“The rich exist for the sake of the poor. The poor exist for the salvation of the rich.” – St. John Chrysostom.
In this new era of my blog, one thing I hope to do is provide some basic catechesis from time to time. It is a well known and oft-decried fact that Catholics have suffered from abysmal religious education in the past 40 years or so, and that the degree of ignorance about basic Catholic teachings is astonishing, even among the people who still attend Mass. I’m not interested in pointing fingers or laying blame about this fact; among other things, that is just a distraction. The real business is not to figure out who caused the problem, but to solve it. And the only way to do that is to get Catholic teaching out there.
I probably wouldn’t have started with this above quote from St. John Chrysostom, but it turned up on my Facebook newsfeed the other day and I couldn’t resist it. This is the authentic Catholic approach to a matter that is very much in the news these days, namely income disparity and the growing gap between rich and poor, certainly in North America if not in the world at large.
The tired political debates, slogans, and formulae are woefully inadequate in this matter. Marxist analysis which reduces people to their economic class and pits them in an inevitable class struggle with the proletariat necessarily emerging victorious has proven itself a recipe for tyranny. The Randian crude reaction to Marxism reduces all people to ‘makers’ or ‘takers’ and would deny the very right to exist of the latter, a heartless philosophy which is alarmingly popular today. I have always appreciated the critic of Rand who wonders how anyone could conclude that the real problem afflicting humanity has been a general lack of selfishness.
Meanwhile, Hobbes presents the natural state of humanity as a war of all against all, a life nasty, brutish, and short. In this, the social contract becomes the only bulwark against barbarism, and the defense of the status quo becomes an inevitability. There are rich and there are poor, but the alternative to this uneasy stasis is anarchy.
To all of this, the Catholic Church says, ‘We can do better, you know.’ And Chrysostom holds forth in this pithy formula a fundamental stance that is to be the guiding Christian attitude towards all matters of rich and poor, out of which comes an entire anthropology and sociology based on communion and self-gift, rather than competition and the clash of egos.
You are rich? Even a little bit? Good – use your wealth for the poor. It doesn’t mean giving it all away necessarily. It may mean using your wealth to invest wisely and well in such a way that jobs are created and the community thrives. It probably doesn’t mean using your wealth to create a lavish lifestyle for yourself and your family that would rival that of most of the rich of the earth for most of the history of mankind.
And it certainly does mean giving some of your wealth away, regularly, for the good of the poor. The poor we will always have with us—there will always be people who either through some terrible defect within themselves or through calamitous bad luck or through some terrible injustice dealt them will be unable to provide for themselves and their dependents.
In a genuine Christian understanding of society and the common good, it is understood that such people are the common responsibility of the whole of society, but especially those who have been blessed by fortune or endowed with the natural gifts needed to prosper. The rich are for the sake of the poor.
And the poor are for the salvation of the rich. It behoves then, the poor, to labor against the terrible temptation of envy, bitterness, vengefulness of spirit towards those who have more than they do. There is something deeper going on here than ‘X has three cars, and I don’t have food enough in my house.’ Souls are hanging in the balance, and the poor themselves have a role to play in the salvation of the rich.
This whole sense of the ordering of rich to poor and poor to rich is radical. It takes us into deep waters theologically, as we reflect that God is the Rich One who became poor for our sake, that God is ‘for us’ in a very deep way, that the whole order of creation and redemption is taken up with this sense of rich and poor and God who loves the poor and in whose eyes all of us are poor. The Gospels are very clear that how we treat the poor determines our eternal salvation; this is because salvation is communion with God, and God loves all of us poor ones.
It also has deep implications for the non-economic forms of rich and poor we encounter in this world. When my ‘richness’ encounters someone else’s ‘poverty’ in some other sense, I am to be mindful of Chrysostom’s words. We are not to despise people who lack some gift we have, who are deficient in some way that we are replete. And of course when we are poor in some way that another is rich, we are to be very mindful of the deep spiritual implications of this, that this person’s salvation may be at stake in how they respond to our poverty, that we are to pray for them earnestly as they may wrestle with our weakness and failures.
Deep stuff, deep theology, deep call to responsibility for both rich and poor and all humanity together. We are our brother’s keeper. We are not Marxist Randian Hobbesian slaves locked in eternal competitive struggle. We are not one another’s enemies. We are called to a depth of communion that is meant to extend to the whole of society and the world, and it begins today with what I do with my personal wealth, with how I treat the poor, whoever they may be.