It’s a tricky thing, in the era of Pope Francis, to get the optics of ostentatious poverty just right. CNN recently published a piece, “The lavish homes of American archbishops” that featured a hit parade of houses belonging to Roman Catholic archbishops in the United States and helpfully provided estimates of how many millions many of them are worth. Lest we miss the puritanical point, the piece begins with a shot of the Pope’s bedroom: see how simply he lives—a mere guest-house away from the palace! And now see how these bad bishops haven’t gotten the memo yet.
The CNN piece reflects barely half the story of how Scripture and Tradition consider riches and poverty. The articles does offer a salutary reminder that Pope Francis is, entirely rightly, reflecting the dim view of riches that one finds throughout Christian history. Scripture and Tradition warn again and again about how wealth and its pursuit can destroy you and harm many others as well.
But that is only part of the story, and nowhere in Scripture’s many warnings will you find Jesus telling us all to live in a box under a bridge foraging for bugs and berries and begging drinks off the bird fountain in the park. The Jesus of the New Testament is far more complex than that.
Consider but one story: his rebuking Judas for the latter’s crocodile tears at the ointment used to anoint Jesus’ feet before his death. Jesus says to Judas, “The poor you will always have with you,” not as an excuse to do nothing (the Catholic Church today serves more poor in more ways in more countries around the world than any other organization) but as a reminder that enjoying a foot rub or a good meal or a nice home does not in itself mean that someone else necessarily wanders about hobbled, hungry, and homeless—nor that giving up the foot-rub is going to make much difference to large-scale poverty.
Jesus refuses to play the optics game, and we can be sure that were CNN around in his day, the “gotcha” headline would have read: “Unmarried Rabbi’s Expensive Foot-Rub with Woman Raises Troubling Questions.”
To be sure, the rich are going to have a harder time of it (cf., inter alia, Mark 10:17-27 and James 5:1-6), for wealth is often a stumbling block to attaining heaven (cf. Matthew 6:19-21). But it is not impossible to get to heaven, and we must remember that. (How easily we forget about such Old Testament figures as the wealthy Job who found favor with God.) In sum, Scripture rightly refuses either to demonize the rich or to romanticize the poor.
But the fawning coverage of Pope Francis’ frugality—and, before him, the sneering attacks on Pope Benedict XVI, and now on the American bishops—is not really about poverty. The real misunderstanding underneath is about humility. I learned this lesson many years ago from my late spiritual father, who ran into an old friend he had not seen for decades. This friend had made something of himself, and invited Father Bob out for a lavish steak dinner with expensive wine and afterwards even more expensive scotch. On a Friday. During Lent! Father Bob didn’t know of the menu beforehand, and so I asked him what he did. With an impish grin he said, “I enjoyed every bit of it. I didn’t know cow could taste that good!” He impressed upon me the very real spiritual danger that comes from advertising your askesis. Father Bob could have embarrassed his friend and snubbed his generosity by making a show of fasting that day and just nibbling on some lettuce and sipping tap water, but whom and what would that have served? The friend would have been alienated, the priest puffed up with pride, and neither they nor God pleased.
What, especially in Benedict’s case, no journalist has been insightful enough to consider for a moment is the fact that it is possible to live humbly in the most lavish of surroundings, just as it is possible to live in a shack and be destroyed by dreams and desires of greed. From his election in 2005 onward, Pope Benedict had my complete sympathy as an intellectual who clearly wanted a quiet life on his own reading and writing books. And yet his humility led him to submit to papal election, just as his humility led him to give it up when he could no longer do the job.
Every time I looked at him and his painful shyness at huge papal events, I thought of the verse at the end of John’s Gospel (21:18) when Jesus says to Peter, “Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you girded yourself and walked where you would; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go.” His humility led to him being girded by many others in elaborate vestments and expensive shoes, chauffeured around by them in German cars, and served fine food and wine by them. Would all those people have been edified if the Pope sacked the lot, tootled around town on his own little Vespa, and just grabbed a Big Mac for dinner on his own? If he fired all the people whose job it is to serve him, would that have made them rich or poor? There is humility in allowing others to serve you and there is humility in learning graciously to accept the services of others even if, at times, their gifts are a bit absurd or excessive.
Consider here what Helena, the Dowager Empress of the Roman Empire (the richest and most powerful woman in the fourth century, who is also a canonized saint), says in Helena, Evelyn Waugh’s roman À clef about poverty and sanctity. In an imagined speech about the Magi and their extravagant and rather useless gifts for a newborn Christ, she remarks:
Your gifts were not needed, but they were accepted and put carefully by, for they were brought with love. In that new order of charity that had just come to life, there was room for you, too. You were no lower in the eyes of the Holy Family than the ox or the ass…. For his sake who did not reject your curious gifts, pray always for all the learned, the oblique, the delicate. Let them not be quite forgotten at the Throne of God when the simple come into their kingdom.
What matters with the Magi is not what they gave, but how they gave: from the heart. External environment is not necessarily indicative of inner spiritual life. You can be virtuous in a whore-house, and vicious in a convent. You can put a widow’s mite in the box and be more acclaimed in heaven than the millionaire who drops in a thousand. You can be a complete scoundrel as a bishop while living in a one-room walk-up over a gas station, and a complete saint in a 50-room palace. Hence Scripture enjoins us to refrain from judging others, even in dubious circumstances, because God alone sees the inner dispositions of the heart.
But journalists, like the rest of us, love to rush in to judge, blithely ignoring the possibility that the current bishops, or the previous pope, might possibly be living very simply and humbly, their houses notwithstanding. Moreover, we have not considered the possibility that at least some of the bishops find those big houses a burden to live in but are powerless to sell them. To its credit, CNN did at least quote Joseph Zwilling, spokesman for the New York archdiocese, who said the archbishop’s mansion “couldn’t be sold since it is a landmarked building and has to remain as-is.” Maybe Cardinal Dolan would be happier in a little bungalow on Staten Island where he could eat frozen dinners in front of the TV, but doing so would in no way guarantee that he was a humbler man, just as living on Fifth Avenue in no way guarantees he’s a cold, heartless misanthrope. Let us abandon the fatuous claim that says shabby surroundings equal commendable humility, while lavish surroundings equal hideous avarice.
It is possible, then, for God to make saints in palaces, sanctifying them and the riches alike, as Waugh showed in his most famous work of fiction, Brideshead Revisited. Here he quotes Lady Marchmain, the matriarch of an enormously rich Catholic family who reflects on her wealth thus:
When I was a girl we were comparatively poor, but still much richer than most of the world, and when I married I became very rich. It used to worry me, and I thought it wrong to have so many beautiful things when others had nothing. Now I realize that it is possible for the rich to sin by coveting the privileges of the poor. The poor have always been the favorites of God and His saints, but I believe that it is one of the special achievements of Grace to sanctify the whole of life, riches included. Wealth in pagan Rome was necessarily something cruel; it’s not anymore.
Let us remember that: wealth is not necessarily cruel, and poverty is not necessarily humble. Let us be done with demonizing the former and romanticizing the latter.
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