Are we morally obliged to eliminate poverty?

I was reading an Anthony Trollope short story recently. It’s set around Christmas time, and part of it relates how the pastor of a parish tries to make sure the needs of the poor are met and, if possible, that each of them is provided somewhat more than the necessities, so that they can feast a little on Christmas Day.

The pastor does this by taking up subscriptions for the purpose from the local gentry and farmers. At one point it is said that the pastor is not a rich man, so when the farmers don’t cough up quite enough, he doesn’t have the means to take the burden entirely on himself. As a result, one of the poor families must resign itself to having just enough to eat on Christmas, but not enough extra to constitute a feast.

Meanwhile the pastor lives in a nice, comfortable house, with servants.

The pastor’s complaint is not that some people are rich, while others are poor. His complaint is just that those who are better off, aren’t offering enough to let the poor have something extra for Christmas.

Which got me thinking:  Why didn’t the pastor feel guilty that he lived in this nice, probably relatively large house, with servants and a yearly stipend that enabled him to live in relative luxury, while others, including widows and orphans, were just getting by?

It appeared from this story, that the obligation felt by the pastor and the farmers and gentry, was not to make poor people no longer poor, but merely to make sure they didn’t go hungry — as well as making sure they had enough to celebrate with during Christmas, presumably so that they themselves could celebrate in good conscience.

And it seemed to me that this was correct:  In all the exhortations to almsgiving in the scriptures and the writings of the saints, I don’t recall anyone abhorring inequalities in wealth per se. What is abhorred is rich people living in splendor while others go hungry or die of cold or what have you. You don’t have to make the poor not poor, you just can’t let them starve.

I drafted the first part of this post long ago, but was brought back to it by this post on the Vox Nova blog. The same author had previously written a post titled something like, “Is it a mortal sin to be wealthy?”

We will always feel a tension between what we are doing and what we could do. No matter how poor we are, we can always do more for others than we’re doing. We can always be kinder, more patient, more generous. Does this mean we must all become paupers as long as paupers exist? If anyone is poor, is it therefore a sin to be well off?

I decided to check St. Thomas Aquinas, who seems to have analyzed everything about good and evil and religious obligations. What St. Thomas has to say on the matter is basically the following:

1.  It’s more important to give “spiritual alms” than corporal alms. Since it’s more important to take care of the spirit than the body, therefore the spiritual works of mercy are of more importance than the corporal works of mercy. It’s more important to turn someone from his sin than to relieve his hunger.

Now obviously, if someone’s hunger is extreme — i.e. he is sick or dying from lack of food — you need to succor his health before anything else. But once he has enough to eat and is not in imminent danger or extreme pain, the top priority should be to make sure he is instructed if he is ignorant; counseled if he is doubtful; reproofed if he is living in sin, etc. In other words, it’s more important to improve his spiritual condition than his economic condition.

2.  Corporal alms nevertheless have a good spiritual effect, on both giver and receiver:  On the giver when they are given out of love, and on the receiver when he is moved to pray for his benefactor.

3.  Almsgiving is a matter of precept — but only to a certain extent. (By a “matter of precept” is meant something that we are specifically instructed and required to do.)

St. Thomas says that almsgiving is a matter of precept insofar as one has surplus from which to give, after taking care of his own needs and the needs of those for whom he is responsible (and “needs,” says St. Thomas, includes maintaining one’s station in life); when someone’s need is extreme, in other words he is in danger of illness, injury or death if he doesn’t receive help; and when without our aid he will not receive the help he needs. In those circumstances we are obliged to help as a matter of precept, since to let a person die when we could have saved him would be like killing him ourselves.

Otherwise, almsgiving is “a matter of counsel” — we may or may not give alms depending on our inclination or the circumstances.

(See S.T. II-II, Q. 32.)

It’s easy to become scrupulous when there isn’t a clear “yes or no” commandment on a given issue. The Gospel doesn’t require us to give a fixed percentage of our income, such that if we give less then we feel guilty, but if we exceed it our conscience is clear. We can always give more; and if we don’t, why not? Don’t we love our fellow man? Wouldn’t we rather be among the sheep than the goats?

The solution to the conundrum, I think, is to remember that Jesus came to free us, not to enslave us. If we can’t escape guilt no matter how much we give, then we must be looking at it the wrong way. I think St. Thomas puts us on the right track. Giving is an obligation to the extent that we have the means and someone else has the need, and beyond that it’s an option. And by “need” he means need, not mere relative poverty. If you look at the parable of the sheep and the goats, the scenarios Jesus names are extreme:  I was hungry, I was thirsty, I was naked, I was in prison; not, my clothes weren’t as nice as yours and my food was very basic while yours was fancy, therefore off you go to the everlasting flames.

I feel sure that God doesn’t want us to be scrupulous or to feel constantly guilty. That’s not what the Gospel is about. The more we give the better, if charity so moves us; but guilt and fear of punishment are not charity.


The Mass in Literature, Part 5

Midnight Mass in the Austrian mountains:

At last we came to a wide road, where we could walk side by side, and now and again we heard sleigh-bells. The torch had already burned right down to the cowman’s hand, and he kindled another that he had with him. On the road were visible several other lights—great red torches that came flaring towards us as if they were swimming in the black air, behind which first one and then several more faces of the churchgoers gradually emerged, who now joined company with us. And we saw lights on other hills and heights, that were still so far off we could not be sure whether they were still or moving.

So we went on. The snow crunched under our feet, and wherever the wind had carried it away, there the black patch of bare ground was so hard that our shoes rang upon it. The people talked and laughed a great deal, but this seemed not a bit right to me in the holy night of Christmas. I could only think all the while about the church and what it must be like when there is music and High Mass in the dead of night.

When we had been going for a long time along the road and past isolated trees and houses, then again over fields and through a wood, I suddenly heard a faint ringing in the tree-tops. When I wanted to listen, I couldn’t hear it; but soon after I heard it again, and clearer than the first time. It was the sound of the little bell in the church steeple. The lights which we saw on the hills and in the valley became more and more frequent, and we could now see that they were all hastening churchwards.

The little calm stars of the lanterns floated towards us, and the road was growing livelier all the time. The small bell was relieved by a greater, and this one went on ringing until we had almost reached the church. So it was true, what grandmother had said: at midnight the bells begin to ring, and they ring until the very last dweller in the farthest valleys has come to church.

The church stands on a hill covered with birches and firs, and round it lies the little God’s-acre encircled by a low wall. The few houses of the village are down in the valley.

When the people came close to the church, they extinguished their torches by sticking them head downwards in the snow. Only one was fixed between two stones in the churchyard wall, and left burning.

And now from the steeple in slow, rhythmical swing, rang out the great bell. A clear light shone through the high, narrow windows. I longed to go into the church; but Sepp said there was still plenty of time, and stayed where he was, laughing and talking with other young fellows and filling himself a pipe.

At last all the bells pealed out together; the organ began to play inside the church, and then we all went in. There it looked quite different from what it did on Sundays. The candles burning on the altar were clear, white, beaming stars, and the gilded tabernacle reflected them most gloriously. The lamp of the sanctuary light was red. The upper part of the church was so dark that one could not see the beautiful painting of the nave. Mysterious shapes of men were seated in the chairs, or standing beside them; the women were much wrapped up in shawls and were coughing. Many had candles burning in front of them, and they sang out of their books when the Te Deum rang out from the chancel.

Sepp led me between two rows of chairs towards a side altar, where several people were standing. There he lifted me up on to a stool before a glass case, which, lighted by two candles, was placed between two branches of fir trees, and which I had never seen before when I went to church with my parents. When Sepp had set me on the stool, he said softly in my ear, “There, now you can have a look at the crib.” Then he left me standing, and I gazed in through the glass. Thereupon came a friendly little woman and whispered, “Look here, child, if you want to see that, somebody ought to explain it to you.” And she told me who the little figures were. I looked at them. Save for the Mother Mary, who had a blue wrapped garment round her head which fell down to her very feet, all the figures represented mere human beings: the men were dressed just like our farm-servants or the elder peasants. Even St. Joseph wore green stockings and short chamois-leather breeches.

When the Te Deum was over, Sepp came back, lifted me from the stool, and we sat down on a bench. Then the sacristan went round lighting all the candles that were in the church, and every man, including Sepp, pulled a little candle out of his pouch, lighted it, and fastened it on to the desk in front of him. Now it was so bright in the church that one could see the paintings on the roof clearly enough.

Up in the choir they were tuning fiddles and trumpets and drums, and, just as the little bell on the door of the sacristy rang, and the priest in his glittering vestments, accompanied by acolytes and tall lantern-bearers, passed over the crimson carpet to the altar, the organ burst forth in all its strength, joined by a blast of trumpets and roll of drums.

The incense smoke was rising, and shrouding the shining high altar in a veil. Thus the High Mass began, and thus it shone and sounded and rang in the middle of the night. Throughout the offertory all the instruments were silent, only two clear voices sang a lovely shepherd-song; and during the Benedictus a clarionet and two horns slow and softly crooned the cradle-song. During the Gospel and the Elevation we heard the cuckoo and nightingale in the choir, just as in the midst of the sunny spring-time.

Deep down in my soul I understood it, the wonder and splendour of Christmas. But I did not exclaim with delight; I remained grave and silent, I felt the solemn glory of it all. But while the music was playing I could not help thinking about father and mother and grandmother at home. They are kneeling by the table now in the light of the single candle, and praying; or they are even asleep, and the room is all dark—only the clock ticking—while a deep peace lies upon the forest-clad mountains, and the Eve of Christmas is spread abroad over all the earth.

The little candles in the seats were burning themselves out, one after another, as the service neared its close at last; and the sacristan went round again and extinguished the lights on the walls and altars and before the pictures with the little tin cap. Those on the high altar were still burning when a joyous march music sounded from the choir and the folk went crowding out of the incense-laden church.

When we came outside, in spite of the thick mist which had descended from the hills, it was no longer quite so dark as before midnight. The moon must have risen; no more torches were lighted. It struck one o’clock, but the schoolmaster was already ringing the prayer bell for Christmas morning.

I glanced once more at the church windows. All the festal shine was quenched, I saw only the dull red glimmer of the sanctuary lamp.

Peter Rosegger, The Forest Farm: Tales of the Austrian Tyrol (1912), pp. 50-54.

(See also Part 1 (last three quoted paragraphs), Part 2Part 3, Part 4.)

Man’s uniqueness

God fashioned man in his own image and likeness; he gave him knowledge of himself; he endowed him with the ability to think which raised him above all living creatures ….

The Rule of St. Basil

The modern objective consciousness will go to any length to prove that it is not unique in the Cosmos, and by this very effort establishes its own uniqueness. Name another entity in the Cosmos which tries to prove it is not unique.

Walker Percy, Lost in the Cosmos (1983)

“Return to Me”

Film reviews are not a specialty of mine, but when I come across movies that are edifying to my faith, or at least reasonably respectful towards it, I like to share.

When devout Catholics search for movies to stream, for the most part the best they can hope for is something reasonably good while being reasonably clean. After filtering out smutty movies and bad movies, you’ve narrowed down your range of choices quite a bit.

We came across this movie, saw that it was rated PG and had a decent Rotten Tomatoes rating, and decided to give it a shot. What a pleasant surprise.

It was made in 2000 and has David Duchovny and Minnie Driver in the leading roles. Also of note are Carroll O’Connor and Jim Belushi.

When it opens the heroine, Grace (Driver), is in the hospital awaiting a donor for a heart transplant she needs to stay alive. Eventually she gets a donor and goes into surgery. Her grandfather, played by O’Connor with a very good Irish accent, accompanies her as she is being wheeled down the hall. As they part she implores him, “Grandpa, pray! Pray, OK?”

And Grandpa prays, boy does he pray! He stays up all night in the hospital’s Catholic chapel, lighting candles, praying the rosary, interceding for his granddaughter in any way he can think of. The surprise was not only the prayerfulness of the scene, but Carroll O’Connor — Archie Bunker! — of all people playing the part.

Grandpa is the owner of an Italian restaurant called O’Reilly’s Italian Restaurant. The restaurant features live Italian musicians playing such Italian favorites as “Danny Boy” and “When Irish Eyes are Smiling”. You surmise that he opened an Italian restaurant rather than an Irish one, because one of his best friends is “one of the best Italian cooks in Chicago.” There is a regular poker game after hours in the restaurant, accompanied by wine, beer and cigars, with O’Connor, the Italian cook, one other Italian guy and a Pole. In other words a strong undercurrent of cultural Catholicism.

Other Catholic-friendly aspects to the movie were, first, the family of Grace’s best friend Megan, the wife of Joe, played to perfection by Jim Belushi as a paramedic and all-around decent, Chicago-type regular guy, who at one point offers to beat the snot out of someone who he thinks has played the cad towards Grace. The Catholic-friendly part is that they have five kids, and so evidently are not using a whole lot of birth control, yet are very happily married in a down-to-earth way.

And finally, by the time of the climactic romantic moment between Grace and her love-interest (Duchovny — I’m leaving out any further description of him so as not to spoil the plot), he professes his love and permanent devotion to her, despite her having had heart surgery with a big ugly scar running down the middle of her chest — and without their ever having gone to bed together. At one point his friend teases him about not having slept with her: “She’s playing you, man, she’s one of those types who doesn’t want to play around, she just wants to reel you in!” (or something to that effect). To which he replies, “Yeah, well, you know what? It’s working!”

Right up to the end I found the whole movie very well done. There’s a lot of lighthearted humor, and it handles heart-wrenching sorrows in a way that is realistic, yet without leaving you feeling depressed. The romantic, climactic ending I thought was a bit overwrought, a little too Hallmark-y. But it was easily forgiveable in the light of all the film’s merits.

Worries enough of my own

I didn’t blog much last year. Maybe because I stopped watching the news to preserve my sanity, and without news there’s not much craziness and stupidity to point out and comment on.

I have a friend who’s older than I, who recently fell and broke his elbow and his hip. That’s a tough combination. If it were only his elbow he would be mostly fine while it healed; and if it were only his hip he could get around with a walker. But his elbow had to be replaced, and with the artificial elbow he can’t put any weight on that arm, not only now, but ever. So he has a very hard time getting up out of bed or out of a chair, with only one arm and one leg to lift himself with; and he walks very unsteadily since he can only hold a cane with one hand, rather than using a two-handed walker. So he is constantly in danger of falling, and when he falls he can’t get up.

And yet, he insisted on leaving the rehab place where he had been staying for over a month. I understood they weren’t going to release him until they were sure he could get himself up and move around without danger to himself. In fact he had chosen a date to leave, and then called and told me he would have to delay it a week because they felt he wasn’t ready.

So when he told me he was ready to go and was being released, I assumed he had reached the point where he could move around adequately. Therefore when he asked me for a ride home, I said sure. This was a couple days ago.

When I arrived in his room at the rehab facility, he had me help him stand up, which he was able to do with my help and a cane. A nurse came in and showed me how to fold up his wheelchair. Then he got back in the chair, since they insisted that he use it until he got to the car.

I wheeled him to the car and helped him out of the chair and into the car, which went relatively smoothly. We (my wife and I) got him home, helped him out of the car, and he walked, slowly and carefully, towards his front steps. There were five steps and he just managed to climb them, again with my help. This was a little scary, but I figured he was OK on flat ground, and as long as he didn’t try to go out of the house on his own, he would be OK.

But when he got to the top step, he was out of gas. He couldn’t get his injured leg up to the level of the porch and regain his balance, so he dropped to his knees. I tried to help him up as I had done when he got out of the chair, but this time he couldn’t manage it. I was in the position of having to lift his entire weight with barely any help from him, and he’s not a small guy – about six feet and 200 or so pounds.

I just couldn’t do it. But there he was, kneeling in a precarious position at the top of a flight of five stairs. He wasn’t complaining. After a couple of minutes all he said was, “Do you have any suggestions?”

I said, “Well, I can try to lift you but you need to try to get your legs under you.” I called my wife from inside the house and asked her to stand behind him so he wouldn’t tumble down the stairs. In the event, she helped to lift his weight, and between the three of us we got him to his feet, with cane in hand. What a relief.

He shuffled into the house and got into his wheelchair, but then we discovered the wheelchair would barely fit into his hallway and through his bedroom door. And once he got into the bedroom, he was unable to get up from the wheelchair in order to get into bed. So again I had to heft his bulk out of the chair and onto his feet. At this point he started taking off his pants so he could get into bed, and again he fell down.

Fortunately at this point a neighbor of his had come by, and with his help we got him into bed. But what now? How did he expect to move around and take care of himself in this condition? I don’t live anywhere near him and certainly couldn’t spend entire days helping him shuffle around the house and picking him up when he fell. His neighbor too – who wasn’t that young himself — protested that his back wouldn’t stand that kind of lifting on an ongoing basis, so that if my friend fell again, he was just going to have to call 911.

Basically I felt I had been had. My friend misled me as to his capabilities, and I felt I was leaving him in a desperate situation. I said, “Are you sure you want to do this? I don’t see how it can possibly work.” But he insisted, “I’ll be fine until tomorrow.” The next day he had an in-home appointment for people to come by and assess his situation, see what kind of care and equipment he needed. He planned to stay in bed until then, and hopefully at that point they would send people to assist him with his needs. So we brought him a bottle of water and his urinal bottle from the rehab place so he wouldn’t have to get up to go pee, and a phone in case he needed to call for help, and left him there.

Needless to say we worried about him that night, but the next day heard from a neighbor of his that he was still OK.

Of course this got me thinking about what will become of me in my old age. But I won’t go into that. My point is just that there are enough things to worry about without watching the news. Let the people whose job it is to deal with those things, do the worrying. After all they get paid for it.

Do not worry about tomorrow, for today has worries enough of its own (Mt. 6:34). By the same token, your own life and those of your loved ones have worries enough of their own without filling your head with more things to worry about that you can’t help.

Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Mammon

“Where wealth accumulates, and men decay.”

Goldsmith’s sad paradox is with us yet;
in fact, the situation’s sadder still:
dollars, by nature sterile, now beget;
the human race is eunuched by a pill.

Mark Amorose, from City under Siege: Sonnets and Other Verse (which I highly recommend — $6.99 on Kindle)

Free-floating theology

Many regard as unobjectionable the changes in church discipline to allow civilly divorced Catholics who have remarried to regularly receive communion. It seems to them a reasonable accommodation to the unfortunate reality of widespread divorce. But this change disrupts the logic of penitential preparation, which maintains the truth that union with Christ delivers us from our sins. Under the proposal, marriage is not permanent and a remarried person is not committing adultery. Or adultery is not a serious sin. Or Christians have always misunderstood the gospel, and we need not renounce our sins to unite ourselves with Christ. The logic forces us to affirm at least one of these fundamental changes in Christian doctrine. We can’t evade this unpleasant prospect by saying that “we’re all sinners” or that the Church is not the “Church of the pure,” as Pope Francis has on many occasions.

The proposed pastoral approach does not purport to solve theological problems by clarifying which of the three prongs is being decisively altered. It simply muddies things sufficiently to obscure the contradictions. This evasion of explicit change follows a post–Vatican II pattern, which has been one of ad hoc accommodations to contemporary sensibilities, undertaken in the context of the collapse of an older scholastic theology that supported precise analysis and clear conclusions. The theological culture of today’s Catholic Church lacks rigorous philosophical discipline. A great deal of theology now runs on evocative and free-floating concepts. Pope Francis uses “mercy” in this way.

R. R. Reno, “Sacramental Realism,” First Things, August/September 2018.