Monday, August 6, 2007

Riches and Poverty

1. There is a striking contrast between the luxurious living of wealthy people who waste their money on pleasure and amusement and the abject poverty of those who are without food, clothing and shelter. This is in complete contradiction of the Gospel message which has proclaimed that we are all brothers.

Extravagance is always self-centred, whereas Christianity is the creed of love. Sumptuous living cannot be justified by an appeal to the right to own private property, for it is a shameless betrayal of the Gospel spirit of fraternal charity. When St. Thomas is defending the right to private property, he adds at once: "In regard to the use of it, however, a man should notregard material goods as belonging entirely to himself, but ... should be ready to share them with others in their necessity." (Summa, II-II, q. 66, a. 2.) If such maxims which derive their inspiration from the Gospel were put into practice, there would be neither excessive wealth nor excessive poverty in the world today.

It is true that there would still be poverty, but destitution would disappear.

Poverty is good in that it makes us detached from worldly things and helps us to think more about the next life. But destitution is really a social crime, for it is the result of human egoism and can breed hatred and spiritual degradation.

"Poverty," writes PĆ©guy, "is decent. It does not dress in rags ... Its dwelling is tidy, healthy, and affords a welcome. It can have a change of linen once a week. It is not emaciated nor hungry ... It is not good for anyone to live in easy circumstances; on the contrary, it is much better always to feel the goad of necessity ..." (La guerre et la paix, p. 338)

It was in this sense that Jesus blessed the poor and condemned the rich. He is referring to the poor man who has enough to supply his needs, is detached from worldly possessions, uses his poverty to assist him in his journey towards Heaven, and is happy or at any rate content. But He condemns the rich man who squanders his wealth on selfish amusement and is deaf to the entreaties of those in need.

After twenty centuries of Christianity the violent contrast still exists in modern society. If we have any reason to reproach ourselves, let us try now to make up for our deficiencies.

2. We must face this unfortunate fact. One half of the world is living in luxury while the other half lives in squalor. Worse still, both the inanity and arrogance of the wealthy and the degradation and abjectness of the destitute extinguish the light of the Gospel and drown the voice of conscience.

Who is at fault? We must all share the blame, for nobody has ever fully implemented the Gospel teaching, which alone contains a complete solution for the problems of the human race. A great deal of want and misery would disappear if all those whose assets exceed what they need for themselves remembered that they arc obliged to love their neighbour as themselves. They would then take heed of the precept: Give that which remains as alms. (Luke 11:41) We should all examine ourselves rigidly on this point, because we could all do far more to help the needy, whom we do not love, unfortunately, as much as we love ourselves.

3. In this matter as in all others, we have a great deal to learn from the Saints. Not only did they give to the poor whatever was superfluous to themselves, but they deprived themselves even of the necessaries of life because they saw in their destitute fellow-men the person of Jesus Christ. They really loved their neighbour as themselves, and more than themselves, in fact, for the sake of the love of God. For this reason they enjoyed clothing the naked and feeding the hungry whenever it was in their power to do so.

We may not be capable of doing exactly the same because we have not reached the same height of perfection. But we must remember that the precept to "give that which remains as alms" applies also to us. If there is somebody in grave need whom we have the means of helping, we are obliged to do so by the command of the Gospel. It is the same Gospel which warns us that if we fail to do so, the Divine Judge will one day condemn us.