It’s All Straw

The Twitterverse exploded this morning because of a tweet by Pope Francis: “My thoughts turn to all who are unemployed, often as a result of a self-centred mindset bent on profit at any cost.”  Many of my fellow conservatives in particular were infuriated that the Holy Father would appear to lay the blame for unemployment at the feet of capitalism, which is not in fact what he was saying.   Yet in writing what he did, the Pope called attention to something which many devout Christians in the Western world regularly forget: this life will end, and sooner than you think.

Before we begin, a bit of history should be kept in mind here by conservatives who are hopping mad at the Holy Father today, and who will then jump for joy at what he might tweet next week.   Pope Francis was not advocating some sort of socialist economic model, or saying that capitalism is the work of the Devil.  Keep in mind that he was the Cardinal-Archbishop of Buenos Aires until just a few weeks ago.  If you know anything of what has happened to Argentina economically and politically over the past decade, the Pope is all too well-aware of the impact of various economic theories and practices.  Moreover, he was certainly no ally of the current populist-socialist President of Argentina, who imagines herself some sort of Kmart version of Eva Perón.

There are many areas of overlap between conservatism and Christianity, but there are also many areas of tension.  While recently a number of Christian denominations have adopted a policy of going along to get along, with regard to various societal and political issues, the Catholic Church remains immovable on a number of fundamental points, as she has for the past two thousand years of her existence.  One of those points is that love of both God and neighbor is the basis for the truly Christian life.  And while not in principle against the possession of wealth, the Christian does not make its pursuit his reason for living.

As we heard in the Gospel reading at mass this past Sunday, “‘I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.  This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’ ” (St. John 13:34-35)

Nothing the Pope tweeted today was new, as you can see here for example, from two sections of the Catechism of the Catholic Church which point to the inherent dangers of both atheist socialism AND unfettered capitalism:

2124  The name “atheism” covers many very different phenomena. One common form is the practical materialism which restricts its needs and aspirations to space and time. Atheistic humanism falsely considers man to be “an end to himself, and the sole maker, with supreme control, of his own history.”  Another form of contemporary atheism looks for the liberation of man through economic and social liberation. “It holds that religion, of its very nature, thwarts such emancipation by raising man’s hopes in a future life, thus both deceiving him and discouraging him from working for a better form of life on earth.”

2424    A theory that makes profit the exclusive norm and ultimate end of economic activity is morally unacceptable. The disordered desire for money cannot but produce perverse effects. It is one of the causes of the many conflicts which disturb the social order.  A system that “subordinates the basic rights of individuals and of groups to the collective organization of production” is contrary to human dignity.  Every practice that reduces persons to nothing more than a means of profit enslaves man, leads to idolizing money, and contributes to the spread of atheism. “You cannot serve God and Mammon.”

Secular materialism is not an illness confined only to those who practice socialism.  There are many conservatives, including those who call themselves Christians, who bow and worship at the feet of people like economists and market gurus, leaving God out of the picture entirely, or relegating Him to some sort of secondary place in their lives.  This is a very dangerous path to tread, and a choice which Catholics believe has eternal consequences.

In St. Paul’s first letter to Timothy, the Apostle to the Gentiles lays out, very simply, why the pursuit of wealth leads nowhere:

For we brought nothing into the world, just as we shall not be able to take anything out of it.
If we have food and clothing, we shall be content with that.
Those who want to be rich are falling into temptation and into a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires, which plunge them into ruin and destruction.
For the love of money is the root of all evils, and some people in their desire for it have strayed from the faith and have pierced themselves with many pains.

(1 Timothy 6:7-10)

Please note, no one is saying that wealth is something which is inherently evil.  After all, the ministry of Christ Himself, and later that of the Apostles and the Church, would have been impossible without the material support of those Christians with the means to help.  Rather wealth is a tool, and what one does with that tool, for good or for ill, will give lie to what is really important in one’s life.  For in the end, no matter how much wealth one creates or accumulates, we are, all of us, worm food.

Many Catholics and non-Catholics alike are familiar with the prolific medieval writer St. Thomas Aquinas, one of the greatest thinkers of the Church.  One of my favorite passages from his copious output – and be assured I have not even read 1/100th of it – is something which I not infrequently recall to myself.  It is useful to keep in mind both when things go wrong in life, but also when things are going well.

While celebrating mass one day in 1273, St. Thomas apparently received a mystical vision of Heaven; as a result, he stopped writing to prepare himself spiritually to go home to the Lord.  “All that I have written seems like straw to me,” he is reported to have said, in response to urges from others that he resume writing, “compared to what has been revealed to me.”  St. Thomas was by no means rejecting the work he had already done, nor its value to those whom it had helped and indeed continues to help to this day.  Rather he realized that all he had been working on and doing in the material world paled in comparison to what was coming across the great divide, and knew that he had to prepare himself for it, even as close as he was to God.

The fact is that the Pope is right.  Many times hard-working people find themselves unemployed not because they are lazy, or because they are doing a poor job, but because the wealthy chose to protect their own fortunes, and not care for their struggling workers.  This is not a blanket statement, nor an endorsement of trade unionism or forcible wealth distribution.  Rather it is a simple fact of life: these things do happen, and are happening all the time, all over the world.

The Pope is also correct in reminding us of the inherent human tendency of selfishness, and this is why Christianity, which is founded on a Divine act of loving unselfishness, is not as easy a Faith to take on as many of us would like to believe.  The Catholic Church was built on sacrifice and blood, both of Christ’s on Calvary, and of the countless martyrs who suffered torture and death rather than submit to selfishness and sin.  Human beings never like to be reminded of the fact that we are sinners; we all like to think that we are, to paraphrase C.S. Lewis, nice folks.  The truth is that under the right circumstances, we will not only take whatever we can from one another, but we will actually relish doing it – and that is what makes self-sacrifice such a very hard thing to achieve.

Thus Pope Francis’ job, lest those reading this forget it, is not to help the Republicans take over the Senate or lower the cost of crude oil.  The Holy Father is on Twitter not to chit-chat, but to get as many people to Heaven as he can.  You may not have thought about that, when you posted your snarky comment about the Pope this morning, but there it is.  He is trying to teach us both by word and by example what it means to be a Christian.  Sometimes that instruction is easily palatable, and sometimes we find it bitter and difficult to swallow.

For at the end of your life, God will not care whether you had 100 or 100,000 Twitter followers, or whether a celebrity re-tweeted you, or whether you appeared on Twitchy, BuzzFeed, or any other aggregate site.  Nor for that matter will He care whether you died a rich man or a poor one.   Rather, when you die and go before Him, you are going to have to show Him that you loved Him, as He loved you, and that you demonstrated that love in the way you treated other people, sacrificing your own comforts to meet someone else’s needs, in imitation of the same self-sacrificial love that Christ demonstrated to His followers.

Remember that, as He Himself pointed out, the Son of Man had nowhere to lay His head.  He was laid on a bed of straw which did not belong to Him at His birth, and He was laid in a rock tomb which did not belong to Him at His death, and from which He rose on Easter Sunday.   So now would be a good time to ask yourself, if you were angry at the Pope today, whether you are so detached from the world and materialism as to remember that if you are a Christian, these three things are more important to you than absolutely anything whatsoever having to do with the economy.  You are not made for this world, but for the next.

Tomasso

Detail of “The Vision of St. Thomas Aquinas” by Santi de Tito (1593)
San Marco, Florence

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Over The Limit and Through The Malls

While The Courtier is not prepared to stop bathing, and infest himself with either lice or Timothy Leary-esque logorrhoea, he must admit that he is beginning to wonder whether we have gone too far in our embrace of consumerism, when it comes to marking the times and seasons of life here in the United States. This has always been, thank goodness, a nation of consumers who actually like to consume, rather than falsely claiming that they do not like having a wide range of goods and services at various price points to choose from – whether we are talking about butter, guns, or tablet computers. And yet, there has to be some point at which the love of “stuff”, such as it is, makes way for the love of families, friends, and country.

Yesterday the Twitterverse started chatting about the fact that a number of national retailers decided to start their upcoming Black Friday sales early: and by early, either on Thanksgiving itself, or at midnight as Thanksgiving rolls into Black Friday. The national news media is now picking up on this story, as retailers across the country are adopting earlier and earlier opening times to try to take advantage of fewer shoppers during our economic malaise. According to one report from CNN:

This year marks Target’s earliest opening ever. Target, Best Buy, Macy’s, and Kohl’s are all opening at midnight on Thanksgiving eve. Wal-Mart recently announced plans to open its doors to the public at 10 p.m., then Toys R Us followed suit, announcing it would open most stores as early as 9 p.m. the day before Black Friday.

For my non-American readers, it should be explained that Black Friday is the day which falls after Thanksgiving Day, a national holiday commemorated on the fourth Thursday in November. Thanksgiving of course, needs little or no introduction, other than to say it is a near-universally beloved holiday in this country, as being one of the very few times of year when overworked Americans take the day off. Most everything other than basic services grinds to a complete halt, so that people can gather with family and friends, and be thankful that they have each other, and this great country to live in, with all of the bounty, hope, and possibilities available here.

Black Friday has been, for many years, a day that generates so much retail sales volume, because many people have or take the day off, and want to start their Christmas shopping, that many retailers go “into the black” in their accounting ledgers for the year, just from the sales generated on this one day. Traditionally, many American retailers held off promoting their Christmas merchandise and putting up their decorations, or making their special seasonal sales and discount pitches, until the day after Thanksgiving. Fortunately, some such as Nordstrom still do – and they should be applauded for it.

Let no one accuse this scrivener of being some sort of economic hypocrite, protesting against capitalism while tweeting from my iPhone and wearing an overpriced, fleece-insulated jacket made in China out of plastic fibers picked up from a yuppie outdoors retailer. When it comes to the embrace of the wealth of consumer products available for purchase, this truly is the land of plenty. The Courtier thoroughly enjoys patronizing retail establishments of all sorts, and savours finding a great bargain on a bold sartorial item or the like.

Yet there is no real justification other than pure greed to explain opening a toy store at 9:00 pm on Thanksgiving, since the sole purpose of such a promotional tactic is to persuade people to leave their families on a holiday, in order to spend their money on products which are not necessities. Nor is there any moral imperative to explain why people should be encouraged to leave the house before midnight, in order to stand in line in the cold and the dark just to purchase a new blender at a discount. In these and other cases, consumers can make such purchases in the morning, if they choose, after they have recovered from the feast shared with the family the evening before.

Moreover, all of these shops need to be staffed, in order to provide their products to shoppers. While the corporate heads who decided to open on Thanksgiving night are tucked soundly in their beds, their employees will be cutting short Thanksgiving dinner, or possibly avoiding their turkey altogether so as not have the tryptophan turn them into somnambulants. They will down pots of coffee in order to head in to work, to provide sales assistance, security, stocking, and the other services of their employment, without which these overnight sales cannot happen.

The only explanation for the tawdry policies and tactics adopted by those major retailers engaging in this practice is that the worship of Mammon has taken over nearly any semblance of remaining decency and respect for American values, both on the part of these retailers, and on the part of those consumers who will respond to their siren song. Putting profit ahead of one of the most cherished and long-lived American traditions, and one which thank goodness has virtually no consumer goods attached to it other than the foods we eat, is insulting to the people of this country. And those among our citizenry who choose to participate in it ought to be equally ashamed of themselves, particularly those who will push their credit cards to their limits just to take advantage of hoarding goods from the malls and shopping centers that they really do not need.

The present state of the union is one marred by spiraling debt burdens, tremendous levels of unemployment, smelly anarchism, and so on. Americans need holidays like Thanksgiving to step back from all of this, and to be with those they care about – to share a good meal, to relive old memories, and to make new ones. Do not doubt that this writer is no leftist, in any sense of that term. However, it still must be said that it is a great pity that our national retailers cannot see past their bottom line, in this instance, to recognize that some things are more sacred than the pursuit of profit, and that some shoppers will put materialism at the top of their priority list.


“The Road, Winter” by Currier & Ives (1853)

High Culture Needs High Finance

As the reader is likely aware, at the moment there is an unwashed melange of middle-class would-be hippies, professional agitpropstars, and various screaming harpies a-feather, spreading their collective effluvia around Lower Manhattan in a protest against the loosely defined concept of “Wall Street”.  The theory, so far as one can discern one from the many, seemingly contradictory goals of these persons, goes something like the following. The United States has lost its way by promoting capitalism (which is bad), by protecting financial institutions (also bad), and by not imposing enough taxes on those who run such institutions (ditto).  The hope of these quasi-anarchists, who would make real Wall Street anarchists like Luigi Galleani laugh hysterically, is that they can replace the pursuit of money with something else – what, it is not exactly clear – and thereby create some sort of cultural Renaissance in the Western world.

This country of late seems to have developed something of a blind spot, among certain of its citizens, with respect to how very much our cultural achievements are dependent upon capitalism, at least in the areas of what traditionally has been viewed as high culture – admittedly a term not much favored these days in certain quarters. Having no interest myself in spending time in the smelly places of the world, I cannot claim in any way to be some sort of experienced, global anthropologist, who can look at both the frescoes of Giotto and at a tribal rock painting, and view them as being of equal artistic merit. Of course I read, I donate, and I may even watch a documentary on such places and their cultural outputs, but I leave the mission lands and their respective cultures to the missionaries.

What I can claim, as someone who has lived his entire life within an urbanized Western culture, studied it, and thereby educated himself about it, is that I recognize the higher achievements of my own culture when I see them.  And it is a plain fact that in most cases, these high achievements of Western culture would not have been possible without a significant amount of money given by private individuals who practiced Capitalism, to either pay for or to preserve them.  Unfortunately, this is a fact that appears to be lost on a certain group of my contemporaries.

I direct the reader to a solid, well-written travel essay by The Torygraph’s Harry Mount on the wonders of Florence.  The cradle of the Renaissance and one of the most beautiful and culturally important cities in the world, Florence has more great buildings and works of art than perhaps any other city of comparable size. And the reason for this explosion of culture, as Mr. Mount explains, is Capitalism.

“There’s a pretty unromantic reason why the Renaissance sprouted up in Florence,” writes Mr. Mount in his article, for “it’s the place where modern banking was born. We like to think of art as a spiritual, sensitive calling, far removed from the ruthless desire for filthy lucre. But Botticelli, Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci needed money as much as the rest of us.”

The great Florentine banking families, such as the Medici, began as the nouveau-riche, the robber barons, the internet millionaires, or the hedge-fund capitalists of their day. They made so much money by perfecting the mechanisms by which one could engage in commercial transactions both at home and internationally, with at least some guarantee that the whole thing would not go pear-shaped, that they had to do something with their profits. And the people of Florence, as well as visitors to the city, continue to marvel at what they paid for.  One can criticize their motives for doing so, and yet one can hardly argue with the results.

And they were not alone. Look at the achievements of Flanders, where merchants and bankers gave huge sums toward the beautification of their cities with beautiful churches and civic assembly halls; the splendors of Britain, made possible by those whose finances often came from shrewd investments in agriculture, manufacturing, and international trade; or even this country, where people like Vanderbilts and Rockefellers, capitalists all, established cultural and educational institutions for our young Republic, from Carnegie Hall to the Art Institute of Chicago, and filled them with the wonders of human invention.

Or consider Paris before World War II, as I did last evening with a young lady of my acquaintance. People like Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, Coco Chanel, and the like, who were working during a period which produced an extraordinary variety of music, art, literature, and design, all came to be regarded as cultural icons not only because they had talent, but because people with financial means recognized those talents, and decided to encourage and promote them. Jimmy Durante may have sung, “You’re nobody ’til somebody loves you,” but in the world of high culture of that era, you really were nobody until somebody like Peggy Guggenheim – capitalist heiress, natch – loved you.

What the whinging collective does not appreciate is the fact that in order for us to have great culture, there must be great sums of money to pay for it. Historically, governments have often done a terrible job when they intervene in such matters, unless there is private money working behind the scenes to shape the project. Virtually the entire country of Georgia provides us with endless examples of what horrors are brought about when a socialist government calls the shots on creating art and architecture – as indeed is true here at home, in the case of Boston City Hall. Thus, even the publicly-owned, highly successful National Gallery here in Washington would not have happened but for the patronage, in the form of money and collections obtained for it by – you guessed it – capitalists like Andrew Mellon, Samuel Kress, and Chester Dale.

This is not to say that the creation of great works of art, literature, and so on, is only possible under the auspices of Capitalism. However it cannot be denied that Capitalism is of lasting importance to the cultural life of the Western world not only historically, but also today. It allows the individual who cares about high culture to make choices, rather than having a one-size-fits-all quasi-culture imposed upon him by the state. And as I have never been a one-size-fits-all sort of person, I for one certainly prefer the largely beneficent influence of Capitalism to help direct the path of how Western culture develops.

(Brought to you by Capitalism)