Last Tuesday, Republican Presidential nominee Mitt Romney asked voters to make their decision by answering a version of Ronald Reagan’s famous question, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” It was the wrong question then and it is the wrong question now, at least for Christians, and probably for most other people, too.
Peter Maurin of the Catholic Worker Movement famously wrote:
The world would be better off
if people tried
to become better,
And people would
if they stopped trying
to be better off.
For when everyone tries
to become better off
nobody is better off.
But when everyone tries
to become better
everyone is better off.
Everybody would be rich
if nobody tried
to become 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.
We are not all called to voluntary poverty, but Christians should at least view with suspicion attempts to make material success the only kind of “better off” we value. As David Brooks suggested and others humorously lamented, the Republican Convention focused far too much on stories of heroic individuals rising in material wealth, and far too little on the strength of communities, the power of compassion, and the importance of civic virtue.
In fact, my family is better off financially than we were four years ago. Our taxes are a little lower and our salaries are a little higher. We have stable jobs, good health care, and strong retirements plans. Very few of our friends have faced unemployment or dealt with mortgage problems that have affected so many. Our kids are in good schools. We are not worried about the future. But when my husband, 18 year old son, and I vote this November, I think we should ask not about ourselves, but about how the most vulnerable people in this country have fared.
In Paul Ryan’s speech, he put things a little differently:
“We have responsibilities, one to another – we do not each face the world alone. And the greatest of all responsibilities, is that of the strong to protect the weak. The truest measure of any society is how it treats those who cannot defend or care for themselves.”
That’s a far better standard. One that both parties, and all of us, should hold ourselves to.
If “[w]e are not all called to voluntary poverty” what are we to make of these comments?:
“Not to enable the poor to share in our goods is to steal from them and deprive them of life. The goods we possess are not ours, but theirs” (CCC 2446).
“Once the demands of necessity and propriety have been met, the rest of what one owns belongs to the poor” (Rerum Novarum P. 36)
“”If one who takes the clothing off another is a thief, why give any other name to one who can clothe the naked and refuses?” (St Basil the Great)
“The rich are in possession of the goods of the poor, even if they have acquired them honestly or inherited them legally.” (St. John Chrysostom)
Perhaps, consistent with these comments, one could hold assets in a sort of trust for the poor’s ultimate benefit. But purchasing goods beyond the demands of “necessity and propriety” is excluded; and that seems at least very close to voluntary poverty. No?
Rpritchie– That’s an excellent set of comments. I very much agree that we need to ask questions about economic excess. But I do think there is a distinction to be made between voluntary poverty and the right use of excess wealth. Traditionally, voluntary poverty involves a commitment either to hold no personal property (in the case of most religious orders) or a direct renunciation of possessions (in the case of Peter Maurin). In both cases, the ultimate purpose of such an act is to dispose oneself fully to service. As with the other evangelical counsels, Vatican II teaches that we are all called to a kind of renunciation for the sake of holiness, but such a renunciation need not involve totally giving up the goods.
Your comments direct us to a discussion about how, in our society, we discern what is “necessity and propriety” and what is excess. It is not an easy discussion – it is basically what I am currently trying to write about in examining the category of luxury. But it is significant that, in the 18th century, one of the reasons luxury was embraced as acceptable was the claim that if we were only supposed to have what is “necessary,” we would be reduced to bread and water and a cave. But that’s a false choice. “Necessary for human flourishing” is how we should read that, not “necessary for bare survival.” If we take food as the (always-useful) example, we can recognize that there is a distinction between what a basic, good diet is and how it helps us flourish and what an excessive diet is that inhibit both our flourishing and the flourishing of others. Neither, however, would be bread and water.
Very interesting. Thank you. Most of the commentary I’ve heard on this (which, admittedly, is not from professional moral theologians) is simply dismissive of the question. Somehow they’ve reduced these teachings so much that they allow for houses with three times as many bathrooms as people and 6 figure cars. (see, e.g., this unsurprisingly Republican sounding piece http://jimmyakin.com/2012/08/do-you-have-to-donate-every-spare-penny.html)
I think this is because there is such a fear of judgmentalism in our culture, and to take an even relatively hard-line on this issue would be very judgmental of a huge swath of otherwise apparently good individuals (Catholics very much included). But, whatever, the reason, it leaves people like me stuck in the false dilemma you described. So I’m very interested in how “necessary for human flourishing” is properly fleshed out.
Is your “The Problem of Luxury in the Christian Life” out yet, I had a little trouble telling online. And does/will it tackle this question of what constitutes morally unacceptable luxury/how to discern what is “necessary for human flourishing”?
David and RPritchie — I seem to recall that John Ryan offered some distinctions that may be helpful. He distinguished between (1) “the necessaries of life” (i.e., those goods that are essential to a healthy and humane existence for self and family); (2) “conventional necessities and comforts (i.e., those goods that are necessary to function on one’s social plane); and (3) superfluous goods (i.e., everything over and above what falls in the other categories). No one, he held, is obligated to share the goods in category 1. The obligation to share what’s in category 3, he maintained, is indefinite. It’s in his approach to category 2 that his thinking is most plastic; the obligation that inheres here depends a great deal on the circumstances of others in the community. He developed a rich casuistry that may well be worth recovering today.
I submit that part of that recovery should entail a robust discussion of workplace luxuries. Many workplaces are relentless consumers of “superfluous goods.” But we don’t seem to question this so much as we accept it as part of the cost of doing business. But something subtle may be happening to us and to our understanding of work if we accept that luxury is required to do our work well. Will our experience of work, perhaps, put us out of touch with folks who labor with far less? Will we understand or appreciate other forms of capital (for example, social capital) if we allow ourselves to depend so heavily on monetary capital? Will our understanding of the purposes of our work shift away from humanistic ends? The list of questions could go on.