There Is a Kind of Gospel Poverty That All Christians Must Embrace

In its own way, the call to poverty holds for the father as much as for the friar.

Jean-François Millet, “The Angelus,” ca. 1858
Jean-François Millet, “The Angelus,” ca. 1858 (photo: Public Domain)

“Can you be a Christian and own a BMW?” This question came up more than once in the private Christian school where I started my teaching career. Many of the students came from wealthy families, so you can imagine the ire directed at one teacher in particular who would argue that it is not right for a Christian to own a luxury car. I think that anyone who argues in that way should be prepared to face serious backlash, but their conclusions about Christian asceticism are likely to be accompanied by similarly unpopular conclusions and expectations about persecution.

One such person is Thomas Dubay, the author of many books, but most pertinent to this article is his book Happy Are You Poor. In that book, he argues that there is a kind of poverty that all Christians should embrace. The call to gospel poverty is not optional for the Christian.

A real life model of poverty in my own experience is the Community of the Friars of the Renewal. I am an associate of the friars through Most Blessed Sacrament Friary in Newark, New Jersey, which serves as the house for the novices.

When I mentioned Dubay’s book to some of the friars, they immediately recognized it. The novice director, Father Francis Mary, uses it in lessons on poverty. Other friars have benefitted from time with the book as well. If the men who try to model their life after that of the “poor man of Assisi” think well of it, then I take it more seriously.

The poverty of the friars differs in some essential aspects from the poverty of those whom they call their “poor neighbors.” Their neighbors have not intentionally given up wealth, degrees and other comforts; they have not chosen a life of poverty out of obedience to a call or higher power in their lives; their poverty is often accompanied by a spiritual poverty; the neighbors very often lack dignity in the way they live and gratitude for what they have. There is a palpable difference between the two kinds of poverty.

And that is one of the essential points in Dubay’s book. Not all poverty is the same. Christians are not called to live in physical destitution or spiritual desolation. Nor are all Christians called to the same level of poverty. By analogy, all are called to courage, but courage looks different for a mother and a police officer. A father cannot fulfill his vocation while living the same poverty as a friar, but the call to poverty holds for the father as much as for the friar. In fact, a father’s joyful simplicity of life will be an authentic witness of the gospel and raise happier children than a life of lavish luxury. As Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote, “Prosperity breeds idiots.”

As Lent approaches, Dubay’s book may be one for thoughtful and, more importantly, prayerful consideration. Dubay lays out his case systematically from Scripture, the Church Fathers, the saints and Church teaching.

If you disagree with him, he recommends the thing we all ought to be doing anyway: pray. Since we are all more than capable of rationalization when it comes to our use of money, humble prayer should be our arena of contemplation and consideration.

Each year I pose this question to my students: would you rather be rich and foolish or poor and wise? For the sake of the argument, I tell them their state cannot change, the foolish person cannot use his riches to buy an education and wisdom, and the wise person cannot use his wisdom to buy riches. (To read a real life example of one of these conversations, see my book Philosophy Fridays.) A couple of assumptions have come to my attention over the years: wisdom is something that money can buy and a wise person would want to use his wisdom to gain money.

If Dubay is right, the wise would actually want to be poor. The question turns out to be, far from a choice between arbitrary combinations, an expression of a real choice that we all make every day in how we live our lives: pursue Jesus or pursue an overabundance of wealth or whatever comes with unnecessary riches and goods. After all, Jesus warned us that we cannot serve two masters; we cannot serve both God and mammon.