Paradoxes of Catholicism / by Robert Hugh Benson

Wealth and Poverty

Make to yourselves friends of the Mammon of iniquity. You cannot serve God and Mammon. -- LUKE XVI. 9, 13.

WE have seen how the Church of the Prince of Peace must continually be the centre of war. Let us go on to consider how, as a Human Society dwelling in this world, she must continually have her eyes fixed upon the next, and how, as a Divine Society, she must be open to the charge of worldliness.

I. (i) The charge is a very common one: "Look at the extraordinary wealth and splendour that this Church of the Poor Man of Nazareth constantly gathers around her and ask yourself how she can dare to claim to represent Him! Go through Holy Rome and see how the richest and most elaborate buildings bear over their gateways the heraldic emblems of Christ's Vicar! Go through any country which has not risen in disgust and cast off the sham that calls herself `Christ's Church' and you will find that no worldly official is so splendid as these heavenly delegates of Jesus Christ, no palaces more glorious than those in which they dwell who pretend to preach Him who had not where to lay His head!

"Above all, turn from that simple poverty-stricken figure that the Gospels present to us, to the man who claims to be His Vicegerent on earth. See him go, crowned three times over, on a throne borne on men's shoulders, with the silver trumpets shrilling before him and the ostrich fans coming on behind, and you will understand why the world cannot take the Church seriously. Look at the court that is about him, all purple and scarlet, and set by that the little band of weatherbeaten fishermen!

"No; if this Church were truly of Christ, she would imitate Him better. It was His supreme mission to point to things that are above; to lift men's thoughts above dross and gold and jewels and worldiy influence and high places and power; to point to a Heavenly Jerusalem, not made with hands; to comfort the sorrowful with a vision of future peace, not to dabble with temporal matters; to speak of grace and heaven and things to come, and to let the dead bury their dead! The best we can do for her, then, is to disembarrass her of her riches; to turn her temporal possessions to frankly temporal ends; to release her from the slavery of her own ambition into the liberty of the poor and the children of God!"

(ii) In a word, then, the Church is too worldly to be the Church of Christ! You cannot serve God and Mammon. Yet in another mood our critic will tell us that we are too otherworldly to be the Church of Christ. "The chief charge I have against Catholicism," says such a man, "is that the Church is too unpractical. If she were truly the Church of Jesus Christ, she would surely imitate Him better in that which, after all, was the mark of His highest Divinity -- namely in His Humanity towards men. Christ did not come into the world to preach metaphysics and talk forever of a heaven that is to come; He came rather to attend to men's simplest needs, to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to reform society on better lines. It was not by His dogma that He won men's hearts; it was by His simple, natural sympathy with their common needs. He came, in a word, to make the best of this world, to use the elements that lay ready to His hand, to sanctify all the plain things of earth with which He came in contact.

"These otherworldly Catholics, then, are too much apart from common life and common needs. Their dogmas and their aspirations and their metaphysics are useless to a world which wants bread. Let them act more and dream less! Let them show, for example, by the prosperity of Catholic countries that Catholicism is practical and not a vision. Let them preach less and philanthropize more. Let them show that they have the key to this world's progress, and perhaps we will listen more patiently to their claim to hold the key to the world that is to come!"

But, surely, this is a little hard upon Catholics! When we make ourselves at home in this world, we are informed that Jesus Christ had not where to lay His Head. When we preach the world that is to come, we are reminded that Jesus Christ after all came down from that world into this to make it better. When we build a comfortable church, we are told that we are too luxurious. When we build an uncomfortable one we are asked how we expect to do any good unless we are practical.

II. Now, of course, both these charges were also objected against our Blessed Lord. For He too had His double activities. It is true that there were times when He gave men earthly bread; it is also true that He offered them heavenly bread. There were times when He cared for men's bodies; there were other times when He bade them sacrifice all that makes bodily life worth living; times when He sat at meat in the house of a rich man, and times when He starved, voluntarily, in the desert.

And the world found Him wrong whichever He did. He was too worldly when He healed men on the Sabbath; for is not the Law of God of more value than a man's bodily ease? Why can He not wait till to-morrow? He was too worldly when He allowed His disciples to rub corn in their hands; for does not the Law of God forbid a man to make bread on the Sabbath? He was too worldly, too unpractical, too sense-loving when He permitted the precious ointment to be spilled on His feet; for might not this ointment have been sold for much and given to the poor? Is not spirituality enough, and the incense of adoration?

And He was too otherworldly when He preached the Sermon on the Mount. What is the use of saying, Blessed are the Meek, when the whole world knows that "Blessed are the Self-Assertive"? He was too other-worldly when He spoke of Heavenly Bread. What is the use of speaking of Heavenly Bread when it is earthly food that men need first of all? He was too otherworldly when He remained in the country on the feast day. If He be the Christ, let Him be practical and say so!

It was, in fact, on these very two charges that He was arraigned for death. He was too worldly for Pilate, in that He was Son of Man and therefore a rival to Caesar; and too otherworldly for Caiphas, since He made Himself Son of God and therefore a rival to Jehovah.

III. The solution, then, of this Catholic Paradox is very simple. (i) First, the Church is a Heavenly Society come down from above -heavenly in her origin and her birth. She is the kingdom of God, first and foremost, and exists for His glory solely and entirely. She seeks, then, first the extension of His kingdom; and compared with this, nothing is of any value in her eyes. Never, then, must she sacrifice God to Mammon; never hesitate for one instant if the choice lies between them. For she considers that eternity is greater than time and the soul of man of more value than his body. The sacraments therefore, in her eyes, come before an adequate tram-service; and that a man's soul should be in grace is, to her, of more importance than that his body should be in health -- if the choice is between them. She prefers, therefore, the priest to the doctor, if there is not time for both, and Holy Communion to a good breakfast.

Therefore, of course, she appears too otherworldly to the stockbroker and the provincial mayor, since she actually places the things of God before the things of man and "seeks first His Kingdom."

(ii) "And all these things shall be added" to her. For she is Human also, in that she dwells in this world where God has placed her, and uses therefore the things with which He has surrounded her. To say that she is supernatural is not to deny her humanity any more than to assert that man has an immortal soul is to exclude the truth that he also has a body. It is this Body of hers, then -- this humanity of hers which enshrines her Divinity -- that claims and uses earthly things; it is this Body that dwells in houses made with hands and that claims too, in honour to herself and her Bridegroom, that, so long as her spirituality is not tarnished, these houses shall be as splendid as art can make them. For she is not a Puritan nor a Manichee; she does not say that any single thing which God has made can conceivably be of itself evil, however grievously it may have been abused; on the contrary, she has His own authority for saying that all is very good.

She uses, then, every earthly beauty that the world will yield to her, to honour her own Majesty. It may be right to set diamonds round the neck of a woman, but it is certainly right to set them round the Chalice of the Blood of God. If an earthly king wears vestments of cloth of gold, must not a heavenly King yet more wear them? If music is used by the world to destroy men's souls, may not she use it to save their souls? If a marble palace is fit for the President of the French Republic, by what right do men withhold it from the King of kings?

But the world does withhold its wealth sometimes? Very well then, she can serve God without it, in spite of her rights. If men whine and cringe, or bully and shout, for the jewels with which their forefathers honoured God, she will fling them back again down her altar stairs and worship God in a barn or a catacomb without them. For, though she does not serve God and Mammon, she yet makes to herself friends of the Mammon of iniquity. Though she does not and never can serve God and Mammon, she will and can, when the world permits it, make Mammon serve her. For the Church is the Majesty of God dwelling on earth. She is there, in herself, utterly independent of her reception. If it is her own to whom she comes, and her own do not receive her, they are none the less hers by every right. For, though she will use every earthly thing to her honour, though she considers no ointment wasted, however precious, that is spilled by love over her feet, yet her essential glory does not lie in these things. She is all glorious within, whether or not her vesture is of gold, for she is a King's Daughter. She is, essentially, as glorious in the Catacombs as in the Roman basilicas; as lovely in the barefooted friar as in the robed and sceptred Vicar of Christ; as majestic in Christ naked on the Cross as in Christ ascended and enthroned in heaven.

Yet, since she is His Majesty on earth, she has a right to all that earth can give. All the beasts of the field are hers, and the cattle on a thousand hills, all the stars of heaven and the jewels of earth; all the things in the world are hers by Divine right.

All things are hers, for she is Christ's. Yet, nevertheless, she will suffer the loss of all things sooner than lose Him.

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