There’s been an uptick recently in the expression of a point of view that suggests that since we are citizens of Heaven, not earth, we should not pay attention to earthly suffering or strive to alleviate it. The Church says otherwise.
Today, on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, we Catholics focus in very narrowly on abortion. In our discussions and arguments about connecting public policy to our faith, this issue is always presented as the issue–the only one that matters, the one that overwhelms absolutely every other tenet of our faith. Nothing else matters, because without life, none of the rest of it could happen.
But as this excerpt shows, that is not how the bishops of the Second Vatican Council viewed the world. That is not how we are called to view the world.
Our commitment to sanctity of life doesn’t–can’t–stop with abortion. To do so is to betray who we are as Catholic Christians.
A few years ago, I’d never heard the term “scrupulousness.” My mother introduced me to it when I wrote a series on my personal blog about my struggles with anxiety. Now I think of it all the time–though simply recognizing it is a big step toward battling it.
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:
True, 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, “for no one ought to live other than becomingly.”(13) But, when what necessity demands has been supplied, and one’s standing fairly taken thought for, it becomes a duty to give to the indigent out of what remains over. “Of that which remaineth, give alms.” (14)Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum, 1891
(Note the date: eighteen ninety-one. This is not some uber-modern corruption of the Gospel. Note 2: the footnotes refer to the Summa theologiae and to Luke 11:14.)
Now, it’s important to recognize that this quote doesn’t give us a free pass to hoard money or to try to avoid paying taxes; it does NOT give us a free pass to store up wealth for our own pleasure, or for passing it on to kids, or whatever. The actual quote–like virtually everything the Church puts in writing–is nuanced to recognize the complexity of competing needs and factors. What this quote requires of us is that we discern honestly, prayerfully, what it means for us to “keep up becomingly” our condition in life.
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.
“Another self.” It’s hard enough to view others this way in family life. Half of Godly parenting–maybe three-quarters of it–is trying to get kids, who are supremely selfish beings, to recognize the other as not only equal to themselves, but “another self.”
But take this beyond the confines of those we already love, and it’s downright superhuman.
-the three people you most dislike in the world, you should view as “another self.”
–the people who are a continual thorn in our sides are “another self.”
–the people living in the woods and holding signs at intersections, whether they’re drug addicts or lazy or criminals or whatever assumptions we might be tempted to make about them, are “another self.”
–the refugee, asylum seeker, and yes, even the genuine “illegal alien” is “another self.”
And as a Christian it is my *job* to enable all these “other selves” to live with dignity. This is a conciliar document saying this, not one priest or one bishop. This is the Church speaking as clearly as the Church can speak.
Now, we can argue about what is the best way to enable human dignity. That’s a totally valid argument.
But those aren’t the discussions we’re having.
Instead, almost all our arguments are focused on whether we *should* help people–whether they *deserve* it and whether “there’s money” to do it. But let’s be honest: in America, there’s plenty of money to do what needs to be done. The argument is between those who think it can’t be done piecemeal, and should therefore be done at the level of society, i.e. through higher taxes and governmental administration, and those who think government is intrinsically evil and taxes are to be avoided at all costs–that charity should be entirely a private matter, even if that means many people will get missed.
This is the fundamental logjam in America today, and the trouble is that people on both sides view their own position on that question as universally-accepted truth–a settled reality. And so instead of figuring out how to strike a balance between personal rights and societal responsibility, we end up bickering about who does and who doesn’t deserve help. We start labeling asylum seekers as criminals, and conservatives as racists, and it all falls to pieces.
Our opponents, too, are “another self.”
The following quote is too long to put in a graphic, but it’s well worth putting at the center of our minds in an election year:
…there must be made available to all men everything necessary for leading a life truly human, such as food, clothing, and shelter; the right to choose a state of life freely and to found a family, the right to education, to employment, to a good reputation, to respect, to appropriate information, to activity in accord with the upright norm of one’s own conscience, to protection of privacy and rightful freedom even in matters religious.
This social order requires constant improvement. It must be founded on truth, built on justice and animated by love; in freedom it should grow every day toward a more humane balance. An improvement in attitudes and abundant changes in society will have to take place if these objectives are to be gained.Gaudium et Spes, #26
I doubt there’s a Christian out there who would argue with the sentiment expressed here, but in the context of globalization (a reality some embrace and others loathe, but inescapable reality either way), it does invite self-reflection.
Again and again in Scripture, from Cain saying, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” to the scribe asking “Who is my neighbor?” to the quotes referenced in the ellipses of this quote–Romans 13:9-10 and 1 John 4:20–it is clear that God’s definition of “love of neighbor” is bigger and much, much less comfortable than we’d like it to be. It requires self-emptying that we naturally resist. The supremacy of ego (my opinions, my right to judge) is hard to overcome, but it’s critical to living a Christian witness in an authentic and inviting way.
I always come down hard on memes and other click bait shares, but I hesitate to get down in the weeds. I worry that readers will get distracted by the specifics of a particular issue and miss the bigger picture. But the other day when I was praying about whether to respond to something I saw online, it came into my mind that I should blog about it instead. It’s easy to miss the ways in which the things we share conflict with Gospel values. Maybe a concrete example is in order.
Those of us brought up on the idea of raising ourselves up by our bootstraps are conditioned to leap to our feet and applaud sentiments like this, but it’s not a Christlike reaction.
Problem One: The Question of Living Wage Has Big Implications
The assumption here is that minimum wage is actually just fine where it is, that the problem is with the person’s motivation. But it’s been well documented that minimum wage is below a living wage in many parts of the country. (That link comes from investopedia, which is rated “least biased.”)
Why on earth would a follower of Jesus Christ champion a belief that there are, in fact, workers who do not deserve to earn a living wage? That would be like suggesting that there are, in fact, people who do not deserve to be born. I know a lot of people will protest the analogy, but human dignity is human dignity. Either we’re all made in God’s image, with the same basic dignity and the same basic needs, or we’re not. People who believe in the dignity of the unborn should be more, not less, protective of the dignity of human beings who are between womb and tomb.
There’s another abortion connection here. According to the above article, fast food workers tend to be low-income women, and this Market Watch article shows 75% of abortions are obtained by low-income women. (Market Watch is labeled “slight right bias,” so this is no liberal conspiracy.) If we want to help mothers choose life, the Christlike thing to do is advocate for higher wages, not belittle workers in low-paid industries, as this meme does.
Problem Two: Who Deserves a Living Wage?
The underlying assumption of this entire post is: the work done by people in fast food industry is, of and by its very nature, not deserving of earning a living wage. What makes a roofer or a surveyor so much more valuable than a person who prepares and serves your food?
Those who commented on that post kept saying fast food jobs are for high schoolers. But high schoolers are in, y’know, high school. Who’s supposed to work the breakfast and lunch shifts?
The reality is, as long as we, the American public, insist upon the convenience of fast food, fast food will always need adult workers. We want fast food to be cheap, and one of the easiest ways companies achieve that is by paying low wages. As long as we support that system by visiting the golden arches or the bell, we’re a big part of the reason it exists.
Side note: I’m really struggling with Amazon for the same reason. But that’s a whole different post. The point is that blaming the workers for being victims of a system we willingly and eagerly participate in is not Christlike behavior.
Problem Three: The Big Picture
Christians should have another problem with this post: the assumption that people are only in these jobs because they’re lazy. “Get a better job, if you don’t like your wage!”
This is an example of middle class (and probably white) privilege. I worked fast food, and this is precisely what I did. But I worked fast food while I was getting a good education to prepare me to trade up jobs, and while I was safely housed at home by people paying for my food, lodging, clothes, utilities, and everything else.
In other words, I had a lot of help pulling myself up by my bootstraps. For people like me, the “get a better job” argument works just fine.
But it should be eminently clear that in America, opportunity is NOT equal. For example, in education. How often do people pack up their entire lives and move because the school boundaries change and they think they’re about to get sent to the “bad school”? If that isn’t a tacit acknowledgment that educational opportunity is vastly uneven, I don’t know what is.
There are rich schools and poor schools because there are richer and poorer enclaves. Higher socioeconomic classes work very hard to avoid ending up on the wrong side of that equation. We work hard to avoid “bad” neighborhoods and suburbs and the people within them. We won’t live near “them” and we definitely won’t let our kids go to school with “them.” So our schools get the boost in funding that comes with high property values, and “their” schools don’t. Uneven, unequal. Done.
And for a lot of kids growing up in homes where life itself is a struggle, it’s a generational problem. It’s not that a kid can’t break out of that cycle–but they have to work a whole lot harder than you or I do to get half as far. Judging them for their failure is completely contrary to the Christian call.
Problem Four: The Big Picture, Part B
Finally, let’s talk about that theoretical guy who was theoretically challenged to get a theoretical job and theoretically said he wasn’t interested. Maybe this really happened, maybe it didn’t. But even if it did happen, leaping to the conclusion that this guy is just lazy is still unworthy of a follower of Christ.
Let’s say this man is 25 and has a wife and kid. He’s working 30 hours a week at McDonald’s (because jobs like that are rarely offered full-time, because full-time means offering benefits, which would raise costs). According to what I found when I searched “how to become a land surveyor,” the author was wrong; this job does require training–and a license. And is vastly helped by a solid educational foundation. When is this theoretical training? Is he going to have to ask off work for it? What if he has a second job, working 25 hours one place and 25 hours in another, and the training overlaps both? Is the training paid? If not, can he afford to ask off work to take it?
Where is the training? Is it far enough away that he’d have to work out transportation he doesn’t have? What if his wife has a job, too, and they work opposite shifts to avoid the cost of child care? What if both of them have to skip shifts in order to make this work? And if they’re living close to the bone, are they going to be able to survive until the training is done?
Then there’s the roofing example. What if he has foot problems? Equilibrium problems? A debilitating fear of heights? What if he’s not in good enough physical shape? Sure, he should get in shape, but that too requires time and very likely money (gym membership, anyone?). The author is presupposing that this man is exactly like him, and the only thing separating them is the motivation.
The point of this extremely long post is that these glib, judgy things we like to put hearts and thumbs-up on and share are way more complex in reality than they look on social media. As Christians, we should be looking for the total picture of justice, not pointing at the easy target while we are active participants in the systems that make upward mobility so hard on anyone who isn’t already above a certain threshold.
“Judge not, lest you be judged.” (Mt. 7:1)
I don’t think the word “globalization” was in use yet in 1965 (though I don’t know that for sure), but that’s exactly what this is talking about. Nationalism has surged as a backlash against the reality that we’re all connected, but it doesn’t negate the reality. We are all connected. Nowhere on earth is more than a commercial plane ride away. The bombs can drop anywhere. We can Skype with someone in Thailand or Malaysia or Ukraine or Antarctica instantaneously. Parts for our technology may be made in one country and the whole assembled in another, and get shipped to a third.
We are inextricably tied together. We can’t deny that reality, no matter how threatening it feels. In fact, the overwhelming majority of us buy into it implicitly by the way we depend on smart devices and online purchasing.
We are tied together now, and if injustices and suffering in one part of the world cause conflict, the ripples will spread outward and hit us, too. That’s what we see in the refugee crises of the last few years–Syrians fleeing to Europe and Central Americans to the U.S. border, to name the most obvious. We have to recognize that the history of U.S. involvement in Central America over the past decades contributed to the suffering there (a topic I only know a little about, but enough to be aware that cold-war-era anti-Communist efforts are a factor***, and the fact that MS-13 originated in L.A. and its members were deported; now they’re a big part of the mayhem now happening). Ergo, we can’t just close up our border and say “Nope, your problem.” First, because we helped create it, and second, because this is the reality of an interconnected world. Your problems are my problems, whether I like it or not.
And the thing is, this is what Jesus called us to do voluntarily, as part of the Christian call. Jesus’ response Cain’s flippant protest, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” was this:
“Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.” (Mt. 25:41)
Well worn, but hard to embrace.
And isn’t it amazing that Pope Paul VI and the bishops of the second Vatican Council could see all this in the mid-1960s, before any of this had taken place?
***I tried to do some good research on these contextual factors this morning so I could share reliable sources about them. What I discovered is that a) Fox news doesn’t talk about it at all, only left- and left-center-leaning sources; and b) it’s too complex for me to dive down the rabbit hole to understand fully in one morning when I have deadlines pressing. What it tells me, most of all, is that we as Americans (myself included) are sinfully negligent in understanding the conflicts and sufferings outside our own borders. So for today I am relying on the understanding of faithful Catholic friends who actually know about these situations.
Most ideas work in theory (i.e., in a perfect world). The question is, how do they interact when they bump into reality?
Take the idea of small government and low taxes: we should all be responsible for our own lives and fix our own problems. It makes perfect sense. In theory.
But here’s an example that shows things aren’t so straightforward when ideas butt up against reality.
For years, my daughter required extremely expensive orthotics to try to correct the “pronation” of her feet resulting from low muscle tone and loose ligaments. This is very common for people with Down syndrome. And when I say expensive, I mean $2000-$5000 per pair. Now, we never had to pay that bill, for two reasons: 1) we have great public insurance through my husband’s work, and 2) the county where we live has a dedicated tax to fund benefits for people with disabilities. Between those two realities, we were covered. Yay for us.
But what about the vast majority of people who have neither of those advantages? They just have to figure out how to pay $2-5000 for a pair of shoes, because individuals, unlike doctors’ offices and hospitals, aren’t allowed to negotiate lower rates with insurers.
It’s a heavy burden, and it’s only one example among many, where disability is concerned. Therapies are expensive, too. OT, PT, Speech. Heart surgery. Gastrointestinal surgery. The need for adult supervision long past the age it would normally be necessary.
You can see how easy it would be to receive a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome and be overwhelmed by the financial burden of raising this child. How easily these realities–which simply ARE; you can’t argue them away because they’re inconvenient–can be used to justify terminating a pregnancy. The burden is real.
This was one of the first realities that made it clear to me that the idea of small government, low taxes, and personal responsibility is not necessarily conducive to a culture of life. Sometimes, in fact, it will push us the opposite direction. This example shows how a centralized, universal health care system could, in fact, support a culture of life.
Countless Church documents over the years have stressed that government is meant to be a force for good. That it has a real role in making God’s justice manifest on earth. For generations, popes have been saying this.
But the modern counter-argument is that individuals and private charity can meet this need without requiring government intervention. So let’s take a look at how that idea plays out in reality.
First: outside of the families directly impacted, who even knows this need exists? (Did you?) How is the knowledge of that need going to reach the individuals and charities who might be able to meet said need?
But, for the sake of argument, let’s say someone does learn of the need, and creates an organization to meet it. The likelihood that they’re going to create a big charity with a wide reach is extremely low; the need is too specific. So at best, they’ll probably set up a charity that deals with their particular region. Yay for the kids in that region, but what about those in the next region over?
Best case scenario, someone else hears about it and sets up an organization there, too. Which means now we have two organizations, with two different leadership, doing the same job, competing for the same pot of charitable money. And meanwhile, the people three regions over still aren’t getting any help at all.
On the other hand, if this need were acknowledged and met through a publicly-funded entity–whether that’s something like the system in place in my county, or through a “Medicare for all” kind of national system–then we are actually being MORE efficient, because we have one administration, one funding stream, and one source.
Plus, we as a society are standing up and saying–with our pocketbooks–why yes, in fact, children with disabilities DO have value, they DO a right to be here, and to live fully.
It’s human nature to want to simplify the world, but the Gospel call has to be lived out in a messy reality. If we want to make any headway at all, we’re going to have to recognize that our ideas have to be “worked out,” as Pope Francis says, in the context of an immutable reality. That means being willing to listen to and learn from those impacted by any given issue, and to compromise with those who have different ideas on how to address the same problems.
Whether we are talking about the justification for raising or lowering taxes, the question of Dreamers and refugees, whether “voting prolife” must mean voting Republican or whether it can or should incorporate a larger view of the total life issues, or arguing over musical styles in worship, one thing is pretty much universally true: conflict gets ugly because we focus on issues instead of people.
Am I talking about the dignity of the person on the opposing side of the debate? Yes, but also the dignity of the people who are impacted by whatever issue we’re talking about. It’s much easier to look at issues as black and white, with no room for discussion or working together, when they are looked at in the abstract, rather than considering the real life people involved. When you start thinking about the dignity and well-being of refugees and Dreamers as beloved children of God, and of the Biblical call to be “our brothers’ keeper,” it becomes a lot less defensible to chant “build a wall” and tell Dreamers to go to the “back of the line.”
When we consider the dignity of the people involved, we have to look for solutions that take into account everyone, not just our own well-being. If we want to be a Christian nation, this is what we must do. It’s unsatisfying. Every one of us would be happier if the world laid itself out neatly in exactly the way we think it should. But we have to recognize that the world is flawed, and we’re not God. We can’t see the whole picture, and the only way we get anywhere close to seeing the big picture is by looking through the eyes of everyone else and figuring out how to set up the world to meet their needs as well as our own.
This is a lesson we learn as children: walk a mile in another’s shoes, see the situation through their eyes. Why do we stop thinking it matters when we reach adulthood?
Over the years I’ve fussed a lot about religious platitudes. In liturgical composers’ circles, we’re often urged to take out all the religious clichés and see if there’s anything left. (Often, there’s not.) In my own writing I’ve talked a lot about deadly generalizations in how we talk about the faith. When you talk big picture, everybody can get on board, because it doesn’t actually challenge us. It’s when we get into the nitty-gritty specifics that we start feeling defensive, which is not a guarantee, but at least a warning sign that we might be guarding an idol.
“The dignity of the human person AND THE COMMON GOOD,” Pope Francis says, are more important than coddling the comfort of the privileged people of the world.
I doubt most of us recognize ourselves as those privileged people, but I can just about guarantee that every person reading this right now is a member of that group, just as I am. I know my audience is basically white American and middle-class or higher. We don’t see ourselves as privileged, but we are. Living with oceans to protect us from the vast bulk of outside violence is a privilege. Living in a place where we have the right to go to church is a privilege. Living in a place where we have a government willing to step in and rebuild our homes in the face of increasing climate events is a privilege. Living in a place where we trust the police to be on our side is a privilege (and that one, not even all Americans share).
Giving up “comforts” could mean any number of things. It could mean paying more in taxes so as to better support education, social security, or a host of other things our faith calls us to support. It could mean curtailing certain gun rights so as to better protect the common good. It could mean something as simple as turning off your car while waiting in grocery store parking lots and pickup lines, and thereby accepting that you may have to sit under a tree and be hot in the heat, or turning off your car and just bundling up in the winter. It could mean being willing to live in proximity to people who make us uncomfortable. (People of different races, people of different education levels, people with disabilities, people who are poor or even homeless…you get the idea. Someday I’ll do a post about solidarity.)
I’m aware that everything I listed there is a challenge to conservatives. Anyone who would like to comment and leave parallel comforts to those who lean left, please feel free. I am trying to cram a lot of things into my days right now, and I don’t always have time to do real justice to these reflections. 🙂