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Wealth and Culture

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Feb 13, 2009

It is very difficult to give concrete advice to anyone about his possession and use of the goods of this world. Every person who has ever lived has been called to cultivate the virtues of detachment and generosity, and yet the specific economic circumstances in which these virtues are practiced has always varied enormously. Moreover, there is no spiritual calculus that makes it easy to determine what decisions any of us should make about our budgets or our ownership.

Some of these things are culturally conditioned. It is essentially impossible in contemporary America, for example, to live at the same level of material well-being as a medieval serf or a seventeenth century American Indian and still remain a functioning part of the larger community. Again, some of these things are determined by the state and condition of life into which we are born. Those who are born wealthy must inevitably practice the virtues of detachment and generosity in different concrete circumstances than those who are born poor. And yet again, some of these things are determined by our responsibilities. Those responsible for the well-being of others have a smaller range of choices than those who are completely on their own, and certain professions or stations in life carry material presuppositions: Some show of substance for an ambassador, perhaps, or some show of material simplicity for a priest. And of course some of these things depend very much on what God is calling us to do.

Yet the decisions we make about our use and possession of this world’s goods play an enormous role in shaping culture (and, to be sure, an enormous role in our own spiritual growth). A culture which prizes wealth and material well-being too highly is doomed to justify one moral horror after another in the name of convenience and comfort. It is one thing to deplore the excesses of such a culture; it is quite another to start transforming it from within by the way that we live. Until Christians begin again to shape their lives and their communities to reflect a tangible difference in how material things are used and enjoyed, Christianity is not likely to attract the following necessary to once again begin to shape culture. It follows that if we want to make something of the Catholic Culture project—or even if we just want to get to Heaven!—we need to ask ourselves many hard questions.

Though the specific answers for each one of us are neither obvious nor easy, the correct answers about our use of this world’s goods are critical to each of us. One good book by a competent spiritual guide that forces us to think these things through is Fr. Thomas Dubay’s Happy Are You Poor: The Simple Life and Spiritual Freedom. I highly recommend reading this book prayerfully; it presents the challenge very effectively. But it does not (because it cannot) offer a “one size fits all” concrete solution. No matter what we read, the basic problem remains for each of us to solve: How to reshape our use and ownership of material goods so that we can both grow in holiness and help transform the culture in which we live.

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