Confusion about the Gospel teaching on poverty is widespread in the modern Church. The call to voluntary poverty is uncomfortable, particularly to the inhabitants of the wealthiest civilization in history. Human nature being what it is, this inconvenient teaching has been largely explained out of existence. We ignore the fact that Jesus said, “woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation,” that Our Lady praised God for “sending the rich away empty,” that St. John the Baptist called those with “two tunics” to give to those without. We can easily forget the condemnation of the rich fool with his barns bursting with grain and the story of the rich young ruler who went away “sad” because of his great possessions.
Part of this confusion also arises because the word “poverty” can mean so many different things. In the classic work “Happy Are You Poor,” Fr. Dubay explains that “poverty,” in the Gospel sense, does not mean “destitution”: the lack of basic material necessities. We’re called to alleviate destitution wherever it exists. Given that we are body and soul, a lack of what the body needs is not going to be beneficial for the soul. We are, however, called to forego superfluous possessions and comforts.
Interior and Material Poverty
Recently, Fr. Dwight Longenecker published a blog post detailing some of his opinions on poverty and wealth. Fr. Dwight is a talented writer, who often has fascinating, nuanced perspectives on complex and contentious topics. In particular, I’ve appreciated his thoughts on priestly celibacy, the dangers of cult thinking, and liturgical topics. Unfortunately, his recent post on poverty misses the mark in its analysis of the role of material poverty in the Christian tradition.
In Fr. Dwight’s view, the Church is haunted by the erroneous, Manichean idea that material poverty is a blessing. He argues that what the Gospel actually calls for is merely an interior poverty of spirit, and that since we’re called to rid the world of poverty, it can’t be a blessing. He claims that wealth is not problematic for Christians so long as they are generous to the poor. He then contrasts the approaches of the Franciscans and Benedictines to material wealth and suggests that the Benedictine approach is in some ways superior.
Poverty and Sanctity
Fr. Dwight is correct in pointing out that mere material poverty does not create sanctity. The physical condition of poverty is not going to produce “poverty of spirit.” The same is true in many aspects of the Christian life. Mere rote, conventional attendance at Sunday Mass does not fulfill the command to serve the Lord with all our heart, mind, and soul. At the same time, nobody would argue that attendance at Mass is worthless because it is an external reality. Similarly, material poverty is valuable even though it is not sufficient by itself.
As Christ said, he came to “preach good tidings to the poor.” His message was for all, but the poor were more likely to see it as truly “good” news. Poverty can prepare the heart to accept the Gospel message of radical self-sacrifice and trust in God. The poor, the “riff-raff,” flocked to Christ; the Jerusalem elites, the Pharisees who “loved money,” rejected him. There were, it is true, a few rich men among Christ’s early followers, but they seem to have been the exception.
Fr. Dubay explains this value of poverty by comparing it to readiness to read. He says that readiness to read is a “nothing-something.” A child who is ready will learn to read if taught. A child who is not ready will not learn even with teaching. Readiness is not the same as knowing how to read, but it is a necessary prerequisite. Similarly, the poor are more likely to realize that they are in need of redemption. The rich can distract themselves and convince themselves that they are self-sufficient; as Jesus said in the parable of the sower, the “thorns” which choke out the seed of the Gospel are “worldly anxiety and the lure of riches.”
The Problem with Wealth: Detachment
Fr. Dwight’s blog post includes this statement about wealth:
“But is wealth therefore necessarily a curse? It can be. Certainly Jesus teaches that the rich man finds it harder to get to heaven. However, when the wealthy are generous and responsible to the poor and are philanthropic their wealth is a source of great blessing in the world. Again, the wealth in and of itself, is not a crime. The crime is the greed and lust for more, more, more which deprives others.”
As pointed out above, the problem with wealth is not primarily that it deprives others; the problem is that it makes it harder to recognize the Gospel. This applies even to the wealthy who make large donations. Being able to channel so much wealth in whatever direction one chooses is a god-like ability. The possessors of such power will struggle to achieve inward poverty of spirit, particularly if they are retaining significant superfluous wealth for their own consumption. As Fr. Dubay puts it, “for us wounded human beings, possessing imperceptibly slips into being possessed. No sooner do I have a watch of some quality than I begin to be reluctant to part with it even if someone needs it more than I do.”
The Problem with Wealth: Your Surplus Belongs to the Poor
Even though the problem of depriving others is not the primary one, it is still very serious. Fr. Dwight claims that when the rich are generous with their wealth, it is not problematic. What is often unrealized is that if the wealthy were truly generous, they would no longer be wealthy. The Gospel calls us to give our surplus wealth to those in need, and the saints have reiterated this point. Basil the Great says:
“When a man strips another of his clothes, he is called a thief. Should not a man who has the power to clothe the naked but does not do so be called the same? The bread in your larder belongs to the hungry. The cloak in your wardrobe belongs to the naked. The shoes you allow to rot belong to the barefoot. The money in your vaults belongs to the destitute. You do injustice to every man whom you could help but do not. If you are rich, how can you remain so? If you cared for the poor, it would consume your wealth.”
We are called to this sort of sacrificial giving because we are mystically “one body” with our fellow Christians, and we are all brothers and sisters in the family of God. If my brother was starving on the street, and I decided to spend money on an expensive vacation, designer clothes, or a new vehicle instead of feeding him, I would be considered a moral monster. If my hand was bleeding, and I spent my time and energy in ornamenting my other hand, I would be considered crazy. Currently, how many of our brothers and sisters are starving on the street? In how many of the poor is Jesus Christ hungering and thirsting, alone and naked and in prison? How can a Christian justify spending money on superfluities when Jesus Christ is hungry?
In this context, it is important to remember that Christ wasn’t impressed by the wealthy who put large contributions into the Temple treasury, but he commended the widow who put in “all she had.” If the rich heeded the Gospel message and gave in a truly sacrificial way, they would no longer be rich, but would rather become poor.
The Problem with Wealth: Exploitation and Disparity
Fr. Dwight goes on to say “The current fashionable cause for the poor and criticism of the rich is often a misplaced virtue which is no more than envy.” This might be true of particular critiques, but is inapplicable as a blanket statement. Today, the wealthiest 1% own half the wealth of the world, while millions live in destitution. This can’t possibly be in accord with Christian values. As Pope Francis put it in Evangelii Gaudium:
Today in many places we hear a call for greater security. But until exclusion and inequality in society and between peoples are reversed, it will be impossible to eliminate violence…This is not the case simply because inequality provokes a violent reaction from those excluded from the system, but because the socioeconomic system is unjust at its root. Just as goodness tends to spread, the toleration of evil, which is injustice, tends to expand its baneful influence and quietly to undermine any political and social system, no matter how solid it may appear. (Evangelii Gaudium, 53)
Further, the Gospel demands that we work for social justice. How much wealth is derived from the exploitation of sweatshop workers? As St. James says:
“Come now you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure for the last days. Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out; and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter.” (James 5:1-5)
Another criticism made in Fr. Dwight’s article is that the teaching on Gospel poverty has been used to “keep the poor in their place.” This is a valid concern; I recently wrote a lengthy article to explain this serious misuse of the Church’s teaching on Gospel poverty. The gist of my argument is that poverty should be preached to the rich, not to those who are in need, and that the logical outcome of applying the teaching of Gospel poverty is that there would be no more rich, but also no more destitute. Our model should be the first Christian community as presented in Acts, in which no one lacked anything due to the sacrificial generosity of the richer members.
Building Beautiful Churches
Among other things, Fr. Dwight is concerned that the promotion of poverty will lead to ugly church buildings. He writes:
Another detrimental side effect of the glorification of poverty is the false idea that (because poverty is a virtue) everything in church should be just as cheap as possible thereby, by extension, making poor quality, cheapness and poor taste into a virtue. Thus, in the spirit of what I call “faux Franciscanism” cheap nasty auditoria are thrown up…Of course I realize there are many communities that genuinely cannot afford good stuff, but there is no virtue on the other hand of being cheap for its own sake.
Ugliness, of course, should be avoided whenever possible, whether in church buildings or elsewhere. There is no direct correlation between ugliness and frugality, however. Ugly buildings can be quite expensive, and simple, plain buildings can have their own charm.
It is also true that there is no virtue in being cheap for its own sake, just as being poor isn’t a virtue in itself. If there is a choice between feeding the hungry and decorating churches, however, it seems that feeding the hungry should come first. On this topic, St. John Chrysostom said the following:
Of what use is it to weigh down Christ’s table with golden cups, when he himself is dying of hunger? First, fill him when he is hungry; then use the means you have left to adorn his table. Will you have a golden cup made but not give a cup of water? What is the use of providing the table with cloths woven of gold thread, and not providing Christ himself with the clothes he needs? What profit is there in that?
Tell me: If you were to see him lacking the necessary food but were to leave him in that state and merely surround his table with gold would he be grateful to you or rather would he not be angry? What if you were to see him clad in worn-out rags and stiff from the cold, and were to forget about clothing him and instead were to set up golden columns for him, saying that you were doing it in his honor? Would he not think he was being mocked and greatly insulted?
Apply this also to Christ when he comes along the roads as a pilgrim, looking for shelter. You do not take him in as your guest, but you decorate floor and walls and the capitals of the pillars. You provide silver chains for the lamps, but you cannot bear even to look at him as he lies chained in prison.
Once again, I am not forbidding you to supply these adornments; I am urging you to provide these other things as well, and indeed to provide them first. No one has ever been accused for not providing ornaments, but for those who neglect their neighbor a hell awaits with an inextinguishable fire and torment in the company of the demons. Do not, therefore, adorn the church and ignore your afflicted brother, for he is the most precious temple of all.
If our brothers and sisters in Christ are still hungry and naked, as so many of them are today, can we say that we have followed St. John’s advice? Have we provided “first” for those in need? And if we will be condemned for not feeding the hungry, but won’t be condemned for having a plain church building, on what should we choose to spend our resources?
Benedictines and Franciscans
Toward the end of his article, Fr. Dwight draws a comparison between the Franciscan and the Benedictine stance on poverty. He writes:
Finally, in this debate I have always preferred the way of St Benedict to that of Francis. The Benedictine monk does not take a vow of poverty, but the Rule stipulates that he is to have no personal possessions. The monastic community, on the other hand, can own property, buildings and the goods of life and these are to be enjoyed by the brothers according to their worth. The Benedictine way is one of proper Christian detachment rather than total poverty.
Gospel poverty is not a “Franciscan” idea that can be pitted against other Christian alternatives. In Happy Are You Poor, Father Thomas Dubay explains that every Christian is called to practice Gospel poverty, though it will look different in each state of life. We’re each called to examine our lives and determine how God is calling us to live out poverty; Fr. Dubay’s book is a great place to start such a process of discernment. The Benedictine way of life may not have the same stress on poverty as the Franciscan way of life does, but as Fr. Dwight points out, Benedictine monks have no personal possessions. The average middle-class American does have personal possessions, and so it makes little sense to invoke Benedictine spirituality as a reason for ignoring the Gospel’s call to voluntary poverty.
While it is true that some Benedictine monasteries have been wealthy, this seems to have been a negative rather than a positive development. St. Benedict himself gave up everything to live in a cave. The Cistercian order, which follows the rule of St. Benedict, was founded by those who decried the growing wealth of established Benedictine monasteries. St. Bernard of Clairvaux, perhaps the most famous Cistercian, wrote the following to a fellow monk. One might almost think the following had been written by St. Francis!
I wish you to be the friend of the poor, but especially their imitator. The one is the grade of beginner, the other of the perfect, for the friendship of the poor makes us the friend of kings, but the love of poverty makes us kings ourselves. The kingdom of heaven is the kingdom of the poor…
Any concern that Gospel poverty is inspired by a Manichean hatred of the created world can be put to rest by examining the life of St. Francis. He was not only a great lover of poverty, but was also a great lover of Creation, seeing God in everything around him.
Poverty and Community
Our religion is fundamentally relational, and Gospel poverty is a relational virtue. Wealth gives the illusion of self-sufficiency, while poverty emphasizes our dependence on God and on our fellow human beings. Keeping superfluous wealth for ourselves injures our neighbor, while sacrificial giving not only benefits others but gives honor to God. The call to poverty is not decorative or optional; it is fundamentally connected to the two great commandments that are “like one another”: to love God with all our heart and soul, and to love our neighbors as ourselves.
Image: The Charity of St. Benedict. By Ambrogio Bergognone – Own work, Sailko, 26 January 2016, 17:14:55, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48525291
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Malcolm Schluenderfritz hosts Happy Are You Poor, a blog and podcast dedicated to discussing radical Christian community as a means of evangelization. He works as a graphic design assistant and a horticulturalist in Littleton, CO.