Living the Rich Life
Wealthy and powerful Christians should play a special role in the “new evangelization,” and the Church can offer some special pastoral guidance regarding the spiritual challenges that come with material wealth.
by Father C.J. McCloskey III | Source:
Early in 1999, Pope John Paul II traveled to Mexico to visit Our Lady of Guadalupe, but also to issue the post-synodal apostolic exhortation Ecclesia in America, representing the conclusions of the Synod of the Americas that had been held in Rome in 1997. The Pope treats all of the Americas (North, South, and Central) simply as “America.” Quite possibly he wanted to visit Mexico and the US on the same trip in order to underscore the importance of solidarity between the two countries. But intentionally or not, the trip drew attention to the contrast between the richest country in the world and one of the poorest.
At a certain point in the trip, the Pope disappeared from public view for a while. Later it was discovered that the bishops of Mexico had arranged a special meeting with about 200 of the wealthiest and most influential people in Mexico. Such a meeting might have seemed surprising in a country where there is an enormous gap between rich and poor, and where there have been decades of official harassment and persecution of religious believers by the powerful and an avowedly atheistic government. Though the great majority of the wives of Mexican political leaders have been pious and devout Catholics, the great majority of their husbands have been long-time non-practicing Catholics at best, and some of them have been avid Masons. Still the Pope is the Holy Father of us all, and at the behest of his brother bishops he met these wealthy Mexicans and gave them his message directly. That message concerned the spiritual dangers of material wealth.
Evangelizing the Elite
The Pope had in fact already spoken to the subject, in the post-synodal message that he came to Mexico to promulgate. In #67 of Ecclesia in America, the Holy Father says:
As I have already noted, love for the poor must be preferential but not exclusive. The synod fathers observed that it was in part because of an approach to the pastoral care of the poor marked by a certain exclusiveness that the pastoral care for the leading sectors of society has been neglected and many people have thus been estranged from the Church.
Of course many wealthy or influential Catholics are pandered to in a sycophantic way, or treated as human ATM machines to finance Church projects, but very few of them have been spiritually challenged to live the radical fullness of the Catholic life. This omission has contributed greatly to the ever-increasing secularization of once Christian countries such as the United States.
Witness the myriad of well-known (and often wealthy) fallen-away, nominal, or dissenting Catholics in government, entertainment, media, medicine, academe, the courts, law, and business. Their defection inevitably has led to secularism in society because it has such a negative influence on the rest of the faithful. There are all too many bourgeois or liberal Catholics; their guiding principles are not Christian at all.
The Holy Father says, “The damage done by the spread of secularism in these sectors shows how urgent it is that they be evangelized with the encouragement and guidance of the Church’s pastors, who are called by God to care for everyone.” St. Paul strove “to be all things to all men,” and the Church must do the same; she can count on the help of “those (fortunately still numerous) who have remained faithful to Christian principles.” The Church, the Pope writes:
. . . will with renewed fervor and updated methods announce Christ to leaders, men and women alike, insisting especially on the formation of consciences on the basis of the Church’s social doctrine. This formation will act as the best antidote to the not infrequent cases of inconsistency and even corruption marking sociopolitical structures. Conversely, if this evangelization of the leadership sector is neglected, it should not come as a surprise that many who are a part of it will be guided by criteria alien to the Gospel and at times openly contrary to it.
The Pope believes that leaders are called to shape the secular world according to God’s will. Thanks to the lay faithful, “the presence of the Church in the world is realized in a special way in the variety of charisms and ministries which belong to the laity.” And here is the key point:
Secularity is the true and distinctive mark of the layperson and lay spirituality, which means the laity strive to evangelize the various sectors of family, social, professional, cultural, and political life. On a continent marked by competition and aggressiveness, unbridled consumerism and corruption, lay people are called to embody deeply evangelical values such as mercy, forgiveness, honesty, transparency of heart, and patience in difficult situations. What is expected from the laity is a great creative effort in activities and works demonstrating a life in harmony with the Gospel.
The way the powerful and influential live at home, in the workplace, and in their social life, will have a disproportionate influence, for good or ill, on hundreds of thousands—even millions—of their fellow citizens, as well as on the increasingly interconnected world. Indeed the influence of the American elite at the beginning of this third millennium is perhaps even more pervasive globally than that of the Romans and the Greeks at the beginning of the first millennium.
How are the spiritual needs of the wealthy different from those of the less fortunate or privileged? Essentially they are not. All Christians are called to holiness through Baptism, and the means are the same: living Christ-like lives according to the Gospel, frequenting the sacraments, prayer, love of the Cross, and zeal for souls. Accidentally, however, the spiritual needs of the rich and poor may differ. The wealthy have to live a much greater struggle for detachment and generosity in all that pertains to the material goods with which they have been gifted, in order to give themselves more completely to God and to others.
Riches in the Scripture
In a classic concordance of the Bible, there are six full pages of Sacred Scripture that deal under various headings with the rich and riches. The pages are full of challenging if rather harrowing passages. Consider just three:
But that they will become rich, fall into temptation, and into the snare of the devil, and into many unprofitable and hurtful desires, which drown men, and destruction and perdition, For the desire of money is the root of all evils; which some coveting, have erred from the faith, and have entangled themselves in many sorrows. (1 Tim 6:9-10)
Lay up not yourselves treasures on earth, where the rust and moth consume, and where thieves break through and steal. But lay up to yourselves treasures in heaven: where neither rust nor moth doth consume, and where thieves do not break through nor steal. For where thy treasure is, there is thy heart also. (Matt 12: 21).
Jesus saith to him: If thou wilt be perfect, go sell what thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, follow me. (Matt 19:21)
There are no exemptions from the obligation to “lay up treasures in heaven,” in spite of the heavy burden of riches on earth.
Overcoming the culture of death
Pope John Paul calls our secularized American society, based on rugged individualism and single-minded consumption, “the culture of death.” There is clearly a relationship between individualism and material consumption, on the one hand, and a lack of love and reverence for life, on the other. To begin to build a “culture of life” requires a grasp of the meaning of “personalism” as opposed to “individualism”—an understanding of the human being as giver rather than receiver. It requires an appreciation for “the sincere gift of self” which is the aim of all spiritual quests. The special burden of the wealthy obliges them, first of all, to find a means of freeing themselves from absorption in material things. They might in fact undertake a “twelve-step program” of detachment, such as the following:
Live modestly, given your wealth and position
“Have the mentality of the parents of a poor and large family,” as the founder of Opus Dei, Blessed Josemaria Escriva, put it. People should be surprised if they were to learn about the extent of your financial resources. Always look to live at a level a step or two down from your peers. Avoid ostentation, and be the last (not the first) on your block to acquire the latest luxury gadget. Be wary of multiplying your possessions. How many computers, televisions, cars, and so forth, do you really need? When in doubt downgrade rather than upgrade.
Give and give generously—now—following the suggestion of Mother Teresa: “Give until it hurts.” Give prudently according to your religious, political, and social goals. Do not generally leave money to foundations, trusting other people to follow your goals, unless you have moral certainty that they will do so, or unless the foundation is set up to liquidate itself quickly, at a fixed time after your death. Follow the ambition of the noted Catholic philanthropist and founder of Legatus, Tom Monaghan, and the late William E. Simon, former Secretary of the Treasury, “to die broke.” Your bank account should be as close to zero as possible upon your death. The more money you earn, the higher the percentage that should be given away. And just as you try to live below your income level, you should try to give above it. People should be surprised to learn that someone who earns “only” so much is giving so generously to a good cause.
Leave very little money to your children.
Don’t ruin the lives of your children by tempting them not to work as hard as you have. The evidence is quite clear: children who are born into privilege rarely have the opportunity to experience the joy that comes from struggling and winning. Or to put it negatively, if you’re financially set for life when you turn 21, there is an awful temptation to laziness and indulgence. Generally, large inherited wealth creates huge divisions in families with the subsequent familial and personal tragedies: divorces, addictions, suicides.
Have a big family; you can afford it!
Having a large number of children around the house will do wonders to ensure that you live with a certain amount of poverty and detachment. Just consider the college payments, for one thing! At the very least, communicate this message loud and clear to your children and grandchildren: that your family takes a generous approach to the acceptance of children.
Both Western Europe and the United States and Canada are committing ever more rapid demographic suicides through contraception. The population growth in virtually all of the countries on these continents is well below the replacement rate, in many cases alarmingly so. Regardless of governmental policy, it will be only loving and generous couples who will assure the possibility of a future “culture of life.”
Keep in mind that it is part of God’s plan for most people to live in a family, and to find their joy there. As Pope John Paul put it, “The future of the Church passes through the family.” Individualism and consumerism tend to erode family bonds. Listen to the conversations in your household. They should frequently deal with God, persons, and service, and be positive in tone. Frequent discussion of acquisition reflects a family that lives only for this world, with little thought for the next. Make sure that no one in your family can honestly wear the T-shirt that I used to see when I worked as a chaplain on an Ivy League campus, which said, “He who dies with the most toys, wins!” Life is service, not acquisition. Look to be, not to have.
Throw out or give away what you don’t need.
Objects that we own but which we don’t use, over the course of time, begin in a curious way to take possession of us until one day we wake up tied down like Gulliver in the land of the Lilliputians. Having a relatively few possessions is a fine way to live social justice, as one can readily give them away or sell them and thus convert them into money that can be given to the needy. If you haven’t used something in the last year, you probably don’t need it. Make things last. Remember that attachments to the material things in the world will have eventually to be burnt away in Purgatory if we are to enter into heaven; it is better to gain detachment now rather than later.
Live order and neatness in the care of material items. Happily, increasingly many objects of personal and family use, from cars to shavers, are better made and last longer without repairs. We should take as good care of them as would Jeeves if he were working full time for us.
Avoid impulse buying, whims, and caprices.
Much of our market economy is based on efforts to entice us to buy superfluous things, or to buy too much of truly useful things (Super-Size it!), and the marketing moguls are very good at their work. Look at your closet, clothes drawers, basement, or garage to see the results of impulse shopping. Or for that matter just look at the weight registered on your bathroom scale. Consult with your spouse before making purchases. Review carefully at the end of each month where your money has gone, through a careful examination of your bank and credit card statements. Ask yourself what good you could have done with the money if you had not spent it on yourself.
Avoid occasions of sin, remote or proximate, in respect to buying and shopping—whether in shopping malls, via catalogues, or on the Internet.
For some people the temptation comes in computer stores; for others it may be bookshops or golf equipment shops, and for still others virtually any store is enough to make them feel almost powerless, with the credit card seemingly jumping out of the wallet or purse. Stay away from your particular source of temptation toward conspicuous consumption. The Internet may be the most insidious form of “concupiscence of the eyes,” and it is a mistake to think that the pornographic sites are the only temptations. A few clicks and your “shopping basket” can be filled to overflowing. Don’t create needs for yourself. He has most who needs least. Could you do without?
Make time for at least one corporal work of mercy each week, alone or with friends or family. “Whatever you do to the least of my brethren, you do unto me.” This understanding is essential. You and your family may pass weeks or months without being exposed to the real misery of the human condition in our antiseptic society. Paradoxically, in the world’s most prosperous country, there are more lonely, aged, addicted, imprisoned, exploited, ravaged, and homeless people than in most of the world’s impoverished countries. These unhappy Americans don’t really need more checks or more government programs. They need your company and your love.
Follow the Way of the Cross and meditate often on our Lord’s passion, death, and resurrection. It is there that you will find what counts. All the rest is dross. Measure everything by that standard. Zacchaeus, the rich man, had to climb up a tree in order to see Jesus clearly. The tree you have get up on is the Cross. The Holy Father tries to make the Way of the Cross, at least briefly, each day. Can you excuse yourself, then, on the grounds that you don’t have time?
Make poverty, detachment, and generosity a regular topic in your sacramental confession and spiritual direction. Let your spiritual advisor be demanding of you in this regard. In order to have Christ fill us up through the sacraments, prayer, and Sacred Scripture, we have continually to be emptying ourselves out in every sense, not only internally but also externally. At the moment of our particular judgment, we will not be “naked to our enemies,” but transparent to our friend. We need to be completely stripped of anything that is not Christ, so we can receive the reward that awaits us.
Overcoming the culture of death
Naturally, all of the steps in this program apply to us all. But the rich, powerful, and influential have a special responsibility to try to struggle with these particular challenges, since they run a greater risk of the loss of their souls, in light of the gifts that have been bestowed upon them for God’s glory and service to others.
Rodney Stark, in his insightful book The Rise of Christianity, points out that—contrary to conventional wisdom and historical analysis—in the first several centuries of Christianity, the Gospel was most successfully preached not to the poor and the outcasts, but rather to the prosperous middle classes and educated upper classes in the cities.
As early as the 2nd century there were society matrons and members of the Emperor’s household and high officers of the Roman army who had become Christians. If the vision of John Paul II is to come to pass in this new century, bringing a “new springtime of the Church,” which over time can help to create a “civilization of love and truth” in our society, then the elite must become not only devout and apostolic but also “poor in spirit.”
If you are rich, how should you pursue that end? I have offered some ideas, but you have to answer the question for yourself in the intimacy of your prayer and spiritual direction. However I would make one more suggestion: Seek the intercession of Our Lady of Guadalupe, “the Star of the New Evangelization.” Maybe she can explain why it is that our consumerist, individualistic, and hedonistic society in North America produces so many unhappy, lonely, violent, and neurotic people, while south of the border in Mexico so many people—poor by our standards—are so happy. She appeared to a humble Indian, not to a rich man. We can ask her intercession to find our happiness in the Cross and Resurrection of her Son, and not in acquisition.
Father C.J. McCloskey III is a priest of the Prelature of Opus Dei, and director of the Catholic Information Center in Washington, DC. Reprinted with permission from Catholic World Report. All rights reserved.