Of Downward Mobility and the New Evangelization

 Everybody would be rich
  if nobody tried
  to be richer.

 And nobody would be poor
  if everybody tried
  to be the poorest.

 And everybody would be
  what he ought to be
  if everybody tried to be
  what he wants
  the other fellow to be.

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  — Peter Maurin, “Better or Better Off”

Lots of money themes came together last week.

First, it was an interregnum of sorts between the last Sunday of the liturgical year and the First Sunday of Advent—the week, that is, between the Feast of Christ the King on the one hand, and the initial anticipation of the newborn King to come on the other. Royalty, kingship, power—it’s all there. But not the kind of power you’d expect, and not the worldly wealth that you’d associate with royal rule. Instead, we have the exact opposite: Last Sunday, a bereft and crucified king whose court consists of a single condemned criminal; this weekend, hints and signals of that royal birth which we know will occur in homeless squalor.

Then, the Gospel for interregnum Monday was Luke’s story about the poor widow and her two mites.

When Jesus looked up he saw some wealthy people putting their offerings into the treasury and he noticed a poor widow putting in two small coins. He said, “I tell you truly, this poor widow put in more than all the rest; for those others have all made offerings from their surplus wealth, but she, from her poverty, has offered her whole livelihood” (Lk 21:1-4, NAB).

The Lord’s message is clear, and it underscores the otherworldly themes from the Sunday readings that bracket it: Temporal wealth and prestige have no lasting value. Instead, humility and sacrifice are the riches adorning the Kingdom of God.

In contrast to the widow and her paltry offering we had Black Friday right after Thanksgiving—wait, make that Black Thursday—or is it Brown Wednesday? Add in Small Business Saturday, Cyber Monday, and the fact that only Chick-Fil-A and liquor stores are closed on Sundays, and you have a bacchanalia of buying that obliterated our national observance of gratitude.

So, should we be surprised that in the midst of all that—Christ the King and widow’s mites, Thanksgiving and Black Friday, Advent and the anticipation of Christmas—the Holy Father releases an Apostolic Exhortation in which he calls on Christians to embrace poverty?

No, we shouldn’t. Least of all when the Pope’s name is Francis.

From the start of his pontificate, Pope Francis has proven himself a different kind of modern pope. Skip the limo, skip the palace, skip the privileges, hang out with the folks—you know, the sinners, the tax collectors and prostitutes, you and me. The Holy Father washes the feet of juvenile detainees and personally phones pregnant women in crisis. He chastises clergy with lavish lifestyles. He has spoken of wanting a poor Church, and he couldn’t teach any more clearly by his example.

And now, the Pope has set his populist approach down in black and white. His new Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, translates all those sound bites and public gestures into a manifesto: “I want a Church which is poor and for the poor” (§198). In Francis’ view, the New Evangelization requires that we take better care of the poor, and, as a first step toward that end, the Holy Father seems to be telling us that we should become poorer ourselves. Literally.

Francis writes that it is “essential” that Christians “draw near” to poverty (§210), and he makes it clear that he’s not exempting anybody:

No one must say that they cannot be close to the poor because their own lifestyle demands more attention to other areas. This is an excuse commonly heard in academic, business or professional, and even ecclesial circles. While it is quite true that the essential vocation and mission of the lay faithful is to strive that earthly realities and all human activity may be transformed by the Gospel, none of us can think we are exempt from concern for the poor and for social justice (§201).

But does being “close to the poor” and drawing near to poverty necessarily entail becoming poor ourselves?

George Weigel doesn’t think so. Here’s his take on the Pope’s poverty challenge:

As he wrote in “Evangelii Gaudium,” Pope Francis is not a man of “political ideology.” He knows that “business is a vocation and a noble vocation,” if ordered to the common good and the empowerment of the poor. When he criticizes the social, economic or political status quo, he does so as a pastor who is “interested only in helping all 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 that is more humane, noble, and fruitful.”

Weigel embraces the idea of Francis as a “revolutionary,” but perhaps a revolutionary in gentler, abstract terms—more radicalized identity than radical action, at least when it comes to money.

Much as I respect Mr. Weigel, I’m not buying it.

For one thing, Weigel comments on just a sliver from the Exhortation’s section on “The economy and the distribution of income.” Here’s the full context for that sliver:

Business is a vocation, and a noble vocation, provided that those engaged in it see themselves challenged by a greater meaning in life; this will enable them truly to serve the common good by striving to increase the goods of this world and to make them more accessible to all (§203, emphasis added).

According to Francis, then, business, for Christians, is not just about turning a profit and the bottom line. It’s not just about increasing shareholder value and market share. It’s about serving the common good, and spreading wealth around, and a “greater meaning in life.” True, the Pope rejects statism and “a simple welfare mentality.” But rejected, too, is the “absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation.” The Holy Father seems intent on reshaping our attitudes toward money, how we get it, and what it’s for. And he’s doing it with the human person as his reference point—the poor human person to be precise.

Yet, Weigel argues, poverty isn’t always merely material, for it comes in a variety of forms.

But poverty can also be found in the soul-withering spiritual desert of those who measure their humanity by what they have rather than who they are, and who judge others by the same materialist yardstick. Then there is the ethical impoverishment of moral relativism, which dumbs down human aspiration, impedes common work for the common good in society, and inevitably leads to social fragmentation and personal unhappiness.

No question. Indeed, Mother Teresa herself was famous for declaring that the spiritual poverty of the wealthy West was far more pitiable than the physical poverty experienced by the slum dwellers she cared for in Calcutta.

You, in the West, have millions of people who suffer such terrible loneliness and emptiness. They feel unloved and unwanted. These people are not hungry in the physical sense, but they are in another way. They know they need something more than money, yet they don’t know what it is.

Clearly, though, the Holy Father isn’t calling the Church to be closer to those other forms of poverty, right? When Francis speaks of wanting a poor Church, or he writes about wanting us to draw near to the poor, can he be intending the poverty of materialism and moral relativism?

Of course not.

Instead of explaining away the Pope’s radical exhortations regarding our relationship to money, and the preeminence in our attention demanded by the material poverty plaguing our neighbors, it might be helpful to consider the deceptively simple teachings of Peter Maurin.

Maurin was the co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement, and Dorothy Day’s mentor and close associate. He was a devout and loyal son of the Church, and he believed passionately in the Church’s social mission of fostering a world “in which it would be easier for men to be good.” Peter’s Easy Essays—pithy, punchy, and always pointed—translated that social vision into memorable lines that became mantras for Catholic Workers everywhere.

As I read through Pope Francis’ new Apostolic Exhortation, Maurin’s Easy Essays kept coming to mind. In fact, I can’t help thinking that Maurin is a better guide than Weigel for insight into the Holy Father’s poverty mandates. Compare the following Easy Essay with what you’ve been reading in Evangelii Gaudium:

Feeding the Poor at a Sacrifice

  • In the first centuries
    of Christianity
    the hungry were fed
    at a personal sacrifice,
    the naked were clothed
    at a personal sacrifice,
    the homeless were sheltered
    at personal sacrifice.
  • And because the poor
    were fed, clothed and sheltered
    at a personal sacrifice,
    the pagans used to say
    about the Christians
    “See how they love each other.”
  • In our own day
    the poor are no longer
    fed, clothed, sheltered
    at a personal sacrifice,
    but at the expense
    of the taxpayers.
  • And because the poor
    are no longer
    fed, clothed and sheltered
    the pagans say about the Christians
    “See how they pass the buck.”

The personal sacrifice and love recommended by Maurin seem to be exactly what the Pope (quoting Aquinas) is getting at:

Our commitment does not consist exclusively in activities or programmes of promotion and assistance…. The poor person, when loved, ‘is esteemed as of great value,’ and this is what makes the authentic option for the poor differ from any other ideology…. Only on the basis of this real and sincere closeness can we properly accompany the poor on their path of liberation (§199).

Jump back, now, to that widow in Luke and her two small coins. Note that the narrative leaves out any mention of Jesus coming to the widow’s aid. We’re told that the woman gives everything away, and yet no apostle is sent to fetch her some bread or oil; no Judas is instructed to dole out relief from the communal purse. Nope. Just an object lesson and the Lord’s observation, and the widow shuffles off into obscurity.

Obscurity, that is, in a temporal sense, for it’s clear from the Gospel that Christ held up this anonymous widow in the highest esteem. She was poor to begin with, and her sacrifice made her even poorer. Yet her sacrifice was borne of love and gratitude, and her subsequent deepened impoverishment bound her ever closer to her Lord and his favorites. That’s the second lesson of Luke’s story: Voluntary poverty has intrinsic and ironic value, for it brings us closer to what is essential—that is, a greater dependence on God himself—and to those whom our Lord has favored—that is, the involuntary poor.

You’re still reading? Good. Either some of this resonates with thoughts you’ve had yourself, or else you completely reject what I’m proposing and you only wish to see how far I’m willing to take it. Either way, I’m almost done. It only remains to consider what form the aforementioned voluntary poverty might take, especially for those of us with families entrusted to our care.

First off, let me make it clear that it’s really none of my business. Maybe it’s an easy out, but I’m not about to lay out prescriptive advice regarding finances and money. Really, that’s between you and yours and God.

I will say this, though: It’s important to note that poverty is not the same as destitution—a distinction Charles Murray made long ago in the pages of the National Review:

Being poor does not necessarily mean being malnourished or ill-clothed. It does not automatically mean joylessness or despair. To be poor is not necessarily to be without dignity; it is not necessarily to be unhappy.

Poverty is relative, but any move in the direction of “poor-er” will automatically bring us closer to the poor—which is, after all, the Pope’s explicit request. Nobody is suggesting (least of all the Pope) that you quit your job, sell your house, don a cloak and sandals, and take to the road—like a latter-day John the Baptist or Francis of Assisi, announcing the Good News and preaching to the birds.

On the contrary. Keep your job and your mortgage. Keep your friends and hobbies and habits. Keep everything the same, in fact. But consider expanding your reach, especially in terms of charitable, sacrificial giving. The math is easy: The same income divided among a larger number of outlays means less left over—or none if you do it right. You’ll be in the widow’s mite league before you know it!

And if you’re married, one surefire way to reach that goal is having another baby—at least it’s worked out that way for us. Another baby affords you (the world) the infinite benefit of welcoming another imago Dei into your midst, but it will surely drop you another notch or two on the household wealth scale as well. As I’ve suggested elsewhere, forget Dave Ramsey and his program for financial freedom. Choose reckless breeding instead.

You won’t regret it. Among other things, it will bring you untold poverty, but I’ll bet you’ll find yourself richer beyond your wildest dreams.

Editor’s note: This essay first appeared December 1, 2013 on the author’s blog entitled “One Thousand Words A Week” and is reprinted with permission. The image above entitled “Charity” or “The Indigent Family” was painted by Adolphe-William Bouguereau in 1865.


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