12 Responses to Poverty: Separating Morality from Politics

  • jess says:

    It seems to me that instead of condemning great wealth, which could be “rectified” by miserly and niggardly poverty, we should instead condemn ungenerosity and excessive material consumption. Attacking ‘wealth’ is too vague and most will merely respond that their ‘wealth’ is productively used to create jobs and so taxing them to raise money for the poor destroys jobs. But it is much easier to condemn and point to excessive consumption. Two people living in a 5,ooo sq. ft. house is often a wasteful use of material resources. Its not that the wealthy make so much money, its that they spend it on themselves to the detriment of their fellow human beings by inspiring envy and greed. Even worse, they use it to their own spiritual detriment.

    It seems to my superficial reading of scripture, that more often than not it is the use of wealth that creates immorality. Scripture condemns hoarding, lack of compassion for the poor, love of money more than desire for God. The rich have a hard time entering heaven, not because they are rich, but because their riches and possessions are more important to them than God.

    Our parish priest recently gave a homily on money and stewardship. He said that we should prudently plan for the future and keep ‘enough’ for our well being (materially and spiritually) but beyond that we should give it all to charity. This was more challenging that first glance. First we have to have a proper concept of ‘enough’. What if I feel I need a bigger house, nicer furniture, stuff, etc? How do I separate my legitimate needs from my materialistic desires for more? This is a tough call in our current society. (Although “Your Money or Your Life” gives a good working definition and means to find that balance point).

    Second, the homily raised the question of proper use of material resources. Obviously, if we are storing stuff we never use, then we are being poor stewards of our material goods. But this becomes much harder to see when we bring it down to the level of looking at all we have in our own home and seeing all the stuff that gets stored but rarely, if ever, used. Which is why a huge house with rarely used rooms stuffed with material goods is bad stewardship.

    A study once showed that everyone thinks they would be happy if they just had 10 percent more in terms of paycheck, house space, etc. But this is never ending. We will ALWAYS want 10 percent more, even when we have passed the point of ‘enough’ and moved into poor stewardship.

    So it seems to me that the proper focus is not to condemn the great wealth of others, but to examine our own lives to rediscover the true meaning of stewardship and then demonstrate it to our sick culture. Condemning the wealthy is too often used to make ourselves feel good about our own lessor consumption and resources however badly we may be using them. It gives our envy a good cover and veneer of spirituality.

    In the end we need to realize that most of the issues of stewardship are relative to our needs. A large family of 10 children will be using that 5,000 sq. ft. house. Our family of 4 boys uses our large suburban yard for play, gardening, and raising chickens. (Not to mention it makes our small house bearable when we can spread out outside.)

    The solution is not to call for any particular way of living which is often what we see in these types of discussions where the virtues of city living are exalted over those ‘wasteful’ suburbanites. Or we should all ride bikes. This is a distraction and also leads to a lack of charity for those whose lifestyle we find wasteful.

    Its not how much we have, so much as how we use it and to what purpose. If God is not our focus, then fugal living is just as bad as excessive consumption. The poor are not blessed if they are consumed with envy any more than the rich are blessed if consumed by greed.

    So, yes, we need both government and private charity. Because they both serve on different levels and do what the other cannot. But even more, we need to learn to orient our own economic and material lives toward God and demonstrate this for our culture. (Showing that there really is no private/public distinction for us as Christians.) The government vs. private debate is interesting but ultimately allows both sides to escape a close examination of our own lives and how well they are using the resources God has entrusted to us.

    Sorry for the length.

  • Joe Hargrave says:

    No need to apologize for the length; its exactly the sort of comment I want to see. Thank you.

    “Its not that the wealthy make so much money, its that they spend it on themselves to the detriment of their fellow human beings”

    I agree. But I would also say that anything you have, hasn’t been spent or used.

    “First we have to have a proper concept of ‘enough’. What if I feel I need a bigger house, nicer furniture, stuff, etc? How do I separate my legitimate needs from my materialistic desires for more?”

    If you won’t die or become destitute without it, you don’t need it. That doesn’t make a thing inherently bad, of course. But it doesn’t seem to create an absolute right to it either.

  • jess says:

    If I am using it, then it is being used. But it is not yet used up. Therefore, what I have still has value for myself, if not for others who might find our broken furniture to be worthless and used up according to their standards. (Such people obviously wouldn’t understand the glory of duct tape in any case. )

    “If you won’t die or become destitute without it, you don’t need it. That doesn’t make a thing inherently bad..”

    I agree, but I wonder where our spiritual and emotional needs fit into the material picture. I won’t necessarily die without shelter or cloths, but I would consider myself, and anyone else, without them to be destitute in our society. I could technically live in an tiny one room urban apartment with my family, but I would be emotionally and spiritually deadened if this was forced on me by an all powerful state (or church) rather than of my choosing, even if done in the name of equality and even if everyone was living with exactly the same circumstance.

    I think that in order to live our vocations, we must have choice and the free will to pursue our desires. The rub comes in aligning our desires to God’s will for our lives. God did not make us carbon copies, either physically or emotionally. Therefore, what we need will indeed differ. So even if I would not die or become destitute, I may still have an absolute right to something beyond the basics necessary for life due to my unique mission from God.

    Those He has created to be artists need access to the materials needed to bring forth their vision. Although they would not die without marble or bronze or clay or pigment, however expensive those materials may be, the artist has a right to purchase them (ie. exchange his life/time/efforts to get the money in order to purchase what he desires) and he adds value to them by transforming them from flooring to beautiful art that turns the viewing public’s thoughts toward God and His creation.

    We are all called to a unique mission and that mission will require resources to complete. So we must need material goods beyond the basics required to sustain life at its most basic level. Otherwise, it would not have been good for God to create in us a longing for beauty, comfort, or status.

    We are born with the desire to build, create, and grow. These desires should ultimately be used to further the Kingdom of God, but the church does not advocate poverty for its members. For one, rejection of all but the most basic of life sustaining material goods would poorly serve our call to evangelize. This doesn’t mean the health and wealth crowd are correct about living large, but it does acknowledge that abject material poverty, while sufficient for life, is not attractive to anyone.

    Catholics have a proper understanding of the redemptive value of suffering, but many have been lost to our church by those who advocate the suffering without the redemption. So too, the Church understands the value of material poverty, but we will lose souls in our currently sick culture if we focus simply on not having (or worse the denying of things by force to some) instead of on teaching the value of stewardship and the proper ordering of our materialist desires toward our vocation.

  • Joe Hargrave says:

    A few points.

    “I agree, but I wonder where our spiritual and emotional needs fit into the material picture. I won’t necessarily die without shelter or cloths, but I would consider myself, and anyone else, without them to be destitute in our society.”

    I would say anything included in Jesus’ own list in Matt. 25 counts as a need. That includes many non-material goods, such as comfort to the sick and imprisoned.

    “I could technically live in an tiny one room urban apartment with my family, but I would be emotionally and spiritually deadened if this was forced on me by an all powerful state (or church) rather than of my choosing”

    I understand the point, but if it were indeed the objectively correct thing to do – and I am not arguing that it necessarily is – it should make no difference whether or not one is forced. Parents force their children to do what is good and avoid what is evil. This is often very hard on the child, but it is “for their own good”.

    This isn’t to say that I think people ought to be forced – if God wanted it that way we would have no free will at all. But it is to say that I’m not sure how far one should go in rebelling against it. It is rather unseemly, don’t you think, to agitate for what amounts to the freedom to do what is wrong? This is why I think Christianity has always placed an emphasis on bearing injustice rather than fighting it (though this is not true of all injustices, I do think it would be true of material injustice).

    “Therefore, what we need will indeed differ. So even if I would not die or become destitute, I may still have an absolute right to something beyond the basics necessary for life due to my unique mission from God.”

    I agree, but at the same time, I am pretty sure that we are to ultimately lose any and all attachment to specific material things. The Church has affirmed our right to private property – has even said that it is a natural right. But on a personal level, we must be prepared to lose everything, and again, I’m not sure how far one is to go in order to preserve it.

    In any case, what we are really talking about here is luxury, wealth in excess of what is needed for necessity, vocation, and even a certain level of comfort.

  • Matt Talbot says:

    My own standard for owning things (not that I live this out in any way that resembles sainthood, mind you…) is this: Could I, without any angst, give this up tomorrow if required? Would I lose any status or prestige by surrendering it – that is, is it, for me, more than God made it to be?

  • jess says:

    “It is rather unseemly, don’t you think, to agitate for what amounts to the freedom to do what is wrong? This is why I think Christianity has always placed an emphasis on bearing injustice rather than fighting it (though this is not true of all injustices, I do think it would be true of material injustice).”

    I must disagree with this statement. First it is not at all clear that agitating for self-determination of the proper level of material wealth is in itself a wrong. So it is not unseemly to advocate that individuals, not a powerful state or even religion, make the decisions regarding their personal welfare and those of their dependents.

    I don’t think a rational argument can be made for any entity, short of God himself, to decide the vocation of others. And make no mistake, deciding how, where, and next to whom one should live and with what material resources they should work is indeed crossing that line. Lets face it, parents often force their children to do things for “their own good” that turn out not to be so good for that particular child with their particular temperment.

    Only God has the ability to objectively decide what is for “my own good” and hopefully I am listening to Him and doing my best to align myself with His plan for my life. But no person or institution on earth can take upon itself that role without usurping God.

    The problem is simply that no human could possibly have the knowledge necessary to weigh every individual’s unique calling, the materials necessary to carry out that calling, the proper method for carrying out that calling and thus can never make an objective determination about the correct allocation and use of material resources.

    Further, our history is full of saints who did not suffer injustice material or otherwise passively. Saint Paul did not just meekly hang out in prison and stop his preaching just because the Roman state had decided that would be best for the common good. Indeed, he continually fought against injustice and false teaching. He just didn’t do so violently. But he was considered an enemy of the state and an agitator and a dangerous person. Many of our saints have followed the same path.

    We are called to bear injustice and suffering, that is true. But it does not follow that we should then let that injustice or suffering define us or our world. Bearing our cross does not mean that we abandon our duty to spread the gospel and to try to bring the people we meet into heaven with us. I may suffer from material poverty, but to try to take away everyone’s right to own more than me will not likely win souls for the Kingdom.

    However, if I teach stewardship. If I demonstrate it in my life, then I become a powerful witness for God. If instead of telling people that they shouldn’t have that house or doodad that they covet, I teach them about how God calls us to use our time, talent, and treasure for others, I do more good. For now I am not an enemy that wants to take what they have without consideration of their feelings but rather a teacher and guide pointing to God.

    And proper stewardship would teach that we should not be attached to material things over people, or even people over God. We must always be prepared to lose all for God.

    I’m sorry, but it was not clear from you post that you were talking about luxury or wealth in excess. It seemed to me that while you did point to the indifference or ungenerosity of the wealthy as being wrong, you also implied that it is wealth itself that is sinful. Money itself cannot be evil. It is only used or acquired in a sinful way. So I tend to harp on the fact that it is not the fact that some people have too much, but rather that it is the actions and attitudes that make the acquisition and use of great wealth immoral. Of course, a proper discussion of wealth should also include the mirror vice of the poor, which is envy.

    Often people talk about the immorality of the rich and the need to tax or otherwise ‘level’ the field as an outlet for their envy. Most of our political discourse on this issue is about enflaming envy (Dem) or greed (Rep) in order to gain political power. This allows both the rich and poor to wage war and avoid the hard assessments necessary for proper stewardship. Both try to claim the high road, point to the other’s vice and try to pretty up their own as a virtue.

    Its a subject that makes us uncomfortable and it should. Because none of us are saints yet, but all of us are called to be saints which means that we have a lot of work to do.

  • Gabriel Austin says:

    The discussion would be more pertinent were the issue of the government not dragged into it. Is it not obvious that government intervention is controlled by the bureaucrats who favor control of the poor? Consider what has happened with the promotion of abortion – both in this country and abroad.

    Remain with the question of our personal obligations not to be wasteful, and our obligations to share with the poor.
    Thomas put it succinctly: “”Whatever a man has in superabundance is owed, of natural right, to the poor for their sustenance” [Thomas Aquinas. S.Th. 2.ii.Q.66.art.7].

    It then becomes our obligation to determine what we do really need for our sustenance.

    To this I add:
    “The most generous people in the world are the very poor, who assume each other’s burdens in the crises which come so often to the hard pressed. The mother in the tenement falls ill and the neighbor in the next room assumes her burdens. The father loses his work, and neighbors supply food to his children from their own scanty store. How often one hears of cases where the orphans are taken over and brought up by the poor friend whose benefaction means great additional hardship! This sort of genuine service makes the most princely gift from superabundance look insignificant indeed … The very poor give without any self-consciousness”. p. 94 of Random Reminiscences of Men & Events (Sleepy Hollow Press 1984) by John D. Rockefeller. Yes, the original one, who made all their money.

    He also answered to the question “how much is enough?”. “Just a little bit more”.

  • Joe Hargrave says:

    Jess,

    ” So it is not unseemly to advocate that individuals, not a powerful state or even religion, make the decisions regarding their personal welfare and those of their dependents.”

    But I must say, that is not the issue, though I am not sure what is meant here by “religion”. No one needs to be rich to maintain their personal welfare. It would be absurd and impossible for some entity to “make decisions” for millions of individuals; the idea is to set broad limits.

    “And make no mistake, deciding how, where, and next to whom one should live and with what material resources they should work is indeed crossing that line.”

    A good thing, then, that I didn’t suggest such a thing. I hope you’re not reading this as MY argument… if you want to criticize the idea, that’s fine, but it shouldn’t be attributed to me.

    “Further, our history is full of saints who did not suffer injustice material or otherwise passively.”

    Well, where is the example of the saint that is calling for lower taxes or smaller government? Or for that matter, higher taxes and bigger government? The apostles argued that disobedience to the state is practically a duty when the state commands that which God has forbidden, or vice versa.

    Taxes have nothing to do with that, redistribution of wealth has nothing to do with that. In fact, as I showed in the article, God will hold entire societies to account for their attitude towards the poor – a Christian nation should want to avoid the fate of Sodom, destroyed because of widespread indifference to the poor.

    I mean, people can and will make all sorts of arguments, but if the Bible weighs anything on the scales of our decision making, I don’t see how you can ignore passages like that. The meaning is clear.

    “I’m sorry, but it was not clear from you post that you were talking about luxury or wealth in excess.”

    I used the phrase “great wealth” many times, because even the poorest person has some wealth. It is impossible to be without any wealth at all – our mere ability to work is a source of wealth.

    That said, I think I, and the modern Church too, are being much more lenient than Christ himself, who said two things in the Gospels: 1) that we must be “perfect” as our Father in heaven is perfect, and 2) that if we would be perfect, we would sell what we have and give the money to the poor. Perhaps not all of us can reach that perfection, but any moves we make in it’s general direction are going to have to consist of the shedding of wealth. Again, I really don’t see how one can argue their way around it. How this “Gospel of Wealth” business got started, I can’t even imagine.

    “Money itself cannot be evil. It is only used or acquired in a sinful way.”

    Agreed, to a point. “Love of money” is evil.

    “So I tend to harp on the fact that it is not the fact that some people have too much, but rather that it is the actions and attitudes that make the acquisition and use of great wealth immoral.”

    I think that if a person is using their wealth in a moral way, it will never be evident that they have “too much”. The perception of “too much” comes from the lavish and, to use Pius XI’s word, insolent displays of wealth, privilege and power of the ruling elites – who enjoy every last bit of envy cast their way by the hungry middle classes (who are much worse status-seekers than the poor). So many of the rich are not only guilty of the sin of greed, but of the sin of scandal, of purposely inspiring and taking great pleasure in the envy of others for what they have, and the sense of superiority it gives them.

    “Of course, a proper discussion of wealth should also include the mirror vice of the poor, which is envy.”

    Maybe a discussion of wealth in general philosophical terms, but here we are dealing with Scripture and Tradition, which have much less to say about envy than greed. And when they do speak of envy, it is in the terms I did above. It is really the middle classes that are consumed with envy, because they are a step below the rich.

    Many of the poor don’t expect to become rich. On the other hand, some people wrongly dismiss the just and legitimate demands of the poor as “envy” – a fact which, again, Catholic social teaching has called our attention to time and again.

    “Often people talk about the immorality of the rich and the need to tax or otherwise ‘level’ the field as an outlet for their envy”

    How is it envy? Envy is when you see what someone has, and you want it for yourself. If I call for a higher tax – hypothetically, I mean – I am calling for something to be distributed to many people. Only a fraction will go to me, and only if I am poor. How can this be envy?

  • Joe Hargrave says:

    I also hate to have to point out again that I wrote pretty clearly that I don’t hate or despise the rich; what I want is for them to understand that what they do is wrong (you can’t leave that step out, sorry), to amend their ways, and do good.

  • jess says:

    What is it exactly that ‘the rich’ are doing that is wrong? And why is that a more pressing social concern than what the poor are doing wrong?

    I was using envy in the sense when a person feels entitled to take away a good belonging to another by force, be it taxes or violence because they feel they deserve it more than the owner. The poor do suffer envy and greed and are not exempt by their material lack from any of the temptations that assault us all in this life. The sadness we feel when looking at another person’s good bleeds into the desire to take it for ourselves. So maybe envy is not as good a description as coveting.

    I didn’t mean to upset you. But I really don’t want to see our Church become known as the church of ‘no’. It really didn’t work out all that well regarding human sexuality to harp on the sin and teach ‘no’ instead of the truth. It is harder to teach about the proper ordering of desire regarding sex and children, but taking the short cut of preaching ‘don’t do this’ led a lot of souls to shun the church and her teaching, which is God’s Truth. We need to make sure that we do not take a similar shortcut when teaching about material goods. That we don’t just become a ‘you can’t have money and be moral’ church. It is harder, but ultimately better for the salvation of souls to teach proper ordering of desire and stewardship.

    So, I wasn’t meaning to start a fight, just a discussion. Sorry if I came across a little harsh. I did not intend that.

  • Joe Hargrave says:

    There is no offense taken, I’m not upset, and I don’t consider this a fight :)

    I just want to be clear on what my positions are, and what they are not.

    “What is it exactly that ‘the rich’ are doing that is wrong?”

    I’d refer you back to the quotations from the Bible, the saints, and Catholic social teaching that I used for the answer to that question. I’m not the one who said that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to get into heaven; I’m not the one who sent a rich man to hell simply because he existed in the same society as a poor man; I’m not the one who destroyed Sodom for indifference to the poor. These are questions and answers from holy Scripture. And they are reasons why individualist “capitalist” philosophers such as Ayn Rand and Ludwig von Mises rejected and despised Christianity.

    If you have alternative explanations for these and other Biblical events, I am interested in hearing them.

    I think there are degrees of wrong here, as well – a person who lives in luxury AND gives generously is nowhere near as bad as a person who lives in luxury and gives nothing.

    “I was using envy in the sense when a person feels entitled to take away a good belonging to another by force”

    That would just be theft, not envy :) I don’t mean to nitpick, but technically envy does not have to play a role in theft – if you give away what you steal, for instance. That doesn’t necessarily make it right, but it is a different class of sin.

    “be it taxes or violence because they feel they deserve it more than the owner”

    Well, first, that isn’t the reason; Christians have a moral obligation to pay taxes. This is in the Catechism. If it is theft to tax people for welfare, medical coverage, and education, it is equally theft to tax people for military budgets, boarder patrol, and corporate subsidies. Few are willing to apply the “taxes are theft” idea to their own preferred programs. Only anarchists are really consistent here.

    ” The poor do suffer envy and greed”

    But the social effects are not as devastating. The poor have no power. They harm their own souls and perhaps those of the people around them. The envy and greed of the rich “trickles down” and effects everything. That is why the Bible, the saints, and the social doctrine of the Church focus so much attention on the proper use of wealth and God’s love of the poor, and much less attention on the sins of the poor. It’s not that the poor are inherently better, are less likely to sin, or anything like that; it’s that the rich have special obligations and duties.

    How else can one possibly interpret this passage from the Book of Wisdom, chapter 6?

    “7 For to him that is little, mercy is granted: but the mighty shall be mightily tormented. 8 For God will not except any man’s person, neither will he stand in awe of any man’s greatness: for he made the little and the great, and he hath equally care of all. 9 But a greater punishment is ready for the more mighty.”

    I didn’t make this stuff up! :) The burden really is on the person who wants to say that this means something else than what it means at face-value.

    As for the rest, I agree about the “Church of no” stuff. That’s why I quoted Leo’s point about the early Christians. They converted the hearts of wealthy men, who then used their wealth to help the early Christians.

  • Micha Elyi says:

    “(The early Christians) converted the hearts of wealthy men, who then used their wealth to help the early Christians.”–Joe Hargrave

    This only happened after the early Christians quenched the fires of envy in their own hearts, and stilled the tongue of envy in their own mouths.

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