Crisis recently featured a stimulating discussion on finances centered on Dave Ramsey’s principles of financial planning. The first piece by Richard Becker, “Of Dave Ramsey, Babies, and Birth Control,” contrasted Ramsey’s approach to finances with Catholic openness to life. The response by Stephen Herreid, “Dave Ramsey—Our Favorite Catechist,” countered by arguing that Ramsey’s principles are all the more important for Catholic families in order to plan wisely for their support.
I had begun writing a response to these pieces in light of Christ’s teaching on wealth in the Gospels, but as I was writing Pope Francis issued Evangelii Gaudium. Immediately after his election, he had already called for “a Church which is poor and for the poor!” (a line renewed in §198). Now he has provided us with much more insight into what that means. The question of wealth, and also its effects on the spiritual life, is really at the heart of the Apostolic Exhortation, as Francis lays out at the beginning:
The great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience. Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades. This is a very real danger for believers too (§2).
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For the laity, the question is intimately bound up with the concern over Ramsey’s financial principles: what should Catholics do about the difficulty, which is real, of having a large family within our economic context? Is the family dying out, losing its voice, along with God in the world, drowned out by our own selfish concerns?
My initial response, after reading the two previous articles on Ramsey, was to turn to the Gospel. Matthew 6 alone provides an entire catechesis on the subject:
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth…. No one can serve two masters…. You cannot serve God and wealth. Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear…. But strive [or seek] first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
Luke 6:20 goes further, proclaiming: “Blessed are you who are poor;” and after: “woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation” (v.24). There is one overarching theme that emerges from Jesus’s teaching on wealth: seek first the Kingdom and do not allow the anxieties of the world to pull you away from it. Pull together all of your resources to purchase the pearl of great price (Matt 13:45). If you don’t and set your sights on earthly things, you will be like the rich young man and have a difficult road to Heaven (Matt 19:16-30). Storing up earthly wealth does not provide genuine stability in our fragile lives (Luke 12:13). We need to be wise stewards (Matt 25:14-30), but for the Kingdom of God, not for the kingdom of this world. Jesus’s words do not simply apply to a chosen few, but apply to all who would follow him (though the religious life is a more radical way to respond).
In Evangelii Gaudium Francis takes these Gospel principles and applies them to our situation today. Francis first lays out the problems of economics as part of the challenges of today’s world (§§52-60), and later turns to the social dimensions of evangelization (§§176-216). The first section speaks of a problem in direct opposition to the Gospel’s teaching on trust in providence: “The hearts of many people are gripped by fear and desperation, even in the so-called rich countries” (§52). Francis also illuminates another way in which wealth opposes the Gospel and family values:
One cause of this situation is found in our relationship with money, since we calmly accept its dominion over ourselves and our societies. The current financial crisis can make us overlook the fact that it originated in a profound human crisis: the denial of the primacy of the human person! We have created new idols. The worship of the ancient golden calf (cf. Ex 32:1-35) has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose. The worldwide crisis affecting finance and the economy lays bare their imbalances and, above all, their lack of real concern for human beings; man is reduced to one of his needs alone: consumption (§55).
Questions of financial planning have to be seen in light of the cultural issues that Francis describes. He teaches that the acceptance of God, rather, relativizes money and places concern for the human person at the center (§57).
Francis begins the second section, dealing with social issues, by emphasizing seeking the kingdom: “The Gospel is about the kingdom of God (cf. Lk 4:43); it is about loving God who reigns in our world. To the extent that he reigns within us, the life of society will be a setting for universal fraternity, justice, peace and dignity” (§180). How can the kingdom reign in us through our finances? Francis addresses this through need to live in solidarity with the poor to reform economic systems, but he also speaks of changing our way of life: “I am interested only in helping those who are in thrall to an individualistic, indifferent and self-centered mentality to be freed from those unworthy chains and to attain a way of living and thinking which is more humane, noble and fruitful, and which will bring dignity to their presence on this earth” (§208). Pope Francis does not push this point beyond calling for a “poor Church,” but to genuinely have solidarity with the poor and not to be bound by materialism, it is necessary for Christians to embrace poverty, in some form, themselves.
In order to become a “poor Church for the poor,” I recommend what I think is the best book on Catholic “financial planning” in recent time: Happy Are You Poor: The Simple Life and Spiritual Freedom by Fr. Thomas Dubay. Dubay describes the message of his book as follows: “This book is radical. It is not in the least exaggerated, however. Its contents are simple enough for a schoolboy to grasp, and yet most adults go to their graves without a real feel for. The message is austere, but at the same time it bears tidings of great joy.” Dubay presents the best guidance I have seen on following Jesus’s teaching on the universal call to evangelical poverty. Read this book and seriously consider reordering your finances and way of life around the Gospel!
Returning specifically to the question of financial planning, my own response to the difficulty of raising a large family stems from the mentoring of my pastor, now deceased, at Holy Name of Jesus Church in Harrisburg, PA. Fr. Daniel Mahoney had no mandatory tuition at our parochial school and continually faced pressure at the end of each fiscal year to make up significant shortfalls. Every single year God would provide what was needed at the last minute. Fr. Mahoney would regularly give his last cent to help those in need, but would always have enough to face whatever pressing need arose for himself and the parish. He would often tell me: “Money is meant to be spent,” followed by “God has plenty of it and He will not be outdone in generosity!” I have found that anytime I have risked something for the good of the faith or my family, God has always provided.
To make things more concrete, here are four points to guide finances from a Catholic perspective, which may help to implement the Gospel’s teaching on finances.
- Do not be afraid. I think there is no bigger shame than when Catholics, including parishes and schools, refrain from doing the work of God, because of fear of finances. Follow God’s will without fear and He will support you.
- Live simply. I think that we should pursue nothing extravagant and luxurious, even if we do happen to be wealthy. Pope Francis makes this clear when speaking of “spiritual worldliness” found in “seeking not the Lord’s glory but human glory and personal well-being” (93). Living simply also enables one to put one’s wealth more at the service of others.
- Tithe (literally tenth) and give alms. Our money, and every good thing that we have, comes from God and ultimately belongs to Him. We need to use our resources to serve the Church and we owe the Church and her ministers their due support. Alms consist in assisting the poor and those in need, above and beyond the tithe. If you don’t have money to tithe and give alms, it’s all the more important to do so, to completely dedicate our finances to God and place them within His care.
- Exercise wise stewardship. To throw prudence out the window would not be wise, except in those cases where God specifically asks us to do so. To make unnecessary purchases, especially in racking up debt, does not follow right reason and should not be supported by presuming God will help us financially when we deliberately make poor choices. Dave Ramsey may help here, especially for those that need help in straightening out financial difficulties. However, Ramsey’s principles should be implemented in light of our faith and placed within the right context. To seek financial security at the expense of family life is to subvert priorities.
The Gospel and the ministry of Pope Francis invite us to “create a prophetic, counter-cultural resistance to the self-centered hedonism of paganism,” a paganism that is beginning to dominate our culture more and more (§193). Evangelical poverty, putting our finances at the service of God and others, is a crucial way to withstand this paganism. Pope Francis issues this invitation to follow Christ: “God asks everything of us, yet at the same time he offers everything to us” (§12). This is another way of saying: “Seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness and all else will be added unto you.”