Back in December, Bishop Robert Barron wrote an article on the Word on Fire website about the Second Vatican Council’s universal call to holiness. He wonders what the world would look like if all Catholics heeded this call to sanctity. In his article, he speculates about what might happen if we were to radically embrace poverty, chastity, and obedience. In this article, I imagine an expanded and more detailed picture of what would happen if all US Catholics became truly detached from their possessions.
Bishop Barron’s article opens with the figure of Dorothy Day. As Bishop Barron points out, Dorothy recognized that the laity are called to holiness. In the past, the Church often presented a two-track account of holiness, with the clergy and religious called to follow the evangelical counsels of perfection, while the laity were merely expected to follow the minimum requirements of the commandments. Dorothy rejected this notion of a “commandments spirituality” side by side with a “counsels spirituality.” Instead, she emphasized that all the baptized are called to heroic sanctity.
Further on in his article, Bishop Barron discusses the evangelical counsel of poverty. He rightly points out that while the laity are not called to follow the evangelical counsels in the same way that vowed religious do, they are still relevant for every Christian. He writes:
Though the laity are not, at least typically, summoned to the sort of radical poverty adopted by, say, a Trappist monk, they are indeed supposed to practice a real detachment from the goods of the world, precisely for the sake of their mission on behalf of the world. Unless a lay person has interior freedom from an addiction to wealth, power, pleasure, rank, honor, etc., she cannot follow the will of God as she ought. Only when the woman at the well put down her water jug, only when she stopped seeking to quench her thirst from the water of the world’s pleasures, was she able to evangelize (John 4). Similarly, only when a baptized person today liberates himself from an addiction to money, authority, or good feelings is he ready to become the saint God wants him to be. So, poverty, in the sense of detachment, is essential to the holiness of the laity.
It might seem that Bishop Barron is endorsing the idea that mere spiritual detachment is sufficient without factual, material poverty of life. He obviously has something more concrete in mind, however, since toward the end of the article he writes:
Imagine what would happen if, overnight, every Catholic commenced to live in radical detachment from the goods of the world. How dramatically politics, economics, and the culture would change for the better.
Some sort of amorphous interior “freedom” wouldn’t have much effect on our politics, so the detachment referred to in Bishop Barron’s article must be something more practical.
In fact, true detachment must manifest itself in external action. Those who claim to be detached and then proceed to amuse themselves with a life of luxury while others starve can’t possibly be truly detached. If someone was truly free from attachment, their superfluous wealth would naturally flow away from them toward the poor. As St. Basil says, giving superfluous wealth to the poor is not a matter of charity, but rather of justice. To retain superfluous goods while others go hungry is a crime.
A Different World
Bishop Barron does not give any details about how the world would change if Catholics suddenly embraced the Church’s teaching on material wealth. Spending some time trying to visualize this could be spiritually beneficial.
Obviously, such crimes as theft and embezzlement would diminish. All workers would be paid a living wage, since defrauding laborers of a fair wage is theft. Even a “commandments spirituality” would call for at least this much.
Currently, 2.5 million children are homeless in the USA, 17 million children are going hungry, and three out of every thousand US households lack running water. Such problems would quickly disappear as Catholics donated their surplus wealth to the poor. Such donations would also reduce the egregious disparity between rich and poor countries, and would wipe out the unjust debts that burden so many societies around the world.
Since all this superfluous wealth would be given to the poor, many industries would see an enormous drop in demand. I doubt there would be miners boring under a frozen lake in the Arctic in search of gem-quality diamonds; the existing supply would probably do quite nicely. Luxury travel would decrease, and cruise lines and theme parks would go bankrupt, as Catholics decided to spend their vacations in less consumptive ways. Even though the poor would be better clad than before, the clothing industry would shrink. No Catholic would purchase unnecessary clothing while others went without, and fashion would become irrelevant. Wearing out one’s clothes would become the norm.
The market for consumer goods would drop, since fewer goods would be upgraded merely for the sake of an upgrade. Christians wouldn’t remodel houses for purely aesthetic reasons, or trade in vehicles every few years, or own multiple cars, or buy luxury “toys” such as RVs and yachts. The advertising market would dry up, since the bulk of advertising is designed to create unnecessary desires rather than simply to advertise goods. The private storage industry would disappear.
New house building would slow to a crawl. Young people would keep living with their parents, instead of finding a separate place to rent when they turn 18. Young couples could move in with the elderly, helping to take care of them and utilizing the empty space in their over-large houses. Over the past 50 years, the size of the average new house built in the USA has almost doubled. During the same time period, the number of people in the average American household has shrunk. Without so much stuff, we’d all fit into much less space.
It is likely that if American Catholics really embraced detachment, they would realize that they didn’t need to be spending lavish amounts of water and energy maintaining picture-perfect lawns around their homes. Instead, some of that space could be repurposed in more useful and productive ways, such as growing food to share with the hungry. Maybe we’d even return to eating seasonally, instead of having strawberries shipped in from Argentina and apples shipped in from New Zealand.
The result of all this would be a massive transfer of resources. The earth’s finite resources would now be used to produce basic necessities instead of being wasted on frivolous consumption. This would go a long way toward solving the environmental crisis. Rather than having to choose between destructive oil wells and destructive lithium mines, we would find that we could actually demand less from the earth, allowing it to heal and regenerate.
With so many unnecessary industries collapsing, the workers would be free to move into truly productive lines of work. In fact, we might be able to inaugurate a shorter work-week and work-day. After all, since only a few percent of the workforce is sufficient to produce the necessities of life, we would have to come up with a way to give everyone a job. Paying each worker more for fewer hours on the job would cut into the profits of companies, but since the owners would already have embraced a lifestyle on par with their workers this wouldn’t be a problem.
To accommodate more workers in the remaining industries, we might even return to doing some work by hand instead of with machinery. Machines save labor, but in a world of much lower demand, this might not be as desirable. We could still use machinery to avoid mechanical, repetitive drudgery. But maybe we could rediscover the values of craftsmanship, of allowing workers to have a creative role in shaping individual pieces of work.
With the extra time provided by our detachment from worldly goods, we could rediscover the true meaning of leisure. All work is ultimately for leisure, the “wasting” of time with one another, with God, and with Creation. Yet in our world today, leisure is generally absent. Instead, we have “recreation,” “re-creating” ourselves for the sake of greater productivity when we go back to work. In a world detached from material goods, we could become more attached to others by spending leisure time with them and become more attached to God by spending time in contemplation.
Fundamentally, we would end up restructuring our whole economy, which is currently based on endless growth. Such growth causes many problems since infinite growth on a finite planet is an impossibility. Initially, widespread detachment would cause the size of the economy to plummet. After that, it would only grow at the same rate as population growth. Since so many Americans would have become detached from their wealth, creating a steady-state economy free of usury and speculation would become politically possible.
In fact, if all the Catholics really embraced Church teaching in a radical way the Church would probably become much more attractive to converts, at least among the poor. This would lead to an increase in the number of people practicing radical detachment, speeding the transition to such a truly just and sustainable economy.
I’m sure that many readers are now thinking that this is a fairy-tale, an impractical vision that could never be implemented on Earth. It is true that such a world will never come to be, unless we become truly detached from our wealth. In other words, unless we are converted there will be no peace and justice on the earth. But it doesn’t hurt to dream. In fact, we are called to dream of such a world. Every day, we pray the Lord’s Prayer and ask for the coming of Christ’s Kingdom, a kingdom of peace and justice. We should be open to becoming the answer to our prayers. As Pope Francis writes in Let Us Dream:
God asks us to dare to create something new…We need economies that give to all access to the fruits of creation, to the basic needs of life: to land, lodging, and labor. … The modern era, which has developed equality and liberty with such determination, now needs to focus on fraternity with the same drive and tenacity to confront the challenges ahead.… Let’s allow God’s words to Isaiah to speak to us: Come, let us talk this over. Let us dare to dream. (Let Us Dream, end of the Introduction.)
Wealth, however, will dull our vision and prevent us from having such dreams. Only by embracing detachment, and the voluntary poverty that flows from detachment, will we be free to dream of a better world. Dorothy Day provides a great example of this. Her embrace of voluntary poverty freed her to dream on a large scale. Together with Peter Maurin, she set about “building a new world in the shell of the old” and renewing society with “a philosophy so old it seemed like new.” Dorothy knew that such large dreams can only become real at a personal level, through personal conversion and personal charity, rather than through a political or institutional process. And so she dedicated her life to serving Christ in those around her. May we all walk in her footsteps.
Image: “The Catholic Worker Movement” website at www.catholicworker.org. Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 US).