Reintroducing the Christian virtue of "detachment"
Pope Francis started ad libbing in Havana, and as often happens, when he speaks from the heart, confusion followed. Attending evening prayers with a group of priests, seminarians, monks and nuns, he went off script and spoke passionately about poverty. The transcript of his remarks are here.
While the pope’s unplanned comments are inspiring and moving, they could be open to misunderstanding, for he praised poverty in glowing terms. “Our Holy Mother Church is poor” the pope said. “God wants her poor as he wanted our Mother Mary poor. Love poverty as a mother. I simply suggest to you, if one of you would like to ask himself, ‘How is my spirit of poverty? How is my interior detachment?’ I think this can be good for our consecrated life, our priestly life. After all, let us not forget that it is the first of the Beatitudes. Happy are the poor in spirit, those who are not attached to riches, to the powers of this world.”
Pope Francis seemed to be praising poverty for its own sake and even making a virtue of poverty, leading social media wags to wonder, “is this the Catholic church’s position? Do they think poverty is a good thing? Are they teaching that the poor must just shut up and accept their lot and be humble? Is that why there is still so much poverty in Catholic countries?”
To an extent, the questions are fair: suggesting poverty is a virtue risks miscommunicating both Catholic teaching, and the physical world. If poverty is a virtue, then one must conclude that riches and material possessions are evil. If possessions are sinful then they must be so because they are physical and therefore lower and unworthy of one who seeks a higher and more spiritual path.
This is not the Catholic understanding of the physical world, wealth or poverty, and to impute such unsound teaching to the Pope one must take his words out of context. The Holy Father was speaking to consecrated people who, like the Jesuit pope himself, have taken vows of poverty, and to understand his words, one must examine another term which he used far more frequently in his impromptu teaching — “detachment.”
When a Catholic priest or religious takes a vow of poverty they are not espousing poverty as a good thing in and of itself. Instead their path of poverty is intended to lead them to what mystics of all stripe call “inner detachment.” A vow of poverty eschews material possessions in order to cultivate a higher love; it frees a consecrated person from material things, that they may be properly attached to all things.
The Catholic view is expressed by the seventeenth-century English poet Thomas Treherne who wrote, “Can a man be just unless he loves all things according to their worth?” Within these words of wisdom are locked both the true love of poverty and the genuine love of the material world.
Hinduism and Buddhism teach detachment from the physical world because it is passing away; attachment to physical passions and possessions bring suffering to the individual, and to the world. For the Catholic, detachment is more life-affirming; it means we love and appreciate the good gifts of God, but we keep all things in balance and in the proper perspective. For example, we love a beautiful home not because it is a status symbol or a good investment, but because it is a lovely and safe place to cultivate a marriage, nurture a family and offer hospitality to others.
In the Catholic Church priests and religious follow an extreme path of poverty because, by their example, they show all the faithful that “inner detachment” is required for spiritual progress. Their example of “loving poverty like a mother” points the way for all Christians to re-assess their acquisitive instincts, learn true generosity and develop the proper love of all things for their intrinsic worth.
In a world where one percent of the world’s population control a vast proportion of the world’s wealth, this approach to detachment is desperately needed to be reintroduced. In a world where more and more people are grabbing at the world’s resources, this balanced understanding of wealth and ownership is vital. In a world where greed and materialism threaten to poison the whole world, a balanced appreciation of all things in true simplicity of life is a desperately needed antidote.
Pope Francis would agree that poverty, in and of itself, is not a virtue, but a cross. As a church and a society we should do everything we can to help people rise out of poverty.
However, within that great campaign we must also be reminded that as poverty is not a virtue by itself, neither is wealth. Through detachment, both poverty and wealth are put in perspective as each one of us becomes trained in the virtue of loving all things, according to their worth.
Follow Fr Longenecker’s blog and Twitter feeds, browse his books and be in touch at dwightlongenecker.com