Category Archives: Money & Finance

Minimalism

Minimalism takes work and effort. It is an exercise of saying no to many things in order to focus on saying yes to the important ones. It is well worth it since minimalism also brings many benefits to both body and soul. Lent is a season for minimalism, both inside and out. We are invited to visit the desert, like Jesus, and say no to “extra” food, noise, decorations, festivities, things, activities, etc.

To get rid of things, to acquire fewer things, to do fewer things, to go fewer places: all of this requires relentless prioritizing. It is easier to let things build up, get disorganized, say yes to all invitations and commitments. It is easier in the short-run, that is. In the long run, it is healthier to have priorities and stick to what is important to you. Getting into alignment with priorities is a crucial component of happiness.

Living simply, rather than saying yes to everything, makes choices easier to make. If we have a problem nowadays, it is too much information, too much entertainment, too much stimulation, too many options, too many grocery stores, too many online resources. If we learn how to limit ourselves and our countless options, it is good for simplicity, sanity and success in life. If you have fewer clothes in your closet, but all functional and good, you will have an easier time picking out what to wear, organizing and storing your clothes, and more time for what is important. If you limit the amount of Pinterest or food blogs you read, maybe you will master a few recipes from that one cookbook you have. If you clean your house more often, maybe you will realize how much stuff you actually have (and how long it takes to clean it all) and try to use it better or throw it out if you don’t use it.

We live in an era where acquiring things is fast and easy, and consuming things is even faster. I am rereading the Little House books and part of their charm is the house being little. They had so few things and so few priorities (surviving, family, etc.) that it was a very focused and intense lifestyle. Everything they owned was packed into a wagon from time to time and moved along. What didn’t fit was left behind. Their time was spent on things that were truly essential to them and not on countless hobbies or decorating or latest educational trends.

The Church also invites us to an inner minimalism this season, to strip away all that takes us from the one priority, the one path to return to our Father’s house, the one goal of holiness here on Earth. We are invited to fast from things that we consider essential, like food, to realize we can be even more minimalist that that. We are invited to focus on the bigger picture of salvation history and strip away our desperate need for acquiring things, doing things and general distracting ourselves from our feeble condition as “dust”.

What are some ways you practice minimalism?

What Begging for Money Taught Me About the Richness of Poverty

$30,000. 3 days.

We had 3 days to raise $30,000, and I had no idea how we would pull it off.

It was my senior year at Franciscan University, and I was blessed to be co-leading a mission to Ecuador that is so near to my heart. Plane tickets were beyond expensive that year, and the cost for us to get down to South America during our spring break in order to serve the lovely Ecuadorians both spiritually and physically was overbearing. We had only three days left in our fundraising campaign, and although we had worked our tails off, we still had about $30,000 to obtain. If we didn’t find that money, our mission would be cancelled.

We were desperate.

We called a team meeting to discuss our situation. We were at risk of losing that which we had worked for during the entire year, and we needed to make a decision. Thankfully, we decided to work tirelessly over those three days. If we were going down, we were going to go down swinging. We knew that with perseverance, the grace of God, and saintly intercession (thanks, St. Rita!), we could bring God’s will to fruition.

In order to raise that money, we needed to become beggars. In the spirit of St. Francis, we laid aside our pride and became poor. We called everyone we knew, we went to local churches that weekend to present our mission to the congregation in hopes for their support, and we begged on the streets of Pittsburgh. We spent three straight days begging our little hearts out.

The Lord brought us to the point where we had nothing, much like those we were going to serve, and much like Our Savior Himself.

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Now, each Advent, I recall that wild situation in which we were brought low to beg for money. We begged passionately for something we cared about, we accepted our empty hands with joy and knew that Jesus would fill them in His time and in His way. But during those three days, we were so rich. We grew in virtue that we were going to need in Ecuador, we realized our littleness and our brokenness, and we acknowledged our total dependence on the Father in a new and radical way. In our utter temporal poverty, we became spiritually rich.

Like Our Lord humbled Himself to be born in a smelly manger, we must be brought low in order to fully accept the gift that He brings us, namely, salvation. Without the grace of poverty, we will never experience the entirety of the richness of Christ’s kingship. Without the grace of poverty, we will never become truly rich.

The Laity’s Call to Gospel Poverty

When we think about poverty, we usually think about starving children in the third world, the homeless, or the elderly living on fixed incomes. We may feel badly for these people and occasionally drop a donation for them in the collection basket or hand a beggar a few dollars. Rarely do we seek to help the poor in a way that would radically change our lives and stretch us out of our comfort zone. Yet if we start to unpack Jesus’s teachings about riches in the Gospel, we see that He calls all of us to a more generous way of life.

He invites the rich young man to “Go, sell what you have,terrell-money and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven” (Mark 10:21). He praises the widow for contributing all that she had as an offering to God. (Mark 12:44). He warns his disciples not to store up their treasures on earth (Luke 12:16-21). His Apostles established a community which supporting each other through the sharing of material gifts (Acts 2:44-45).

The radical nature of the Gospel message to detach one’s self from their possessions and give to the poor frightens me because I am attached to many things such as, my job, my car, financial security, etc,. Yet God wants us to free ourselves from the love of things so we can love Him who has made those things. The less we are tied down by our possessions, the more joyful we can become as followers of Christ.

Unfortunately, it is difficult to find many examples of the evangelical poverty ideals lived out among lay Christians today. Too often, we are worried about the same things as our secular counterparts, job security, retirement savings, the newest electronics, etc. These distractions can even seep into our prayer lives as we become overly concerned about our financial situation. However, Pope Francis reminds us that:

“Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades.” (Evangelii Gaudium 2)

Clearly, we cannot grow in virtue if we are so absorbed in worldly pursuits, but how do we practically live out the call to Gospel poverty so that we carve out space for God and the poor in our lives? It starts with having a healthy view of possessions. The catechism states that all Christians are called to:

direct their affections rightly, lest they be hindered in their pursuit of perfect charity by the use of worldly things and by an adherence to riches which is contrary to the spirit of evangelical poverty (CCC 2545).

Possessions are a means not an end. We do need things to live on earth, but they should not dictate how we spend our time and energy.

We should also look at how we choose to spend our money. Track your expenses for a month and record where your money goes. Bring that list to prayer and ask God if you were a good steward of the resources that he gave you. If there are areas where you have overindulged, commit to spending less so that you can free up money to give to the poor.

For those who already giving to charity, ask yourself if you support the Church and the poor out of your excess or your want? In other words, are you willing to change your lifestyle by eating out less, buying less expensive clothes, houses or cars so that you can support the poor? The apostle James admonishes us that it is our duty to clothe the naked and feed the hungry (James 2:15-16). Do we take this admonition seriously or are we only worried about our needs?

As the laity, we are the representatives of Christ in the world. People should see that the radical call of the Gospel in how we approach material goods. Instead of focusing so much time and energy on accumulating things, we must be willing to simplify our lives and serve Christ.  Periodically purge your closet and basement of items that you no longer need and maybe some things that you still enjoy so that you can remove worldly temptations from your life.

As we go about simplifying our lives, we must do it in a spirit of cheerfulness. If we begrudgingly give up that extra latte in the morning or a new pair of shoes than we miss the whole point. Christ calls us to evangelical poverty not because possessions are bad, but because if we misuse them they can hinder our relationship with Him.  Evangelical poverty is not merely seeing how much we can give up, but desiring to be filled so much by Christ, that we no longer desire the things of this world and are not distracted by fleeting wealth and pleasure. We are merely pilgrims whose goal is heaven, not the biggest house on the block.

I realize that I have only scratched the surface of what it means for the laity to live a life detached from material goods and focused on Christ. For further study on this topic, I highly recommend Fr. Thomas’ Dubay’s book, Happy are You Poor. However, I warn you, only read this book if you are willing to change your way of life. He pulls no punches in calling all Christians to embrace God’s call to simplicity and a life of joy.

Five Books for the Catholic Mom’s Soul

Living my vocation is hard. So, so hard. However, when I truly invest myself completely in loving and serving these humans that God has given me, the graces flow and joy abounds. Its true, what they say: If mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.

To that end, over the last few years I’ve been seeking out and collecting books which I hope will help me to grow in living my vocation with more true joy in my heart. This, for me, is a lifelong struggle. To embrace the present moment, not will away my happiness to some nebulous future time.

The following books have helped me tremendously, in both the spiritual journey and logistical aspects of being a wife and mother. My sincere hope is that one or more of these books may inspire you in your journey of living your vocation with fullness and joy.

Eucharistic Adoration: Holy Hour Meditations on the Last Seven Words of Christ by Charles M. Murphy

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Prayer is the foundation of the house on which our vocations are built. My patron, St. Bernadette was fond of saying, “Courage my soul; through prayer we can do all that is asked of us.” There is a noticeable difference in the atmosphere and happiness level in our home when I consistently make time for prayer.

I am blessed to be able to have a holy hour nearly every week, through a combination of the perpetual adoration chapel at our parish and a mom’s group which meets for a holy hour (with babysitting) and social time each week. I feel God’s presence most keenly when in Eucharistic Adoration, and having the opportunity for adoration has richly enhanced my prayer life.

This book, filled with holy hour meditations based on the last words of Christ, is a wonderful resource for meditation before the Blessed Sacrament. Each chapter contains an exegesis on that particular last word of Christ, followed by suggested points for dialogue with Jesus.

Each chapter also contains the story of one “witness” (usually a saint or blessed) who exemplified the focus of the chapter. The book also contains a section with prayers to aid in adoration. It is a slim volume, but contains a lot of food for thought while making a holy hour with Christ.

The Handbook for Catholic Moms: Nurturing Your Heart, Mind, Body, and Soul by Lisa Hendey

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Lisa Hendey’s Handbook for Catholic Moms is the type of book that you can read all at once in order, or you can pick and choose from chapters based on your interest or need at any given time.

The book is split into four parts: heart, mind, body, and soul. Each part has several chapters. Each chapter covers subjects relevant to the life of a wife and mother such as nurturing your marriage, time management, the importance of creativity, friendships, staying healthy, and prioritizing prayer.

I love this book. I have gone back to different chapters several times over the years to reread the advice and encouragement therein. Each chapter contains Lisa’s story relating to the subject, lessons she has learned through her years mothering her two sons, “mom’s homework” and web resources for further reading or help.

The format is readable, encouraging and also challenging, and I’d recommend it to any mom who is looking for something which is both spiritual and practical. Truly a handbook for the Catholic mom.

Weightless: Making Peace with Your Body by Kate Wicker

weightless-cover-image1 I don’t know any mothers who are always at peace with their bodies. Motherhood is such an intimate bodily experience, different from any other thing a human being can do with their body. Growing and nurturing life inside of you changes you forever, both inside and out. Often the outside changes are the most noticeable and the ones we tend to fret over the most.

This is especially the case for women who have always struggled with body image and self-worth. I know I have. Add two pregnancies in 4 years, one of them a twin pregnancy where I gained more than 50 pounds and saw what was left of my core muscles shrink into oblivion, and you have a recipe for constant anxiety over the state of my appearance.

All women want to be beautiful. We all want to feel that we are valuable for something other than our bodies, and yet, we also want to believe that our bodies have beauty of their own. The beautiful thing about Kate Wicker’s book is that she gives voice to the fears and anxieties that most women experience related to their bodies and appearance, and she releases us from these fears using the gifts of the Church’s teaching and also sharing the truth of God’s love for each of us, a love that can free us from the obsession with waistlines and wrinkles that keep so many of us from living fully.

Imitating Mary: Ten Marian Virtues for the Modern Mom by Marge Fenelon

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The format of this book is one of my favorite things about it. Each chapter focuses on a virtue of Mary and how we as mothers living today, and, so far from the level of holiness on which she existed, can imitate that virtue in our everyday lives. It shows the very human side of Mary, and how she too faced struggles inherent in living the life of a married mother.

For me, becoming a mother and not having my own mother living to help guide me through the mind-boggling process of raising tiny humans to be virtuous persons, I have clung desperately to Mary. I have cried out to her in moments of frustration, sorrow, and even just thrown a Memorare skyward in the hopes of wiping one more snotty nose with something other than resentment in my heart.

I also think this book could be a great introduction for those women who have, for various reasons, kept Mary at arms length thus far. The author’s style makes Mary approachable and interesting. My favorite chapter, one I have read a few times, is when Fenelon talks about Mary’s fiat and what it means for us as both Christians and mothers.

The points for reflection at the end of each chapter have also provided much food for thought, and been the cause of much spilled ink in my prayer journal.

One Thousand Gifts: A Dare to Live Fully Right Where You Are by Ann Voskamp

thousand-giftsAnn Voskamp is not Catholic. However, her book One Thousand Gifts is one of the most spiritually enriching books I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. As I said earlier, I have struggled with cultivating and living joy for nearly my whole life. Perhaps it’s the fact that within the first 18 years of my life my mother died, my father abandoned me, both of my paternal grandparents died as well as a close friend who lost her battle with leukemia.

There wasn’t a whole lot of be joyful about, and this attitude, partly driven by my melancholic temperament, has been so difficult to shed. When I first read this book about 4 years ago, I was blown away. Not only do I absolutely adore Voskamp’s hauntingly poetic writing style, I found myself identifying with her suffering in early life, and her struggle to live fully in the present moment.

She is a Christian mom of six, and though she is not Catholic, her thoughts on eucharist as thanksgiving, as gratitude, as invitation to joy, shed beautiful new light on my understanding of Christ’s presence in the Blessed Sacrament.

As mothers, particularly to young and incredibly demanding children, it can be hard to find a day in which you do not shower, speak to another adult, or have a moment without someone needing something from you, as an experience of joy. However, Voskamp writes, that is exactly what God invites us to do, and what will give us the ability to embrace life with gratitude.

If you are a wife and mother seeking resources to grow in your vocation, I cannot recommend these five books enough. Several titles included, especially the book on eucharistic adoration and One Thousand Gifts, are worthwhile additions for anyone looking to grow in virtue and gratitude for the life they’ve been given.

The Dignity of The Wolf of Wall Street

I enjoyed the movie The Wolf of Wall Street…sort of. Now, before I am put on trial and judged as being a terrible Catholic for such a statement, allow me to explain. Was the movie full of vulgarity and immorality? Absolutely. In fact, I’m having trouble thinking of another mainstream movie where I have seen with so much of it. I would certainly never allow my children to watch such a movie either. However, there is something that can be taken away from the movie other than its “evils.” There is such a profound sadness about the characters whose lives are ripped apart by addiction, but even more so the movie points to a reality of true poverty in our world today. I will attempt to give a brief synopsis appropriate for my audience.

The movie, as one could assume from the title, is about a stock broker. Based on the true story of Jordan Belfort, it captures the career of Belfort from his first day on Wall Street to the day of his arrest for all sorts of corporate crimes. In the early scenes of the movie Belfort seems to be an honest young man.  Newly married, he is eager to start his new job and begin making money. Viewers can immediately tell that he has is talented. Belfort eventually starts his own trading company after learning how to make the most money on certain stock trades. He learns how to “play the system.”

What begins as a small operation out of a rented garage, becomes one of the largest most profitable organizations in the trading industry.  Belfort and a group of his buddies head the company and it isn’t long before they are consumed by their addictions. They become addicted to money, making money off of other people’s money. They become addicted to drugs and slaves to lust. His lifestyle, addictions, and lustful infidelity cost Belfort his marriage. Not too long after that, however, he remarries, giving his new wife a yacht as a wedding present. Needless to say, Belfort had more money than he knew what to do with.

The turning point for me while watching the movie (once I got past the absurdity of such a lifestyle) was when Belfort is approached by a certain FBI agent who was investigating Belfort’s company. After the meeting, Belfort begins the attempt to cover up his crimes and financial corruption. The FBI agent becomes hell-bent on taking Belfort down. The exchange between the FBI agent and Belfort would seem to be an illustration of how misconstrued the world can become when dealing with individuals.

On one hand you have men (and women) like Belfort, who compare themselves to others based on what they have-I have more money than you, a bigger house than you, a nicer car, etc. On the other hand you find a majority of viewers who would label men like Belfort as greedy, immoral, and deserving to rot in prison—men like the FBI agent who see criminals as lesser beings.

What’s interesting about movies and theater is that the audience can often find themselves routing for both the hero and the villain. There is a part of me that wanted Belfort to get away with everything while another part of me was glad that he was caught for being dishonest with such a vast amount of wealth. The bigger issue, I believe, is the forgotten dignity of individuals. For instance, to say that criminals are lesser beings because they have committed a crime is equally judgmental as saying someone is not as important due to their poverty or lack of possessions. When we take either stance, we are doing exactly what Christ instructed us not to do. We judge and we diminish the dignity of the human person.

Once I got beyond the vulgarities and immorality of the movie, I was struck with a deep sadness. For a fleeting moment I thought about what I would do with all of that money and how different my life would be if I didn’t have to worry about finances. Then the reality set in—this was a true story and there are real people who live like this. There is a serious problem with poverty in our world. In the United States, we think of poverty in terms of having and not having. Yet there is an even greater poverty among those who “have it all.” There is a poverty of spirit—a poverty of dignity. While it was sad to watch a man become consumed by things, it was also sad to watch a man treat another human being as a wild animal that needed to be caged. The God-given dignity of the human person is becoming lost, not just among those who do evil things, but by those who seek justice as well. We are called, now more than ever, to recognize the dignity each individual possesses.

There are many ways in which we can overcome this poverty. First and foremost, we must recognize our own dignity. We must come to understand that each man, woman and child is created in God’s image and likeness. Every man, woman, and child deserves to be loved and nothing less than that. This includes those in prison, those who suffer from addiction, those who are in nursing homes, those living on the streets, those unemployed, those with no one to care for them, and those “forgotten” by society.  This includes executives, bankers, teachers, custodians, chefs, realtors, steelworkers, and secretaries. Each and every human being from conception to natural death, is to be loved—by you and me.

Secondly, we must remind ourselves that we are all sinners. I am a sinner and I pray every day for the graces I need to be a better disciple of Christ. I must constantly remind myself that everyone is just as guilty as I am, which puts things in a greater perspective—who am I to judge them? Each person has their own struggles, their own crosses, and their own sins, which I pray they are attempting to overcome with the mercy and grace of Christ.

Finally, we must re-learn to love, daily if necessary. My spiritual director always uses the analogy of professional baseball players. When they are in a slump, what do they do? They return the basics, taking extra swings in batting practice and pulling out a tee (like they were in the beginning of their baseball careers) in attempts to relearn the basics. We too must return to the basics; return to the beginning. In the beginning God made man and woman in his image (Genesis 1:27). God placed man and woman over all other creatures. He gave them everything that He saw as “good.” He loved them into being and when they were unfaithful, He was faithful, even to the point of becoming one of us and dying on the cross for us. In that image we were created. It is that image that will take us out of a poverty of dignity to the richness of love.

Reflections on Generosity

The past month has been, for me, a month of humbling lessons in generosity as millions worldwide answered calls to help my fellow-Filipinos who survived Typhoon Haiyan.

I learned, for example, that one need not be rich or powerful in order to be generous. Stories abound of such examples as a pre-schooler who donated his piggy bank savings, a beggar-boy who dropped a few coins out of the day’s “earnings” into a donation box, and a taxicab driver who did not charge evacuees who took a ride with him from the airport. These gestures from people whom I thought not to have much to give reminded me of Christ’s appreciation for the poor widow’s contribution, and prompted me to examine my own willingness (or unwillingness) to part with my comforts to help others.

I learned that giving hurts. Often, parting with one’s money is, in itself, the least painful part of giving. I learned this from donors who have had to sacrifice time and effort to investigate solicitor-institutions to ensure they are legitimate ones, or to wait in a long line at a bank that has insufficient and inefficient tellers in order to deposit the donation. Others, giving up sleep, worked at their jobs at night or on weekends so that they could volunteer to serve the evacuees during the day, or volunteered at night shifts at the evacuation centers despite having busy workdays. Small as these sacrifices may be for some, they are sacrifices nonetheless which elicit appreciation and deserve emulation. I realized that while I often want to give, I sometimes want to avoid the inconvenience it entails. But generosity, being a virtue, truly exists when it is practiced despite difficulty.

Finally, I learned that being a gracious receiver is as important as being a cheerful giver – and I consider myself a receiver as well of the aid to the typhoon survivors; they being my brothers and sisters, their sufferings are also my sufferings.

I have sometimes been tempted to judge others by how much they are giving or not giving (e.g., This company is cancelling its Christmas party and donating to the typhoon victims instead, while that other company is not.), or to second-guess others’ motives for giving (e.g. This company is only giving for its corporate image; that person is giving only because he wants the cool fundraising shirt.) But then, I asked myself, will the typhoon survivors themselves, who have been left with nothing, be pleased with such small-mindedness regarding help extended to them? In this situation where the need is dire and every contribution counts, what good will come out of finding fault with others’ ways of being generous? Doubtless, there may be some imperfect acts of generosity, but these should not be of my concern. All that should matter for me is that God appreciates generosity, no matter how imperfectly manifested, and He Himself will purify whatever needs to be purified in the giver’s already noble deed. I know that my own acts of giving can be tainted by pusillanimity and self-serving motives. But God, in His goodness, uses my grudging efforts as occasions to move me to do more.

During this typhoon, for example, I have had to think less of myself and pray for friends whose relatives have been missing. To my own surprise, I found myself praying even for acquaintances whom I am not close to but whom I know to be living in the affected area – and to be happy and grateful upon receiving news that they are safe. I thought I was praying to help others, but in reality, God moved me to pray to teach me to expand my heart.

Indeed, every opportunity to help a brother or sister in need is an opportunity to receive immeasurable blessings in return. I agree with what one priest told participants of an out-of-town volunteer service program before they left: “You are going there not for an outreach, but for an exchange.”

Cardinal Dolan, Can You Please Clarify?

teapartySo I have to admit I’m pretty confused about something one of the leaders of the Church recently said. It seems to be the thing to do lately, so I might as well hop on the bandwagon. I’m not mad about something Pope Francis said, though. I know he’s been in the press a lot lately with all of his comments and interviews, but I’m not ticked off about him. I’m rather astounded and exasperated at the recent comments Cardinal Timothy Dolan made about the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, in an interview with Meet the Press. You can see the article and listen to his comments here. Among other things he said, “We’ve been asking for reform in healthcare for a long time.  So we were kind of an early supporter in this.  Where we started bristling and saying, ‘Uh-oh, first of all this isn’t comprehensive, because it’s excluding the undocumented immigrant and it’s excluding the unborn baby,’ so we began to bristle at that.”

I honestly don’t know where to start. Obviously the issue of health care has been front and center since the passing of Obamacare and the recent disastrous rollout of the official website, healthcare.gov. The Church is one of the largest health care providers in the United States. (2009 stats) The Church is definitely in a position where it has a say in the health care debate that has swept this country for years. What I don’t understand is why the USCCB (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops) would even hint at the idea that they support something that is going to limit healthcare choices, increase the cost of healthcare, increase the doctor shortage, create a board with broad powers, and increase the national debt to unsustainable levels. Is that something that the Church is supposed to support or am I missing something here?

It’s been said that the healthcare industry is one sixth of the entire economy of the United States. With the painful implementation of Obamacare, the government has now radically altered and stuck it’s grubby hands into the middle of a huge portion of the US economy. I don’t think that you could find many people in the US who thought the pre-Obamacare healthcare system was perfect and in no need of reform, but is the only answer to have the government come into the middle of everything and impose its own multi-leveled bureaucratic nightmare on all of us? The bigger the government gets, the less respect and dignity is given to the individual, and this socialistic outreach from the Obama administration is something the American Cardinals should be speaking against adamantly.

The Catholic principle of subsidiarity is a teaching found in the Catechism, number 1894. It states “In accordance with the principle of subsidiarity, neither the state nor any larger society should substitute itself for the initiative and responsibility of individuals and intermediary bodies.”  What it is basically saying is that society should be ordered in a way in which responsibility is kept as close to the local individual as possible. We don’t need big government stepping in and running our lives when we can do it ourselves with greater efficiency. We don’t need the government telling us what healthcare we need, how we access it, and much less a panel that decides who gets health care and who doesn’t.

Obamacare is a monstrosity that should offend the senses of every Catholic in America. It blatantly violates the principal of subsidiarity and gives unprecedented power over many to a few politicians and the non-elected people they appoint. I’m shocked that Cardinal Dolan would indicate that the Church would’ve been just fine and dandy with Obamacare if it weren’t for that pesky abortion and contraception thing. The USCCB shouldn’t be a cheerleader for anybody. They are supposed to be our shepherds leading us to Christ. If there is another version of healthcare reform Cardinal Dolan supports, he didn’t make it clear in that interview.

He also mentioned that the reason the bishops didn’t support Obamacare is because it neglects the illegal immigrants. I have to admit that I struggle with this one. On one hand you have a large group of people who have fled the kind of poverty that most of us in the US are unfamiliar with, and on the other hand, this same group of people has broken our laws and has come in and jumped on every welfare option that we offer. They have been bought off by the Democrat party. It’s kind of sad that living off our government dole is a huge improvement to the lives they were leading in their home countries. As unsustainable as Obamacare is, I don’t see how we could enroll every illegal immigrant in this country and not bury ourselves even more in unsustainable debt. Is that really a service to them? Here, come into our country where we’ll give you really crappy health care. Sure, you’ll be covered, but the care won’t be that great. Is that charitable? Is that what the USCCB should support?

At the end of the day you can say I’m just baffled. From what I heard on that interview, Cardinal Dolan and his bishop buddies would have been just fine with Obamacare if it hadn’t been for abortion, contraception, and the exclusion of illegal immigrants. If he has a different version of healthcare reform that doesn’t involved a big government takeover reminiscent of some two-bit socialist dictator, then he failed to make the point. I really hope the bishops can get themselves together and try to understand that little teaching on subsidiarity. We are way too far down the infamous slippery slope for those funny hat wearing guys to be sending a ton of mixed messages.

 

Tyrannical Charity

sovietAmong the many things that Christ taught His disciples, charity is one of the principles focus groups in office buildings would label as a “core value.” He told us to love one another as we love ourselves, to clothe the naked and feed the hungry. Through a parable, He admonished those of us who ostentatiously hand over a dollar to the collection plate versus the poor widow who tossed in her life savings in the hope of helping someone else. One could surmise that love for the good of another is at the heart of true charity, and without this internal motivation, charitable acts in themselves are inherently worthless.

Christ laid this charge on each of us and so it is our individual responsibility to help those in need. I could greatly digress on the completely warped perception of what is needed in today’s society, but for the sake of this article, suffice it to say that we need three physical things: food, clothing, and shelter. Everything else is superfluous to include fancy cars, the latest iPhone, very expensive clothes, etc. Since we all bear this responsibility to our fellow man as given to us by Jesus, there have been different ways throughout the centuries that we have fulfilled (or unfulfilled) this burden. We can give resources, mainly money, to individuals in need, or we can give our money to organizations that use our donations to perform charitable acts. It is our responsibility to ensure we are donating our money wisely and also to discern if merely giving money is the most we can do to fulfill our God-given responsibility.

In today’s age of government handouts and sweeping welfare programs, one can easily get lost in the thick jungle of bureaucracy and lose a sense of charitable purpose. Our taxes go to a national federal collection plate where they are spent many times over on welfare programs and other government handouts. (The US public debt is currently over 17 TRILLION dollars) With all of these programs, it is certainly easy to think that our personal responsibility to help those in need is solved, isn’t it? All we have to do is refer that struggling family over to the department of social services and go on our merry way to buy that extra large latte. The latest government monstrosity that has come about is what is commonly referred to as “Obamacare.” Yep, now the government is going to be subsidizing health insurance. Forget that insurance does not equal actual health care, but at least we can all be covered now, right?

Caring for the sick certainly falls into a subsection of charity, so when something like Obamacare rolls out, we Christians can rejoice that the sick can be taken care of and we can go about our lives and not have to worry about it. It doesn’t matter that this program has been an unmitigated disaster so far (I’m not gonna leave a link, just Google it. Trust me it’s there), or that there are millions of people who are losing their current coverage or seeing their costs skyrocket. Now when we see someone who is sick and desperate we can refer them to the fully functioning and easy to access healthcare.gov. (That was sarcasm, just so ya know) The government has now taken the burden of responsibility of charity from all of us, as well as more of our money, and is helpfully reaching out to give food, subsidized housing, cash assistance, free cars, free cell phones, and now free health care. I mean, from each according to his ability, to each according to his need, right? We don’t have to think about it anymore, the government will take care of everybody.

Let’s all take a step back to reality. Creating monstrous programs that plunge us further into crippling debt, that play on people’s fears and buy their votes, that subsidize immoral practices is an evil that the US has allowed to come about through it’s own negligence. Just as when the means of production is owned by a few a certain slavery is created, that same slavery is created when the people’s earnings are taken from them and distributed in the name of charity. The good intentions that pave the way to the inferno also pave the way to the great social programs that befall nations. Socialism and communism in all their forms are not charitable, but erase the beauty of the individual and spread economic suffering to the masses all in the name of helping them. They do not work. Period.

And there lies the crux of the situation. By sitting back and feeling good about ourselves while unsustainable programs are created that dole out fist-fulls of cash to the masses, we actually allow a tyranny to emerge. This tyranny creates a dependency on something that is historically undependable. If power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, should we not be wary of those who are in power even under the best circumstances? When government confiscates more of our wealth, (and I’m not talking about those “rich guys” on Wall Street or the ones with CEO on the doors of their corner offices) uses it for abortion, contraception, and the like, we bear some of the responsibility because at some point, a lot more of us thought it would be a good idea than we would like to admit. A lot of us didn’t get speak up when we had the chance. Through those wonderful intentions that lead to Gehenna, we allow it to be built before our very eyes by enslaving people to a meager living.

Let me take a step back for a minute. I know that there is a whole boat load of people out there that have been hurt badly by the economic downturn over the last few years. There are people who have had to go to extraordinary lengths just to put food on the table. I’m not deriding those who have had to go on some kind of program just to make ends meet. I’m just saying that we cannot go forward without taking a serious look at how we take care of those who struggle to make ends meet. I merely think that we Catholics, especially some of our more liberal friends, should really discern what true charity is all about. Is it merely referencing someone to go on foodstamps, which rarely are enough anyways, or providing material needs while also bringing the Good News of Christ to them while recognizing His presence in the poor.

Pope Francis recently had some interesting insights into the Church as a charity organization. He said ““In this, the Church is like Mary,” he continued. “The Church is not a shop, she is not a humanitarian agency, the Church is not an NGO. The Church is sent to bring Christ and his Gospel to all. She does not bring herself — whether small or great, strong or weak, the Church carries Jesus and should be like Mary when she went to visit Elizabeth.” It’s interesting to note that he said the Church isn’t an NGO, or Non-Government Organization. The Church isn’t just meant to hurl bowls of soup and some blankets at the homeless. That is not charity. If we are not bringing the joy and peace of Christ to people as we tend their physical needs, it is no longer charity but mechanically going through the motions. (here’s the article with the Pope’s quotes)

To summarize, we can all recognize that Christ is the Prince of Peace. He is also the source of true freedom. An act of charity should, among other things, be essentially rooted in the peace of Christ and in the freedom that He brings. That freedom is the freedom from sin, vice, and also the freedom to love and serve Him more faithfully. Acts of charity that enslave people through dependency and also allow others to casually shrug off their own burdens of responsibility to others create a tyranny under which all suffer.

Interesting facts

  1. Welfare pays more than minimum wage work in 35 states
  2. More Americans on welfare than working full-time
  3. Unemployment is really at 14.7%
  4. Op-Ed: When Work is Punished: The Tragedy of America’s Welfare State
  5. Definition of Charity, via the Vatican
  6. (We’ve got it waaaay better…)

The Poor in Spirit

Did anyone else hear a homily yesterday about the dangers of greed and affluent American lifestyles and the need to support the Church and give alms to the poor? With readings like these, no wonder! And of course there is ready correspondence with the words of Pope Francis, from his inaugural homily to his homily for the feast of Corpus Christi. He calls for a “Poor Church for the poor,” and says that it breaks his heart to see priests and nuns driving the latest model of a car.

This theme touches home with something that I have struggled with a great deal for the last few years, and continue to struggle with more and more. How much should I give to the poor?

I am not a rich man, by American standards but I make a decent amount of money and I have fairly simple tastes. I generally spend less than half of what I make per month to live on, and manage to afford most of my wants without dipping too far into my savings. I could even start a pretty comfortable retirement fund. As the priest who said the vigil Mass I attended on Saturday pointed out, “The poorest person sitting here in church is still the envy of most of the world’s population.” In other words, the fact that someone is much richer than I am does not negate the fact that I am much richer than 90% of the world’s people.

So what is to be done?

I do not even like the formulation: “How much of my money should I give to the poor.” Even in asking the question I betray my lack of generosity. It really should be: “How much can I possibly afford to give away?” But then I have to come to grips with the fact that I really could afford to give away about 75% of my monthly income, and still get by quite comfortably. I could shore up some of my spending habits, tighten the belt on Amazon.com, for instance. I mean, why on earth should I buy a half dozen new books when I have nearly a hundred sitting on top of my bookshelves that are ostensibly on my “to-read list?”

So is that it? To get rid of everything that is not strictly necessary for life and fulfilling our obligations?

Some certainly are called to that. Being a minimalist by nature, I can actually see the appeal. (Seriously, I am a born minimalist. As a little kid I really hated getting Christmas presents that I did not have a use for. I knew they would end up as clutter in the closet and and would collect dust and have to be taken out and “cleaned up” and re-organized periodically, which was such a drag. Eventually they would simply be donated and take up space in someone else’s house. Board games were an especial pet peeve! If it wasn’t a gift certificate to Barnes and Noble, or legos, or something I had a legitimate use for, I was not interested. Talk about affluence!) So as a minimalist I like simplicity, and not owning more than I actually have a use for. If I have not used it in the last 12 months, I probably won’t miss it in the next 12 months; but that is not the same as being poor in spirit. It is more akin to being lazy. I simply dislike clutter, and I dislike the effort of maintaining things I do not have a use for.

Even being poor is not the same as poor in spirit. Material poverty is not intrinsically holy. Some people are certainly called to total renunciation. Others may be called to something a little different. The concept of ownership, I think, is where it breaks down. I am not sure where I can truly be said to “own” anything. In what sense is it mine? The “I” that owns this thing (a hat, for instance) is not even master of the head upon which it places that had. I was placed in this body without my permission or even consent, or even awareness for that matter. I shall be removed from this body, in all likelihood, under similar conditions. I cannot even maintain, except by intimate, moment by moment gift, control over this body which is so intimately me. How much less, then, can I say “mine” of the clothes that festoon that body? The food that body eats? The air that body breathes? The concept of ownership is a bit of a misnomer in that sense.

(Before the Republicans start freaking out, I am not arguing against the right to personal property, as that would be heretical. I am simply trying to define it.)

Instead of ownership in the positive ontological sense, personal property is a conditional thing, not essential. It is simply a way of saying that I happen to have control of this thing, for the time being. In any schema that makes logical sense within the Christian world view this can only be viewed as a sort of trusteeship. God gives what He gives as a sort of test/object lesson, rather like a father handing over the keys to the car to see how the teenager will handle that responsibility.

Combine the concept of ownership as trusteeship, or stewardship, with an idea of the purpose of material things. The purpose of human life is to come to know, love and serve God. Love is the only thing that lasts, because God is love, and only God is of Himself eternal. Therefore, the goal of charity (by which I mean caritas, agape, not almsgiving) is to bring the neighbor to a knowledge of love. To extrapolate from St. John, how can a person believe in the love of the God he cannot see, if he has never known the love of the brother he can see?

This is why I have to reject a liberal, socialist interpretation of the Pope’s message, and the message in the Readings from this Sunday. Simply distributing the wealth is not the answer. Our charitable work, in my opinion, is judged by love, not by dollars and cents. A dollars and cents approach is not wrong because it costs too much or takes too much away. It is wrong because it distracts us from giving what really matters.

I am not a fan of schemes for bringing ever single human being on the planet to the same mediocre economic level. I am not a fan of impoverishing libraries, museums, the Vatican, etc. in order to purchase subsistence. Subsistence, i.e. food, clothing, shelter, and basic medical care must be provided for every human being on the planet. Our responsibility as a Church is no less than that. It is, in fact, a good deal greater. Purely humanist organizations will attempt that much, though they do not do nearly as good a job of it.

In short, it is not enough for us to provide mere survival for as many people as possible. Even survival is only a secondary goal, as far as Catholics are concerned. Our true goal is salvation, to make people holy, to attract people to holiness. This holiness is synonymous with wholeness, holistic integration of mind, body, soul and spirit, all ordered to our final end, which is union with God. That is true caritas.

Everyone is called to that mission. Some are called to one level, providing nutritious soup lunches for the homeless, for example. Others are called to another level, say, teaching CCD classes. Still others are called to yet another level, that of giving up everything and voluntarily joining the poor in their poverty. Others are called to retain their level and to draw others out of poverty by providing them with meaningful work. Parents take part in this work by providing their children with a full education, which may include such things as books, music lessons, art supplies, field trips, mission trips, and even sports equipment. As long as these expenditures are ordered to the end of making their children into complete human being, that is, intrinsic parts of an education in Love, that is money as nobly spent as any thoughtlessly (or guiltily) tossed into the special collection basket after Mass.

In a way, asking, “How  much should I give to the poor?” is a bit of a cop out. Giving things away is easy. It misses the full weight of responsibility placed upon us every second of every day to give our very selves in love to everyone around us. Trusteeship, I think, is where most of us are called. It is a real poverty of spirit, to see everything you own as being given to you to share with others. Attendant upon this poverty of spirit is all the necessity of thinking, reasoning, discerning, and training our hearts in love, that our charity may truly be caritas.

How to Invest…Like a Catholic.

christ-driving-the-moneychangers-from-the-temple-1626.jpg!Blog
Rembrandt, Christ Driving the Money Changers from the Temple, 1626.

When Christ was made flesh in this world through the Incarnation that meant that no facet of human existence was to be set apart from God’s redeeming grace. This message is needed now more than ever, particularly in the West, in the area of economics and finance. A Catholic outlook on economics necessarily does not extend only to tithing on Sundays or giving to charity. We can, as I will argue, even invest like Catholics and contribute to the flourishing of others.

There has been much talk in the past few years about the economic recession, faltering currencies, corporate mismanagement, or the lack of opportunities for young people to find gainful employment. These are, to be sure, serious issues and Catholics must play a role in solving the financial crisis. But get past all the talking heads, the antagonistic rhetoric, or the fearmongering, what we have is what Pope Francis has characterized as essentially a deep metaphysical crisis:

[T]he financial crisis which we are experiencing makes us forget that its ultimate origin is to be found in a profound human crisis. In the denial of the primacy of human beings! We have created new idols. The worship of the golden calf of old (cf. Ex 32:15-34) has found a new and heartless image in the cult of money and the dictatorship of an economy which is faceless and lacking any truly humane goal.

It doesn’t have to be this way: the Church and individual Christians are meant to forge a third way. We are called to be salt, light, and yeast in this world. In inverting the current focus on money and utility as the primary end of economics, we can bring it back to the goal of supporting authentic and integral human development. Yes, a Catholic view of economics can even see it as a good thing insofar as it can help us accomplish this.

Here’s what I’m not arguing for: “one-size-fits-all” policy changes or giving specific solutions to implement in different nations. After all, Catholics of good will can and do disagree on such things while providing legitimate alternatives. This also does not mean that we will change the status quo or even solve all of our material problems. What I do want to encourage, though, is for Christians to see that they do have meaningful ways to engage and contribute to the discussion and participate in the building up of the common good. A Catholic economics should provide us with a starting point and a foundation for further development.

For the purposes of this discussion, I will focus specifically on the topic of investing, particularly as it pertains to young adult Catholics who are just able to start investing. First off, why should we invest? Anytime I hear someone talking about bank bailouts, quantitative easing, or securities regulation, my eyes are tempted to glaze over. Wall Street, to the young person, seems like a morass of complexity and confusion. But this does not mean that you should not be concerned with the status of our markets or eschew investing altogether. Inevitably, what happens there will affect you here.

One of the oft-repeated lamentations is the seeming financial illiteracy of today’s youth. Gone are the days when young adults were expected to know basic finance or accounting skills by the time they graduated high school. Catholics by and large, in my experience, are no exception. Investing early, even a little amount consistently, can teach Catholics practical skills that they will take with them into the rest of their lives: how to create savings, the value of compounding and interest, why the business regulatory environment is important, responsibility of shareholders, etc.

Of course, aside from the practical life skills gained, Catholics must also be concerned with the “how” of investing. There is a deep connection here between our faith and where we put our money and our resources. That will reveal our true priorities. As much as naysayers would seek to argue otherwise, the financial sector and economic markets are not morally neutral vacuums. Economic decisions, ultimately, come back to particular persons whose decisions are suffused with values — good or bad.

That is why informing our investment patterns with Catholic principles can make a difference and (hopefully) be a catalyst for positive economic transformation. There has been substantial growth in the past few decades of a new class of investors who are not only concerned with the bottom line, important as that is, but also how to reach their financial goals in moral and ethical ways.

Although quite diverse, the general names for these investment methods are called “Socially Responsible Investing” (SRI). SRI investors, for example, do not invest in companies that harm the environment, participate in the arms trade, that do not support fair labor practices, or that distribute tobacco and alcohol. Another similar class and subset of the SRI movement is “Morally Responsible Investing” (MRI). People that participate in this class of investing often share similar goals as SRI investors but go even farther, often in line with their particular faith views.

For example, there has been appreciable expansion of Catholic Mutual Funds in recent years that choose to invest in pro-life companies that do not support abortion or aren’t involved in embryonic stem cell research. They also might shun investing in companies that distribute pornography or those that don’t support the Sacrament of Matrimony. Ave Maria Mutual Funds and the LKCM Aquinas Funds are some examples. Of course, this is not only a Catholic-driven movement but one that also includes those of other faiths too. For Protestants there are mutual funds such as the Timothy Plan or Thrivent Investment Management. Islamic investing is also becoming popular with the Amana Mutual Funds.

The development of these movements and unique investment strategies are very encouraging. Too often people complain about unethical business practices or companies merely concerned with profit over people. Again, it doesn’t have to be this way. Whether you buy individual shares, invest in your employer’s retirement plan, or simply save up money in the bank, where we put our money does matter. You can help do good by investing in companies that do good, by supporting business practices that are good, by being a good businessperson or entrepreneur. The last part is particularly relevant if you are a Catholic working in the financial sector: the Church needs you! Do not give up and get discouraged. You have a role to play in the sanctification of the world too.

We don’t have to choose between our faith and our financial goals. Be responsible and do your research. A good place to start would be to read the USCCB’s Socially Responsible Investment Guidelines. Although an investment or business venture of any substance always carries some risk and it might seem insurmountable and very complex right now, if you do it right you can work towards your financial goals while still supporting economic development that is good for the human person.

In all of this, we must remember that money is not an end in and of itself. It must not be, as Pope Francis said, our “idol.” It is to serve our families, our communities, the poor, and our Holy Mother Church. It is to do good with. We must remember the parable of the wise manager: “To whom much has been given, much will be required” (Luke 12:48). Let us then use our talents wisely, steward them well, and give back to the same God who has given us so much. Freely you have received and freely you shall give.

[Disclaimer: The information in this blog post represents my own opinions and does not contain a recommendation for any particular security, investment, or financial advice. To the extent any of the information contained herein may be deemed to be investment advice, such information is impersonal and not tailored to the investment needs of any specific person. Any investment necessarily carries some risk. Additionally, I hold shares in three of the funds mentioned within the Ave Maria Mutual Fund family.]