Shortly after his election, Pope Francis called for a Church that “is poor and for the poor.” It is easy to understand why he would want a Church that is “for the poor.” Aiding the marginalized has always been a key theme of his pontificate, and it is an important aspect of the Gospel. All through history, the Church has exercised a “preferential option for the poor,” aiding them both spiritually and materially.
Why, however, would Pope Francis or anyone else want a Church that “is poor”? Isn’t poverty something that we should try to eradicate? How could something negative, a mere absence of material goods, be spiritually beneficial?
There is widespread confusion on this topic among US Catholics. On the one hand, some people reject the whole idea of voluntary poverty because they erroneously suppose it entails destitution. On the other hand, some Catholics argue that factual frugality and poverty of life are unnecessary. They claim that Jesus called us to a merely spiritual detachment, and that there is no harm in enjoying an affluent lifestyle so long as one is “detached” from one’s possessions. Such “detachment” is an illusion, however. The New Testament clearly calls Christians to embrace voluntary poverty and clearly portrays wealth as an obstacle to the spiritual life. Yet despite the central place of this teaching in the Gospel, it is seldom talked about today.
To help remedy this state of affairs, I recently created a free course on Smart Catholics that explores the practice and theory of voluntary poverty. The course is designed to be self-guided; individuals can take it at their own pace while interacting with the other participants. To learn more about how I became interested in voluntary poverty and why I created the course, watch my interview with Dominic de Souza.
The course will also serve as the basis for a weekly series of online discussion meetings that will be held every Monday from September 12th to October 17th at 8 p.m. (EDT). These meetings will be offered in collaboration with the Living Communion initiative, a project of the Simone Weil House. To gain access to these meetings, contact me through my website or my profile on the Smart Catholics Course.
Throughout the course, I tried to draw connections between voluntary poverty and other aspects of Catholic teaching. As Father Dubay points out, “The divine disclosure is a closely knit whole. One doctrine cannot be rejected without that rejection affecting other doctrines.” The rejection of voluntary poverty deeply distorts our understanding of the Faith.
Christianity is all about discipleship, the imitation of Christ. Voluntary poverty is an essential aspect of this imitation. In his Lenten Message for 2014, Pope Francis wrote:
[God] does not reveal himself cloaked in worldly power and wealth but rather in weakness and poverty: “though He was rich, yet for your sake he became poor ….” Christ, the eternal Son of God, one with the Father in power and glory, chose to be poor; he came amongst us and drew near to each of us; he set aside his glory and emptied himself so that he could be like us in all things…
We might think that this “way” of poverty was Jesus’ way, whereas we who come after him can save the world with the right kind of human resources. This is not the case. In every time and place God continues to save mankind and the world through the poverty of Christ, who makes himself poor in the sacraments, in his word and in his Church, which is a people of the poor. God’s wealth passes not through our wealth, but invariably and exclusively through our personal and communal poverty, enlivened by the Spirit of Christ.
Similarly, describing the mission of the apostle, Romano Guardini wrote: “The apostle…must accept and constantly renew within himself this basic secret of his mission: the vulnerable Christ he bears within him in his sacred word is only endangered when power, property, or strategy of any sort contribute to the reception of his tidings.”
In a practical sense, voluntary poverty allows us to effectively aid the poor. If we are unwilling to part with our superfluous possessions for the benefit of others, we are obviously “attached” to them! In the same Lenten message, Pope Francis distinguishes between destitution and poverty. By embracing poverty, the Christian community can aid the destitute through their sacrifices:
In imitation of our Master, we Christians are called to confront the poverty of our brothers and sisters, to touch it, to make it our own and to take practical steps to alleviate it. Destitution is not the same as poverty: destitution is poverty without faith, without support, without hope…
Dear brothers and sisters, may this Lenten season find the whole Church ready to bear witness to all those who live in material, moral and spiritual destitution the Gospel message of the merciful love of God our Father, who is ready to embrace everyone in Christ. We can do this to the extent that we imitate Christ who became poor and enriched us by his poverty. Lent is a fitting time for self-denial; we would do well to ask ourselves what we can give up in order to help and enrich others by our own poverty. Let us not forget that real poverty hurts: no self-denial is real without this dimension of penance. I distrust a charity that costs nothing and does not hurt.
Voluntary poverty not only aids us in assisting the destitute; it also frees us from attachment to worldly things. Too often, as Father Thomas Dubay puts it, possessing slips into being possessed. Our wealth can tie us down and prevent us from following Christ. When Jesus said that nobody can serve both God and Mammon, he was not giving a command; he was simply making a factual observation. In a world that is dominated by mammon as never before, our spiritual destitution is growing ever deeper.
Part of this destitution is a lack of authentic community. From the Trinitarian nature of God to the Mystical Body of Christ, the Christian message is all about communion and community. Christianity calls us to embrace unity with our brothers and sisters and to make manifest the love of God in the love we have for one another. Today, however, our wealth has made us individualistic and lonely. Wealth gives the individual an illusion of power and control. This can be seen in the parable of the rich fool in the Gospel. With his new barns bursting with grain, he felt that he was “all set.” God bursts this illusion by pointing out his inability to control the future. All his stored wealth couldn’t protect him from death. By contrast, the Christian response to abundance is to share it with those in need. I recently heard a priest explain that the rich fool thought he had a “storage problem,” but what he really had was a “mindset problem.” He failed to see his wealth as a gift from God that he should in turn bestow on the surrounding community. Instead, he was bent on hoarding everything for himself. He refused to enter into relationship with God or neighbor, instead putting his trust in his goods.
In this way, it could be said that Christian community and voluntary poverty are merely two sides of the same coin. Without community, poverty is unbearable. It can quickly slip into the destitution that Pope Francis decries. At the same time, without poverty, true community is not desirable. Community comes naturally to the poor. But The Shepherd of Hermas, a 2nd-century work of Christian mysticism, portrays the wealthy as being hesitant to enter the community of the servants of God. Perhaps they will be asked for donations!
Fundamentally, authentic community requires us to become mutually dependent on one another and to share in bearing the burdens of life together. This is not possible if we are fixated on solving problems for ourselves through the personal wealth “hoarded” in our bank accounts. To respond effectively to the pope’s vision of a better world, we must embrace voluntary poverty.
Click to learn more and to enroll in this free course on Smart Catholics on the practice and theory of voluntary poverty. To learn more about how Malcolm Schluenderfritz became interested in voluntary poverty and why he created the course, watch his interview with Dominic de Souza.