In this episode, Malcolm interviews Leia Smith from the Orange County Catholic Worker. They discuss the Catholic Worker way of life, the attractiveness of an authentic Christian life, the dangers of institutionalism, the importance of admitting one’s own weaknesses and limitations, and the need for a “Catholic Worker Third Order”.
At the beginning of this podcast, I asked for donations for the Simone Weil House. To donate or learn more about them, visit their website.
Leia wasn’t a practicing Catholic when she first encountered the Catholic Worker. When she was 5, her parents left the Catholic Church and started attending a Methodist Church instead. In 1993, however, she experienced a spiritual crisis, and stopped by the local Catholic church because it was the only church open that evening.
Shortly thereafter, she found a newsletter from the Orange County Catholic Worker; the paper advertised a regularly scheduled liturgy and potluck. She didn’t know what to expect, but showed up anyway. She was challenged and attracted by what she found; a communal way of life that only made sense in light of the Gospel. As Leia put it, this way of life had integrity; it was real. This introduction to Catholic practice gave her an unusual perspective on the Faith, leading her to see the sacramental and theological life of the Church from the perspective of radical hospitality and the communal sharing of life that she experienced at the Catholic Worker.
After a few years of participating in the life of the CW house as a volunteer, she and her husband Dwight were given the chance to take over the management of the house. They accepted, even though, as Leia put it, they had no idea what they were doing! They learned on the fly and have been running the house ever since.
Depending on God
The Catholic Worker lifestyle forces people to give up the pursuit of worldly security, which makes room for God to act. This can even be experienced in the small things of life. Leia described her chaotic attempt to cook her first community meal. At the last moment, she realized that she didn’t have any bread to serve—and just at that moment, a man showed up at the door with a bunch of bread to donate.
Part of this dependence on God is a realization that we have limits, that we don’t always know what to do, that we don’t always have what it takes and need help. And it is in those moments that God’s grace is poured out on us.
The Dangers of Imitation
One way to avoid this dependence on God is the attempt to imitate others. For instance, a Catholic Worker might try to imitate Dorothy Day. But each of us is called to be ourselves, with our own particularities; imitating others makes us artificial and keeps us from being truly authentic.
A key temptation of the modern world is seeking security by becoming an institution. We are obsessed with metrics and structures; many people feel that their attempts are worthless unless they are working on a grand scale. We want to have a “success story” that will justify our efforts. Ultimately, however, this is just another way of avoiding dependence on God. He does not need us to solve all the world’s problems; rather, he simply calls us to follow him and act lovingly in each individual situation.
The Catholic Worker Third Order
Leia talked about how the works of mercy can end up becoming “institutionalized” by being confined to those who are able to run a Catholic Worker House. For most Catholics, that’s not an option. In particular, it is not possible for those who have family obligations or who are disabled. But we are all called to live lives characterized by mercy, charity, voluntary poverty, and trust in God. Also, there is a danger that Catholic Workers will come to see themselves as the only “real” Christians and look down on those who aren’t living at a CW house.
To solve this problem, Leia suggested that what we need is something like a “Catholic Worker Third Order”. Many people would like to live more radically Christian lives, but they feel isolated and alone. They need a support network. Even more, they need to be given “permission” to live in this way; they need a framework that explains and validates their decision.
And this is consistent with the original vision of the Catholic Worker. In a sense, Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day were simply trying live out the Gospel in the modern world. They were trying to remind the world that the Gospel message is incompatible with material affluence and that the Gospel insists on personal charity toward the poor and marginalized. Their message is for every Christian, not just for Catholic Workers.
(This essay was previously published in The Catholic Radical, a publication of the Maurin House. You can listen to our interview with Tyler Hambley from the Maurin House here.)
Contrary to popular belief, the Gospel calls us to embrace voluntary poverty. This external, material poverty is only valuable, however, insofar as it leads to or flows from the poverty of spirit that gives access to the Kingdom of God. (Mathew 5:3)
The “Little Way” of St. Therese can guide us as we seek true interior detachment. The poor in spirit are those who have surrendered themselves completely to God’s loving mercy. We are all totally dependent on God, whether we like it or not; but the poor in spirit have enthusiastically embraced their dependence. According to St. Therese, what God loves about us is precisely our weakness and littleness. If we let him, he can work in and through our weakness; by contrast, prideful insistence on our own strength will lead to failure.
Jesus said that the sick rather than the healthy need a physician’s care. This doesn’t mean that only some of us need God’s help; we are all weak and sinful before God. Instead, it means that God can only help those who realize that they are weak. In this way, the realization of one’s weakness can become a hidden strength, while those who see themselves as strong remain trapped in their own weakness.
In describing our dependence on God, St. Therese used the analogy of a parent who carries a child up a steep set of stairs. Our goal is to climb the “stairway of perfection”, but aren’t able to do so on our own. Striving for virtue is an integral part of the Christian life. Our focus, however, should be on God’s mercy rather than on our own efforts. A focus on our own efforts turns our religion into a contest of bourgeois respectability rather than an ardent relationship with God.
Dependence on the mercy of God also helps us to avoid the trap of scrupulosity and despair. Scrupulosity leads people to become overly focused on their personal spiritual struggles. They think they have to achieve sanctity through their own efforts; when they fail in this impossible quest, they become discouraged. This discouragement, in turn, makes further progress almost impossible. No amount of introspection can help those trapped in this situation; the problem can only be solved by turning outward in loving surrender.
The presumptuous, self-righteous Christian and the scrupulous Christian are actually examples of the same spiritual problem: excessive interest in personal salvation and a desire for control. The Little Way’s surrender of personal control highlights one of the many similarities between material voluntary poverty and spiritual detachment. The accumulation of material wealth is an attempt to achieve personal security in this life. The wealthy buy expensive insurance policies and build up saving accounts to protect themselves against future disasters.
The problem with such attempts is that no amount of money is sufficient; there’s always the possibility of an unforeseen event. Even more disastrously, this pursuit of personal security through wealth leads to social isolation. To the hoarder of personal wealth, connections are simply liabilities; they might lead to demands upon one’s precious and limited resources. The miser is a classical and extreme example of the isolating effects of wealth, but examples of this isolation can be seen everywhere in our affluent, lonely society.
By contrast, voluntary poverty moves the focus from our own personal security to the well-being of the wider community. Building up a strong community provides a different kind of security, one based on mutual self-giving.
Traditional communities have always practiced this sort of mutual “insurance” by caring for those who fall on hard times. Building on and expanding these traditional practices, the followers of Christ built up a community in which nobody was in need. (Acts 4:32-35) When everyone shares, no one is hungry.
In the spiritual life, poverty and surrender also have communal implications. Self-righteous Christians tend to pass harsh judgments on their neighbors, while the scrupulous are too obsessed with their own spiritual state to care about others. But when we truly put God first in the spiritual life, we can reach out in love to assist our brothers and sisters. We are called to “Seek first the kingdom of Heaven”—and the kingdom of Heaven is Christ himself, along with his mystical body, the Church. Casting aside worldly wealth makes room in our lives for others, and spiritual poverty cuts through the engulfing fog of our own concerns. It allows us to accept God’s mercy, and in turn to bestow on others the merciful love we have received.
Cover Image: photo of St. Therese from the public domain
I’ve been taking a bit of a summer break from blogging and podcasting. In the meantime, I’ve been creating an online course that draws on the work of Fr. Thomas Dubay to outline the practice and theory of voluntary poverty. In particular, I tried to highlight connections between voluntary poverty and other aspects of the Catholic Faith.
I’m also hoping that this course will help to build more community among the readers of this site. Participants in the course are encouraged to interact in the comment box under each lesson and in the associated group chat.
The course can be used in a self-guided manner, at your own pace. You can join and access all the course material on the Smart Catholics website at this link: https://members.smartcatholics.com/courses/7633351/about
For those who prefer in-person discussion, the lessons of the course will also be the basis for a series of discussion meetings offered in collaboration with the Living Communion Initiative. (The Living Communion Initiative is a project of the Simone Weil Catholic Worker House; check out our interview with them for more information on their work.)
The meetings will be held on Mondays at 8 p.m. (EDT) from September 12th to October 17th. See the full schedule below. Note that the meetings on September 12th and October 3rd will be combined meetings with the First Monday gatherings of the Living Communion Initiative, and so will have a slightly different format than the others. If you can’t make all the discussion meetings, feel free to attend these two as stand-alone events. The other meetings will go into greater depth with a smaller group.
Contact me if you’d like to participate in the meetings, and I will put you on an email list to receive the zoom links and meeting reminders. Feel free to participate in the discussion meetings even if you haven’t finished all the course material. I will highlight the most important material for each meeting in the reminder emails.
- September 12th (Living Communion Gathering): The Theory of Voluntary Poverty, the Call to Love God and Neighbor. This meeting will be an overview of the first half of the course, sections 1 and 2, with a particular focus on lesson 1. It will focus on the call to “universal radicality”: we are all called to be saints, and we can’t keep any aspect of our lives separate from this call. In particular, the love of neighbor to which Jesus calls us has concrete implications for how we live our lives.
- September 19th: This meeting will cover the rest of section one, lessons 2-4 in the course. They are grouped together as “problems and presuppositions”: the presuppositions of the world on one hand, and the presuppositions of the Gospel on the other.
- September 26th: This meeting will cover all of section two, lessons 5-8 in the course. They are grouped together because they are all about what voluntary poverty is (and is not) and why the Church values poverty.
- October 3rd (Living Communion Gathering): The Practice of Voluntary Poverty, An Economy of Community. This will be another stand-alone meeting previewing the second half of the course. In particular, we will be discussing: Father Dubay’s “levels of radicality”; what voluntary poverty looks like for the laity; and the “economy of communion”.
- October 10th: This meeting will cover section three, lessons 9-10 in the course. They are outlining what, concretely, voluntary poverty demands.
- October 17th: This meeting will cover Sections four and five, lessons 11 and 12 in the course. These lessons cover how voluntary poverty applies to different states in life, the joy that poverty brings, and a final wrap-up of the course. There will be an opportunity to discuss what each participant learned from the course, and a discussion of practical applications of Fr. Dubay’s insights in daily life.
We all struggle with attachments. Such attachments can transform perfectly harmless or even commendable relationships and activities into spiritual hazards. That is why Christians are called to be detached. Without the freedom that detachment brings, we will be unable to follow Christ in a sacrificial way.
In a way, the modern world is very detached. The average American moves frequently, leaving behind family, friends, and neighborhood to start fresh in a new location. Friendships tend to last only during a particular phase of life; college friends are likely to drift apart as life goes on. We’ve become much less likely to make long term commitments of any sort.
Such rootlessness undermines the possibility of authentic community. The absence of community, in turn, makes a fully Christian life impossible. In this way, the rootlessness of the modern world erodes Christian practice. This leads to a seeming contradiction. The rootedness of community is a direct challenge to the rootless detachment of the modern world—and yet detachment is essential to the Christian life. Should Christians value the ties to particular people and places that are formed in community? If so, how are such ties compatible with Christian detachment?
The Identities Shaped by Love
Thinking about the nature of love and identity can help us to answer these questions. Our true identities are shaped by what we love. Casual acquaintances might know my name, and my hair color, and where I live; but they don’t really know “who” I am. To know “who” I am, they would need to know about my loves: my attachment to particular persons and places, my religious and social commitments, and even my hobbies and interests. All of these relationships represent different kinds of love.
Love is an inherently risky thing that is almost always accompanied by suffering. We suffer when those we love are harmed or threatened, because we’ve given our hearts to them. We are also willing to undergo suffering for the sake of love. “Compassion” literally means “suffering with”. Being near a suffering person is uncomfortable, since their suffering tends to “rub off” on us. Those who lack love tend to move away when another is suffering, while those who love draw nearer in solidarity.
Our relationship with Christ is the ultimate source of our identity as Christians. Christ isn’t content to take second place in our lives; rather, he demands our whole heart and soul. We can’t wall this relationship off into a tidy category labeled “religion”, side by side with other categories labeled “work”, “politics”, “family”, and “sports”.
Given the all-embracing nature of the Christian identity, it might seem that we shouldn’t have any other loves or identities in our lives. It might seem that we shouldn’t give our hearts to anyone else, or at least that such gifts of love should be seen as merely an indirect way of loving Christ. For example, parents might participate in some game or other activity merely to show love for their children. They might privately think the game is boring and interminable, but go through the motions to please the children. Similarly, we might see human relationships as mere ways to please Jesus. He has told us that whatever is done for others will be taken as done for him. Obviously, we need to act in a generous and charitable manner toward all. But should we let our hearts become entangled in the messiness of mundane reality?
While some Christian thinkers have indeed disparaged natural human relationships, such disdain is not part of the authentic Christian tradition. Instead, we are called to truly love others. In doing so, we are imitating God himself. He loves creatures so fully and so intensely that they are maintained in being by his loving glance. There is no need for him to create; but he freely gives his love. In Jesus Christ, God even experienced the suffering that love so often entails. Out of compassion, he suffered in solidarity with his creatures.
Of course, we can love creatures inordinately; such inordinate love becomes an obstacle to the love of God. Our loves need to be properly ordered. But the heart has an infinite capacity for love. Just because we love created beings does not mean that we have less love “left over” for God.
Christian detachment does not oppose an excess of love; rather, it opposes a lack of love. The miser, for instance, is attached to his money; he hoards it carefully and refuses to give it away. The spendthrift, by contrast, is detached from his money; he scatters it about in a prodigal manner. We are supposed to be prodigal with our love. We should throw it about recklessly, just as God did when he created the universe.
Of course, such reckless love entails suffering—which is why we are tempted to avoid it! Giving our hearts to another is dangerous! Instead, we tend to give our hearts to others with a string attached. We try to drag hosts of other creatures about on such strings in a possessive manner, to inflate our egos and make ourselves seem bigger. By doing so, we avoid the risks and sacrifices that come with true self-giving. Such consumptive and possessive attitudes, however, have nothing to do with true love. It is this counterfeit love from which we are called to be detached. Detachment breaks the string and allows us to give love freely, without counting the cost or demanding a return.
Voluntary Poverty, Love, and the Christian Community
In fact, without detachment we are unable to love. Attachments are not solely an obstacle to loving God; they prevent us from freely loving anything. St. Francis of Assisi is the greatest Christian example of voluntary poverty. He gave away everything he had, so that he could freely follow Christ. For that very reason, he was able to love everything around him with a boundless exuberance. He was able to rejoice in things simply being themselves, without plotting ways to achieve dominance and mastery over them.
This highlights the difference between modern rootlessness and Christian detachment. Modern detachment is actually an attachment to the power and freedom of the self. The modern world tells us to carefully remain detached from anything that would hamper our individual freedom of choice. The modern world opposes commitments and roots in favor of self-seeking and so-called “self-realization”. For this reason, our society promotes “freedom” from connections to family and community, and even from religious and marital ties, to protect the free choice of the individual from any exterior constraints. Christian detachment, by contrast, is all about giving oneself to others. We’re called to be detached from our possessions so that we can give them to the poor. We’re called to be detached from our own will for the good of others. Both in religious life and in Christian matrimony, detachment is paradoxically expressed by binding oneself.
We can see how different these two attitudes really are by looking at the differing results. As we’ve already noted, Christian detachment leads to monasticism, life-long marriage, and care for the poor. It promotes care for creation because it leads individuals to see the natural world as something inherently worthy of respect, rather than as something merely intended to serve individual desires. It leads to thriving local communities because Christian detachment promotes unselfish love and cooperation. At the same time, it also leads individuals to leave their own communities and families to bring the good news of the Gospel to the poor.
By contrast, the modern kind of “detachment” leads to a breakdown both of the family and of monastic life. It creates a mass of isolated and disconnected individuals, each pursuing individual goals and personal satisfaction. Family breakdown leads to the warehousing of the elderly in “old folk’s homes”. A lack of care and love for the gifts God has given ends up covering the landscape with landfills. Local communities wither away and can no longer support individuals through times of crisis and need.
Love in the Christian Community
Christ didn’t come to teach ethical principles, but rather to found a community: the Church. In the Gospels, he uses the analogies of a vine with branches and a head with members to portray this community. We’re supposed to be as tightly joined to Christ and to one another as the members of a living organism are bound to one another. Obviously, we wouldn’t want the members of our bodies to be “detached”! Rather, we want the members of our bodies to work together for the good of the whole. The New Testament also uses the analogy of a building to describe our unity with one another. If the elements of a building are detached from one another, the structure falls into ruin. In the concrete reality of a local Christian community, we can practice detachment from our own egos so that, like living stones, we can become attached to one another in the spiritual temple of God. (cf 1 Peter 2:5)
Moving van picture by amy gizienski, CC BY 2.0
Perhaps the greatest teaching of the Second Vatican Council is the universal call to holiness. It is, at least, the key to properly understanding the Council, according to Fr. Gaitley’s book The One Thing is Three. What does following this call look like in the modern world? Is it really possible to be a saint in suburbia?
The Little Way of the Morning Offering
Holiness does not consist in grand gestures or extraordinary deeds. Instead, for most of us holiness consists in quiet fidelity to the duties of our state in life. We are called to follow what St. Therese called her “little way”: doing small things with great love. Feeding one’s children, the performance of daily tasks, and casual interactions with others can all become transformed if we do them through, in, with, and for Christ. This is the meaning of the Offertory of the Mass. We offer ourselves along with the bread and wine, to become transformed through God’s grace. In popular Christian piety, this is reflected in the beautiful practice of the Morning Offering prayer.
Concentration Camps, Arms Manufacturing, and the Local Grocery Store
What if one’s daily duties, however, were totally incompatible with the Christian life? As a friend of mine put it, what if one worked as a guard for a Nazi concentration camp? Obviously, it would be absurd to attempt the consecration of such a life by offering it to God.
None of us are engaged in such blatant evil. And yet, there is good reason to wonder if our daily lives can truly be consecrated to the honor of God. What if one works for Northrop Grumman or Lockheed Martin building drones and missiles that our military will use in ways that contradict Catholic Just War theory? What if one works for an insurance company that provides coverage for abortions, or a government agency that advocates for abortion? What if one works for a credit card company or bank that lends money at usurious interest? What if one works for a fossil fuel company that contributes to climate change and the flooding of villages on the other side of the world? Or a so-called “Green” energy company whose lithium and cobalt mines are destroying lives in the Global South?
Quite apart from the dubious nature of so many jobs in the modern world, what if one’s daily routine includes buying produce harvested by exploited migrant workers? Their cries reach the Lord of Hosts, as St. James tells us. What if the clothes one buys cost the life of a sweatshop worker in Bangladesh?
Indeed, all of our work, all of our lives are to some extent destructive. I’m just as much trapped in this as anyone else. I work in graphic design, producing periodicals that make a quick journey from printing press to landfill. What a trivial and irresponsible use of the world’s finite resources, when so many people are going hungry! I contribute to the “great symbol drain”: the over-utilization and consequent misuse of religious imagery. Try as I might, I can’t always avoid funding evil through my purchases. What are we to do with our terribly flawed lives?
The Kingdom of God in our Daily Lives
For most of us, the answer is not to drop everything and “flee to the fields” or “head for the hills”. We have families and commitments that we can not break. We are trapped: in a certain sense, we are prisoners of the systems of evil we can’t escape. And yet we can’t give way to complacency. We can’t surrender to the systems which have imprisoned us. I think the answer must be threefold.
If we feel trapped, we can offer that up for all the other people who are trapped in worse positions. We shouldn’t fall into the mistake of thinking that just because we are trapped we are somehow unable to follow Christ. Christ himself was “trapped” in unjust situations throughout his life. Our situation does not absolve us from doing the small things with great love. The Morning Offering is still relevant, along with all the works of unpretentious virtue that it implies. We should see our offering not as a consecration of the social evil in our lives, but rather as a share in the sorrow of Christ weeping over the evil and ruin of his city.
As Father Simon Tugwell writes in The Beatitudes:
That is often the way it is in life. Life in this world is a trap. Over and over again we find ourselves in situations which constrain us, and there is no true escape. We daydream of ideal choices, but we have to live with and in the trap. We are trapped in working conditions or personal relationships which bring out the worst in us, we are trapped in the consequences of our own or others’ past misdeeds or follies, we are trapped in the social and economic systems in which we live. We have only the mammon of unrighteousness with which to invest for eternal life.
The resulting sense of powerlessness is one of the major psychological pains of our time, and it can easily lead us to despair.
The answer that the Gospel gives is an austere one … It is not by fretting and flapping, but by bearing the cross of our helplessness and frustration, in union with Christ bearing his cross, that we shall find any genuine power for a more satisfying life.
To offer our situation up in solidarity with others who are oppressed by modernity, we need to stay aware of what is happening and not shrink back. It can be more comfortable to ignore the evil in our world, but we can’t give in to that temptation. If this is our cross to bear, as Father Tugwell says, we should experience the pain of it. We have to think about the sweatshop workers, the migrant laborers, the peasants starving after their crops were destroyed by climate change, and the victims of our unjust wars. We should spend time in prayer for and with the suffering and oppressed of the world.
Part of this remembering can consist in small but concrete practices that put us in solidarity with others. Voluntary poverty can play a part in this. So can practices such as refusing to buy items made in China or other countries that lack labor protections. To the extent possible, such practices should be used to distance ourselves from the benefits of oppression. Our “101 Ways to Change Your Life” list provides a range of suggestions for such small changes in lifestyle.
Such small changes and such awareness will help to keep the longing for a better world alive in our hearts. Faithfulness in small things will pave the way for the ability to be faithful in greater things if God wills it so. Ultimately, we long for the coming of Christ, but also for the coming of his reign of peace in the here and now. We need to keep such longing alive so that when the chance comes, we are ready to change our lives to better reflect the Gospel.
Such chances revolve around the power of community. An isolated family is only able to do so much. But if we gather with others who share similar longings, we can begin to escape the reign of sin in our modern world. Together, we can start taking concrete steps toward establishing the reign of Christ in our lives.
Image of downtown Denver by R0uge; CC BY-SA 4.0
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.
Over the past ninety years, the American economy has grown dramatically. It is now 19 times larger than it was in 1930. Its growth is exponential; it is doubling at a more or less fixed rate, which means its absolute growth rate is rapidly increasing. In fact, our economy needs to grow to stay alive; without growth, it crashes. (COVID-19 has temporarily halted, and even reversed, economic growth; it remains to be seen if the economy will “recover” in the coming years.)
This need for growth is problematic in a number of different ways. Most fundamentally, we live on a finite planet, and anything that has to grow forever will eventually run into limits of some sort. In this essay, I want to consider a particular question: how does a growing economy affect the development and existence of communities, whether intentional or organic?
To answer this question, we need to answer another one: why does the economy grow? There are a number of causes driving economic growth. For one thing, our population is also growing. There are more people in the United States today than there were in 1930, and so there are more workers and more demand for goods and services. This population growth isn’t a complete explanation for our economic growth, however; while our economy today is 19 times larger than it was in 1930, our population is less than three times larger than it was in that year. Another reason for this growth is that living standards have risen. Some of this rise is beneficial, since it involves people obtaining better access to basic necessities. This rise, however, is also insufficient to explain the growth of the economy. Even before the disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, homelessness was on the rise, and 10% of American households were experiencing food insecurity, and yet the economy was growing rapidly.
Much of the growth in the modern economy is driven by two factors: increased desires, and commodification.
In our society, we’re constantly bombarded by advertising, and we experience social pressure to “keep up” with the increasingly consumptive lifestyle of those around us. This pressure can make us desire all kinds of things beyond what is necessary for a dignified human life.
Houses today are much bigger than they used to be; while 70 years ago the average new home had 983 square feet of floor space, the average new home in 2020 had 2333 square feet. This extra space is a vacuum crying out to be filled with consumer items of all sorts. In fact, many Americans now find that the space available to them is too small, and the personal storage industry, which hardly existed 70 years ago, has ballooned dramatically.
Fashion contributes to this growth of desires, causing perfectly good clothes and other items to be discarded in favor of the latest and greatest. Software is continually updated, cars are traded in, and “dated” appliances and countertops are scrapped.
Disposable items, mostly made of plastic, are ubiquitous in the United States, and promote economic growth by replacing more durable goods. In general, the faster a given item moves from the store shelf to the landfill, the more the economy grows.
“Economy” literally means “the management of the household”. It is how households and societies support themselves. In this sense, vegetables grown in the backyard for personal consumption are part of the economy, as is the work of a child watching younger siblings. Goods and services of this type, however, are not counted toward the GDP of the formal economy. One of the major ways that the formal economy grows is through commodification, by turning social “capital” of this sort into financial wealth. A good example of this is entertainment. In past times, entertainment was a relatively small proportion of the formal economy; people made most of their own entertainment for free. Now, entertainment has become a multi-billion dollar industry, increasing the size of the economy. There are many similar examples in other areas of the economy; in the past, most cooking, mending, and child care was performed by the informal, social economy instead of by the formal financial economy. Even the basic social interaction of conversation is becoming commodified by social media platforms that see us as an audience for advertising. Every time a social interaction is replaced by a financial transaction, the economy grows.
This growth produces constant disruption on many different levels. People move across the country as the economic prospects in a given location change. Factories are torn down for homes. Farms become suburbs, and suburbs, in turn, are bulldozed to make room for expanding city centers. Businesses have become ephemeral. Even large businesses now have an average lifespan of only 18 years, and small businesses are even more transitory. Whole industries and the skill sets they require quickly become obsolete. This churning disruption boosts economic growth even further.
Effects on Community
It should be fairly obvious that this growth damages community, both directly and indirectly. Commodification in particular destroys the opportunity for community building. There is a certain trade-off: home cooked meals build community better than fast food meals eaten on the go, but the latter produce more economic growth. Increasing desires make it harder to stay in one place and put down roots, since our society penalizes those who are unwilling to be both geographically and socially mobile. The indirect effects of growth are also detrimental; no community can develop if everything is in a state of constant flux.
To build community, we need to push back against the drivers of economic growth. It is literally a matter of life and death. The economy needs to grow, or it will die. If we let the growth machine drive us, its hunger will eat up every scrap of social connection in our lives. The process may make us wealthy (if we’re among the lucky ones who end up on top) but it will leave us spiritually and socially dead.
On the societal scale, those with the skills and aptitude to do so should pursue the transition to a steady-state economy not dependent on growth. We’ve come to see exponential growth as normal, but in a wider historical sense it is deeply abnormal. There are other ways to structure an economy.
We don’t need to wait for social transformation, however. We can reign in our desires by embracing the Christian virtue of voluntary poverty. We can resist the pull of hyper-mobility and the restlessness of the modern world in our personal lives. Perhaps most importantly, we can reverse the trend toward commodification. By working together, making music, cultivating conversation, tending gardens, repairing homes, and enjoying meals, we can knit the severed threads of community life back together.
Postscript: At first glance, it seems that economic contraction also destroys communities. I’ve seen this play out firsthand in the Rust Belt. The reason for such destruction, however, is that economic growth had already destroyed older, non-commercialized ways of life. In a sense, the devastation seen when the economy declines is simply a revelation of the preexisting, underlying destruction.
Our current economic growth appears to be unsustainable. It is very likely that many local communities will face economic contraction in the future. This contraction will be destructive, unless communities can band together, reject the narratives of growth, and find non-commercial, community-based ways to meet their needs.
Port image by Fatlouie CC BY-SA 3.0