My latest “assignment” for M.’s Catholic Social Teaching class (which I am endeavoring to do the reading for) was Rerum Novarum (On Capitol and Labor) an encyclical written by Pope Leo XIII. I decided to read the assignments for this class, because the last time I read anything on Catholic social teaching was my junior year of high school, and I understand far more now than I did then. The topic seems particularly relevant these days.
There were many selections of texts that stood out to me as I read, but the one below in particular I wanted to elaborate on:
“28. Neither must it be supposed that the solicitude of the Church is so preoccupied with the spiritual concerns of her children as to neglect their temporal and earthly interests. Her desire is that the poor, for example, should rise above poverty and wretchedness, and better their condition in life; and for this she makes a strong endeavor. By the fact that she calls men to virtue and forms them to its practice she promotes this in no slight degree. Christian morality, when adequately and completely practiced, leads of itself to temporal prosperity, for it merits the blessing of that God who is the source of all blessings; it powerfully restrains the greed of possession and the thirst for pleasure-twin plagues, which too often make a man who is void of self-restraint miserable in the midst of abundance;(23) it makes men supply for the lack of means through economy, teaching them to be content with frugal living, and further, keeping them out of the reach of those vices which devour not small incomes merely, but large fortunes, and dissipate many a goodly inheritance.”
It never ceases to amaze me how virtue completely affects one’s life in every regard. I used to think of virtue as being good so that I can get to Heaven. When I learned more about virtue, I discovered that one forms virtue by starting with good habits. And virtue does not suddenly disappear once one has it, when one is truly virtuous, she has to make a conscious effort to be vicious and is aware that it will harm her character.
Here Pope Leo XIII explains that Christian morality leads to temporal prosperity. My first thought was, wait a minute, look at all the saints who were poor on purpose, they were not prosperous. But then I thought more and realized that they never were in want of things that they did not have. A virtuous life is important for rich and poor alike. The poor necessarily need to live a frugal and thrifty lifestyle if they want to live within their means. Too many poor do not know how to live within their means and find themselves in all sorts of debt. To live on little one has to be smart about what she buys and when she buys it. Is a television in every room really necessary? (Then again is it really necessary for anyone?) One can save a lot of money by not eating out and making her own meals. One can save a lot of money by purchasing clothing at garage sales or second hand stores, and one does not have to settle for one ragged clothes either. Also, the store brand often saves more money than coupons and are often just as good. However, to live this way one has to be virtuous. It takes a lot of self control to pass up an impulse to go out to dinner or order a pizza. When the commercials tell one to, “Buy, buy, buy,” how does one say, “I don’t really need that.” Here is where one turns to the Church, whose “desire is that the poor…should rise above poverty and wretchedness, and better their condition in life.” She does this“by the fact that she calls men to virtue and forms them to its practice.” It is only through the Church and her Sacraments that one can truly become virtuous. When one practices the teachings of the Church, one creates good habits, which become virtue. And then even someone with little income can experience a sort of temporal prosperity.
But what about the rich, who have plenty of money. Jesus said it would be harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God than for a camel to enter the eye of a needle (Matthew 19:24). Still the Church is concerned for all people, and wants the rich to also be virtuous and holy. The rich need to not squander their wealth, invest it well, give to the poor, and remember that “God who is the source of all blessings” is what will truly make them happy. Self-restraint is a virtue to strive for, not overindulging oneself, but praising God by appreciating a His creations in a moderate fashion. The rich should still ask, “Do I really need it?” It is more important to become holy than it is to have the latest technology or newest car. If one’s old car still works, then still use it, or if one really needs a new car and the old one still works, give or sell the old one to someone else who needs it for a fair or even low price. It seems the most important thing a rich person can do is to be generous with her abundance of earthly goods and remember to take care of her soul. Taking care of the soul means frequenting the Sacraments, but also doing the corporeal and spiritual works of mercy. (These should be done by all no matter what one’s income level). And remember that frugality is a virtue for all. And as a bonus, it is a way to preserve the worlds resources!