World Youth Day–Money and Manna
Pope Benedict XVI has just returned to Italy from Spain, where he led hundreds of thousands of young people in Madrid’s celebration of World Youth Day.
The event was not without grumbling. The cost of World Youth Day–and the scale of its production–struck some people as too extravagant, given the distressing economic situation in Spain and elsewhere. A controversy sparked over whether the event was subsidized too greatly by the Spanish taxpayers. Some priests protested WYD as being inconsistent with the social justice teachings of the church. The church responded that WYD was funded mainly by corporate sponsors and the participants themselves. Further questions were raised about what tax breaks these sponsors received.
One could also justifiably suspect that kids who were going to WYD from overseas were relatively affluent. Maybe some trips were subsidized. But one could also raise the question whether subsidizing tickets, say, from Washington DC to Madrid was the best use of diocesan funds.
More broadly, though, the controversy strikes me as one instance of a tension that is always present in Catholic thought–how do we reconcile our individual and collective obligations to the poor with other aspects of our vocation or life, including our vocation to proclaim the Gospel?
We see the complaint periodically about the Vatican–some people say that it should sell the art in the Sistine Chapel and give the proceeds to the poor.
But at least WYD and the Sistine Chapel are intended to raise hearts and mind toward God. Many of us spend money on things that aren’t intended to do that, at least directly. If we’re going to criticize the Church for failing to “sell all her possessions and give them to the poor,” we have at the same time to look at our own lives. We need to remove the dollar signs in our own eyes even as we try to remove them from the eyes of others.
St. Thomas Aquinas attempted to reconcile some of the tensions involved by saying that people ordinarily could maintain their “necessities”–which included the usual and customary trappings of their station in life–but that they needed to give generously out of the excess. The Gospel did not require a squire to become a pauper. His approach has been criticized by some modern writers who think it does not give due account to the demands of social justice.
On the one hand, Aquinas’s account can let people off the hook too easily. I once asked some law students in a “Mercy and Justice” class to whom I assigned the Aquinas material to price out what the “necessities” of their expected station eight years out would be. The number was an annual salaray well into the six figures. And I didn’t disagree. Partners at big-city law firms don’t generally by their suits at Sears.
On the other hand, Aquinas’s account also presses people to distinguish between necessities and superfluities–and that realistic distinction may help move people with money to think about it using it for other people. You may need a Brooks Brothers suit as a partner in a law firm, but you don’t need a bespoke suit. Because his approach is realistic, it may be more effective–it gives people a choice between doing nothing and radically renouncing worldly goods.
Is there a better way to think about these matters? What do you think?