header icons

Living the Gospel in a Secular Society

by L. V. Díaz

It often seems challenging or almost impossible to live out the Sermon on the Mount. Implementing it even in small ways often involves creative thinking outside of the usual patterns of thought as well as discernment about what is happening in our world.

A friend recently told us that she went to her parish to request that a Mass be said. When the secretary asked in what name, our friend said, “Our enemies.” The secretary did not know what to do. She wondered, Is this possible? Our friend said, “I believe Jesus asked us to pray for our enemies…” The Mass was scheduled.

Peter Maurin spoke of St. Philip Neri’s insistence that we have “Easy conversations about things that matter,” and even wrote an Easy Essay on that topic.

But how to have conversations about what really matters (the Gospel), when people’s concerns and all the professions are centered on having and possessing (as Peter said, on greed instead of creed), nations compete with each other on how to stockpile lethal weapons and wage war, whether through traditional methods or cyber war, without regard for casualties?

The emphasis on having, financial security, and the will to power – in glaring contrast with the Gospel – almost drowns out the voices for peace, for the common good, and a just economy.  But not quite.

Difficult as conversations about things that matter may be in a polarized culture and Church, prophets can help us. As Mark Zwick used to say, “Thank God, came Léon Bloy, who wrote and spoke with a sword instead of a pen, shouting at people, “Wake, up, do something with your life, for God’s sake!”

A lot of computer ink has been spilled in recent years on books about secularization, the culture of modernity and post modernity, and evangelization. Several of these book come to the conclusion that solid philosophical and theological roots are important in relating to and understanding both our polarized secular culture and a polarized Church culture, but equally or even more important are the witness and narratives of those whose lives have been changed by following the Nazarene in the communion of the Church.

Examples of living of the Gospel are frequently found among ordinary people who keep the faith in the midst of joys, suffering and tragedies. Mark and I particularly found this kind of inspiration in the Catholic Worker.

Long before we became full-time Catholic Workers, we visited those who were serving the poor in Catholic Worker houses in other cities and sometimes we volunteered or prepared a meal. Mark had met Dorothy Day, co-founder of the movement, on two of his visits to the New York Catholic Worker.

Shock Maxims Of the Gospel

We noticed in visits to CW’s the sprinkling of phrases from the Gospel which flowed naturally in the conversations of the Workers, especially the words of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, and the key passage from Matthew 25 about Judgment Day.

Love your enemy, the Workers said with a smile. Go the extra mile. Turn the other cheek. Lend, expecting nothing back. You cannot serve God and mammon. Give to those who ask of you and if someone takes what is yours, do not demand it back.  Remember the lilies of the field. Don’t build bigger barns to hold all your worldly goods. Don’t judge that you may not be judged. You must lose your life in order to gain it. “Come, you blessed of my Father, to the Kingdom prepared for you from all eternity, for when I was hungry, you gave me to eat, when I was thirsty, you gave me to drink, when I was a stranger, you took me in.” And then, of course, “Take up your cross and follow Me.”

The everyday efforts in the CW to implement these maxims of Jesus, what Peter Maurin called the “shock maxims” of the Gospel, reflect a way of life radically different from the reigning ideologies and philosophies of our time. Here one could find the opposite of the prosperity gospel, the all-consuming consumer culture and economics, the pervasive influence of utilitarianism, preparations for war, and the cruel scapegoating of immigrants and refugees.

Reading recent books about our culture and how the Church (understood as all the People of God, the Mystical Body of Christ) can bring the Gospel to the world made us come back to Pope Francis’ exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel. In the introductory section, Pope Francis addresses the malaise of persons today and the ways in which it interferes with the possibilities of doing good:

“The great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience. 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… That is no way to live a dignified and fulfilled life; it is not God’s will for us, nor is it the life in the Spirit which has its source in the heart of the risen Christ.”

Witness Of Others Can Change Our Lives

Mark and I had become good friends working with the poor, organizing block groups, and starting a neighborhood center in Ohio, in response to the Gospel, to Matthew 25 and that very Sermon on the Mount. Later, married and with children, living a middle-class lifestyle, we were thinking of how we could once again live out these maxims. Conversations with Catholic Workers during that time planted new seeds for us, and after a time in El Salvador, in 1980 we started the Catholic Worker known as Casa Juan Diego.

One of Casa Juan Diego’s Earliest Houses

When we opened and began to receive refugees from the wars in Central America, people came to help and ask about the work. We appreciated their interest and crucial help and remembered that Dorothy Day had said that it was as important to talk with visitors to the Catholic Worker and those who came to join in the work as it was to serve the poor. We remind ourselves of this as people from the community bring donations and stop to visit. These supporters of our work are indelibly woven into the everyday Works of Mercy at CJD.

Visitors and supporters of Casa Juan Diego are trying to respond to the crucial questions: How to follow Christ in our consumer society and do something good with your life in the midst of it all?

On Building Bigger Barns

It is not possible to understand the culture and respond adequately to these questions without looking at economics (inextricably bound up with preparations for war). This means not only consumerism, but the planned inequality which make life and survival difficult for so many and provides funding for political ventures to guard the wealth of the 1%.

As Alasdair MacIntyre says, “For the power and influence of money in politics would not be what it is without economic inequality. And that power and influence are recurrently exerted to sustain capitalism.” (Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity, 105)

Followers Of the Gospel Can Make a Difference.

What can one do? It would be good to change the system to be more just, and that should be an ongoing effort. In the meantime, there are simple things that can be done on a personal level, with personal witness, in the humble way of the Gospel.

When we used to give talks to small groups in parishes, for example, Mark Zwick made practical suggestions of to those who listened. Perhaps one could, he said, instead of buying a $500,000 home, buy a much less costly one and buy a house for a poor person. Instead of buying a $50,000 car, one could buy a $25,000 car and give the money saved to the poor. Instead of buying new clothes every year, one could wear them another year and help someone in need with the money saved.

Why this insistence on purchasing and possession and bigger and better everything, he asked.  Reading through the four Gospels, one is hard put to find anything resembling encouragement of this lifestyle, he said.

It took the businessman from the rich parish who had invited us to speak, to help us to understand what people, even Catholics, were thinking.

“You have to understand,” he explained, “that so-called ‘accumulation Catholicism’ has respectable status.”  Purchasing bigger homes, bigger cars, and elegant clothing is not only not seen as a vice or counter-Catholic behavior, but as virtue. People who work hard, behave themselves and pray hard deserve to be rewarded for their virtuous life.  God has given individuals talent and ability and if they use it to create more possessions, then God surely approves. God is on their side, they believe, rather than on the side of those who have been unsuccessful in creating wealth and maybe don’t even have enough to support their families.  The latter are clearly inferior people and society should probably help them when they deserve it.

The temptation for Catholics is to live like everyone else, enjoy life and even seek theological legitimation for unfettered wealth creation.

by Daniel Erlander

It is fairly well known, among Catholics, said Mark, that bigger houses, bigger cars and fancy clothing are not prerequisites for gaining eternal salvation.  On Judgment Day the Lord is not going to ask about bigger and better. In fact, he had some comments to make about people who build bigger barns.  If we can trust Sacred Scripture and the Saints who epitomize Catholic success, it appears that the Lord is going to talk about what one has given away, rather than what we have accumulated.  The old adage states, “We take to heaven what we have given away.”

The people who come to Casa Juan Diego can only think of survival, not success.   They have left their families behind and come to seek work so that their children might eat, have a roof over their heads and school supplies.  Some have lost their legs jumping from trains, have been in work accidents or car accidents or have become very ill. Someone tells them about a last place of refuge where they can recuperate. Some, even in wheel chairs, are facing deportation.

Those whose work was their life now face despair. If they had ever had the view that worldly success was the mark of virtue and the meaning of life on a practical level, their experience quickly changes their perspective.

There was never a chance that they would achieve the lifestyle of many Americans who buy bigger and better houses, bigger and better cars and expensive, stylish clothing, who seek exotic vacations and fine dining.

Theologian Hans Urs Von Balthasar helps us to confront the question of worldly success:  “Success is not one of the names of God,” he said, “but consuming fire is.”  With this understanding, the poor men and women in despair who come to us can find hope, in the fire of God’s love, so far beyond worldly success.

St. Thomas Agreed With Mark

Imagine finding in St. Thomas Aquinas support for these ideas, so different from Adam Smith or Calvin.

In his most recent book, Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity, Alasdair MacIntyre shared some of Aquinas’ views on economics:

“… on Aquinas’s view, it is never permissible to engage in market transactions only to make a profit or primarily to make a profit. The pursuit of profit for its own sake is unjust… Each of us needs only so much money and we have no good reason to desire riches as such and no reason at all to esteem the rich as such. This does not mean of course that greater productivity is not desirable for all sorts of reasons. It does mean that a life devoted to the acquisition of money is characteristically a life of disordered desires.” (91) MacIntyre sends us back to the source: “Riches are, from a biblical point of view, an affliction, an almost insuperable obstacle to entering the kingdom of heaven.”

MacIntyre tells us how over the centuries economics was turned on its head, especially by philosophers and academic economists:

“Unsurprisingly pleonexia, the drive to have more and more, becomes treated as a central virtue. But Christian theologians in the Middle Ages had learned from Aristotle as well as from Scripture that pleonexia is the vice that is the counterpart to the virtue of justice. And they had understood, as later theologians have failed to do, the close connection between developing capitalism and the sin of usury.”

The Gospel – Good News For the Poor

In The Joy of the Gospel, Pope Francis calls us back to the priorities of that very Gospel:

“God shows the poor his first mercy. This divine preference has consequences for the faith life of all Christians, since we are called to have ‘this mind… which was in Jesus Christ’ (Phil 2:5).

“Inspired by this, the Church has made an option for the poor which is understood as a special form of primacy in the exercise of Christian charity, to which the whole tradition of the Church bears witness.This option – as Benedict XVI has taught – “is implicit in our Christian faith in a God who became poor for us, so as to enrich us with his poverty”.

Finding Christ In the Poor

“This is why I want a Church which is poor and for the poor. They have much to teach us. Not only do they share in the sensus fidei, but in their difficulties they know the suffering Christ. We need to let ourselves be evangelized by them. The new evangelization is an invitation to acknowledge the saving power at work in their lives and to put them at the centre of the Church’s pilgrim way. We are called to find Christ in them, to lend our voice to their causes, but also to be their friends, to listen to them, to speak for them and to embrace the mysterious wisdom which God wishes to share with us through them.

“Without the preferential option for the poor, the proclamation of the Gospel, which is itself the prime form of charity, risks being misunderstood or submerged by the ocean of words which daily engulfs us in today’s society of mass communications.

“No one must say that they cannot be close to the poor because their own lifestyle demands more attention to other areas.”

As we share the lives of the poor, of migrants, of those who suffer in our humble work, and try to read the signs of the times, it seems that we are at best sheep among wolves who, according to the Lord, must be as wise as serpents and as gentle as doves. (Much food for meditation here.)

When we attempt to navigate among the shoals and pitfalls, divisions and polarizations facing us, may the Lord give us at Casa Juan Diego and our readers and supporters and friends and enemies the strength and wisdom and compassion to accompany those who need us the most each day.

See also:

Video; Mark and Louise Zwick, The Catholic Worker Movement: Model for Church and World – a talk at the University of Notre Dame, 2003. https://cjdengp.wpengine.com/2018/02/02/the-catholic-worker-a-model-for-church-and-world-2/


Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXXVII, No. 2, April-June 2018.