This article originally appeared in the May 2020 edition of the Catholic Worker. We are grateful to the author for permission to reprint it here—Ed.
Peter Maurin, co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement and mentor to Dorothy Day, taught us that we are to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and shelter the homeless “at a personal sacrifice.” In one of his best-known Easy Essays, he wrote: “because the poor were fed, clothed and sheltered at a personal sacrifice, the pagans used to say about the Christians, ‘See how they love each other . . .’” Peter continued, “. . . in our own day the poor are no longer fed, clothed and sheltered at a personal sacrifice but at the expense of the taxpayers and so it is said of the Christians, ‘see how they pass the buck.’”
Taxpayers today bear a considerable share of the expense of helping our poorest neighbors, much as Peter lamented in the 1930s. Most people expect that our poorer neighbors should and will be cared for by governmental social services or by agencies in the large not-for-profit corporate sector. In these options, not only are the Works of Mercy not performed at a personal sacrifice but people are paid salaries for their work. Many non-profit corporate heads are paid handsomely. To be fair, there are many talented and dedicated people working in governmental or non-profit agencies who would probably command considerably more money doing something else. Making our neighbor’s welfare our personal responsibility, however, sounds almost preposterous today.
Peter Maurin certainly didn’t invent the idea of taking personal responsibility for our neighbor’s immediate needs nor did he introduce it to Christianity. In fact, it predates Christianity and can be found throughout Hebrew Scripture. A well-known Christian example is found in all four Gospels. The stories vary in some details but the gist is that as one day came to a close, the apostles suggested to Jesus that he dismiss the huge crowd of hungry people following him so that they might go to neighboring towns and try to find food. He tells them to give the crowds something to eat themselves. Incredulous, they explain that all they have is a few fish and some bread. Jesus tells them to bring it to him. He breaks it, blesses it, instructs them to distribute it, and five thousand men and uncounted women and children “ate and were satisfied” according to Luke (9:17).
It is easy to read “At a Personal Sacrifice” as a simple call to make a personal commitment to hospitality and charity. But it is much more. A few lines from another Easy Essay, “Social Workers and Workers,” shed light on the broader implications of Peter’s thinking. He wrote, “The training of social workers enables them to help people adjust themselves to the existing environment.” It does not “enable them to help people to change the existing environment.” Peter seeks an “understanding of social forces that will make them critical of the existing environment and free creative agents of a new environment.” For Peter Maurin, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and sheltering the homeless at a personal sacrifice is a cornerstone for “building a new society within the shell of the old” with “a philosophy that is so old that it looks like new.”
Two related principles of early Christian teaching are fundamental in shaping the society that Peter envisioned: voluntary poverty and opposition to usury. After more than a century of living with rampant material consumerism and exponentially expanding finance capitalism, these concepts may appear even more absurd than personally sacrificing to aid our neighbor. But Peter’s thinking is so simple and direct that it cuts through contemporary economic and social theory. As he states in “Better and Better Off,” “. . . nobody would be poor if everybody tried to be poorest.” And if everyone tried to be poorest there would be no surplus to invest or lend at interest.
An early champion of giving at a personal sacrifice and voluntary poverty, and fierce opponent of usury, was Saint Basil the Great, also known as Basil of Caesarea, a fourth-century Doctor of the Church. Basil is probably best known as an ardent opponent of Arianism. As such, he wrote about subjects related to the Trinity and the divinity of the Holy Spirit. He also composed liturgies, reflections on creation, rules for monastic life, and other works. As bishop he was recognized for building the Ptochoptopheion or Basileiad outside of Caesarea, a large institution that included a hospice, a hospital for poor people, and a facility for training unskilled workers. It eventually became the center of a new city and model for similar institutions in other dioceses. The few quotes we consider here are drawn from his homilies in which he preached pointedly and openly about the social and economic obligations of wealthy people, a subject often avoided by homilists today.
Saint Basil is remembered by social justice advocates for the truncated quotation where he states, “The coat unused in your closet belongs to the one who needs it,” certainly a strong injunction against personal hoarding of material goods. When read in its fuller context, however, we begin to unveil how revolutionary the thought of the great doctor was and is: “When someone steals another’s clothes, we call them a thief. Should we not give the same name to one who could clothe the naked and does not? The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry; the coat unused in your closet belongs to the one who needs it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to the one who has no shoes; the money which you hoard up belongs to the poor.” He asks, “How can I make you realize the misery of the poor? How can I make you understand that your wealth comes from their weeping?”
Addressing the whole of society and the common good, Saint Basil states: “Care for the needy requires the expenditure of wealth: when all share alike, disbursing their possessions among themselves, they each receive a small portion for their individual needs. Thus, those who love their neighbor as themselves possess nothing more than their neighbor; yet surely, you seem to have great possessions! How else can this be, but that you have preferred your own enjoyment to the consolation of the many? For the more you abound in wealth, the more you lack in love.” Saint Basil had little patience with hypocrisy. He preached: “I know many who fast, pray, sigh, and demonstrate every manner of piety, so long as it costs them nothing, yet would not part with a penny to help those in distress.” The saint went so far as to warn of judgment: “You showed no mercy; it will not be shown to you. You opened not your house; you will be expelled from the Kingdom. You gave not your bread; you will not receive eternal life.”
By today’s standards, and in light of the everyday practice of Catholics, this sounds extremely harsh. We might well join those disciples who griped, “This is a hard saying. Who can accept it?” (John 6:60). There can be a large margin of error when we try to superimpose concepts from 90 years ago, not to mention 1,700 years ago, onto today’s social and economic environment. It is also problematic to try to apply words addressed to a small Christian community to our society at large. And yet, I believe we are to try, much as we are called to follow the Gospel. At the very least, it is worth reflecting on the many questions raised by the thought of these two men, Peter Maurin and Saint Basil, who lived 16 centuries apart.
The first question that arises for me is how much of a personal sacrifice we are expected to make. Turning to the Gospels challenges us. We are to love our neighbors as ourselves. In the Gospels of Mark and Luke, we hear the story of the widow’s mite. Jesus and his disciples are sitting as people make their offerings to the temple. Many wealthy people contribute large sums of money, but then a poor widow deposits two small coins. Jesus notices and says, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all the rest; for those others made offerings from their surplus wealth, but she, from her poverty, has offered her whole livelihood” (Luke 21:3). Here we recognize that Jesus’s math is different. The size of the gift is not measured by the amount given but by the amount left afterward.
In our day, when we can employ a vocabulary of privilege, and hopefully even reparations, what do Peter Maurin and Saint Basil say to us? Certainly they tell us that money that can be invested does not belong to us but to those who have less. The person with an extra coat is a person of privilege relative to the person without. And what of less concrete privilege that was gained by exploitation based on race or gender? What is our responsibility in rectifying the wrongs of years past and acknowledging the benefits some of us inherited through no merit of our own? Is giving up something that was gained by theft, for example the labor of African Americans or the land of American Indians, a sacrifice or justice? The questions are endless, but in asking and living those questions, we might finally build a new society where it is “easier for people to be good.”
Jim Reagan has been living and working at St. Joseph House of the New York City Catholic Worker for the past 17 years. He has contributed to the Catholic Worker newspaper, founded in 1933 by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, for over 20 years and has served as an associate editor since 2003.