The Catholic Thing
Homo Faber Print E-mail
By Brad Miner   
Monday, 21 October 2013

As William E. Carroll recently wrote in this space, one of the “hallmarks of the pontificate of Pope Francis. . .has been his calling our attention to. . .poverty throughout the world.”

The pope is doing this, I think, for two reasons: the poor, whom we have with us always, need our help – in some cases, desperately. Such aid is at the heart of our own salvation, as Christ makes clear in the story of the sheep and the goats: in any needy person to whom we give sustenance, shelter, and love, we have thus served Jesus. And in rejecting the needy, we reject the Lord.

But, as I say, there’s another reason too.

When the pope’s namesake was praying in the rubble of the little church of San Damiano, Christ told the saint: “Francesco, va ripara la mia chiesa.” Francis, rebuild my Church. Pope Francis has received a similar call, and is eschewing much traditional papal pomp: living at St. Martha’s House and preferring to motor around Vatican City in a 30-year-old, 30HP Renault, leading the Car Talk guys to quip, “Now there’s a man who believes in the power of prayer.”

It’s reported that Francis has inspected Vatican parking lots, looking for cleric-owned luxury cars and urging priests to own more basic models, preferably used.

I’ve been to the Vatican just once, and it was among the more fascinating experiences of my life. But one does see opulence. You see cardinals coming and going, and the phrase “princes of the Church” seems appropriate. I can see how some would find the lavish beauty and ceremony within the Holy See somewhat contradictory to a “preferential option for the poor.”

Jesus owned nothing. He never sought wealth. In fact, He lived the simplest, least materialistic life imaginable, and he warned us not to “lay up treasures upon earth.”

Was this not the life St. Francis emulated and Pope Innocent III recognized – through Francis – as essential to reawakening true Christian spirituality?

All of this ought to remind us, as Prof. Carroll writes, of “what should be a healthy and spiritual attitude towards material possessions.” Still, the pope’s efforts to draw attention to the poor ought not devolve into mere “social action,” as though seeking the perceived welfare of others can fulfill its Christian mission without grounding in faith itself.

I think there’s another point to be made as well.

Prof. Carroll notes that the Church “has always taught that the material world is good,” and it’s important to tease out the implications of this teaching, which for me is this: creativity, effort, and production ought not to be constrained by either materialist or anti-materialist conceptions of Christianity. Homo faber, man the maker, is unlike any other creature: made in God’s image. People must work to live; some will elevate that work to a kind of sacrament.

I once wrote a short story about archaeologists working in Galilee whose excavations uncover the home and carpenter shop of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus. There they find a simple olivewood chair, buried in the earth for two millennia yet miraculously preserved. They subject it to sophisticated tests and conclude that the chair is proportionally “perfect.” An Israeli computer analyst says, “I think only God could make this chair.”

Jesus must have crafted many objects. Do we imagine that what he produced would often have been returned by townspeople complaining, “This chair is uncomfortable,” or “Our table wobbles”? Do we imagine he wasn’t paid for his work?

I mean to take nothing away from the workers in France who made that Renault that Francis likes, but my knowledge of cars tells me better vehicles are made by Mercedes-Benz, the brand admired by Benedict XVI. (A number of MB models now sit in Vatican garages.)

Julius II must have had hundreds of artists to choose from, any one of whom might have done a workmanlike job on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, but he insisted on Michelangelo. The “Ecce Homo” fresco (1930) at Zaragoza by artist García Martínez may not be the equal of Michelangelo’s work, but the “restoration” of it by 80-year-old “artist” Cecilia Giménez, undertaken on her own initiative, amounts to desecration.

This is a reality in human creativity: transcendent, great, good, fair, poor, appalling. Any suggestion (eliminating the extremes) that the great and the poor should be valued equally is senseless. The work of a great artisan is more valuable than that of a hack and should be. Nobody wants uncomfortable chairs or wobbly tables. And beauty, functionality, and durability have a price.

To be sure, great art did not cease to exist even in the Soviet Union – “socialist realism” still required technique – although artists were constrained regarding subject matter and style. But throughout the Warsaw Pact, industrial and commercial innovation, which is as much an expression of creativity as are the fine arts, was effectively debased. Luigi Barzini visited a tractor factory in one of the Soviet bloc countries where the commissars of industry proudly showed off phalanxes of finished product. Barzini, who had visited American factories, recognized this enterprise for what it was: a tractor museum.

Often lurking behind calls for “economic justice” is a profound error: the delusion of equality, usually accompanied by the suppression of creativity. We are all of course, equal in sharing God’s love and the rights that come from it. But a Renault is not equal to a Mercedes, any more than the work of Cecilia Giménez compares favorably to Michelangelo’s.

I’m not judging here the pontificate of Francis, but it seems to me that the ebullient pope’s choice of the Renault has an upside and a downside. As a simple call to simplicity, it teaches an important lesson, just so long as we do not confuse it with a call to think that what is worse materially is better spiritually.

Brad Miner is senior editor of The Catholic Thing, senior fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute, and a board member of Aid to the Church In Need USA. He is the author of six books and is a former Literary Editor of National Review. His book, The Compleat Gentleman, read by Christopher Lane, is available on audio.
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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Comments (20)Add Comment
written by william manley, October 20, 2013
The Pope's modest car is a symbol brilliantly conceived especially for Americans, whose love affair with the automobile is at the heart of our unhealthy emphasis on materialism, conspicuous consumption, and energy wastefulness. Our love affair with oversized cars, sport utility vehicles, and trucks is also at the heart of our willful neglect for the future of the planet and our unwillingness to deal with the coming environmental (theological?) apocalypse. The Pope is making a simple simply and frugally. This will free your soul and save the planet. And with the money you save, you can help the poor. Why is this so hard for conservative commentators to understand???
written by Mack Hall, October 21, 2013
Thank you.
written by Other Joe, October 21, 2013
West Germany produced some of the best autos in the world when divided. East Germany produced arguably the worst car in the world. It was the same people, same language, same culture. The difference was Marxism. Humans do not flourish under Marxism. The soul of creativity is not art, but problem solving - using imagination to see into the future that which can be and is not yet. Sometimes problem solving rises to the level of art and is rightly celebrated, but everyone needs the chance to create in order to flourish. A philosophy of radical and artificial "equality" can only operate by suppressing the creative urge using regulation. Such a philosophy (calling itself "scientific") must deny the connection between beauty and truth and must reduce truth to power relations and arrangements.
written by Deacon Ed Peitler, October 21, 2013
"But a Renault is not equal to a Mercedes, any more than the work of Cecilia Giménez compares favorably to Michelangelo’s."

I was once on a mission trip to Guatemala - my first time in a 'third-world' country. We visited the home of a family whose daughter we were considering sponsoring through a charity run by our Catholic Church. The house was made out of bamboo stalk bound together and the roof consisted of salvaged sheet metal. Mattresses were placed on the ground in the one shared bedroom and newspaper affixed to the walls helped keep out the elements. A little boy stood in the doorway to his house playing with a toy - what looked like a stuffed animal tied with a string onto a stick...until I looked more closely and saw it was a dead squirrel. The family asked us to sit at their one table and have some coffee and a piece of fruit around which flies hovered. I recalled how the water to make to coffee was probably contaminated with parasites and flies might have alighted the fruit to lay eggs. How to gently decline without mocking the family's generous sharing of the best they had to offer.

It was then that I realized that we were the ones who were actually poor and who viewed them in a condescending manner. They were rich because of the largeness of their hearts.

I wonder whether popes, bishops and government officials really know what they are talking about when they lecture everyone about poverty. In a world that places all its stock on what is material, we easily lose sight of what really matters.

As I have told missionaries whom I have taken to Guatemala numerous times since for medical missions: "You think you are going there to help the poor. I tell you, at the end of one week you will have a better idea of what true poverty is."
written by Bangwell Putt, October 21, 2013
Pope Francis may have "scandal", as that sin is defined in the Catholic sense, in mind. As long as there are men, women, and children living without adequate food, shelter, clothing, no person who publicly represents the Church should have personal wealth.

Those of us who are the devout laity must also strive, strive mightily, to understand proper use of possessions.

Beautiful things created solely for the honor and glory of God and employed within the Church for this purpose are another matter. They belong to everyone. They are our communal wealth; they feed, shelter, and clothe our souls.

"[Fine] workmanship reflects a certain order of the soul". Examples of this order provide hope and inspiration.
written by DS, October 21, 2013
It is one thing to commission a great artist, whose work can illuminate some aspect of Christian truth for succeeding generations in the Church. It is quite another for a cleric to drive a well-made luxury car, which he utilizes primarily for his physical or psychological comfort and which depreciates in economic value.

Francis recognizes the particular risks that careerism and materialism pose to the vocations of priests and bishops. He also understands the weighted symbolism when a priest drives a car that most in his flock can't afford.

Hopefully, those who are ordained and drive such cars (or have drivers for them) will realize that the dignity of their ministry does not depend on their car. They might also be delighted to discover that God can indeed work miracles even if a priest chooses to drive a used Trabant (the awful tin can automobiles that were made in East Germany).
written by Sven-Olav Back, October 21, 2013
Benedict XVI went by train to see Il Poverello d'Assisi; Francis went by helicopter.
written by Ben H, October 21, 2013
"The work of a great artisan is more valuable than that of a hack and should be. Nobody wants uncomfortable chairs or wobbly tables. And beauty, functionality, and durability have a price."

I'm not sure the Pope is 'criticizing' quality items so much as urging an dis-attachment to material things in general. Something like a nice car may be higher in quality than a cheaper one but can also lead to pride in owning those items. How many people take pride in always owning (and thus being able to be among those who can afford) a nice new luxury car? When clergy own things like nice cars it suggests an attachment on their part, on owning something based on 'want' rather than need. It suggests that the end of their religious work is temporal rather than spiritual.

I don't see anything political here: there is no call for everyone in the world to live without a Mercedes or for laws to stop luxury car making.

Come to think of it though, isn't the Renault kind of the Pope's second car - I thought he'd been riding around in a Ford Focus and the French car was a gift to him that he can tool around the Vatican for fun? Maybe a hopeful message from Pope Francis' conduct would be to find enjoyment in simple things.
written by ken tremendous, October 21, 2013
I agree with much of what you say here, Brad...except this:

Often lurking behind calls for “economic justice” is a profound error: the delusion of equality, usually accompanied by the suppression of creativity.

Well maybe there are a few diehard Marxist true believers roaming about butthis is not how I see it at all. When I think of economic justice I have no inkling of equality or of suppressing creativity. I want a minimum standard of living for the poor and an adequate distribution of productive resources.

Yes, it's silly to think that the poor should all drive around in Mercedes Benz's--but I do want the poor to have some way of getting around. Yes it is silly to try to equalize housing or health care or education consumption between rich and poor--never going to happen. But that does not mean that the poor should not receive a minimal access to these things.

You guys on the Catholic right would be more effective if you realized that the people like me who you are arguing against (and frankly I think Pope Francis too) are not Marxists....We have no nostalgia for the old Soviet Union...we're basically capitalists like you who love markets, creativity, good products and all the rest but who also believe in social insurance which is to say we think that all the material progress of a society should not be captured exclusively or even primarily by people with the most money.

I have no problem seeing the rich shell out big bucks for the best in handcrafted olive wood chairs, ideally made by the Lord himself. But I don't want a world in which this happens at the same time in which many have (metaphorically) no chair at all to sit on.

To the larger point of your piece though, we both would probably agree that it is a much more powerful prophetic witness to the gospel if the clergy--particularly bishops in the first world lived much more modestly than many of them do.
written by Nathan Wilson, October 21, 2013
As Ken says, "I want a minimum standard of living for the poor and an adequate distribution of productive resources." The "how?", "by what authority?", "who decides?" and "who enforces?" are questions that largely render this discussion hollow or if not, lead toward the Marxist answer we agree we do not want.
written by ken tremendous, October 21, 2013
Well Nathan, we have a pretty decent balance in our own country. Our free market system does an OK job of distribution all on its own. But where it is lacking (and it is in some areas!), we let the wealthy keep a big chunk of their earnings and then through taxes and transfers make sure that the benefits of economic growth are widely shared--or at least more widely than they would be in a purely laissez faire scenario.

Yes we can quibble about how high the taxes can be or how generous the redistributions (and of what type) but that's just an argument around the margins. There's no risk that in any scenario we are going to slide into Marxism.

The problem I have is that right-wing rhetoric these days has grown so radical and the desire to repeal social arrangements of the last century or two so prominent among "conservative" thought leaders that I think the correct and truly conservative response to reject this instead seek to fine tune the status quo.

But this discussion gets away from the main point of the essay, which boils down to Brad's discomfort with Francis' papacy--which even more clearly than Benedict and JPII exudes skepticism about the kind of economic policies that Brad and his friends (ie Novak, Weigel et al.) have championed.
written by maineman, October 21, 2013
But Nathan, you miss the point. Ken is telling us what HE wants and what WE should do, just like William has declared that conservatives are too dumb to see that rich, greedy Americans are giving the planet a fever from which it may never recover. We MUST therefore give up our "love affair" with the automobile (and the freedom, mobility, and creativity that go with it) in favor of cars that have to be plugged in every hundred miles and a dependency on public transportation that the state can better control. Who or what better to control our resources, if not the state? That just has to be what the Holy Father is getting at.

At bottom, "who decides, enforces, and by what authority" is always the same for the contemporary liberal: the liberal elite, the Ruling Class; the scribes and Pharisees.
written by Other Joe, October 21, 2013
Yes Mr. Wilson. Ken ignores the moral component of poverty. By its nature government cannot deal in moral issues. It is limited to political issues (power relations). The recent conceit of separation of church (religion is the source of moral truth) and state puts moral truth on a reservation and makes it a "private" matter that is forbidden to enter into political considerations. The concept of "economic justice" is Marxist and materialist.

Charity is a requirement for Christians. The rich man went to hell for eternity because he ignored Lazarus suffering at his gate. It is not mentioned that the rich man stole, missed church or lied to congress. He was damned for his lack of charity. Charity is a grave matter. Transfer payments to individuals who have less is not charity and may do more harm that good in the absence of moral discernment of which the government is not capable.

Justice is justice. Love is love. Charity is charity. "Social justice" is a political construct used to underwrite transfer payments. If one looks at the actual numbers however, one sees that the bulk of the transfer money stays in hands of the providers and a small percentage actually trickles down to the needy and that trickle is without discernment. It's worse than that. We are now forced to pay for socially harmful programs. We know they are harmful because the indices of social wellbeing are worse today than previously and have been trending worse for decades.

Also, it might be noted that a very significant number of individuals at the highest positions of authority in the public sector (including academics) had Marxist training. It is a matter of public record. Those who look to government to make straight the path are totalitarian by inclination and doomed to disappointment. They are happily causing the loss of many fine Christian hospitals, schools and charities in the name of "social justice" and "tolerance".
written by Michael, October 21, 2013
Why does everything he says and does have to be explained by others?
written by beddoo, October 21, 2013
Another article by another Catholic "conservative" afraid that his long crusade to reinterpret Catholic social teaching to conform with the economic philosophy of the Republican Party is coming unwound with a few quotes from the pope. That's the thrust of this whole essay--Miner's attempt to "refract" Francis through the lens of right wing political partisanship stateside.

Some how they managed for years to convinced themselves that John Paul and Benedict (despite what they said in their encyclicals) secretly agreed with them. Now with Francis the jig is up.
written by Thomas J. Hennigan, October 21, 2013
Pope's come and Pope's go. JP II soon after his election ordered a swimming pool to be built in Castelgandolfo. When some Monsignori expressed their surprise and probably scandal, he asked: "How much would another conclave cost?". Pope Francis has recognized that the quarters where Cardinals live in the Vatican are not luxurious, nor are the Papal apartments. His reasons for not living in them and living in a hotel are not convincing to me. He says that he is used to have people around him. In fact, Benedict XVI had a little community of six with him in the apartment. There are serious problems involved with his living in that hotel and he has already caused a problem due to it. The Monsignor in charge of it has been credibly denounced as gay and involved in serious scandals both in Urugay and in Rome. He was appointed by Francis to the Commission established for the reform of the Vatican bank. He was not properly vetted and also the scandalous reports which were sent from the Nunciature in Montevideo, where he had his homosexual lover living in with him, were scrubbed from Vatican records by his gay compllices there.
As for his choice of automobiles, fortunatley there is little danger of him being killed in a traffic accident within the Vatican walls. In the last 30 years or so, the security of motor vehicles has improved tremendously. From the economic viewpoint, Popes, bishops are priests are not cheap to produce. Whilst they should obviously avoid top models like Mercedes Benz or BMW, I see no reason why they should not buy a Ford, a Chevy or some other modern vehicle which have recent advances in security. After all, we are expected to take reasonable care of our health. A whole lot more factors have to be taken into account, like the kind of roads, or dirt tracks which one has to use etc. If the Church over the centuries had maintained the frugal Franciscan notion of poverty and austerity, humanity would have been deprived of some of its greatest artistic treasures. So, such ideas need to be taken with "mica salis".
written by Rosemary, October 21, 2013
Working virtue from the outside in (detachment) seems superficial. One cannot be ordered to be humble, and detached from material goods. I sincerely hope that the rumor of Francis checking on the types of cars in the Vatican parking lot is apocryphal!

True virtue comes from the inside out. And a small budget helps, too.
written by jan, October 21, 2013
That Mr. Miner can conflate, and equate, the pursuit of excellence in reference to a building meant to house God with the pursuit of excellence in creating an automobile for profit reveals, I think, a disturbing tendency among some conservative Catholic intellectuals to be less than serious in their own personal lives about Christ's evangelical counsel to poverty.
written by Rolando Rodriguez, OFS, October 22, 2013
WWJD? What would Jesus drive?
written by kristinajohannes, October 24, 2013
Ken T, whether you call it socialism doesn't matter...advocating that the state redistribute is more or less the definition of socialism!

Better what Leo XII pointed out in Rerum Novarum--the personal responsibility to be charitable and how each person will be judged, not on what is extracted from him via taxation, but what he does voluntarily with his wealth which is given to him so that he can take care of his own needs and lovingly help his neighbor in their need.

Brad, I think Leo XIII addressed your thesis as well when he says that the law of charity does not compel one, "to give away what is reasonably required to keep up becomingly his condition in life..." What the pope is teaching should be seen in continuity with what the church has always taught.
I've always found this clip from Rerum Novarum to be most helpful (one that was further clarified by Blessed JPII in C.A.):

Private ownership, as we have seen, is the natural right of man, and to exercise that right, especially as members of society, is not only lawful, but absolutely necessary. "It is lawful," says St. Thomas Aquinas, "for a man to hold private property; and it is also necessary for the carrying on of human existence."" But if the question be asked: How must one's possessions be used? - the Church replies without hesitation in the words of the same holy Doctor: "Man should not consider his material possessions as his own, but as common to all, so as to share them without hesitation when others are in need. Whence the Apostle with, ‘Command the rich of this world... to offer with no stint, to apportion largely.’"(12) True, no one is commanded to distribute to others that which is required for his own needs and those of his household; nor even to give away what is reasonably required to keep up becomingly his condition in life, "for no one ought to live other than becomingly."(13) But, when what necessity demands has been supplied, and one's standing fairly taken thought for, it becomes a duty to give to the indigent out of what remains over. "Of that which remaineth, give alms."(14) It is a duty, not of justice (save in extreme cases), but of Christian charity - a duty not enforced by human law. But the laws and judgments of men must yield place to the laws and judgments of Christ the true God, who in many ways urges on His followers the practice of almsgiving - ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive";(15) and who will count a kindness done or refused to the poor as done or refused to Himself - "As long as you did it to one of My least brethren you did it to Me."(16) To sum up, then, what has been said: Whoever has received from the divine bounty a large share of temporal blessings, whether they be external and material, or gifts of the mind, has received them for the purpose of using them for the perfecting of his own nature, and, at the same time, that he may employ them, as the steward of God's providence, for the benefit of others. "He that hath a talent," said St. Gregory the Great, "let him see that he hide it not; he that hath abundance, let him quicken himself to mercy and generosity; he that hath art and skill, let him do his best to share the use and the utility hereof with his neighbor."(17)

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