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Is This What Christ Died For?

April 4, 2012

The Catholic Church teaches the preferential option for the poor. This is a basic principle moral principle which comes out of Holy Scripture. Those who are powerless, those who have nothing of their own, must be defended and promoted. Their rights and concerns need prophetic protection. This is true for the unborn but it is not just true for them. The rights and protections are to be put in place for all, to be established for all. When engaging the needs of the people, those who are powerless, those who are without wealth or resources of their own, should not be given more burdens than those who have money and wealth. When there is a focus on what should or should not be given to the poor without a reflection on the rich and making the same demands, the same expectations of them, something is indeed wrong. When the rich buy things on the “free market,” all the associations with evil are somehow forgotten, but when people seek to give the poor something they need, somehow they are told they can’t because of some remote evil. No expectation is made so that the rich must abide by the regulations they put on those programs aimed to help the poor – they will complain about the programs, about the evils in them, all the while engaging those same evils in the choices they make. They really want to use a good to excuse a greater good – and that, of course, is how sin abounds. They want to be “free,” to live by the law of money, without reflecting upon the structures of evil contained in the system they promote. Again, they will only look at such evils when focusing on others but never for themselves. This is exactly the opposite as to how it should be; if anyone is capable of overcoming the systematic structures of evil, of dealing with the hassles in disassociating from evil, it is those who have power, those who have money. It is almost as if their insistence is all aimed at keeping the poor poor and there really is no interest in the discussion of evil except at how they can put stops from the distribution of goods as justice demands. Again, this is how evil works, using a good to justify injustice.

It does no good in saying something is an evil when you only make demands on the poor. Where are all the demands upon the rich to live by the conscience of the Church? Have they been told they must give up health insurance if the company they get it from also supports evil? Have they been told to share in the burdens, in the fears, of the poor, to show that their conscience objection is one which they live out themselves? Have the rich been told that alms without love is meaningless? Have they been told true charity is love, not how much money you give out? “If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing” (1Cor. 13:3 RSV). To confuse giving away of money with charity (though it can be a work of charity) is to show why so many are confused about justice, saying if a state makes for justice, charity is lost. They are not concerned about charity, they are concerned about money, about their own money, and about how they can keep what they have with only the excess which goes beyond what they need for extravagant luxury being given as “alms” with a pretense of charity. It is not love if it does not seek the betterment of the situation itself.

Those who have power and authority, those who have the ability to change things for the better but work against it- often at the pretense of some lesser good – can be blamed, at least in part, for the injustice around them. This is especially true for bishops. Yes, they must be respected and honored due to the ecclesiastical order and the sacramental grace given to them; it is the office which is to be respected. But the person with such an office has a grave responsibility to meet the needs of the people, to look to the injustice around them and to encourage (if that is all they can do) change for the better. They can be prophets for change. They must, of course, focus on those who have power and authority, not on those who are powerless and poor. When they make demands on the poor which are not being put on the rich, something is wrong. This is exactly the kind of thing which gets prophetic responses from the saints. When we read of the failings of bishops, we hear how they have given in to the path of luxury, to the path of the rich, living the high life while ignoring the poor. They cannot understand the burdens of the poor because they have separated themselves from them; they live among the rich and live like them. This is exactly what causes many saints disgust, and leads them to say something against bishops; we can find this again and again in their declarations, such as this one given by St. Anthony of Padua in his exposition on Palm Sunday:

Oh! would that clergy and religious would receive, and like meek animals carry, such a king, such a rider! Then they might be worthy to enter with him the Jerusalem above. But they are sons of Belial (‘without the yoke’) who, as Jeremiah says:

have walked after vanity and are become vain;
and have not said, Where is the Lord? [Jer. 2.6]

They have broken the yoke and burst their bonds and said, ‘We will not serve.’ Therefore the Lord says to them in Zechariah, I will destroy the chariot out of Ephrem and the horse out of Jerusalem; and the bow for war shall be broken. A chariot runs on four wheels, and it stands for the wealth of the clergy, which consists in these four things: extensive possessions, multiplicity of offices and emoluments, sumptuous food and luxurious clothing. The Lord will destroy the chariot, and cast its rider into the sea of hell [cf. Ex. 15.1]: and he will destroy the horse, the foaming and unbridled pride of religious who, under a cloak of religion and a pretense of piety, think themselves great. [1]

Because the bishops themselves seek after the power, the authority, the luxury of the rich for themselves, they fail to see and appreciate the burdens they put on the poor. They are not with the poor. They think the poor can do as they do. But the poor can’t. The rich can. But the rich want to be rich, not poor, they want every access to money and its accumulation. The rich help the bishops, so the bishops don’t express, as they should, the demands expected on the rich. It might cause problems. If the poor suffer, if the poor are given burdens, if the poor get upset and stop giving to the bishops, the bishops won’t feel it – but they will feel it if the rich do this. So many bishops, caught up in the riches given to them, just think like the rest of the rich and ignore the plight of society. They use a good for the sake of an evil. If they started making demands of the rich, of making them give up all the benefits they have which are objected to when the poor are given them, we might see a change in society. But as long as the bishops don’t do anything like this, the rich will use the bishops, the bishops will gain luxury, and the poor will suffer. What a sad situation, what a sad world we live in.

Is this what Christ died for?


[1] St. Anthony of Padua, Sermons For Sundays and Festivals. Volume I. trans. Paul Spilsbury (Padua: Edizioni Messaggero Padova, 2007), 220.

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18 Comments
  1. Peter Paul Fuchs permalink
    April 4, 2012 11:11 am

    Henry,

    In regard to this post, I would like to bring to you attention the brilliant work of Anthony Gill, published by the U of Chicago.
    .
    His book on the Catholic church in Latin America has this description which I will quote. It is my sense that the results of his statistical analysis would hold true across the world. Of course there is still the call of the genuine, but in general I think his contentions probably hold true;

    “Nowhere has the relationship between state and church been more volatile in recent decades than in Latin America. Anthony Gill’s controversial book not only explains why Catholic leaders in some countries came to oppose dictatorial rule but, equally important, why many did not. Using historical and statistical evidence from twelve countries, Gill for the first time uncovers the causal connection between religious competition and the rise of progressive Catholicism. In places where evangelical Protestantism and “spiritist” sects made inroads among poor Catholics, Church leaders championed the rights of the poor and turned against authoritarian regimes to retain parishioners. Where competition was minimal, bishops maintained good relations with military rulers. Applying economic reasoning to an entirely new setting, Rendering unto Caesar offers a new theory of religious competition that dramatically revises our understanding of church-state relations.”

    • April 4, 2012 11:21 am

      We see quite a bit of this in Latin America, as with other parts of the world. While I think such analysis gets a part of it, I think the picture is much more complicated than anyone can establish (for while I do believe some might go for the preferential option to retain people in the Church as a kind of power-grab, others I believe really believed it because of their own experiences; I think “The Mission” as a kind of representation with the Native Americans and the kinds of conversions had, such as found with Las Casas). The whole situation with Opus Dei in relation to Romero is also interesting and shows some of the power structure and struggle, and also explains why many have ill-feelings about Opus Dei. But in the US, we have a mix, and I think the Protestant culture is affecting things, the whole struggle against communism having caused an imbalance which can be and is used by the social ideologies we see.

  2. April 4, 2012 11:59 am

    Thanks for another very interesting post. I’m struck by your claims about the failures of bishops. “They cannot understand the burdens of the poor because they have separated themselves from them; they live among the rich and live like them. … [They] just think like the rest of the rich.” I think that this raises an important theological problem.

    Obviously, I don’t have sufficient sociological data, but I suspect that, because of the size of most of our dioceses and archdioceses, most of our bishops have to be managers. They have to spend a great deal of time meeting with lawyers, fundraisers and donors, principals and college presidents, politicians and lobbyists, and hospital and nursing home administrators. I also suspect that when they meet with the poor, they often do so as a special sort of philanthropist. And, even when they might travel with laity on a pilgrimage or to see a papal visit, these members of the laity will tend to be well-dressed professionals who can afford the trip.

    To be sure, when they are with fellow priests or some members of the laity, they might be less managers than old-fashioned bishops, commanding obedience and loyalty and acting like father-figures. And, even when meeting with politicians, they might seen themselves as advocates for the poor.

    But, still, it has to be rather hard for a bishop not to absorb the ethos of corporate managers, especially when such an ethos promises efficiency in a time of scarcity. And that tends to be the ethos of “the rich.”

    What’s the theological problem?

    Some Baptists and others criticize the development of the historic episcopate in the Catholic Church as problematic because a Catholic bishop has presently often ceased to be “one eucharistic minister, in one place, with one table, for one gathered congregation” (Steven Holmes). Instead, one might say, we have bishop-managers.

    We can imagine that being the pastor of one congregation prevents you from absorbing the ethos of the rich, because you have to take care of everyone in the congregation – rich, poor, middle class, working class, otherwise. (Yes, I realize that there are congregations in leafy suburban neighborhoods where most people are rich, but, generally speaking …) And being removed from one congregation frees you to live in a managerial world.

    Is that the problem with our bishops?

    Thanks.

    • April 4, 2012 12:17 pm

      Well, the thing is, I do not think the solution is to go with an extreme reversal, either. I expect there to be a variety of economic levels in the world, and so expressed in the Church. But I think a major part is how everything is now economic in a way not even of the past, where the system forces a kind of economic life on all, especially the Church. There is a need to see the system itself as a problem — and we have lost that sense. Again, I do think people need to keep considering the poor as a place of privilege — and until that is lived out- many questions will remain and the rich will be in that place and so easily control the system. I see a room for cathedrals and beauty — but I do think the bishops themselves as being less economic managers and more spiritual is needed. Pope Shenouda III showed a good example of this. And while one can see bishops-as-princes in the past in a way which was quite feudal, I see the modern economic system — the economic materialism rampant in the world today — has made it something worse. How to solve this is something I don’t know.

      • April 4, 2012 1:05 pm

        Let’s say that the system does force “a kind of economic life on all.” The main consequence of this, I think, is that we look at our world in increasingly abstract terms. We become less attached to our neighbors and our communities, and the poor become invisible to our “global” perspective.

        I’m not sure if the church can “solve this,” but it can witness to the importance of caring about all the people around you, however “inefficient,” because, as Charles Wesley wrote, “God hath bid all humankind.”

        I think that it is more difficult to do this if the most visible representatives of the church are bishops who can’t be associated with one gathered congregation and are part of a global ecclesiastical culture that seems to be as placeless as the world of financial elites.

        • April 4, 2012 1:50 pm

          I was thinking a bit and my thoughts went along with some of what you said here. Some of the things I think which can be done, which would help (maybe a little, maybe more than a little, possibly depending upon where we are talking about) are things which are traditional:

          1) except for very rare exceptions, no more shifting bishops around, with some places seen as “prizes” while others as “temporary bishoprics.”
          2) have more connection between the people of the dioceses/eparchies with the selection of the bishop — this might be easy in some places, more difficult in others, but yet it would help make sure it is someone who is of the people, known by them, so it is someone who knows their needs and expectations

          Of course, there can be and will be corruption in any system. However, in this one, there is a more direct connection between the bishop and the people, with more value of the people in the elevation of someone who is to be a bishop. Of course, one of the problems is that the problems of a given locality might be heightened this way, if a particular area is dominated by some bad forms of thought — but on the other hand, the benefit is that the bishop will be seen more of a pastor, and they will not be looking for “prizes” of other dioceses, but rather, they will know their place is where they are at and they will be more concerned to focus on what needs to be done there instead of feeling a disconnect because they hope they won’t be there long.

          The business aspect of the modern world is very destructive, and it is something which probably is impossible to get beyond until the system itself has a radical change. Thus, the rich will have even more influence now than in other times in some ways, because they know the economic pressures put on the bishops. But if the bishops push back and push more for exceptional expectations to be on the rich first, so that the rich must drop health care which goes against the principles wanting to be used when dealing with health care for the poor, we both know that the whole dynamic would change.

          I also do think there is something to the Orthodox system of priests and bishops and how there are secular priests who have even more connections with the people and that it is religious who are the source for bishops. However, we can also see the Orthodox system shows its own weaknesses — there can be a militant nationalism which develops, and often does, and so there still needs to be some sense of the universal as well.

  3. cryptojansenist permalink
    April 4, 2012 12:50 pm

    While it is perhaps true that some who have health care will deny it to others less fortunate out of a purely selfish impulse, it is also possible that many people who do have health care can barely afford to maintain their own insurance, let alone help someone else. Some of the audience members at Ron Paul’s debate who shouted “Let him die!” after Paul answered a hypothetical question about the care of an uninsured young motorcyclist after an accident might well be two paychecks from destitution or working past retirement age merely for health benefits. Does fear justify selfishness? No. However it is also important to note that fear often impels persons to act in self-interest.

    With regard to the American bishops: few Vox Nova readers should be surprised that in the post-feudal modern nation state period the Church prefers rightist politics. The clerical states of the 20th century alone indicate the way in which the Church almost inevitably supports regimes which favor the preservation of wealth and the exercise of power through economic hiearchy. A divestment of the Church’s wealth and the wealth of its benefactors requires a divestment of political influence. Even if abortion and contraception weren’t manipulated as wedge issues to keep institutional Catholicism at the conservative political table, I would suspect that the bishops would remain tied to the GOP. A non-Christian-influenced social market state apportions benefits without direct and omnipresent regard for the disretion of the Church. This should be the case in a secular democracy. Still, an ardently secular social market is untenable for a Church which has been in times past accustomed to temporal power.

    I would greatly welcome a social Christian political party in the United States which combines respect for a fundamentally secular American republic with Christian respect for life and commonweal with the poor.

    Still, from an American perspective there is an issue of injustice which stems from wealth and influence but is not dependent directly on the digits in a bank account.

  4. cryptojansenist permalink
    April 4, 2012 12:51 pm

    While it is perhaps true that some who have health care will deny it to others less fortunate out of a purely selfish impulse, it is also possible that many people who do have health care can barely afford to maintain their own insurance, let alone help someone else. Some of the audience members at Ron Paul’s debate who shouted “Let him die!” after Paul answered a hypothetical question about the care of an uninsured young motorcyclist after an accident might well be two paychecks from destitution or working past retirement age merely for health benefits. Does fear justify selfishness? No. However it is also important to note that fear often impels persons to act in self-interest.

    With regard to the American bishops: few Vox Nova readers should be surprised that in the post-feudal modern nation state period the Church prefers rightist politics. The clerical states of the 20th century alone indicate the way in which the Church almost inevitably supports regimes which favor the preservation of wealth and the exercise of power through economic hiearchy. A divestment of the Church’s wealth and the wealth of its benefactors requires a divestment of political influence. Even if abortion and contraception weren’t manipulated as wedge issues to keep institutional Catholicism at the conservative political table, I would suspect that the bishops would remain tied to the GOP. A non-Christian-influenced social market state apportions benefits without direct and omnipresent regard for the disretion of the Church. This should be the case in a secular democracy. Still, an ardently secular social market is untenable for a Church which has been in times past accustomed to temporal power.

    I would greatly welcome a social Christian political party in the United States which combines respect for a fundamentally secular American republic with Christian respect for life and commonweal with the poor.

    • Mark Gordon permalink
      April 4, 2012 3:54 pm

      Even if abortion and contraception weren’t manipulated as wedge issues to keep institutional Catholicism at the conservative political table, I would suspect that the bishops would remain tied to the GOP.

      I suppose our current bishops might remain tied to the GOP, but if the Democratic Party would take Jimmy Carter’s recent suggestion, in a generation most American bishops might be Democrats, as they were historically. The natural home of American Catholics is the Democratic Party, but in their aggressive abortion advocacy over the past forty years the Democrats have not only created a wedge between themselves and the bishops, but they’ve carefully instructed the GOP where to insert it and how hard to push.

      • johnmcg permalink
        April 4, 2012 4:25 pm

        Indeed, perhaps we should be exerting our energy making the Democratic (and Republican) Party more Catholic, or reflective of Catholic values, then in making the bishops more Democratic.

  5. April 4, 2012 1:43 pm

    It isn’t just the bishops. Your typical, secular priest is well into the middle class. This is why so many priests are miffed when people don’t choose the parish school, thinking a couple thousand a year is a trivial amount.

    • April 4, 2012 2:03 pm

      There is truth to this as well, especially depending upon where one is talking about. On the other hand, there is more of a chance for the priest to at least associate with the people, to know them, than not — even if in many parishes this isn’t the case. And there are still many poorer parishes — I’ve known priests who have worked in inner city parishes, and it is no surprise the kind of view they offer differs radically from those in the suburbs.

  6. April 4, 2012 2:22 pm

    Henry,

    I agree that it would be good if bishops weren’t shifted around and there was “more connection between the people of the dioceses/eparchies with the selection of the bishop.” This could mean a re-emphasis on pastoral care and the spirituality of dialogue explored by an earlier generation of American bishops at their best (Bernardin, etc.).

    The argument against these practices, I think, is that we wouldn’t end up with the “best” bishops. Instead, we imagine that the Pope, using some form of expertise, will select and transfer bishops so that the church will be rendered less vulnerable and more effective.

    The question is whether that argument is theologically defensible. Might it actually be secular – ironically, to beat the secular world at its own game?

    • April 4, 2012 2:29 pm

      Well, you probably know by now, I’m very Eastern in the sensibility of the bishops, and when it looks like the Pope is just moving around to make for the “best” based upon his own “ideas” based on little real engagement with the people of the different dioceses, I think such micro-management is dangerous and makes more out of the Pope than should be had. I certainly believe in papal authority, but I also believe that it is not meant to be normative in use.

  7. Kurt permalink
    April 4, 2012 2:37 pm

    I don’t have much to offer as solutions, but the problem is dreadful. Currently in the United States, Catholicism among the white working class is in a free-fall plunge. It is falling more rapidly than the dechristianization of the working class in 19th century Europe. Just two generations ago, the Catholic Church was most identified with the Catholic Church, now its bleeding members, even as church membership is stabilizing with college educated Americans.

    • Mark Gordon permalink
      April 4, 2012 4:02 pm

      Two generations ago, the white working class, the Catholic Church, and the Democratic Party were one solid block, at least in the North. Do you reflect at all on the Democratic Party’s abortion advocacy as the critical factor in dissolving that block? As I wrote above, the Democratic Party is the natural home of American Catholics. It is also the natural home of the white working class. Who left whom?

      • Kurt permalink
        April 4, 2012 7:20 pm

        Mark —

        The Church left the working class. Its pastoral priorities ignore working class Catholics. Working class Catholics didn’t leave the Church, they were abandoned. You can spend the next two days researching and not find so much as a magazine article let alone a program, study or convocation on the pastoral care of working class Catholic Americans, save a single digit number of industrial chaplaincies run by aged priests that will close when they retire or die.

        To take just one minor example, we’ve reformed the Mass introducing some complicated words. Can you find even a paragraph’s worth of consideration of its impact on non-college Catholics?

        Off the top of my head I can think of five or six pastoral programs in this archdiocese for professionals and businessmen, not counting the various spiritual organizations that are really “major donor maintenance” groups.

        I look in eye of white working class people who were baptized Catholics every day and see nothing but spiritual hunger. Yet they are unconnected to and unnourished by the faith they were raised in.

        Pius XI said the greatest tragedy of the modern world (at his time) was the European Church’s loss of the working class. He humbly blamed the Church and not the workers for this.

        Today, this tragedy has come to America.

  8. Brian Martin permalink
    April 4, 2012 5:15 pm

    I cannot speak of Bishops in general, but I know of a Bishop (now retired) from the Diocese of Crookston in Northern Minnesota, who was at a local parish and after Mass he heard a comotion in the Kitchen area of the Church. A poor Native American had knocked on the door to the kitchen, and was being turned away by the ladys in the kitchen. The Bishop quietly instructed that the individual be brought in, and given food and coffee, and he joined the individual in the kitchen area. The priest who I heard tell this story (he was actively involved in social justice issues in a very hands on way) always expressed dismay at the shocked looks on the parishoners faces. It isn’t always just the Bishops or the Priests who are out of touch with the poor or the teachings of the Church.

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