Do you have eel skin walls? Are your windows bulletproof? Do you drive a Maybach? Forgive me if these sound like intrusive questions from a marketing survey. They are not meant to be personal. I am guessing that the majority of my readers will answer “no” to each question. We’ll skip the next thirty; just two more and then we’re done.
Do you own a “flat” that cost more than $10 million? And if so, does it have a car elevator? You know: the kind that lifts you, in your car, from the garage level directly into your apartment?
Very well then. You’re not really rich.
At least, not if you acquire your standards from Vanity Fair magazine. I’ve been alluding to an article about One Hyde Park, in London: an apartment complex for the super-rich, just tall and glassy and sprawling enough to overwhelm an (already affluent) old Victorian neighborhood in Knightsbridge.
Now, I mentioned $10 million, but that would be one of the cheaper apartments. Richard Rogers, the celebrity architect, designed the complex, and his clients required every conceivable luxury.
This includes security. There is no way, short of heavy artillery, that any unwanted outsider gets in. But from an assassin’s point of view, why bother? No one ever seems to be home. The apartments are owned through myriad offshore corporate fronts, and the tenants are hardly ever in London. These are just crash pads. Their homes are much nicer.
In the old days the plutocrats made their money through finance, oil, real estate, media, transport and industry. These days they make it chiefly from corrupt privatization schemes in countries like Russia; by acquiring mineral rights in the Third World; by becoming rentiers on a very big scale. Wealth, today, comes by political connections. Given taxes, regulations, labor laws, there’s no other way to make it to the top. “How do you make $50 million in France today? How?,” one commodity lord whines.
The world’s richest, it appears, contribute approximately zero to the world economy. They are almost pure parasites. On the other hand, as the security arrangements imply, they cannot sleep so easy. They must fear constantly for their lives.
I am not a Marxist, incidentally. Nor a cannibal: I do not propose to eat the rich; especially during Lent. On the other hand, I have more and more appreciation for the wisdom of mediaeval sumptuary laws. There are forms of “conspicuous consumption” so obscene as to constitute a threat to public order.
Saint Francis in Meditation by Francisco de Zubarán, c. 1640
Our new pope, Francis, has been widely quoted exclaiming, “How I would like a Church that is poor, and for the poor.” As Catholic Christians, let’s say we know what he means. We think immediately of the Sermon on the Mount. We then think of the qualifications to this; for instance Bethany, and the story of Mary and Martha. Will the world at large understand him?
As Pope Benedict was saying, in his last address to his clergy in Rome, there were two Vatican Councils in the early Sixties: the Council of the Fathers, and the Council of the Media. The former were speaking a language of faith, the latter a language of power.
To which I like to add, that the media speak a language that is plausible, but untrue; the Church speaks a language that is true, but implausible. Much is lost in the translation from what the Church says to what the media report.
A friend in Venice, getting tired of the media echo chamber through which “Church that is poor” played and replayed, recalled being extremely poor back in the 1970s. “Did God love me more when I was poor?” she asked. “Does he love me less now that I am no longer poor? ” Then added, “What about a pope especially for sinners?”
The media speak a language of power, of politics, larded with a Judas-like hypocrisy (in my humble but experienced opinion). Their exhilaration with Pope Francis’s phrase should worry us. The former Jorge Bergoglio succeeded, in Argentina, in making clear that he was in no way encouraging “liberation theology,” or socialist dreaming. His challenge in the time ahead will be to explain this to the world – in the way he prefers, by example.
For the Sermon on the Mount will triumph, but we can hardly expect an easy triumph. In his book on Francis of Assisi, Chesterton portrayed the enthusiasm of the saint’s original followers, for detachment from material goods. He also presented the chaos that the Holy See had to rein in: for what was saintly in the man soon became an unhealthy excess in the Franciscan order.
Poverty, like anything pursued as an end in itself, can quickly become an idol. To my mind, we need the paradox of the splendor of the Church in her liturgy, music, costumage, and architecture – cast in relief by the poverty of her servants. For then we have a Church in which all the poor may share – a wealth for everyone. Schemes of income redistribution do not cut it. They have nothing to do with Christ, whose message to the rich man was, “Give it all away, and follow me.”
But that was not His first instruction. It began with, follow the commandments. As the better sort of homilists remind us, we are inclined to do everything backwards: and in this case, to jump in at the deep end, even though we might drown in the shallow.
What Pope Francis is teaching is timely, and desperately needed. Poverty can be a Christian virtue, and so much of our wealth and our vanity need stripping down. The poor are our neighbor, as too the orphaned, the diseased, the disabled, the insane, the imprisoned, the geriatric, the unborn. Each must be recognized, in the image of Christ, not in empty words but in action. Not at the commandment of the State, but of Christ: by our own direct action.