good human life, such as food, shelter, clothing, basic medical care, and adequate rest. Every right comes paired with a responsibility. In the case of basic human rights, society and individual human beings have a responsibility to make sure that the rights of others are met. In our individual lives, we can’t let a focus on our own rights blur a realization of our duties toward others, and we should be willing to waive our lesser rights so that the more fundamental rights of others can be honored.
The Preferential Option for the Poor and Vulnerable
We all have rights, but the Church calls us to have a special concern for the poor and vulnerable. In part, this is just pragmatic; the poor and vulnerable are more likely to “fall through the cracks” unless they are given special attention. But it is also part of the Gospel Message. Christ said he came to bring good news to the poor. Poverty does not equal virtue, but it does help to prepare one’s heart to encounter Christ. (We discussed this in our episode on Gospel Poverty.)
Solidarity calls us to see all human beings as brothers and sisters. This has a natural dimension, but above all it has a spiritual dimension. We are called to see every other human being as created in the image and likeness of God, and as at least potential members of the Mystical Body of Christ. This means that we should care deeply about what happens to every human person, much as we would care about the members of our families or the members of our own bodies.
The Dignity of the Human Person
All CST is ultimately grounded in the Dignity of the Human Person. Every human being has this dignity from conception to natural death, which is why the Catholic Church opposed abortion and all other attacks on life. If we don’t believe in the fundamental dignity that each person has, we won’t see any reason to respect human rights, stand in solidarity with others, value human work, or care for those who are poor.
The Call to Family, Community, and Participation
But we are not just individuals; we are communal, and therefore we are called to seek the Common Good. Common Goods are those things which are not diminished by being shared. The ultimate common good is the contemplation of God in Heaven; this good is not diminished by being shared. Neither is the good of belonging to a family or community.
Care for Creation
As a community, we need to care for our common home and the common goods provided by Creation. This will the theme of our next CST episode, which will be an in-depth discussion of Laudato Si.
On our website we have a list titled “101 Ways to Change Your Life Right Now!” If you want to start putting CST into practice, this list might be a good place to start. We’re not yet at 101, but we have more than 60 action items listed. (Contact us if you have any suggestions to add to the list.)
This is a list of most if not all of the sources we quoted during the episode (and some that we didn’t get time to quote!) with links to the originals where relevant. Text in bold before each section of quoted text was added by us to indicate the connection to our discussion in the episode.
These sources come from different eras and help to show the unity of CST over time.
Evangelium Vitae by Pope St. John Paul II
- Section 3: The Dignity of Every Human Life. “Every individual, precisely by reason of the mystery of the Word of God who was made flesh (cf. Jn 1:14), is entrusted to the maternal care of the Church. Therefore every threat to human dignity and life must necessarily be felt in the Church’s very heart; it cannot but affect her at the core of her faith in the Redemptive Incarnation of the Son of God, and engage her in her mission of proclaiming the Gospel of life in all the world and to every creature (cf. Mk 16:15) . . . .
The Second Vatican Council, in a passage which retains all its relevance today, forcefully condemned a number of crimes and attacks against human life. Thirty years later, taking up the words of the Council and with the same forcefulness I repeat that condemnation in the name of the whole Church, certain that I am interpreting the genuine sentiment of every upright conscience: “Whatever is opposed to life itself, such as any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia, or wilful self-destruction, whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, torments inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself; whatever insults human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children; as well as disgraceful working conditions, where people are treated as mere instruments of gain rather than as free and responsible persons; all these things and others like them are infamies indeed. They poison human society, and they do more harm to those who practise them than to those who suffer from the injury. Moreover, they are a supreme dishonour to the Creator””
Let Us Dream, by Pope Francis
- pp. 52-53: Catholic Social Teaching is based on the Beatitudes. “Jesus gave us a set of keywords with which he summoned up the grammar of the Kingdom of God: the Beatitudes. They begin in the hope of the poor for the fullness of life, for peace and fraternity, for equity and justice. It is an order of existence in which values are not negotiated but sacrosanct. Reflecting on the kingdom of God in response to the way we live in the modern world, the Church has developed a series of principles for reflection, together with criteria for judgment that also offer directives for action. It is known as Catholic Social Teaching. While they are drawn from reflection on the Gospel, its principles are accessible to all, seeking to translate and set in motion the Good News in the here and now. “
- pp. 116-117 The Dignity of Workers “There is a 12th-century midrash, or commentary, on the story of the Tower of Babel in chapter 11 of the Book of Genesis. The tower was a monument to the ego of the people of Babel. Building the tower required huge numbers of bricks, which were very expensive to make. According to the rabbi, if a brick fell it was a great tragedy: work was stopped and the negligent worker was beaten severely as an example. But if a worker fell to his death? the work went on. One of the surplus laborers—slaves waiting in line for work—stepped forward to take his place so that the tower could continue to rise . . .
And nowadays? When shares of major corporations fall a few percent, the news makes headlines. Experts endlessly discuss what it might mean. But when a homeless person is found frozen in the streets behind empty hotels, or a whole population goes hungry, few notice; and if it makes the news at all, we just shake our heads sadly and carry on, believing there is no solution . . .
Either a society is geared to a culture of sacrifice—the triumph of the fittest and the throwaway culture—or to mercy and care. People or bricks: it is time to choose.”
Caritas in Veritate, by Pope Benedict XVI
- From paragraph 6: The Relation of Charity and Justice. “Charity goes beyond justice, because to love is to give, to offer what is “mine” to the other; but it never lacks justice, which prompts us to give the other what is “his”, what is due to him by reason of his being or his acting. I cannot “give” what is mine to the other, without first giving him what pertains to him in justice. If we love others with charity, then first of all we are just towards them. Not only is justice not extraneous to charity, not only is it not an alternative or parallel path to charity: justice is inseparable from charity, and intrinsic to it.”
Apostolicam Actuositatem, from the Second Vatican Council
- From Chapter II, Section 8: The Relation of Justice and Charity, Solidarity in Christ, Reform of the Social Order. “In order that the exercise of charity on this scale may be unexceptionable in appearance as well as in fact, it is altogether necessary that one should consider in one’s neighbor the image of God in which he has been created, and also Christ the Lord to Whom is really offered whatever is given to a needy person. It is imperative also that the freedom and dignity of the person being helped be respected with the utmost consideration, that the purity of one’s charitable intentions be not stained by seeking one’s own advantage or by striving for domination, and especially that the demands of justice be satisfied lest the giving of what is due in justice be represented as the offering of a charitable gift. Not only the effects but also the causes of these ills must be removed and the help be given in such a way that the recipients may gradually be freed from dependence on outsiders and become self-sufficient.”
Communities of Salt and Light, from the USCCB, 1993
- From Chapter 3, the Social Mission of the Parish: The Relation of Justice and Charity. “Catholic teaching calls us to serve those in need and to change the structures that deny people their dignity and rights as children of God. Service and action, charity and justice are complementary components of parish social ministry. Neither alone is sufficient; both are essential signs of the gospel at work. A parish serious about social ministry will offer opportunities to serve those in need and to advocate for justice and peace. These are not competing priorities, but two dimensions of the same fundamental mission to protect the life and dignity of the human person.”
A Sermon on the Gospel of Luke, by St. Basil the Great
- “When someone steals another’s clothes, we call them a thief. Should we not give the same name to one who could clothe the naked and does not? The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry; the coat unused in your closet belongs to the one who needs it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to the one who has no shoes; the money which you hoard up belongs to the poor.”
(A slightly different translation of this quote can be found on page 69 of On Social Justice, a book of St. Basil’s writings edited by C. Paul Schroeder.)
Rerum Novarum, by Pope Leo XIII
- From paragraph 3: The Exploitation of Workers. “In any case we clearly see, and on this there is general agreement, that some opportune remedy must be found quickly for the misery and wretchedness pressing so unjustly on the majority of the working class . . . To this must be added that the hiring of labor and the conduct of trade are concentrated in the hands of comparatively few; so that a small number of very rich men have been able to lay upon the teeming masses of the laboring poor a yoke little better than that of slavery itself.”
Laborem Exercens, by Pope St. John Paul II
- From the introduction, section 1: Concern of the Church for the Dignity of Work. “I wish to devote this document to human work and, even more, to man in the vast context of the reality of work. As I said in the Encyclical Redemptor Hominis, published at the beginning of my service in the See of Saint Peter in Rome, man “is the primary and fundamental way for the Church”4, precisely because of the inscrutable mystery of Redemption in Christ; and so it is necessary to return constantly to this way and to follow it ever anew in the various aspects in which it shows us all the wealth and at the same time all the toil of human existence on earth.”
“Work is one of these aspects, a perennial and fundamental one, one that is always relevant and constantly demands renewed attention and decisive witness. Because fresh questions and problems are always arising, there are always fresh hopes, but also fresh fears and threats, connected with this basic dimension of human existence: man’s life is built up every day from work, from work it derives its specific dignity, but at the same time work contains the unceasing measure of human toil and suffering, and also of the harm and injustice which penetrate deeply into social life within individual nations and on the international level. While it is true that man eats the bread produced by the work of his hands— and this means not only the daily bread by which his body keeps alive but also the bread of science and progress, civilization and culture—it is also a perennial truth that he eats this bread by “the sweat of his face“, that is to say, not only by personal effort and toil but also in the midst of many tensions, conflicts and crises, which, in relationship with the reality of work, disturb the life of individual societies and also of all humanity.”
- From Chapter 3, section 12: The Priority of Labor over Capital. “The structure of the present-day situation is deeply marked by many conflicts caused by man, and the technological means produced by human work play a primary role in it. We should also consider here the prospect of worldwide catastrophe in the case of a nuclear war, which would have almost unimaginable possibilities of destruction. In view of this situation we must first of all recall a principle that has always been taught by the Church: the principle ot the priority of labour over capital. This principle directly concerns the process of production: in this process labour is always a primary efficient cause, while capital, the whole collection of means of production, remains a mere instrument or instrumental cause. This principle is an evident truth that emerges from the whole of man’s historical experience.”
Centesimus Annus, by Pope St. John Paul II
- Chapter 4, section 41: Just Wages, the Dignity of Workers. “Alienation is found also in work, when it is organized so as to ensure maximum returns and profits with no concern whether the worker, through his own labour, grows or diminishes as a person, either through increased sharing in a genuinely supportive community or through increased isolation in a maze of relationships marked by destructive competitiveness and estrangement, in which he is considered only a means and not an end.
The concept of alienation needs to be led back to the Christian vision of reality, by recognizing in alienation a reversal of means and ends.”
- Chapter 1, section 7 The Right to Sufficient Rest and Leisure. “we can appreciate the Pope’s [Leo XIII] severe statement: “It is neither just nor human so to grind men down with excessive labour as to stupefy their minds and wear out their bodies”. And referring to the “contract” aimed at putting into effect “labour relations” of this sort, he affirms with greater precision, that “in all agreements between employers and workers there is always the condition expressed or understood” that proper rest be allowed, proportionate to “the wear and tear of one’s strength”. He then concludes: “To agree in any other sense would be against what is right and just””
- Chapter 5, section 47: Human Rights. “Following the collapse of Communist totalitarianism and of many other totalitarian and “national security” regimes, today we are witnessing a predominance, not without signs of opposition, of the democratic ideal, together with lively attention to and concern for human rights. But for this very reason it is necessary for peoples in the process of reforming their systems to give democracy an authentic and solid foundation through the explicit recognition of those rights.96 Among the most important of these rights, mention must be made of the right to life, an integral part of which is the right of the child to develop in the mother’s womb from the moment of conception; the right to live in a united family and in a moral environment conducive to the growth of the child’s personality; the right to develop one’s intelligence and freedom in seeking and knowing the truth; the right to share in the work which makes wise use of the earth’s material resources, and to derive from that work the means to support oneself and one’s dependents; and the right freely to establish a family, to have and to rear children through the responsible exercise of one’s sexuality. In a certain sense, the source and synthesis of these rights is religious freedom, understood as the right to live in the truth of one’s faith and in conformity with one’s transcendent dignity as a person.”
- Chapter 1, section 5. Social Doctrine as Evangelizing Mission. In effect, to teach and to spread her social doctrine pertains to the Church’s evangelizing mission and is an essential part of the Christian message, since this doctrine points out the direct consequences of that message in the life of society and situates daily work and struggles for justice in the context of bearing witness to Christ the Saviour.
Quadragesimo Anno, by Pius XI
Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, by The Pontifical Council for Peace and Justice
- Sections 279-280: New Forms of Exploitation of Workers. “The relationship between labour and capital often shows traits of antagonism that take on new forms with the changing of social and economic contexts. In the past, the origin of the conflict between capital and labour was found above all “in the fact that the workers put their powers at the disposal of the entrepreneurs, and these, following the principle of maximum profit, tried to establish the lowest possible wages for the work done by the employees”. In our present day, this conflict shows aspects that are new and perhaps more disquieting: scientific and technological progress and the globalization of markets, of themselves a source of development and progress, expose workers to the risk of being exploited by the mechanisms of the economy and by the unrestrained quest for productivity.
One must not fall into the error of thinking that the process of overcoming the dependence of work on material is of itself capable of overcoming alienation in the workplace or the alienation of labour. The reference here is not only to the many pockets of non-work, concealed work, child labour, underpaid work, exploitation of workers — all of which still persist today — but also to new, much more subtle forms of exploitation of new sources of work, to over-working, to work-as-career that often takes on more importance than other human and necessary aspects, to excessive demands of work that makes family life unstable and sometimes impossible, to a modular structure of work that entails the risk of serious repercussions on the unitary perception of one’s own existence and the stability of family relationships.”
Pacem in Terris, by Pope St. John XXIII
- Sections 28-30: The Relationship between Rights and Duties. “The natural rights of which We have so far been speaking are inextricably bound up with as many duties, all applying to one and the same person. These rights and duties derive their origin, their sustenance, and their indestructibility from the natural law, which in conferring the one imposes the other.
Thus, for example, the right to live involves the duty to preserve one’s life; the right to a decent standard of living, the duty to live in a becoming fashion; the right to be free to seek out the truth, the duty to devote oneself to an ever deeper and wider search for it.
Once this is admitted, it follows that in human society one man’s natural right gives rise to a corresponding duty in other men; the duty, that is, of recognizing and respecting that right. Every basic human right draws its authoritative force from the natural law, which confers it and attaches to it its respective duty. Hence, to claim one’s rights and ignore one’s duties, or only half fulfill them, is like building a house with one hand and tearing it down with the other.”
Octogesima Adveniens, by Pope St. Paul VI
- Section 23: The Duty to Renounce our Rights in Favor of Others under some Circumstances. In teaching us charity, the Gospel instructs us in the preferential respect due to the poor and the special situation they have in society: the more fortunate should renounce some of their rights so as to place their goods more generously at the service of others. If, beyond legal rules, there is really no deeper feeling of respect for and service to others, then even equality before the law can serve as an alibi for flagrant discrimination, continued exploitation and actual contempt. Without a renewed education in solidarity, an overemphasis of equality can give rise to an individualism in which each one claims his own rights without wishing to be answerable for the common good.
- 2448: The Preferential Option for the Poor “In its various forms – material deprivation, unjust oppression, physical and psychological illness and death – human misery is the obvious sign of the inherited condition of frailty and need for salvation in which man finds himself as a consequence of original sin. This misery elicited the compassion of Christ the Savior, who willingly took it upon himself and identified himself with the least of his brethren. Hence, those who are oppressed by poverty are the object of a preferential love on the part of the Church which, since her origin and in spite of the failings of many of her members, has not ceased to work for their relief, defense, and liberation through numerous works of charity which remain indispensable always and everywhere.”
Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, by Pope St. John Paul II
- Chapter 6, Section 42: The Preferential Option for the Poor“Today, furthermore, given the worldwide dimension which the social question has assumed,76 this love of preference for the poor, and the decisions which it inspires in us, cannot but embrace the immense multitudes of the hungry, the needy, the homeless, those without medical care and, above all, those without hope of a better future. It is impossible not to take account of the existence of these realities. To ignore them would mean becoming like the “rich man” who pretended not to know the beggar Lazarus lying at his gate (cf. Lk 16:19-31). Our daily life, as well as our decisions in the political and economic fields, must be marked by these realities.”
Homily 50 on Matthew by Saint John Chrysostom
- Feeding the Poor comes before Decorating Church Buildings “Of what use is it to weigh down Christ’s table with golden cups, when he himself is dying of hunger? First, fill him when he is hungry; then use the means you have left to adorn his table. Will you have a golden cup made but not give a cup of water? What is the use of providing the table with cloths woven of gold thread, and not providing Christ himself with the clothes he needs? What profit is there in that? Tell me: If you were to see him lacking the necessary food but were to leave him in that state and merely surround his table with gold, would he be grateful to you or rather would he not be angry? What if you were to see him clad in worn-out rags and stiff from the cold, and were to forget about clothing him and instead were to set up golden columns for him, saying that you were doing it in his honor? Would he not think he was being mocked and greatly insulted?
Apply this also to Christ when he comes along the roads as a pilgrim, looking for shelter. You do not take him in as your guest, but you decorate floor and walls and the capitals of the pillars. You provide silver chains for the lamps, but you cannot bear even to look at him as he lies chained in prison. Once again, I am not forbidding you to supply these adornments; I am urging you to provide these other things as well, and indeed to provide them first. No one has ever been accused for not providing ornaments, but for those who neglect their neighbor a hell awaits with an inextinguishable fire and torment in the company of the demons. Do not, therefore, adorn the church and ignore your afflicted brother, for he is the most precious temple of all.”
- (The quote mentioned in the episode “If you cannot find Christ in the beggar at the church door, you will not find him in the chalice” is a paraphrase of St. John Chrysostom’s thought and not a direct quote.)
Lumen Gentum of the Second Vatican Council
- Chapter 5, Section 42 The Danger of Riches. Therefore, all the faithful of Christ are invited to strive for the holiness and perfection of their own proper state. Indeed they have an obligation to so strive. Let all then have care that they guide aright their own deepest sentiments of soul. Let neither the use of the things of this world nor attachment to riches, which is against the spirit of evangelical poverty, hinder them in their quest for perfect love. Let them heed the admonition of the Apostle to those who use this world; let them not come to terms with this world; for this world, as we see it, is passing away.
- Section 3: The Dignity of Every Human Life. “Every individual, precisely by reason of the mystery of the Word of God who was made flesh (cf. Jn 1:14), is entrusted to the maternal care of the Church. Therefore every threat to human dignity and life must necessarily be felt in the Church’s very heart; it cannot but affect her at the core of her faith in the Redemptive Incarnation of the Son of God, and engage her in her mission of proclaiming the Gospel of life in all the world and to every creature (cf. Mk 16:15) . . . .
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.