No man can serve two masters. For either he will hate the one, and love the other: or he will sustain the one, and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon. – Matthew 6:24
One of the biggest and most dangerous temptations that Christians face is the addiction to comfort. Our desire for comfort and our unwillingness to sacrifice ourselves for others is at the root of much that is evil and destructive in the world. It was for this reason that Chesterton, when asked what was wrong with the world, replied that “I am.” The paradox is that Chesterton was right in seeing himself as wrong, whereas we are usually wrong when we think that we are right. We are smug. Our hearts are essentially self-centred. We surround ourselves with trinkets and trash, forgetting the words of Christ that where our treasure is, there our heart will be also.
The paradoxical consequence of our addiction to creature comforts is that we become possessed by our possessions, much as the possession of the Ring in Tolkien’s masterwork leads to those who wear it becoming possessed by their possession of it. If we are honest with ourselves, we will readily confess that we are far too attached to our own possessions and the soporific comfort they offer. We believe that they are necessary to the attainment of the creature comforts that we crave, bestowing upon them a power over us akin to spiritual possession. Thus we become slaves to our possessions through our addiction to the comfort they give.
All of this is another way of saying what Christ Himself says much more bluntly and directly: We cannot serve both God and Mammon. Each must choose. If we would choose Christ, we must begin with a scouring of our own hearts and the scourging of the selfishness we find there. Only then can we begin to serve our God and our neighbor as Christ commands; only then can we begin to work for the justice and freedom that our afflicted world so desperately needs.
Having made the choice for Christ, our lives must conform to the principles of the Church’s social teaching so that we can help our afflicted neighbours and become part of the solution and not part of the problem.
At the heart of the Church’s social doctrine is the principle of subsidiarity as expounded by Pope Leo XIII in Rerum novarum (1891), a doctrine that would be re-stated, re-confirmed and reinforced by Pope Pius XI in Quadragesimo anno (1931) and by Pope John Paul II in Centesimus annus (1991). In the Catechism of the Catholic Church subsidiarity is discussed in the context of the dangers inherent in too much power being centralized in the hands of the state:
Excessive intervention by the state can threaten personal freedom and initiative. The teaching of the Church has elaborated the principle of subsidiarity, according to which a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to co-ordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good.
Put simply, the principle of subsidiarity rests on the assumption that the rights of small communities, e.g. families or neighbourhoods, should not be violated by the intervention of larger communities, e.g. the state or centralized bureaucracies. Thus, for instance, in practical terms, the rights of parents to educate their children without the imposition by the state of “politically correct” school curricula would be enshrined by the principle of subsidiarity. Parental influence in schools is subsidiarist; state influence is anti-subsidiarist.
We do not live in an ideal world and the ideal, in the absolute sense, is unattainable. Yet, as Christians, we believe that we are called to strive for perfection. We are called to imitate Christ, even if we cannot be perfect as Christ is perfect. And what is true of man in his relationship with God is true of man in his relationship with his neighbor: We are called to strive towards a better and more just society, even if it will never be perfect. Therefore, in practical terms, every policy or every practice that leads to a reuniting of man with the land and capital on which he depends for his sustenance is a step in the right direction. Every policy or practice that puts him more at the mercy of those who control the land and the capital on which he depends, and therefore who control his labour also, is a step in the wrong direction. Practical politics is about moving in the right direction, however slowly.
In choosing God instead of Mammon and in choosing our neighbor instead of ourselves, we will not be making a heaven on earth, which is not possible, but we will be bringing earth closer to heaven, which is the duty for which all of us are commanded to strive.
This essay originally appeared in the St. Austin Review and appears here with gracious permission.
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