Should we become more poor for the sake of the poor?
December 13, 2018 (LifeSiteNews) – Christ’s coming to earth in a poor stable or cave, laid in an animal’s food-trough (which we politely call a “manger”), greeted initially by a congregation of shepherds who, though full of awe, were probably not clean and sweet-smelling, is a powerful reminder to us of one of the central truths of Scripture: “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways” (Is 55:8–9). God did not enter the world as a worldly king would have chosen to enter it. He came poor and to the poor; He came in such a way that He already began to turn upside-down the logic of the world, as Our Lady had uttered a few months earlier in her Magnificat.
But God said to him, “Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God. (Lk 12:20-21)
I was once teaching a class on John Paul II’s encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialis. The students were struck by how strongly the Pope criticizes what he calls liberal capitalism. He says that the Lord Jesus will be the judge who takes away what people have and gives it to those who have not (I thought this language was supposed to be the exclusive province of Marxists!), and ends the letter in the words of Our Lady: “He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble; He hath filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he hath sent empty away.”
John Paul II really thought that the nations of the West were doomed to be stripped of their glory because of their abuse of God’s creation, their refusal to honor the “universal destination of material goods” (that is, the fact that God intended the goods of creation to reach and benefit everyone through well-distributed private property). John Paul II’s teaching on consumerism and waste, his comments on structures of sin, his blunt statement that the roots of the problems in the modern world are political and ideological, make it obvious that he saw the modern West as a reckless experiment in hypertrophic selfishness culminating in self-destructive obsessions and cruelty to the weak, which we see above all in the sexual revolution and its inevitable consequence, the murder of the unborn.
The present political-economic “order” in the United States and in many other Western nations is erected along lines that are anti-natural, anti-rational, and anti-spiritual, with built-in mechanisms to ensure that it remains on those lines and even accelerates along them.
Having read such a forceful critique, my students wondered again and again, both in and out of class: How do we respond to the Church’s oft-stated demand that we change our lives for the sake of the poor? They were not asking in a skeptical way, as do neoconservatives who think that the papal pleas are so many grandiose platitudes, so much whistling in the wind. They asked with a genuine desire to know: How, in practice, can one live for the benefit of others, especially for the poor?
One begins with the basics: not defrauding people of what one owes them, not wasting money on useless trinkets, cooking one’s own food rather than buying more expensive pre-packaged goods, and the like. All of these practices involve frugality, self-control, modesty, and personal effort.
Then there are ascetical practices, including praying, fasting, and tithing. God must have thought tithing a good idea because He was the first to propose it. Although it is ultimately inner attitudes that need to change, it would already make a huge difference if believers across the world gave a tenth of their income to the poor and to worthy non-profits. I was disgusted to see, at one point in my life, a diocesan gift campaign that asked, with heart-wrenching pleas and rhetorical somersaults, for lay Catholics to consider perhaps contributing even as much as one percent of their income to the Church. What kind of people are we if we have to be cajoled and hornswoggled into donating $1 from every $100? If we want a generous response, we have to preach a generous ideal that honors people by telling them they are called to, and capable of, real sacrifice.
Of course, today many bishops and dioceses don’t deserve a single penny, but that doesn’t mean Catholics should stop being generous; it merely means they should be generous to worthy causes.
One could say, universally, that a constant self-examination and simplification of life is called for. Do I really need all the things that I have? Can I give away this or that portion of my possessions or money? Do I really need to upgrade or replace X, Y, or Z?
These are the sort of answers one might begin to give to questions that well up in the hearts of men and women who witness the ongoing injustices of global capitalism, such as the ever-multiplying sweatshops of the Third World and the ever-deepening pockets of entrepreneurs and investors.
Without a doubt, one could and should say much more that is very practical, able to be implemented here and now. Advice in this regard I leave to Fr. Thomas Dubay, whose book Happy Are You Poor: The Simple Life and Spiritual Freedom is a modern masterpiece.