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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10 thoughts on “It’s All Straw

  1. Pope Francis didn’t choose the name lightly. Not being Catholic, I may have disagreements on some issues, but his views and actions regarding how we should treat the poor, and about the potential spiritual traps in materialism seem wise and virtuous to me. I pray God protect him.

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  2. This “controversy” reminds me of being in school and getting upset because the teacher scolded the class for not doing the reading. Why get upset? Well, because I *hadn’t* done the reading and deep down I felt guilty and ashamed about it, even though, on the surface, I was protesting that it was stupid reading, I had practice, I’d skimmed it, the quiz was unfair, etc.

    I mean, if you read “self-centred mindset bent on profit at any cost” and think “he’s attacking my system of thinking”… Perhaps that’s a bit unfair.

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  3. William, the conservatives that are most angry are probably small business owners and they are mad specifically at the word ‘often,’ I should think. The implication of using the word often, is that they are being singled out instead of just some employers. I doubt the Pope meant to do that but equally he should have known better given his experience and advisory available to him.

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  4. Very good thoughts. I know I find it difficult to balance my religious and political views on occasion. I often wonder if God knows wealth would be more of a cross than I could handle ; ) Thankfully I have enough children to keep me grounded and close to the Lord. I have been questioned the last few times we were expecting as to how we could afford another, but if I lived by American standards I shouldn’t be reproducing at all! Still I know I needed to work on my generosity, because I have a tendency to not want to give as much as I could.

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  5. I was very surprised by his tweet when I read it this morning & somewhat frustrated. To me it reads as though it is my fault I am unemployed (well, underemployed) because I am seeking to make a lot of money. I’m not seeking to make a lot of money, just to pay my bills, etc. I try to have faith that God will take care of me, like the birds who do not worry, and He does, but it is a constant struggle. This tweet probably couldn’t have been worded better or translated better. I love Pope Francis but even I was a bit taken aback by it. Your blog post certainly goes a long way to explaining it & making me feel better about it. Thanks for that.

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    • I admit I had to do a double-take at first as well, as the wording is syntactically confusing, but it makes more sene to read it as referring to a self-centered mindset on the part of others, not the unemployed.

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    • You have a good point; I think there’s a bit lost in translation. In all likelihood, since the Holy Father does not speak English well, someone is making their own translation decisions re: the papal tweets.

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  6. “The name ‘atheism’ covers many different phenomena.”
    So does the name “conservatism”. You seem to be using it here in the currently popular sense as shorthand for what is really classical economic liberalism. The popularity of this meaning of “conservatism” often confuses our political discourse (as does the whole “neocon” phenomenon), as much of what goes by the name of “conservative” these days isn’t really about conserving anything.

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