Sunday, March 17, 2013

"Fabulous Wealth"

Apparently, we are going to have to start having these familiar conversations again.

We will be accused, again, of being "fabulously rich," of being in a state of sin because the Church owns so much art and fancy buildings. Again, [how tedious!] we will have to ask, "Who would you like to sell the Sistine Chapel to?" "Which Saudi prince do you think would give us the best price for the Pieta?" And "How long do you think the cash raised would last?" Perhaps we should simply raze Chartres Cathedral to the ground, since such things, while of almost inestimable cultural, social and religious value, don't actually sell very well as cash-generators in the current market.

How are we to help the poor if we have nothing ourselves? We will be forced, again, to remind our accusers that the Catholic Church already does the vast lion's share of practical charitable work of any institution in the world, far outstripping bodies like the UN.

Also, who are "the poor"? We think at first glance that it's a pretty easy question to answer in places like Jakarta, or Buenos Aires. But what about London? What about Toronto? I've met "the poor" in Toronto and I can tell you that what they lack can't be given out of a parish poor fund. What they need can't be supplied out of a food bank. They are inarguably poor, but not because they have no access to material necessities. They are culturally, morally and socially impoverished. They are ignorant and intellectually stunted. They do not read for pleasure or illumination; they have flat screen TVs but no books. They think only in terms of what they can get, not what they can do or contribute. I don't agree with Kathy, who often says, "'The poor' are the rich Jesus warned you about," but her point is well made.

Who are the poor? In what way are they poor? How much of their poverty is self-induced? How much of it is cultural or spiritual poverty? How much of my own material substance is sufficient to qualify my as "caring for the poor"? Can I love and own beautiful things without sin? How can we help people to help themselves? How can I help to enrich a person whose suffering may be moral poverty, or cultural poverty, which seems to be the most common kind in the West? There are materially wealthy people, as Mother Theresa liked to point out, who are so spiritually impoverished as to be worthy only of the most abject pity. Whose souls are stunted and enslaved by their wealth. How do we approach "poverty" in a society that regards not owning a new car a devastating deprivation?

The problem with the pope talking about "a poor Church for the poor" is that it encourages people to entertain some very simplistic ideas. It assumes we know both who these poor are, and that all they require is a bit of cash, preferably from the government. Many years ago I had a conversation with a Jesuit (not the good kind) and an anti-nun. We were at some tawdry little Novusordoist prayer group thing, and were instructed to pray for "the poor". Being me, I put up my hand and asked for specifics. Who, in our insanely wealthy society are "the poor"? And how, specifically, are we to help them? (I was unemployed because of a puzzling and chronic illness at the time and so was amusing myself by torturing stupid people.)

I was told about the people on welfare, what a rotten time they had. I suggested that perhaps they would be happier working than receiving such dubious aid from faceless, uncaring government officials. I was then told that some could not work. I said that I was currently on disability, does that make me the poor? Did that mean, therefore, that I should be the pray-ee, rather than the pray-er.

My suggestion that, before God, we are all poor, naked and helpless, was greeted by these good Socialists with scorn.

~ * ~

Fr. Blake asks for specifics:

"As for the Church being poorer, I am not sure what that means either.

"Most of our money is in real estate: buildings. Do we sell off the ancient and culturally significant buildings in city centres and the devotional art within them and move to the cheaper suburbs. Certainly we exist as a Church to proclaim Jesus Christ, we not museum keepers. But what about our Catholic schools and hospitals, again we are an NGO supplying education, medical care or any other services, should those be given away to local communities, and the equipment in them, do we just use the cheaper and less advanced, should a Catholic hospital have a highly expensive CATscan or employ expensive staff, where does poverty come here?

"As far as education is concerned, do we as Church stop sending students to the better universities in solidarity with poor and less advantaged, or even stop sending the then to university at all. Education is after all the opener to many doors and to influence and power, should we disdain all that?

"I have known old Jesuits who kept all they had in a small suit case, ready to move to do the will of their superior at a moments notice. Here poverty was an internal thing, a lack of attachment to created things. Is that what Pope Francis means by a "poorer Church", or is it a Church stripped of its artistic heritage. Is it detachment, or is it a cultural desert?"



Anonymous said...

These sorts of arguments always amaze me for their sheer shallowness and lack of intelligence. I suppose by extension, all golden pagodas in Burma, Cambodia and Thailand should be sold off to support the many destitute in those countries. No? I never see anyone make this sort of argument. It is only levelled against the Church in the west.


invocante said...

Great post Hilary, absolutely on the money. Catholic trendies are prone to sentimental semi socialist on this matter. But once Pope Francis has given away the patrimony of centuries and moved into a tower block the poor will still be poor and the church badly damaged.
I am very worried about the pope's actions over the last few days. For so modest a man he appears to be permanent followed by a film crew. What we are are two things. First the Pope praying, which should hardly be news. Secondly the pope working the crowd like a presidential candidate. Thus he "proves" his piety and promotes his personal popularity. These two factors will greatly increase his power and authority as when he announces changes it will be much harder to oppose him.

Santiago (friend but not a traddie) said...

This video contains then-Cardinal Bergoglio's detailed presentation of the text from Aparecida. During this presentation he defines the "first" poverty as "ignorance of the mystery of God's love for us." You can ask as many questions as you like, as long as you look around for answers. This may require learning Spanish.

BillyHW said...

At the present time I'm actually trying not to accumulate more than can fit in a mid-size car (my first after having ridden the bus for most of my life). Not exactly a suitcase, but about as much as can be expected from a layman.

Every church "Social Justice" committee should be renamed the "Helping The Poor Committee". Often the poverty of the poor is a justice. It would also help depoliticize the Catholic charity industry. And maybe then we might even start to examine the different kinds of poverty, and the different ways we might be able to help the poor, not just in the material sense.

Felix said...

Great suggestion from Billy HW to rename Social Justice Committees. But are we really concerned with poor people (as opposed to poverty).

As someone said, gambling is a tax levied on the stupid. And the poor often ruin their lives through alcohol. So do we try to forbid these things, plunging headlong into a methodist totalitarianism?

Of course not. We don't care that much. Because such moves would infringe on our middle class enjoyments.

The upshot is that we do without what we don't care about.

And the worry is that if we're a tin eared adherent of The Great Council, we don't care for the glories of the Church's history. So they can be sold to make us feel we're addressing poverty.

Even if we're depriving the spiritually poor.

Anonymous said...

Hilary, what is this "Everyone's Pope" BS that your Vatican Radio buddies have dreamed up? It's almost shocking how implicitly disrespectful it is to Pope Benedict who was, you know, everyone's Pope, too.

Lisa G

Anonymous said...

When you start to ask, "Why is there poverty in the world?", you start to understand that selling off the Church's art is not the answer.

In the West, a lot of the poor are there through bad life choices, such as bearing children out of wedlock. In many parts of the world, no matter how much aid with throw at them, people are poor: their rapacious governments steal the bulk of it. There is no economic freedom, no ability to make a living, no means of creating robust trade.

Pray tell, how does auctioning off the Sistine Chapel help? Isn't it logically far better to tell people to treat each other with dignity ,not steal each other's wealth, do honest work, and not screw around outside of marriage? Aren't those things the ones that will really eliminate poverty?