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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.


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