Ruled by economics

Background image by HealthWyze from Pixabay

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.

God vs. mammon, indeed.

“New humanism”

This seems like such a simple quote. I was going to let it stand without commentary, but I realized that this is really the essence of the convictions of all Christians who are passionate about social justice. To be a Christian is to care, in a self-emptying, physical, sacrificial way, for others. And to recognize that the things we do now have ripples down through history, on generations not yet born.

This quote expresses why we have a responsibility to act on environmental issues, on racial issues, on issues of poverty and inequality–the whole range of questions that are the most uncomfortable to address, because they challenge cherished ideals of self-reliance and rugged individualism.

Authors of the culture

I absolutely love this quote. WE are the creators of our culture. Holding ourselves apart from it, putting ourselves in a bubble to protect ourselves from the evils of the world, is actually an abdication of our job. We’re supposed to leaven the world by being part of it. By influencing it. Not by hiding from it.

That also doesn’t mean we take a combative stand to everything in the culture. By being part of it, we can shape it. If all we do is criticize it and not participate, we give over our chance to make it better.

Stay-at-home motherhood: is it really the only Godly route?

Disclaimer: I’m a big believer that faith is never easy, and if it is, it almost certainly means you’re not digging deep enough. If you think you have it all figured out, you’re probably more pharisee than seeker.

When I started Intentional Catholic, I knew I couldn’t just ignore the bits of the documents that are hard for me to swallow. So I admit it: this is one of them.

Certainly the most “traditional” among us believe very strongly that moms should be in the home, always and forever. But that second half of the quote, about not underrating legitimate social progress, seems to indicate that even the bishops had to wrestle with how rigidly to hold that principle.

Because if a woman’s rightful place is in the home as long as she has children, the reality is she will ONLY have a place in the home. The reality of the world is that one cannot have children, raise them in isolation from a professional career, and then blithely step into the workplace at age 45 or 50.

As crazy as my life is—as stretched-thin as I am by the various irons I have in the fire—I recognize how incredibly blessed I am that my gifts & passions lend themselves to working from home. But my situation is the exception, not the norm. God gives women gifts just as he gives men; surely He means for them all to be used? Surely they were all given for a purpose in the divine plan. Yes, mothers have something irreplaceable to give to their children, but does it necessarily follow that that gift can ONLY be expressed by staying home?

Also, the male-dominated professional world really suffers from the lack of the feminine gifts—peacemaking, teamwork, empathy come to mind; I’m sure there are others. Those, too, are gifts given by God for a purpose.

I know families in which the father is the one with the gift for homemaking, and it works beautifully. I also know families who move Heaven and Earth to work opposing schedules so they share the tasks of breadwinning and child care.

I’ve heard it said many times that stay-at-home-mom is a pretty new invention, one enjoyed only by the wealthy. I’m not able to confirm this quickly, but it tracks with knowledge of women working in clothing factories and washing houses in earlier times. If you think of moms at home pre-industrial revolution, they were growing vegetables and preserving, baking bread and sewing clothes for the family.

And if you are tempted to say, “Well, duh, that’s what you do when you stay home,” I’d remind you that at the same time the husbands were working fields and raising livestock, also at home. Home and work were the same thing for EVERYONE in the agricultural era.

And in the industrial age, how many of those wealthy at-home moms employed other women as wet nurse, nanny, and tutor? So they were home, but they still weren’t really raising their own kids. Plus, that picture reveals even more women working outside the home in an era we tend to idealize as the era of SAHMs.

So all in all, I think we have a tendency to oversimplify this whole picture of what a mother’s domestic role is, and what it means to safely preserve it. A mother does have a unique place in her children’s heart and in their upbringing. But it doesn’t follow that if she goes to work outside the house, that role is being discarded.

I have a family member who works full-time and points out that being a working mom does NOT mean work is more important. When kids are off school or sick, they frequently camp out in her office all day. When she can’t work it another way, she sacrifices work time. “I am always a mom first,” she says.

A lot of this reflection is not strictly faith-related, but many times general expressions of faith—i.e. “we are all given unique gifts by God for a specific purpose”—require us to get down in the weeds on practical things to see how that principle can or should be lived out in the real world.

To Live With Abundance

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.

Scrupulousness

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.

A Trip Down Memory Lane

Last night, I cuddled up with my youngest to do First Communion homework. In the Dynamic Catholic sacramental prep book, there’s a page of cartoon character saints, and I started telling him the stories—what we know and what are legends about them. One of the saints was John Paul II.

I had to leap up and go get this:

When I was five years old, my parents packed me, my big sister, my little sister, and both my grandmothers into an RV and drove to Iowa to attend the Pope’s Mass.

Here’s what I remember: it was a really, really, really long walk to the bathrooms. And they were porta potties.

Yup, that’s all I remember.

But I’ve always treasured this book. I love pulling it out to show the kids the snapshots my mom glued into the front cover, and the letter I got when, evidently, I wrote a letter to Pope John Paul II afterward. (I don’t remember that, either.)

I don’t think about that Mass very often, because we were far, far away and I was short and I probably saw none of it. But in the years since, I made a really good friend who lives in Des Moines, and the first time I visited, I recognized their diocesan symbol as the one from the cover of my book. I got unreasonably excited.

And last night, when for the first time I actually started reading the book (rather than just the handwritten note on the inside cover), I realized I now know something about the place where the Mass was held. We haven’t made it to Des Moines’ Living History Farm yet, but I know right where it is from past trips.

I was also startled to read the words “rural life” in the invitation sent to the Pope. (“Possibly one of the most young and enthusiastic groups of representatives in the Church in America today is our own rural life people.”)

I only encountered Catholic Rural Life five years ago, when it was spoken well of in conversations with NFP contacts living in Ohio. I learned that this organization espouses a beautiful and very Catholic view of the relationship between us and the earth. Unfortunately, no one in my highly agricultural state has started a chapter. Being a farm kid myself, this makes me sad.

It’s striking to me, as an adult reading this book about an event I have only the haziest memory of, how strongly the vision of Catholic Rural Life was woven into that Mass. Repurposing wood from a corn crib to make the altar, building an “asymmetrical” platform for the altar so as to work with the contour of the land, and so on.

I suppose the reason I’m sharing these thoughts today is that it was really affirming to see that John Paul II, the darling of traditional Catholics, tied himself so closely in this event to a movement that prioritized stewardship of the earth. The false dichotomy between “traditional” or “conservative” Catholicism and care of the earth is a source of great grief to me; I can’t fathom why people deny climate change and resist the Church’s consistent teaching about societal responsibility to ensure environmental stewardship. But it’s especially baffling in the rural community, who would (one would think) be more in tune with the land. Yet it seems like rural areas are the center of resistance to climate action.

It was lovely to see that at least in the pope’s Iowa visit, there was no false dichotomy between “traditional” Catholicism and stewardship of the earth.

Consumer culture: Is it possible to opt out?

Image by Eduardo Davad from Pixabay

Bear with me, because you may think I’m posting this on the wrong blog.

Friday night, I went to an Asian grocery store to buy boba pearls. Outside stood a group of three young people, chatting in what I presume was Chinese over a grocery cart full of white plastic bags. It was a beautiful night, and I glanced over at them as I walked in. My eye caught on the gorgeous dress one of them was wearing. Red, with white and black trim, fitted without being slinky, worn over black leggings. I thought, “I want to shop where she bought that dress.”

And I had this moment of crystal clarity: I hate American fashion. Every outfit I’ve admired in the past 4-5 years has been from Asia or Africa.

For months, I’ve been searching for a handful of clothing items to serve a particular purpose. I’ve bought nothing, because I can’t find anything I like. Not in the consignment stores where I start and not in the big box stores.

I have a handful of things sitting in my Amazon cart, but you know what? They all ship from China. Which brings me back to the post I wrote a couple weeks ago: how we ignore unpleasant realities about the way our food and goods are produced, because acknowledging those realities would mean admitting that many, maybe even most, of the things we enjoy are made cheap on the backs of people in poor working conditions with extremely low wages.

A friend of mine found this train of thought troubling. If this is true, how do we live faithful life? What if we can’t even survive without participating in some way in a system that harms others? What if the system is so pervasive, we can’t escape it?

To which I add: if we could opt out, wouldn’t we actually increase the misery of the poor, because whatever income they do make is more than they’d make if we stopped buying?

The world is full of good things, and I want to enjoy them: chocolate, a good book, and my backyard patio set all give glory to God, the maker of the raw materials and the giver of the human creativity used to shape raw materials into wonderful things.

But it’s hard not to wonder if I should be diverting every penny I spend on these things to people fighting for little more than survival.

Into this mix dropped the weekend readings:

How long, O LORD? I cry for help
but you do not listen!
I cry out to you, “Violence!”
but you do not intervene
.

And God’s reply:

The vision still has its time,
presses on to fulfillment, and will not disappoint;
if it delays, wait for it,
it will surely come, it will not be late.

Habakkuk’s pain is so familiar. The world is such a mess. We just want God to fix it already.

But how can we yell at God for not acting to alleviate the injustices at work in the world? We’re the ones who enact the injustices, not God. The only way they get un-enacted is “if today you hear God’s voice, harden not your hearts.” In other words, learn to recognize injustice and then DO something about it.

But the obstacles to doing something seem insurmountable. I’m a big believer in pebbles and ripples. I throw my pebble in the pond, you throw yours, and the guy down the street throws his, and eventually things change.

But it’s not satisfying. Waiting is hard. Waiting leaves us conscience-stung in that no-man’s land between the good things of the world and the knowledge of who’s actually paying the price for them.

And maybe, in the end, that’s the only takeaway: that while we are in the world, we have to accept that we are never going to have the answers—we’ll always be wrestling with what is versus what could or should be. We’ll always be looking for that balance between enjoying the world God gave us and recognizing the ways in which we are called to act. Even if it requires sacrifices we don’t want to make.

Simple Living

One of the things I love about Laudato Si’–and all the documents I am mining, in fact–is how lessons about the primary topic apply in so many other, seemingly unrelated, areas of life. Take this one. It’s about living more sustainably, but his point is that the chasing after the wind that is the consumption culture (new phone! Better streaming service! New clothes!) leads to being unsatisfied with life–skipping along the surface without ever really sinking into the moment. This resonates with me so deeply. It applies to the pursuit of physical goods as well as one’s reach and influence. You can imagine how much that topic preoccupies someone with an online ministry. Stats! Followers! Shares! Engagements! SEO!

But it also applies to being too busy, trying to gorge on everything on the buffet table of life instead of choosing and savoring. We all recognize this as a perennial problem we face in modern life.