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.