How Being a Poor Lay Catholic Missionary Changed My Politics

CNN just ran a rather unqualified story on the residences of Catholic Archbishops in the US. Joanne McPortlandDeacon Greg, and Jennifer Fitz cover it in rich and fair detail.

The story affected me in a personal way. It pricked something in me that may serve to explain some my more deeply felt political intuitions.

*

I wish we would share how our lived experiences shape and form our politics. Behind every bumper sticker is a story. At least there should be.

Being thoughtful and reflective about our ideological tastes would do much more good than arguing about them.

*

I was born and raised in a lay missionary family. The term ‘missionary,’ in this context, was fuelled by the notion of “evangelizing the baptized,” common in the Charismatic Renewal Movement. This means that we often lived (in the USA and Mexico) in houses that were provided by the parish where my Father worked at; other times we rented homes for ourself, especially when we lived on donations and lacked a parochial affiliation.

While our finances varied, they always oscillated between degrees of distance below the poverty line.

I vividly recall being hit by a revelation, while living in a small single floor house on the parish lot, in the shadow of the rector’s two story house: the capitalist dictum (I was a Rush Limbaugh fan at the time), that the rich will care for the poor when they are free to do so, is patently false.

Every parish we worked at struggled to meet its expenses, and operated on a thin budget that often still managed to give to the poor, but never enough. How often we forget that in many cases the Church itself is the poor! Every year we depended on child income credits, well above the actual taxes we paid for the year, programs like WIC, and other forms of welfare to make ends meet. Public libraries were essential.

Those who could give to the Church or to our ministry, more often than not, didn’t. Those who did support were often those who themselves went without. Generosity in my experience was overwhelmingly from degrees of mutual poverty.

This formed an imperfect but searing impression that the good-faith capitalist assumption I received through the EIB network, that those with money will share it justly if only afforded the freedom to do so, was severely out of touch with reality.

If the Church that we gave our lives to could not afford to care for us, and others in its service and payroll who went without a just wage, how much more was I filled with a deep sense that Rush and friends were wholly discredited. I didn’t know about Fox News then, but when I saw that this was the same line of reasoning, I just as quickly dismissed them and the Republican Party has only added to those injuries ever since. When First Things waxes philosophical about poverty or economics, I often wonder how many government cans of pork or blocks of cheese they’ve had to eat.

*

It has always been painful to think that full-time ministry, while financially rewarding for some, is usually impossible for laypeople. I understand the realities involved and the case it makes for more clergy and religious people, but it still resounds as an enormous counterfactual to contend with for those trying to make libertarian and capitalist-tinged arguments. It also makes me wonder whether the Church in times of great need could stand to spends its material resources in a wiser way, all things considered.

*

I wrote virtually the same thing after Obama was elected; I think it repeats what I said here in a different way:

I didn’t acquire my lefty sentiments from Marx. I got them from the Catholic Church. Not liberation theology. I got them from a very in-your-face, firsthand reality: the Church itself couldn’t care for the poor, my family. We gave our life to the Church in full-time service and we lived on less than a shoe string budget. We used WIC and other government programs when we could and we still just barely got by. I saw priests (employed at the same parish) drive nice cars we could never afford, cars that I felt ashamed not to have, and live in houses two or three times the size of ours. This wasn’t always the case; in Brady, Texas we lived in the parish rectory, which was nice by comparison, but, time and time again, I saw my most trusted and beloved institution neglect to provide for those who sacrificed everything to and for it. After a while it began to contradict the free market politics I grew up listening to on the radio, on the EIB network, and hearing from the Republican party. If the Catholic Church couldn’t provide adequate health care benefits and a living wage to it’s own employees, then how could we rely on a privatized, free market to care for the poor? The idea that the rich would freely and gladly give to the poor was, for me, unthinkable because the Church was mostly unable to provide for us because parishes and dioceses were suffering from fiscal woes that came from a lack of support from those rich people. To this day, my Dad tithes 10% on his gross income, faithfully. Taxes, for me, function like tithing.

I am a Leftist because the Church’s own neglect forced me realize the absolute need for something, anything, to care for the poor when my most intimately cherished institution cannot. I hate to give the state credit for anything, but, in the right proportion, I don’t see how it cannot provide for the poor, even through controlling and pacing the gains of the rich. I do not see the poor as parasites, but I do know how vulgar and exploitive they can be. I have no romantic sense of the lower classes. There is a sad pathology of poverty that makes people do and be very ugly things. But I do know what this looks like from the bottom up. I feel most at home with the poor sometimes. I can relax there. This is the foundation of what I call my “Leftism.” Marx just added some meat to those bones, later, and discredited himself in other ways, too.

*

None of this serves to justify my own political leanings nor does if follow to assume that I simply swung around to the other side of the anaemic set of options in the United States. Plus, I now reside in Canada.

But I hope it offers a slightly different reading of the CNN story. Perhaps our critics are doing us some good to reconsider the place for material riches in a Catholic Church that just as often, if not more, makes its place among the poor.

*

Yes I realize that I’ve violated my self-imposed rules and that this may reek of self-pity. Please, save it for the present poor.

  • Ken

    Thanks for posting this and sharing your story. I’ve read several of the other commentaries on this. They do raise some valid points on real estate and other considerations that I hadn’t thought of but they all fall flat to me. I know it’s unpleasant to read negative stories about the church but that doesn’t mean they are necessarily wrong. At the very least it just doesn’t look good for a Bishop or any Catholic religious order to be in such opulent housing.

  • ModerateMom17

    “Generosity in my experience was overwhelmingly from degrees of mutual poverty”

    This is absolutely my experience as well.

  • http://rosarynovice.stblogs.com/ Augustine

    In my upbringing in a poor family, I learned that the government has a good talk, but it fails to walk it due to its utter corruption. We knew we couldn’t rely on the government, but, thankfully, our extended family helped as they could.

    Yes, this tinged my preferred economic theories and politics, but perhaps to the opposite of yours.

    The crux of the matter though is why do you think that your dad’s choices had to be subsidized by others? Would it be possible that government dole corrupted generosity at large?

    Of course, while perhaps your dad had a choice, and I admire him for his courage to persist in it, most are not poor because they’re on a Mission from God, but because… it’s a mystery.

    I don’t pretend to have a solution. We have in good word that the poor will always be with us. But, having lived 1/3 of my life here, I see the same level of government corruption in this country as at home. So it bothers me tremendously that this racket can legally determine how much of my income I can keep and use violence to enforce it.

    The only sense of gratitude I have towards government is for forcing me to strive to leave poverty behind. For relatively achieving it though, I thank God.

    • SamRocha

      For me, having now lived in three different countries, I think the main thing is to listen to each other and find out the experiences that root our political inclinations. My view is that no one who can anchor their ideology in real life is telling a lie. But the truth is the ability to mend together the parts to create a whole. My father certainly could have given up; most of his colleagues did just that. But his perseverance was also subsidized by governmental benefits and services, that the Church and his supporters could not, for whatever reason, offer.

      • http://rosarynovice.stblogs.com/ Augustine

        For the sake of completeness, I should also add that I grew up under a military dictatorship, which heightens in me the sense of mistrust in the government.

        • SamRocha

          This is something I find in common with many of my Eastern European friends, although they seem immune to nearly every ideology in toto since they’ve suffered at them all.

          • http://rosarynovice.stblogs.com/ Augustine

            Eastern Europeans certainly saw the worst of government brutality. In my case, the tyrants were so busy looting the country and everyone, that, though on paper, and a tad more, it was as bad a dictatorship as behind the Iron Curtain, we didn’t suffer as badly. I like to say that government corruption preserved our life, relative liberty and the yearning for happiness.

  • http://armynow.blogspot.com Neil Gussman

    Thanks for posting this David.

  • http://armynow.blogspot.com Neil Gussman

    Thanks for posting this David.

  • http://outsidetheautisticasylum.blogspot.com/ Theodore Seeber

    I like government cheese. I wish I could find a place to buy it outright. There are certain recipes that would benefit from it.

    And I still buy Van Camp’s pork and beans from time to time (the retail version), not to donate to SVDP, but to eat myself.

  • http://outsidetheautisticasylum.blogspot.com/ Theodore Seeber

    I like government cheese. I wish I could find a place to buy it outright. There are certain recipes that would benefit from it.

    And I still buy Van Camp’s pork and beans from time to time (the retail version), not to donate to SVDP, but to eat myself.

  • Antiphon411

    It is my impression that the Church has never had a tradition of lay, married missionaries. She has relied rather on various religious orders. This seems wise from reading your piece.

    It requires much less in the way of resources to support one man or woman who has taken a vow of poverty than to support a family. Religious orders had their own sources of wealth and did not need to rely on the resources of parishes.

    The proper role of the laity, I think, is to live and work in the world; to raise up families; to help children discern vocations; to support the Church and worthy Catholic charities with their wealth; and to work for their own salvation and to help those around them.

    It seemed like a good system.

    There would be more religious missionaries if the laity kept to its proper business.

    • SamRocha

      If the laity kept to its “proper business,” I think the Church would be in a great deal of trouble today.

      • Antiphon411

        Perhaps you haven’t noticed, but the Church is in a great deal of trouble today.

        • SamRocha

          How much more trouble would it be in without laity in active ministry!

  • Antiphon411

    It is my impression that the Church has never had a tradition of lay, married missionaries. She has relied rather on various religious orders. This seems wise from reading your piece.

    It requires much less in the way of resources to support one man or woman who has taken a vow of poverty than to support a family. Religious orders had their own sources of wealth and did not need to rely on the resources of parishes.

    The proper role of the laity, I think, is to live and work in the world; to raise up families; to help children discern vocations; to support the Church and worthy Catholic charities with their wealth; and to work for their own salvation and to help those around them.

    It seemed like a good system.

    There would be more religious missionaries if the laity kept to its proper business.

    • SamRocha

      If the laity kept to its “proper business,” I think the Church would be in a great deal of trouble today.

      • Antiphon411

        Perhaps you haven’t noticed, but the Church is in a great deal of trouble today.

        • SamRocha

          How much more trouble would it be in without laity in active ministry!

  • Dinch

    The problem is the inherent coercive violence that the State must use in order to redistribute the wealth. The State cannot give money that it has justly earned, it must first take that money from those who have it by force. This process is inherently sinful and should be noted as such by any Christian who has the eyes to see it for what it is.

    I’ve not heard any libertarian or Rush Limbaugh (who is definitely NOT a libertarian) say that if given the freedom to do so, the rich would give to the poor. I can’t speak for Rush, but I can say that the fundamental theory behind libertarian economics is that without government interference, the free market would raise the living standards of all people, including the poor, so that there would be FAR FEWER poor among us, and the Church could more than take care of those few left. In libertarian and true capitalist ideology, the reason there are so many in poverty is precisely BECAUSE government has interfered in the market. Without that interference, the poor would be significantly less poor.

    That being said, as a Christian, if God gives us the job to help the poor, he will provide the resources despite the state screwing things up. If the Church is poor it is because it has not opened itself up to the abundance of our Father who owns the cattle on a thousand hills and is more generous with his bounty than any earthly father ever is. There is a poverty spirit in the Church that sees wealth as evil (misinterpreting Jesus and Paul) instead of the LOVE of wealth as evil. This poverty spirit shuns abundance as opulence and therefore does not look to God for any more than subsistence living. This has the added effect of causing those with money to feel like they are unwelcome in the Church. The Church preaches sermons about how wealth is evil and the result is to make those with the very means to help the poor unwelcome among us. It is no wonder that those with wealth are not inclined to give! The Church has ostracized them for centuries.

    Therefore, let us not blame capitalism, which is NOT the system we have in any country today, for the poverty conditions the State causes and the poverty spirit the Church embraces.

    • SamRocha

      Inherent coercive violence? I live in Canada and pay a healthy income tax, what is the violence you are speaking of?

      • Dinch

        I’m not surprised you don’t see it as violence. We’re indoctrinated from a young age to believe in the necessity of a state. The inherent violence is this:

        “Pay us a percentage of your income or we come to your house with guns and force you into a cage against your will.”

        You can substitute anything the state might do in place of the income tax in my example. The state can do nothing without the threat of violence behind it. It requires obedience or else. It maintains a monopoly on force and uses its threat to coerce us into turning over a large percentage of our property. If anyone outside of the covering of “government” did that it would be called violent theft. But if it’s done by “government” then it’s ok. I don’t believe coercive violence is ever ok, regardless of the purpose or regardless of what name you give the entity doing the violence.

        Regulations, taxes, licenses, etc. are all enforced using the threat of coercive violence. Even if the taxes go to a good and righteous cause, say, charity for the poor, the means by which the funds were procured is immoral and sinful and therefore should be rejected by any Christian.

        For example: If I went door to door with a baseball bat and threatened to beat the owners of the houses I go to unless they give me $100 each for the feeding of the poor and hungry of the streets of my city, it would be ill-gotten money even though the intent and purpose of the money is good and righteous. I see no fundamental difference between that scenario and government taxing the people under threat of violence even if the taxes go to fund good things. Forced charity is no charity at all and is hateful to God for the one giving the money is not doing so cheerfully out of the generosity of his heart, and the one extracting the money is doing so immorally and sinfully behind the power of his gun.

        If we are lovers of peace, as our Prince of Peace is, then we cannot approve of government using threats of coercive violence to steal property in order to redistribute it. God is looking for His people to step up and trust Him for the necessary resources for all of the work He calls us to do and I believe He is deeply grieved when we recruit the state with all their guns to do our work for us.

        • SamRocha

          I’ve written at some length about compulsion, in particular compulsory schooling. But I think your rendering of the situation here is, frankly, a caricature. And given the fact that I highly doubt that you are raising a militia or alike, I suppose even you can agree with me in practice.

          • Dinch

            I’m not sure how it can be construed a caricature… try not paying your income tax. I’ll come up and visit you in jail. It’ll start off with letters from the state detailing how you haven’t paid and the fines and penalties that they are now arbitrarily adding to the thievery, but eventually, if you refuse to pay, they will use their guns and throw you in jail. The threat of that happening is what compels people to obey in the first place.

            As for your second point, just because I’m not raising a militia does not mean I’m ok with what’s happening, nor am I agreeing to it. I know open rebellion would fail (unless mass millions joined) and I’m not fond of the opportunity costs associated with such a venture. I suffer the tyranny of the state because the alternative is what I described above. That in no way means I’m agreeing to be tyrannized.

      • Mr. Graves

        Stop paying income tax. The coercive aspect will become apparent sooner rather than later.

        • SamRocha

          There are degrees of coercion. I doubt you feel *coerced* to stop at red lights. Steve has not make a generic remark about coercion, he has called progressive taxation “inherent coercive violence.” So don’t make cute remarks about obvious facts about tax evasion when the claim being made is clear. After all, you can be jailed for a traffic violation, too, or for truancy, and so on.

          • Mr. Graves

            I was going for “pithy” in the original remark; “cute” means it fell far short. Neither I nor my comments have been cute for many decades, more’s the pity.

            As coercion goes, yes, I am *coerced* into stopping, but I can’t think you mean to equate thuggery with traffic control. If you and I are walking down a road and a transient asks for money, if you pick my pocket and hand the man my wallet, you may think that’s not violence because you didn’t bloody my nose in the process, but violence it still is. And to compound the crime of theft, you’ve now made an innocent — the beggar — complicit in your violence by receiving the fruits of your crime. Presumably you would never mug someone, but the policies you seem to champion are nothing less than an involuntary collectivist mugging.

            Whether the well-to-do in fact give to charity (and you make some very good points in that regard) does not justify forcing them to do so in violation of their basic human rights. Nor is it charity in any meaningful sense: Bertrand Russell, when asked why he didn’t give to charity, is said to have replied, “We are socialists. We don’t pretend to be Christians.” Whatever his failings, he at least understood the difference between true Christian charity and coercion (with or without violence as you understand it).

  • Dinch

    The problem is the inherent coercive violence that the State must use in order to redistribute the wealth. The State cannot give money that it has justly earned, it must first take that money from those who have it by force. This process is inherently sinful and should be noted as such by any Christian who has the eyes to see it for what it is.

    I’ve not heard any libertarian or Rush Limbaugh (who is definitely NOT a libertarian) say that if given the freedom to do so, the rich would give to the poor. I can’t speak for Rush, but I can say that the fundamental theory behind libertarian economics is that without government interference, the free market would raise the living standards of all people, including the poor, so that there would be FAR FEWER poor among us, and the Church could more than take care of those few left. In libertarian and true capitalist ideology, the reason there are so many in poverty is precisely BECAUSE government has interfered in the market. Without that interference, the poor would be significantly less poor.

    That being said, as a Christian, if God gives us the job to help the poor, he will provide the resources despite the state screwing things up. If the Church is poor it is because it has not opened itself up to the abundance of our Father who owns the cattle on a thousand hills and is more generous with his bounty than any earthly father ever is. There is a poverty spirit in the Church that sees wealth as evil (misinterpreting Jesus and Paul) instead of the LOVE of wealth as evil. This poverty spirit shuns abundance as opulence and therefore does not look to God for any more than subsistence living. This has the added effect of causing those with money to feel like they are unwelcome in the Church. The Church preaches sermons about how wealth is evil and the result is to make those with the very means to help the poor unwelcome among us. It is no wonder that those with wealth are not inclined to give! The Church has ostracized them for centuries.

    Therefore, let us not blame capitalism, which is NOT the system we have in any country today, for the poverty conditions the State causes and the poverty spirit the Church embraces.

    • SamRocha

      Inherent coercive violence? I live in Canada and pay a healthy income tax, what is the violence you are speaking of?

      • Dinch

        I’m not surprised you don’t see it as violence. We’re indoctrinated from a young age to believe in the necessity of a state. The inherent violence is this:

        “Pay us a percentage of your income or we come to your house with guns and force you into a cage against your will.”

        You can substitute anything the state might do in place of the income tax in my example. The state can do nothing without the threat of violence behind it. It requires obedience or else. It maintains a monopoly on force and uses its threat to coerce us into turning over a large percentage of our property. If anyone outside of the covering of “government” did that it would be called violent theft. But if it’s done by “government” then it’s ok. I don’t believe coercive violence is ever ok, regardless of the purpose or regardless of what name you give the entity doing the violence.

        Regulations, taxes, licenses, etc. are all enforced using the threat of coercive violence. Even if the taxes go to a good and righteous cause, say, charity for the poor, the means by which the funds were procured is immoral and sinful and therefore should be rejected by any Christian.

        For example: If I went door to door with a baseball bat and threatened to beat the owners of the houses I go to unless they give me $100 each for the feeding of the poor and hungry of the streets of my city, it would be ill-gotten money even though the intent and purpose of the money is good and righteous. I see no fundamental difference between that scenario and government taxing the people under threat of violence even if the taxes go to fund good things. Forced charity is no charity at all and is hateful to God for the one giving the money is not doing so cheerfully out of the generosity of his heart, and the one extracting the money is doing so immorally and sinfully behind the power of his gun.

        If we are lovers of peace, as our Prince of Peace is, then we cannot approve of government using threats of coercive violence to steal property in order to redistribute it. God is looking for His people to step up and trust Him for the necessary resources for all of the work He calls us to do and I believe He is deeply grieved when we recruit the state with all their guns to do our work for us.

        • SamRocha

          I’ve written at some length about compulsion, in particular compulsory schooling. But I think your rendering of the situation here is, frankly, a caricature. And given the fact that I highly doubt that you are raising a militia or alike, I suppose even you can agree with me in practice.

          • Dinch

            I’m not sure how it can be construed a caricature… try not paying your income tax. I’ll come up and visit you in jail. It’ll start off with letters from the state detailing how you haven’t paid and the fines and penalties that they are now arbitrarily adding to the thievery, but eventually, if you refuse to pay, they will use their guns and throw you in jail. The threat of that happening is what compels people to obey in the first place.

            As for your second point, just because I’m not raising a militia does not mean I’m ok with what’s happening, nor am I agreeing to it. I know open rebellion would fail (unless mass millions joined) and I’m not fond of the opportunity costs associated with such a venture. I suffer the tyranny of the state because the alternative is what I described above. That in no way means I’m agreeing to be tyrannized.

      • Mr. Graves

        Stop paying income tax. The coercive aspect will become apparent sooner rather than later.

        • SamRocha

          There are degrees of coercion. I doubt you feel *coerced* to stop at red lights. Steve has not make a generic remark about coercion, he has called progressive taxation “inherent coercive violence.” So don’t make cute remarks about obvious facts about tax evasion when the claim being made is clear. After all, you can be jailed for a traffic violation, too, or for truancy, and so on.

          • Mr. Graves

            I was going for “pithy” in the original remark; “cute” means it fell far short. Neither I nor my comments have been cute for many decades, more’s the pity.

            As coercion goes, yes, I am *coerced* into stopping, but I can’t think you mean to equate thuggery with traffic control. If you and I are walking down a road and a transient asks for money, if you pick my pocket and hand the man my wallet, you may think that’s not violence because you didn’t bloody my nose in the process, but violence it still is. And to compound the crime of theft, you’ve now made an innocent — the beggar — complicit in your violence by receiving the fruits of your crime. Presumably you would never mug someone, but the policies you seem to champion are nothing less than an involuntary collectivist mugging.

            Whether the well-to-do in fact give to charity (and you make some very good points in that regard) does not justify forcing them to do so in violation of their basic human rights. Nor is it charity in any meaningful sense: Bertrand Russell, when asked why he didn’t give to charity, is said to have replied, “We are socialists. We don’t pretend to be Christians.” Whatever his failings, he at least understood the difference between true Christian charity and coercion (with or without violence as you understand it).

  • John Doman

    What exactly ARE your leftist leanings? What do you want the Government to do?

    • SamRocha

      I thought I shared them here, in part. I am very interested in solidarity movements, christian democracy, social democracy, and so on. Two posts after this I share my conservative leanings, too. You may want to read that also.

  • John Doman

    What exactly ARE your leftist leanings? What do you want the Government to do?

    • SamRocha

      I thought I shared them here, in part. I am very interested in solidarity movements, christian democracy, social democracy, and so on. Two posts after this I share my conservative leanings, too. You may want to read that also.

  • http://rosarynovice.stblogs.com/ Augustine

    Eastern Europeans certainly saw the worst of government brutality. In my case, the tyrants were so busy looting the country and everyone, that, though on paper, and a tad more, it was as bad a dictatorship as behind the Iron Curtain, we didn’t suffer as badly. I like to say that government corruption preserved our life, relative liberty and the yearning for happiness.


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