Poverty and Property

Earlier this week I was in Morristown New Jersey to speak to a group of Catholic business leaders. Present at the meeting was Fr Benedict Groeschel and his assistant–Brother Simon. Fr. Groeschel is the founder of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal and Br. Simon is one of the friars. It was beautiful to see dedicated business leaders who (one assumes) have considerable wealth and two Franciscans who have nothing at all. Smart suits next to patched habits. Shined shoes next to scarred feet in sandals. Well turned out wives next to two celibate poor men.

The reason this was beautiful is because the rich men did not look down on the poor brothers, but neither did the poor brothers look down on the rich men. Each in their own vocation and calling were serving the Lord in their own way, and the mixture of minds and the complementarity of charisms illustrated the beautiful balance between property and poverty in the Catholic Church.

My somewhat tongue in cheek post yesterday about Archbishops living in palaces provoked some response and some further thought on the issue.

Jesus tells the rich young ruler to sell all that he has and give to the poor. He tells his disciples to set out on the road with nothing but faith. However, while this is not the rule for all it IS the rule for some, and this is where the different vocations in the church balance and nourish each other.

What would it be like if all the rich people sold all their property and we all became celibate Franciscans? The church would not only not have any resources to accomplish her mission, and not only would Catholicism (like the Shakers) eventually die out, but a heretical Manicheanism would come into the church. Manicheanism is the heresy that the physical realm is impure and evil. Extreme Franciscanism leads us down that  path–indeed Francis himself was accused of this heresy. He was careful to teach that the whole created order is beautiful and good, and that we are to enjoy the created things because we are creatures. Francis’ teaching on poverty was that he would own nothing so that he could love everything. While we are not all called to follow his example, we are called to listen to his teachings. We do not have to give up all our worldly goods, but we do need to be detached from them.

This is where the Benedictine teaching complements the Franciscan. Benedict teaches that property is permitted, but personal possessions are not. Everything is held in common by the community and is available for use by all. Benedict solves the problem in a similar way to Francis but from a different angle. Francis embraces total poverty to love all things. Benedict embraces personal poverty to love all things.

The underlying principle of Catholic asceticism and self denial is that we make sacrifices in order to love things according to their true worth. Detachment for the Eastern religions means cutting oneself off from all physical pleasures and all physical things because the physical is evil or at least less good than the spiritual–which is pure. Detachment for the Catholic means being detached from lesser goods not only to be properly attached to the higher goods, but also (as a consequence) to love those lesser goods according to their proper value.

Here’s an example: I love my Volvo. However, I must be able to give it up completely if need be, and certainly to share it with my wife and kids because it’s true worth is not a status symbol or a comfortable motorcar or even (God forbid) an item of vanity. It’s true worth is that it is a reliable, safe and economical means of transportation. It is loved first for that purpose and then it may also be loved because it is comfortable and well designed an is a thing of beauty, intelligent design and impressive engineering. This illustrates proper detachment in the Christian sense. The real test is whether I would be able to give up the Volvo for some greater good.

This explains the reason for the Church’s demand that we give alms. We are supposed to give of our worldly wealth not simply because the church needs a new roof, or the priest needs to be paid. We give not even because the poor need to be fed and the homeless housed.

We give because it is a spiritual exercise. This is the way we break the bond of materialism and achieve true detachment. To put it simply and radically, we give sacrificially because through this we show our money who is in charge. We give sacrificially because in this way we move closer to the Benedictine principle that we should “prefer nothing to the love of Christ.”

The Franciscan friars–like the ones I was with on Wednesday evening–exhibit the radical example of this life so that we all can learn from them and follow their example as it is appropriate to our state of life and calling.

Finally, to stand things on their head, what the friars teach us therefore is that the more you have, the more you should give. To whom much is given much is required.

My father is a good example. He was a successful Christian businessman and when people would say to him, “Jim, don’t you feel guilty making so much profit in your business?”

He’d reply with a big smile, “No. I want to make just as much money as I possibly can. That way I can give even more to fund the Lord’s work!”

He did too. He and my mom gave away probably millions of dollars over the years and they always lived simply–driving an old, but comfortable car, living in a modest but comfortable ranch home and spending their vacations doing missionary work. They were as happy and contented as could be, and in their way they were living a radical life of poverty even though they had property. Without knowing it they loved all things according to their worth and were blessed in everything.

 

 

About Fr. Dwight Longenecker

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