An Invitation to Poverty

The Following is taken from a discussion on facebook and expounded on to fit the blogging format.

A friend of mine posted something about how laypeople should not bother themselves with the study of theology because of their “simplicity.” Which saddened me greatly, because the Church has always sought a Universal Discipleship. It’s in the very word Catholic, which has roots in the word Kata-hole meaning, according to the whole. But nevertheless, let’s not labor on this too much, suffice it to say, sometimes I wonder what the hell has gotten into my friends where they assume that a little bit of learning gives them a right to be the kings and queens of arrogance.

It makes me sad when good theologians are corrupted by bad virtues and thus prove to be bad theologians. You cannot separate theology from virtue. It is impossible to rightly describe the righteous, pious or sanctified mysteries of God without a soul that corresponds analogically. Meaning, you can only reflect what’s in you, and even if your words are eloquent, and your thoughts systematic beyond reproof, if you cannot love the ignorant, the enemies, the weak and the poor, you are not engaging the world Christianly.

I have been harping recently, on the incarnate nature of Truth as a person. Truth is not merely facts which are proven, Truth is shaped by a certain imagination, possessed of certain virtues and disciplined in many facets, because Truth is Jesus of Nazareth, the risen Christ.

I posted as a status: ” Truth Himself is humble and meek, seeking not to be served nor looked up to, but bears his cross and serves even the most uneducated through His mission. If your theology does not care for even the ignorant, it is not Christ-shaped.

I had a few “likes,” but there was one particular friend of mind who posted the following response:

Truth can cut like a double-edged sword too. There is a time for each, right?

I mean, the statement seems harmless enough right? But look at the underlying conviction, that peace and meekness are a disposition that have an alloted time-frame, and that violent Truth has a time to be free as well. Both of these are his disposition, obviously favoring the sword metaphor. I understand this young man’s attempt to be faithful, and stand up for his beliefs, but either we are disciples or we are soldiers for the empires of the world. We cannot do both faithfully.

I answered his question with the following:

he who lives by the sword shall die by the sword.

For him whose sword IS humilty, is meekness is service, this is the one that topples empires and lays waste to the principalities and powers.

To him that assumes that Truth is just another sword in an arsenal to wage war against whatever, this one is already compromised. Jesus is not a weapon, he’s a servant.

I have to admit I might be lacking in imagination here, but I do not understand what is so offensive to people about having to understand the “blessed are the peacemakers” part of the gospel. Clearly Jesus did not approve of revolution against the Romans, and that’s part of why He was crucified, the people wanted another messiah, one who would kill. They chose Barabbas.

My interlocutor decided to expound his position as follows: I have edited only grammar and punctuation:

I…believe there are those called to live by the sword and even die by it when necessary-which is an honor- in the fight against modern evils.

(My reply to this here is, firstly…what? Jesus was pretty explicit. This guy isn’t even espousing a just-war position, but a flat out “violence isn’t all that bad” position.)

i personally have never seen an evil empire fall by humbling oneself to it and serving it with gentle kindness.

(It’s called, the Roman Empire. Just sayin’…pagan empire, Christianized and established as the center of Western History after this Christianization. Jesus overcame not just the idea of sin, not just the effects of sin, but the roots of sin and every manifestation including arbitrary power and arbitrary violence.)

The hearts of individuals will be changed by Christian witness, collective evils not so much. there has to be room for men in the church who resist evil with force in society.

Well, the gospels and the epistles urge us not just to transform individuals, but societies, and not through violence, or power, but through being the Church. Through being weak people able to be transformed by grace, and Truth.

I closed with the Following:

I disagree, but I am not going to start a big fuss about it. Look, either you believe in the power of the resurrection, or you don’t. If you do, you look at history and see that meekness did indeed topple an empire. jesus overthrew the roman empire, and it was through his crucifixion.

The gospel is not about individuals alone, but the redemption of all creation. Collective evils is precisely what Ephesians tells us we can overcome, and Colossians as well. Principalities and powers are overcome not by engaging the world on their terms, but undoing their power through Christ Himself.

But again, the purpose of this status was not to talk about just-war or pacifism, it was to call us all back to remembering that Truth Himself is humble, and we should be likewise. Therefore, let’s all do that, and spend less time arguing about intricacies that are ultimately irrelevant if we’d all live the gospel in the poverty Christ invites us to.

I think we could all use remembering that the gospel is not an invitation to power, but to poverty. The power of the gospel is not the empires of the world, or the churning of machines and power structures, but the cross of the crucified Jesus and what that means for us. It means a liberation from any form of liberation that condones unnecessary violence and frowns on even what is deemed necessary as a less than perfect solution.

If we wish to be Christian in our imaginations, we should work to put war behind us. Or as the Holy Father Pope John Paul II says ” War should belong to the tragic past, to history: it should find no place on humanity’s agenda for the future.” I like my interlocutor and friend very much, he’s well intentioned about his faith, but his mistake is assuming that you can hold a sword while carrying a cross. That we have and live in a world where our imaginations are ready to make imaginary wars and imaginary enemies appear means we have not yet learned the peace or the poverty which Christ intends to teach us. That’s all for today, thanks for reading.


14 thoughts on “An Invitation to Poverty

  1. I’m no theologin and not even all that intelligent, but the whole “by the sword” thing sounds like Islam and that is definitely not who Christ calls his disciples to be. Didn’t we already try that anyway during the Crusades? Where’d that get us? I think that when the Body of Christ actually starts acting like it’s supposed to, and truly loving and serving all mankind, then we’ll have what so many desire: world peace. You are right, Eli, it was Christians in their humbleness and humility that turned the heart of a Roman Emporer, and thus changed the world as it was then known.

    • Kimberlie, congrats on Noah, and welcome back stateside!

      Thanks for your comments, can’t wait to catch up.

  2. First of all, Merry Christmas to Eli and everyone else here!

    I find the idea of a theological debate over facebook interesting. Marshall McLuhan, another Chesterton influenced Catholic convert, said that “the medium is the message”, that the medium content is carried through influences how the content is perceived, and the meaning of the content itself. It’s interesting to think of what effect the medium of facebook (or for that matter blogging) has on the content of theological thought.

    More to the point, I agree with what you’re saying, Eli. Your discussion gets at the fundamental problem of how we approach violence in our scripture. Not only Matthew 10:34, but also the violence of the Old Testament. To be honest, i’m not sure of how we should, but I know that it must be in light of the nonviolence and pacifism of Christ expressed through the Beatitudes, Sermon on the Mount, and all the New Testament writings.

    I find some trouble with your example of the Roman Empire though. I may be wrong, but doesn’t the traditional account of Constantine’s conversion have him converting after a military victory, which he believed God gave him? How do we approach this story, that God gave Constantine a military victory which lead to his conversion, in light of the Gospels pacifism?

    We can question the authority of the story, saying that God didn’t actually give him the victory and that God’s involvement in the battle was a later invention. We can also say that the Christianization of the Roman Empire was inevitable, that God brought it about through means other than Constantine’s conversion, but I don’t know that much about this subject so i’m not quite sure how to approach it. What I do know, thought, is that my conscience is telling me that God would not secure the conversion of an Empire through a violent battle.

    It’s interesting that your friend uses the “evil empire” imagery that was previously used to caricature the Soviets. Maybe you could mention to him the Solidarity movement in Poland? That’s certainly an example of a largely pacifist (and Catholic) movement that used techniques pioneered by the labour movement to resist Soviet oppression. The fruit of its labour is also a large and lasting amount of popular piety in Polish society.

    Kimberlie said:

    “the whole “by the sword” thing sounds like Islam and that is definitely not who Christ calls his disciples to be.”

    I just want to point out that Islam has as many different interpretations of religious metaphors involving violence as we do. I apologize if i’m misunderstanding what you’re saying, but the only reason it “sounds like Islam” is because the media gives too much attention to a small minority of Muslims who interpret scripture as supporting physical violence. The vast majority of Muslims interpret these metaphors peacefully, using much the same approaches that we use towards Matthew 10:34, and other violent metaphors that are part of our scripture. So it doesn’t really sound like Islam, it sounds like anyone who twists their religion into supporting physical violence, which includes small minorities in the Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, and even Buddhist communities.

    I apologize if the tone of that came off as confrontational, I did not intend it to! I agree with what you say about the painful failure of our medieval brothers and sisters to speak out for peace, and about our goal to love and serve all people.


    • Sorry to take so long in responding, I had lots of catching up to do.

      I think the McLuhan point is a great one, and that it’s worth discussing in future posts. I’m familiar with McLuhan’s work.

      In dealing with violence, I think that the resurrection and ascension should reframe our imaginations, and our understandings of violence. I mean, I am not calling for a pacifist Church, though that would in many ways help. I think that the Church cannot be pacifist because her body is not always given the choice between good and evil. Sometimes we’re given a choice between evil and evil. In those cases, violence seems to be a necessary evil. I think every act of violence no matter how justifiable requires penitential action, because in the long run it does disservice to the gospel, but that’s just me. I’m not the Church.

      When I mentioned the Roman empire, I didn’t have Constantine in mind. Though that’s an interesting point. Whatever Constantine was or was not, I think that history has shown that when Christians engage in violence, it is lamentable and judged harshly. Whatever the case with Constantine, the Christianization of the West has less to do with the Edict of Toleration, and more with the rise of monasticism, the great Church Fathers, and the entire cultural anticipation of a universally applicable monotheism providentially made possible in Christianity.

      But this brings up the problem of warrior-saints, and what to do with them. I think that in the end, God will have justified those who have used violence to secure the kingdom and that while lamentable, it will not be ultimately useless. Like Rahab’s betrayal of her people, Tamar’s securing an heir through illegitimate means, or other biblical figures who were less than perfect. Sin is sin, and it always gets turned around for the better. No one mentions St. Francis’ blunders as a soldier or St. MAry of Egypt’s prostitution except to extol her virtue, likewise with those who are forced to use violence to maintain the kingdom.

      No one with the charity of Christ can think that singing Kumbaya outside Auschwitz would change anything. I think that we have to acknowledge that to use violence is to destroy what we seek to create, or at the very least deform it, maybe beyond repair in some cases.

      Anyways, there you ahve my two sides, and everything I am thinking on these issues, thanks for the comments, sorry again on the delay, and a Happy New Year.

  3. Eli,

    A number of things, both personal and philosophical, for what they’re worth, personally and philosophically.

    1)When you state early on in your post that “It makes me sad when good theologians are corrupted by bad virtues and thus prove to be bad theologians,” having just exclaimed, “I wonder what the hell has gotten into my friends where they assume that a little bit of learning gives them a right to be the kings and queens of arrogance,” you ought to pause and reflect. You state in your “About Me” that you are not an authority, but you continually take upon yourself an authoritative tone. You can see the same, albeit in a more condescending form, when you dismiss your friend’s statements by means of a reference to his “disposition” as a “young man.” Exactly what are you, that you can speak with such wisdom to the mistakes of his age? I carry with me nearly a decade on you, with all the education, both scholarly and experiential, implied therein, and I would not be so unkind, to you or your opinions.

    2.Does that greater humility on my part necessitate a better theology on my part? No. Returning to your “It makes me sad when good theologians are corrupted by bad virtues and thus prove to be bad theologians,” in this you appear to flirt, dangerously, with the Donatist heresy. If Christ is the Truth, and there you and I, I assume, agree, then the intentions of the speaker are irrelevant. If it is true, then it leads to Christ. Period. Now that is not to say that speaking the truth can justify acting contrary to the truth. That was Luther’s mistake, failing to see that while his criticisms of certain practices were both valid and true, that truth did not justify the irreparable schism he initiated.

    3.The transition from the Roman Empire to the Holy Roman Empire was not as seamless as you seem to imply. Rome rotted from within and died, and it was only after laying dead for some time that the Rome we know as the home of the Catholic Church came to be. There is some slight merit to the causal connection you speak to, but only if accompanied by a host of qualifications and even then it is not enough, in the end, to justify an entire interpretive paradigm, which is how you seem to be using it.

    4.While I personally am fond of Matt. 10:34, it is not, at least in regards to your argument, where I would go. I would look rather to John 2:15, to wit, “and making a whip of cords, he drove them all, with the sheep and oxen, out of the temple; and he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables.” The Gospel gives us Christ, that is, God, committing actual physical violence. You go on, implicitly and explicitly, in your post and in your replies to comments as if Christ was a pacifist: “the crucified Jesus … means a liberation from any form of liberation that condones unnecessary violence and frowns on even what is deemed necessary as a less than perfect solution.” Was Christ less than perfect? Or was it that in that one instance the human part of the hypostatic-union managed to overcome the divine and Jesus the man resorted to a “less than perfect solution”? I think we are left with only two options: 1)physical violence is justified when the situation warrants it; or Christ was wrong to do what he did. I, for one, align myself with the former.

    5.One of the reasons you seem to take a pacifist position seems to be that you equate violence with a desire for power, which strikes me as an unjustifiable equivocation. Not only that, but it is also a position which hints strongly at the pseudo-Marxism which informs the current post-colonial theories. The Church has always denied Communism, that is, applied Marxism, because it is fundamentally an inhuman philosophy, and it is inhuman because it denies the validity and supremacy of the individual in favor of the group. When you claim that “the gospels and the epistles urge us not just to transform individuals, but societies,” you fundamentally misinterpret the single most important act, Christ’s sacrifice. True, Christ sacrificed himself potentially for all of humanity, but the sacrifice is actually applicable only an individual level. That is, we can as individuals deny the sacrifice and refuse the grace offered, so only on an individual level can we accept it: we are each priest, prophet, and king. Granted, we as a collective form the Church, the Body of Christ, but the fundamental existential level as well as the fundamental spiritual level is not the society, the culture or the state, but the human being.

    6. That being said, violent acts must then relate back to the individual and to the love, the caritas, which the individual bears. If an act is done with malice, well, enough said, but if an act is done with love, the violence of the act is naught. (Tangent: Again, going back to your “I’m no authority”: seriously??? the acts of the warrior-saints are “lamentable”??? Joan of Arc was either, according to the Church, a mass murderer, or she was given her orders from God. Is the act of following divine orders “lamentable”??? The condescension in that statement is profound… not to mention spiritually dangerous.) So, despite the comments and their fairly widespread support, I ultimately have to stand with your friend. There may come a day when carrying my cross means picking up a sword, and on that day I will, God-willing, stand with the Church Militant as much as with Christ. And, allowing the truth of a fundamental syllogism (God is all good; Christ is God; therefore Christ is all good), the Bible gives me ample evidence that it is possible to love and be violent at the same time.

    7. None of the above is to say that to love and be violent is easy, or that it happens very often, or that it doesn’t tend towards abuse by those already in or seeking power. Just that it is possible.

    • Christopher,
      First, thank you for your keen observations. I admittedly wrote this post in emotional frustration and it carried out some carelessness in my statements, and other things I disagree with myself on not even two months later.

      I agree with the Church, that sometimes love means difficult choices. Bonhoeffer knew that, other saints have known that. Who am I to question the Church on that?

      And to tackle your points, young man was simply a descriptor, but I can see how it could be read condescendingly, and for that, I apologize.

      It is always good to revisit one’s about me, and no I am not an expert, I am however opinionated, stubborn and coming down from a Stanley Hauerwas hangover. Those are my hangups in this post, and I admit, it’s a rather shoddy one at various points. I can freely admit my tone was wrong and I thank you for calling me out on it.

      2. I can see where you’re coming from, and I have had examples in the past month that lead me to agree with you. I think it’s extremely important we not jump the gun to violence, but also extremely important that we act on behalf of the Kingdom of God as situations necessitate. I would never suggest that singing Kumbayaa outside Auschwitz is the answer.

      3. No argument. I was not nuanced or detailed enough to convey accurately what I was trying to say and clearly overstated a barely tenable position.

      4. I do not believe Christ was a pacifist. I think pacifism is riddled with challenges far more serious than just-war theory. I do think we have to take seriously not rushing to drive the money changers out with violence before it is time though, and sometimes, we jump the gun as Christians. That’s closer to home on what I was trying to say, though I seem to have overreacted to my interlocutor.

      5. Very good observation, I stand corrected.

      6. Again, you have not only the better argument, but the better logic. I agree with you, not my post.

      7. Wise conclusion, thank you for your thoughts, dealing with the issues, and offering so much of your time to correct a wayward amateur. I really do appreciate it, and your thoughts. Peace be with you, and may the light of Christ give us all the courage to love God so powerfully that we take his kingdom by force, when necessary 😉

    • Christopher,

      I suspect we don’t really disagree nearly as much as one would think by reading our two comments in succession. I think the issue here is that we are talking about different meanings of the word “pacifism”. I think you take it to mean an absolute, extreme position – no aggression of any kind can ever be justified. This is not what I mean when I say pacifism (I’m not sure what Eli had in mind). What I mean is that, for every “day when carrying my cross means picking up a sword”, there are many many more days when carrying my cross means exactly the opposite. In fact, every day of my life so far it has been the opposite.

      What I mean is that, for every situation where aggression is justifiable, there are many many more situations where aggression seems justifiable, but is not. So far, I have only experienced my own impulses leading me to violence, but God screaming at me to embrace non-violence. The opposite has never happened to me­.

      I would try to summarize it like this: Pacifism is the recognition that, in almost all situations, it is my own impulses that lead to violence, not God’s voice. Recognizing this, I should make non-violence my default response, I should constantly battle that aggressive impulse. I am usually Peter in the Garden, reaching for my sword – and Jesus is almost always imploring me to stop. It is much more common for violence to seem like the right solution but lead to ruin, than for peace to seem like the right solution but lead to ruin.

      Moreover, I think this applies at both an individual and collective level. I think that nations need to battle that aggressive impulse as much as individuals do. I believe what Pope John Paul II said about war belonging to humanities past. I think the default response of nations should be non-violence as well, for the same reason that my personal default response should be non-violence.

      Finally, I have just a couple of questions. You contest Eli’s claim that the gospels urge us not just to transform individuals, but society. I don’t quite see what your problem with this statement is. Eli was not setting up a dichotomy, he did not say “the Gospels urge us to transform societies, not individuals”. He said that that the Gospels urge us to transform individuals AND society. Where is your disagreement? Do the Gospels not call us to transform societies?

      Secondly, I think you might be reaching a bit when you dismiss a point of view because you see it as being influenced by Communism. Even assuming that the view was influenced by Communism, it seems to me like rejecting it for that reason isn’t quite right. After all, much of the theoretical foundation and leadership of the labour movement was influenced by Marxism (or were Marxists themselves) but the Church recognizes the right of workers to unionize.


  4. Eli,

    A prompt and courteous response; it says worlds both for and about you.

    If I might offer a suggested addition to your reading list. Jacques Maritain was one of the 20th centuries great Thomists, and re. my #5 above, you might look at either or both of the following:

    Man and the State


    The Social and Political Thought of Jacques Maritain: Selected Readings (

    I wish you the best in your studies, and I hope you make it back to school. We need good theologians.

    Sic vis pacem para bellum.



  5. Mike,

    You and I may in fact disagree in some things less than it would seem. As for the points you raise, I am — and I would claim further that this should be a general rule in conversation — wary of using words outside generally accepted norms. That is not to say that it can’t be done, but only to say that if that is the case, then the use should be prefaced by a qualification or distinction, which in my recollection neither yours nor Eli’s original posts were. Pacifism means an adherence to peace as THE way, implying that other ways are either insufficient or just wrong. Your use of the word as you explain it in your response to me seems a sort of pseudo-pacifism which acknowledges it as possessing, perhaps, a greater degree of truth than other ways. In the end, however, it is a minor point, and one in which we are not in complete disagreement. Violence is not typically justified and exists primarily as a form of or in defense of our vanity and pride.

    That, however, does not mean that violence is never justified. And that was in large part my point. What was being offered, ostensibly, as a universal moral precept is in the end only a general moral precept. A concrete example might help.

    I, when I was younger, had more than my fair share of fights. I was, relative to many, extremely given to violence. Even as I grew out of that tendency, I still studied martial arts and carried myself constantly ready to fight. I believe I’ve finally let that go, in large part due to becoming husband and father. However, those changes in my life, along with a commitment to graduate school and other, hopefully, more mature pursuits, have led to me being out of shape. Very. Usually I accept it is a necessary condition; I haven’t enough time to devote to everything, so exercise is one of the things to go. Such is my life. Occasionally, though, I am reminded that, particularly living in a city in our fairly violent culture, I may one day be called to defend my family. Should I, having consciously left the violence of my youth, reach that day and fail, then not only will I have failed in that instance, potentially resulting in physical harm to my family, but I will have also failed in my vocation, that is, as husband and father. Something that God has called me to — my vocation, my cross — may one day actually call me to violence.

    If I am to pursue virtue, and in that I find it unlikely that you and Eli and I disagree, then, at least with the cardinal virtues (the supernatural virtues are a much different matter) what is desired is a mean, something which acknowledges both extremes — pacifism is one — as deficient.

    As to your other points, I think I can speak to them both at once. My difficulty with Eli’s emphasis on the culture is the same as my difficulty with Marxism and anything which draws from Marxism (I accept that, in regards to the labor movement, I may be in need of qualifications, I know little about the movement. I will hold to the fact that in any way it derives itself from Marxism, it is deficient.). Marxism is an inhuman philosophy. That is, it is dehumanizing. And this is simply because value is both measured according to and derived wholly from the group. Its ethics, if it can even be said to have such, rests on no acknowledgment of the transcendent in man, but rather on a utilitarian, that is, quantitative rather than qualitative, sense of “good.” That is a position I wholeheartedly deny, because our goodness as people exists only on an individual level. God creates individually; we create collectively. The collective good exists only insofar as the individuals which form that collective are good . I am not good by being in a group with you. Rather, I am good, and my goodness informs the group.

    This is not argue along the lines of the modern conception of individuality, which is an abysmal perversion of our nature as individuals. Neither is it to deny communities and their value for us. But as any warped regime will aptly demonstrate, the community is only as good or bad as the individuals within it. Not the other way around.

    My difficulty with Eli’s emphasis on the culture follows from this. The individual is transformed, not the culture. Only insofar as the individuals within a group are transformed can you be said to have transformed the group. The Church actually tried it the other way, converting much of northern and eastern Europe by converting on a large scale, from the king on down. That strategy is one of the reasons that the reformation took hold firmly in eastern and northern Europe but failed to take hold in western or southern Europe, areas which had been converted slowly, over time.

    I don’t deny that we are called to transform society, but to make that the basis of an interpretive paradigm seems to me to miss the point, grossly.

    If I’ve missed or misunderstood any of your points, I’m happy to take them up further, provided Eli doesn’t mind us hijacking his comment box.



    • Christopher,

      I’ll start by talking a bit more about pacifism, but I think our discussion past that has gotten more interesting, so more of this comment will be spent on that.

      “I am — and I would claim further that this should be a general rule in conversation — wary of using words outside generally accepted norms.”

      I agree with you here. I think the issue is that we disagree over what the generally accepted norm is, which varies from culture to culture. I’m not sure where you are, but I know Eli lives in the states – I do not, so likely the words have different meanings to us.

      I understand where you’re coming from with your vocation to your family, and I certainly would not fault you if you needed to defend them. To give a concrete example that might illustrate our differences, though, if I were to personally be exposed to violence, my initial instinct would be to respond with violence. Pacifism to me means replacing that instinct with non-violence. It means that, even though self-defense may seem justified, that may not (more strongly probably is not) what God is calling me to do, even if that non-violence leads me to physical harm.

      We may also disagree more substantially on a macro level. To me pacifism includes strongly rejecting large military expenditures, the glorification of the military (and the nationalism that goes along with it), the gun culture, the use of torture, and the death penalty. It means using the same restraint internationally as I would try to use personally.

      That being said, I think our conversation after we discussed pacifism has gotten more interesting, so i’ll spend some more time on that next.

      ” I will hold to the fact that in any way it derives itself from Marxism, it is deficient.”

      I would say that this is true of almost any political structure or concept. The social teachings of the Church do not map onto any single human ideology, so any political structure or system derived from them must be deficient; whether it’s trade unions, corporations, markets, parties, etc.

      But just because it’s deficient in some way doesn’t mean we should not support it. There is no perfect human structure, but we still need to work and live with them. And, with God’s help, we can use them as tools to show love, hope and charity. I admit i’m no expert on the history of the labour movement either, but from what I have read it’s early leaders, especially in the IWW and CIO in the 20s and 30s, were heavily influenced by Communism. Still, I think we can all agree that policies once closely associated with the movement – minimum wage, collective bargaining, safe working conditions, access to health care – are not automatically tainted by association.

      “God creates individually; we create collectively”

      I may be stepping outside of what I know here, but maybe we could consider this question. Who created the Church? After all, it is a structure made up collectively of human beings, but was it not created by God? Every single person in the Church today is a sinner, but the Church is Holy. How can the Church be collectively holy but every person in it a sinner? It seems to me like we must accept that the collective good of the Church exists at least partially independent of the people in it. Otherwise there would have to exist some tipping point where “at this level of moral corruptness the Church stops being holy” – which sounds protestant.

      Again, if anything I’ve said above it wrong please point it out – i’d like to learn more and I’m far from an expert in this area.

      That being said, I agree with you that human societies are transformed by transforming the individuals. However, an individual is not transformed in isolation. The transformation happens within a culture. Part of the process may be re-interpreting cultural imagery or ideas to point to Christ. For example, pagan imagery of light and darkness being used to explain the coming of Christ, the reinterpretation of concepts in Native American spirituality, the transformation of South America, etc. As such, I don’t think the process is linear – I don’t think there is a strict “individuals are transformed, then society is transformed”. Rather I think in the process of transforming individuals, the culture is reinterpreted in the light of Christ. Stating this position more strongly, because individuals do not exist in isolation, there is a symbiotic relationship between transforming the individual and transforming the culture they are in.

      And sorry to Eli if I’ve cluttered everything up with this!


  6. Guys, I just want to say I’m reading with interest and allow you guys to discuss as much as you’d like. I’ll hop in sometime soon, I just wanted to allow you to feel free to carry on as necessary. What’s the internet for if not civil discussion?

  7. Mike — My apologies for the delay in responding


    Eli — Thanks for providing a forum

    As to the points above…

    I agree with most of what you say, Mike, about pacifism (at least as you understand it). Instincts are almost always — instinctively (no shortage of irony there!) — in the service of the self. Christ’s call, as I understand it, runs in the opposite direction: we should negate the self (the mystics following the apophatic, the path of negation) and only then will we truly discover not only Christ but ourselves as well — Eliot’s line in the Four Quartets:

    “We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

    We cannot find God until we lose ourselves. In many respects a terrifying concept, one which makes it easy to understand why so few in our culture are willing to let go of the self, myself included.

    Beyond that, however, you are right. We will, I think, disagree strongly. Man is called to be “in the world but not of the world.” Governments are not, and necessarily so. As I see governments, their concerns are not only in but also of the world, and to attempt to be otherwise leads only to a tyranny which violates the free will that is so intrinsic not only to us, but to God’s plan for us. This is the paradox of Plato’s Republic, that those most able to lead, the philosophers (or theologians), cannot do so without destroying the very good they seek to bring into being — thus the dual import of Plato’s City as an analogy for the soul: what can be brought about on the individual level cannot be achieved on the social level except by means of the free conversion of all the individuals within that society.

    In regards to your comment on my disavowal of anything which shares aspects of Marxism or Communism, yes and no. I think we must be able to distinguish between supporting similar ends and/or means, on the one hand, and giving our support to a movement whose paradigms, while possibly ending in the same place, are nevertheless intrinsically dehumanizing. Compromising through an acquiescence to a deficient ideology because of or in pursuit of a superficially similar goal (I say superficially because, in the end, if the first principles, the fundamental premises, of two positions are different, then the end in mind, even if it appears on the surface to be the same, will ultimately be different) seems to me theoretically faulty — not to mention the fact that I’ve never seen it turn out well for the compromiser.

    That being said, I do not deny that grace can turn even the darkest of regimes or ideologies to its own ends. However, I also don’t think we can always presume the working of grace in a particular circumstance. If we see grace at all, it is generally only in retrospect, and we are temporal creatures called to attend to the moment, not what might be. The lack of faith that caused Peter to sink rather than to continue walking on the water was rooted in his fear of what was coming, not his acceptance of the miracle of the moment.

    And that, I think, is sufficient for now. I’m a bit foggy today, and I feel like I’m doing a poor job of responding to the points that have been made. But you raise a very interesting point, Mike, about the nature of the Church, though it’s one which will take me much longer to address — and like you I address it with little to no expertise. So I will tend to that later tonight or tomorrow.

    Until then,


  8. Christopher,

    Please take as much time as you need to respond, i don’t mind!

    “Beyond that, however, you are right. We will, I think, disagree strongly.”

    I will take your word for this, though i’m not quite sure where we disagree! I think I agree with the rest of what you say in that paragraph. I agree that we are not called to be of this world, but that governments are.

    Actually, this sort of brings up a question based on what we’ve talked about before. You’ve said that a collective organisation’s “good” comes from the good of it’s individuals members. Now, I think we can agree that a government is a collective organisation. Let’s set up an admittedly implausible scenario where a government is made up completely of virtuous Catholics. Then would that government be “of the world”? In this case, the sum total of virtuous Catholics, who would not be “of the word”, should also not be “of the world”. You’ve said that governments are necessarily “of the world”, but also that organisations are only the sum total of their individual members. In this scenario, are these two statements in conflict?

    “Compromising through an acquiescence to a deficient ideology because of or in pursuit of a superficially similar goal … seems to me theoretically faulty”

    I might not have made myself completely clear here, which I apologize for. I don’t think that engaging and working with a movement means that you need to compromise your beliefs. My original objection was my impression that you were dismissing a statement that Eli made because you saw it as associated with Communism, a dehumanizing philosophy. I was just saying that there are many ideas once associated with Communism that the Church advocates. For example, the encyclical Popularum Progressio “commend[s] those people who unselfishly serve their brothers by working in such organizations”, referring to unions, which have an ideological history in the Marxist idea of class struggle. Now, that does not mean that Marxism and Catholicism can be harmonized, but it does mean that Catholics can adapt these structures and organisations to serve others, and that when used in service of others, the actions of the Catholic are “good”.

    I did not mean to say that a Catholic can self-identify with a dehumanizing philosophy, I was saying that it is possible for Catholics to use and work with human ideologies for the service of grace, which you seem to agree with in the second last paragraph.

    I have just one more thing to add to our discussion on transforming individuals, and what that means for transforming societies. Here’s another line from Popularum Progressio, under the title “The Common Development of Mankind”:

    “Development of the individual necessarily entails a joint effort for the development of the human race as a whole.”

    This would seem to flow well with what i’ve said about a symbiotic relationship between transforming individuals and societies. Though I admit I have not extensively read Popularum Progressio.

    Actually, that encyclical seems to touch on a lot of what we’ve been talking about. I think i’ll make it m goal for the next week or so to read it more extensively!


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