WOW. Isn’t this the truth? Hasn’t the truth of this been smeared all over Facebook and Twitter the last, well, a long time, but especially the last four to five years?
The context of this quote (which actually comes from one of Pope Francis’ homilies) is how the global economy has been trying to remove “human costs,” and to rely on free market to keep everything “secure.” The pandemic, he says, makes it clear that we have to worry about people again. At the end of the paragraph he talks about rethinking lifestyle and relationships–which is something we all experienced this past spring–and also societal organization, ending with a call to rethink the meaning of life.
I’ve been trying for several days to find the entry point to reflect on the first section of Fratelli Tutti’s Chapter One. Like many papal encyclicals, FT begins by laying out the problem. It seemed, Pope Francis says, that for a few decades the world was heading in a positive direction–greater peace and international cooperation; an understanding of where we’d been and why we didn’t want to go there again. But it’s been shifting in recent years. He calls out “myopic, extremist, resentful and aggressive nationalism” and individualist ideologies that shred the idea of “social sense.”
This whole section is rich with resonance to me: consumerism, corporations that succeed by feeding individualistic priorities, leading to a loss of the sense of human interconnectivity and even an understanding of history. (This is my best attempt to sum it up. Really, you just need to read it.) In such an environment, high ideals such as democracy, freedom, justice, unity, etc., become meaningless catchwords that can be abused by anyone. Hence, the quote above.
Pope Francis catches a lot of flak in some quarters for being “liberal;” as far as I’m concerned, passages like this disprove that. To me, this sounds like the same conservative rallying cry that permeated my childhood. For decades, popes have been warning that when big conglomerates control the narrative of the world, it’s bad for us. Certainly, in my conservative Catholic upbringing, Hollywood and the music industry were the focus of this criticism.
I think we’re getting ready to hear that those targets aren’t the only ones–just the easiest to call out.
I know this is kind of a long quote to process, so let me rephrase it to clarify why it struck me so forcefully. If we forget that our personal property has a “social dimension,” we’ll end up making an idol of it, making it all about ME and what I want. Getting resentful at the suggestion that the “social dimension” exists at all.
And when that happens, it’s easy for people to say, “See? This system of private property is corrupt. It doesn’t serve the common good.”
In other words, if we are too grabby about what’s MINE, it’s going to give people ammunition to suggest that the whole system is flawed.
The writers were undoubtedly thinking of giving ammunition to communism when they wrote this, but given the unpardonable and growing disparity between rich and poor these days–underscored by who gets COVID and who doesn’t; who has to put themselves at risk to go do low-income “essential” labor while the rest of us work safely from home–it seems like a pretty spot-on reminder for our day and age, too.
It’s been a hard slog, the last couple of months. Although Memeland USA has tried to lighten the mood by joking about it (my personal favorite was a picture of Doc and Marty, with the words “First Rule of Time Travel: Never go to 2020!”), the humor is only an attempt to bleed off some of the stress. Some among us are struggling financially because of lost income. Some because of the stress of illness or death–coronavirus-related or not–in a time when families can’t even gather to grieve. Some because mental health is hard to maintain in a time of anxiety and isolation.
That last was the struggle for me and my household. It took us a full month to get our equilibrium–which I achieved partly by counseling, partly by a 100% withdrawal from all news sources. And prayer, of course, but prayer guided me to those real-world solutions. Prayer is rarely a fix-all on its own. In prayer, God guides you to what *else* you need. God is the creator of science and psychology, after all.
I still have to be vigilant about mental health in certain quarters in my family, but I know we had it pretty easy compared to others. My Facebook feed is filled, top to bottom every day, with evidence that more people are still struggling than not.
I’ve started dipping a toe back in the news now, and the vehemence and acrimony of the protests against stay-at-home orders and masks are really striking. I heard a report this morning that in Stillwater, Oklahoma, a man threatened a business owner with a gun because he didn’t like the citywide requirement to wear a mask inside businesses. I mean, really? REALLY??
Full disclosure: I’m a flute player. Wearing a mask makes me feel like I’m suffocating. But I’m wearing them anyway, not when I’m outside, but when when I go to the grocery store or the hardware store. Why? Because I trust the medical authorities who say this is one small sacrifice we can make for the greater good.
That news story this morning just blew my mind. I don’t know what that man’s beliefs are. What I can say for certain is that his actions show a lack of respect for life and the Gospel. The Christian call is about self-emptying, about placing others’ needs ahead of our preferences.
And that’s my point for today. The whole point of being “intentional” about the faith is to take it out of the realm of the vague generalizations. It’s easy to talk in general about self-emptying, but the real test is what happens when you’re asked to make a sacrifice for others. Especially when you’re already struggling with loss of income or freedom of movement or mental health or loved ones.
For years, we in the religious community have criticized American culture for being hedonistic, for the idolization of instant gratification and “me, me, me.”
Those are totally just criticisms.
But the response to this pandemic shows that hedonism, instant gratification, and “me, me, me” is just as much a problem among religious people. (How many of those signs demanding an end to stay-at-home orders invoke God?)
This pandemic is nothing if not a series of opportunities to make sacrifices. When I think of people in Italy and Spain, who weren’t even allowed outside (because where would they go without encountering others?), it is abundantly clear to me that my stay-at-home order, which allows for biking and hiking and playing outside and taking walks in the neighborhood and going to the grocery store and on and on and on, is really a *very* small ask for the health of the community.
And now, as my community begins to open up–today, in fact–the discernments are going to get more complex. With schools and businesses closed, there wasn’t really anywhere to go, anyway. We had no choice but to honor the greater good by staying home.
Now, we have to start learning a new balance, because as important as “flattening the curve” was, economic motion is vital to the community, too.
But we can’t be cavalier about it. To be a Christian in this new reality means we have to think, rethink, and rethink again. All the rules and rituals we take for granted have to be re-examined. How do we best balance the safety of the community and the need to slowly expand exposure to this new virus, against the need to get the economy moving again so that everyone can regain the dignity inherent in work?
It’s inevitable that for the foreseeable future, we’re all going to have to give up things we’d like and deny ourselves things we’d like to do on our own schedule, but which now have to be planned around the greater good. It’s not going to be fun.
But we can view this as an invitation to grow in faith and holiness–by self-emptying, by doing the things we don’t like for the greater good.
Ever since “it’s the economy, stupid,” this has been how every issue is approached, both personal and societal. Who am I kidding? If the Vatican II bishops were talking about this, clearly it’s been this way since before the 1990s. But it’s impossible to escape the message these days. No matter what crisis is happening (coronavirus is one, but there have been plenty of other instances), the go-to response is always “how is it going to impact the economy?” As if that were the only–or even the most–important factor.
As a Catholic striving to put my faith above all else–far, far above money, which is supposed to be how we survive and do good in the world, not the defining factor of existence–I find this fixation problematic. We say we want to be a Christian nation, but that only holds as long as the topic is some moral issue that costs me nothing, because it doesn’t impact me personally. As soon as it’s a Gospel directive that affects *my* pocketbook, it’s a whole different story.
How many times have I read this Scripture passage and never noticed before? I always stopped with learning how to live in humble circumstances. Why on earth would there be anything to learn about living with abundance?
But there is. When you live with abundance, there’s more temptation: temptation to hoard; temptation to resent the imposition when the call of the Gospel means you have to let others have more of “your” wealth; temptation to get priorities out of whack and give too much importance to wealth and its trappings; temptation for preservation of wealth to become the deciding factor in every discernment.
It’s a huge temptation on a personal level that simply doesn’t exist if you have nothing. When you have nothing, there’s little moral dilemma surrounding money.
This also really resonates at the policy level. In America, there’s a lot of “temptation for preservation of wealth to become the deciding factor.” Virtually everything in American politics is a money-first discussion. It doesn’t matter if it’s right; it only matters if one side or the other sees an initiative as a an economic boon or difficulty. We renegotiate trade deals in our favor, even if the only way they can possibly be honored is for us to get more and someone else to get less. We decide environmental policy by cheapness and the perception of preserving status-quo jobs rather than by the damage to the earth and the ripple effect that will have on future generations. The foundation of discussions of health care is not the fact that it’s a basic need of human existence, but instead how much it’s going to cost, as if cost, rather than need, is the primary question.
We have abundance in America, but we haven’t figured out how to live with it. Not well, at least.
I tend to view it as a sin, although a web search this morning seems to indicate that it’s more a cross to be borne. But I think Catholics in general are particularly susceptible. I would argue that scrupulousness is a big part of “Catholic guilt.”
Once I was sensitized to this tendency in myself, I saw it cropping up all over the place. It may not be a sin, but the inevitable fallout of scrupulousness is a rush to judge anyone who doesn’t share whatever I think is the right way to look at the world, and to place rigid expectations on others that constitute a heavy burden on people prone to scrupulousness–which, as I said, I think is many of us.
I would argue that scrupulousness plays a big part in a lot of the no-compromise fights we have within the Church–the political ones, yes, but also the liturgical ones (and many others). Most recently it’s struck me in the arguments about texts of liturgical songs–an assumption that because I read a particular text fragment in a certain way, a song is inarguably heretical, even though thousands of other people may find great spiritual benefit in it, and great potential for growth in holiness, because they don’t interpret that text fragment the same way I do.
For a long time, because I myself was very conservative and all my scrupulousness was about doing the right things (which were always conservative values), I thought scrupulousness was only a problem conservatives have. As I got better at combating my own scrupulousness, I began to move to the center, and that seemed to confirm my assumption.
But I was wrong. These days I am more likely to suffer from scrupulousness about environmental issues. It’s never enough. And I am VERY judgy about other people’s lack of environmental stewardship.
But the example that sparked this post was this: In the midst of my great world view shift, a quote kept cropping up over the course of months–I can’t find it anymore, but it was something like, “Your money doesn’t belong to you, it belongs to the poor.” It was attributed to a pope. No arguing with that!
The obvious conclusion to draw from this quote is: anything I do to save money is a sin. I have no right to enjoy the things of the world as long as poverty exists. I should never go out to a nice dinner, I should never take a trip to see the wonder of the world, I should never own jewelry–because as long as people are suffering, “my” money doesn’t belong to me. Also, I pointed it at conservatives who don’t like taxes.
It was a big struggle. I told myself that religious figures exaggerate to shock their listeners into doing something for the poor. But that didn’t help, because of who we hold up as the ideal of Christianity: Francis of Assisi and Katherine Drexel, rich people who did give away everything they had; Mother Teresa, who lived in abject poverty for decades; the fact that to this day, a lot of religious orders take a vow of poverty. A papal quote + the body of evidence of what the Church holds up for honor made it hard to draw any other conclusion than the Church intends us to be poor rather than rich.
Even Robert Barron used that quote once.
I tried for a long time to find the exact verbiage, but couldn’t find it anywhere. Then one day, someone attributed it to Rerum Novarum #22. Finally! I went to look it up.
Guess what? Rerum Novarum 22 does NOT say I am obligated to give every single penny I don’t absolutely need for my bare survival to the poor. Here’s what it actually says:
It’s also worth noting that St. Basil the Great is a little more blunt on the topic of our responsibility to the poor:
(Note: I have not checked that quote, for what it’s worth.)
In the end, we all have to wrestle, to try to find a balance between enjoying with gratitude the good things of the earth (which are, after all, made by God), and hoarding the wealth that allows us to do so, thereby sinning by not helping those who suffer.
I love this passage so much. It makes me chuckle, because it’s so dead-on, and it’s not couched in airy-fairy language. “Irksome,” indeed! That’s a dead-on assessment of the reaction these concerns usually get. People are irked at having to think about them.
This whole section of Evangelii Gaudium is talking about economic systems and the need to make sure they are truly equitable and provide for the poor. It’s a procession of plain-speaking, conscience-pricking paragraphs: welfare should be considered a temporary solution, the dignity of the human person should shape all economic policy, inequality is the root of social ill, we can’t trust the market to do this work, and on and on. It’s so good. Take time to read it!
First of all, let me just say I recognize how challenging this quote is. This idea stands 100% in opposition to our American cultural values.
However, if we are citizens of Heaven first and America second–as should be the case for all who call ourselves Catholic–then we have to accept the challenge in these words.
Interestingly, they are *not* Pope Francis’ words. They are the words of Pope Paul VI (he of Humane Vitae fame) from an apostolic letter called “Octogesima Adveniens,” dating from May 1971. I haven’t read the whole letter, but this is the full paragraph Pope Francis quoted from:
Through the statement of the rights of man and the seeking for international agreements for the application of these rights, progress has been made towards inscribing these two aspirations in deeds and structures (16). Nevertheless various forms of discrimination continually reappear – ethnic cultural, religious, political and so on. In fact, human rights are still too often disregarded, if not scoffed at, or else they receive only formal recognition. In many cases legislation does not keep up with real situations. Legislation is necessary, but it is not sufficient for setting up true relationships of justice and equity. 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.
Pope Paul VI, Octegesima Adveniens, #23
There’s so much to unpack in that. “Legislation is necessary, but it is not sufficient for setting up true relationships of justice and equity.” Legislation, in other words, needs to happen, but we have to go beyond it.
And “renouncing rights” means what? Perhaps we could read that as a call to be less tax-averse. Perhaps we could read it as a call to be less inclined to hoard, judging others as unworthy, requiring them to prove they don’t need what we have to offer before we’re willing to give it to them.
“A renewed education in solidarity…” Solidarity is a word a lot of us associate with Lech Walesa, but it’s something we’re all called to–to enter into the pain of others, to make it our own. (Read Shannon Evans’ book Embracing Weakness. She broke open solidarity for me in a way I still haven’t figured out how to incorporate into my real life.)
“individualism in which each one claims his own rights without wishing to be answerable for the common good.” That one explains itself.
A lot to think about here! Because again, we’re recognizing that evangelization is not narrowly defined as walking around talking to anything with a heartbeat about Jesus Christ. Evangelization is something that encompasses all of real life. Because who will listen to us when we talk, if our view is so narrow we can’t see the forest for the trees?