Viewpoint: Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience are for Everyone

by M. Francis Mannion

Usually, when we think of poverty, chastity, and obedience–the evangelical counsels–we think of priests, monks, and nuns. But, the Catechism of the Catholic Church states pointedly: “Christ proposes the evangelical counsels, in their great variety, to every disciple” (no. 915).

How is it possible for every Christian to live out these three requirements of the Gospel? Surely poverty, chastity, and obedience are not possible for people who live in the “real” world. After all, most people own houses, cars, and have bank accounts. A great segment of the population is married and has children. And what can it mean for a Christian to be obedient in all things?

Poverty, I suggest, does not mean, for most people, owning nothing (like monks and nuns, who hold all things in common). It means subjecting everything they own to the scrutiny of the Gospel and the common good, and keeping a constant eye out for the ways they can use their material goods for the benefit of society, especially the poor.

The spirit of poverty means living frugally, simply, and without ostentation. Christians are asked to think twice before buying overly expensive houses, cars, and clothes, and taking excessively costly vacations.

Every Christian is called not only to donate money and goods to the poor through church and community programs, but to get his or her hands dirty by looking for opportunities to actually go out and feed the poor, help shelter the homeless, volunteer at thrift stores, and assist with providing the basic necessities to those who live on the margins.

What can chastity mean for married people, who are obviously in a sexual relationship? First, we have to distinguish between chastity and celibacy. Chastity is required of all Christians, married and unmarried. Celibacy, on the other hand, is the calling of bishops, priests, monks, and nuns. Celibates do not deny their sexuality, but reorient their affections and express them non-genitally within a specific religious or parish community, as well as in their more important personal relationships.

Chastity for married people means that their sexuality has the characteristics of true self-giving, undying fidelity, and a profound and abiding love for the other. The married recognize that their sexuality is a gift of God, a sacrament, a sign of God’s love.

Those things that offend against marital chastity are the objectification of the other, the use of the other primarily for self-gratification, the introduction of pornography into the relationship, and a lustful attitude–the avoidance of which does not mean a prudish view of sex, but rather the promotion of a noble view of sexuality and the human body.

What can it mean to say that all Christians are called to obedience? The word “obedience” comes from the Latin verb obedire, which means “to attend to,” “to listen to.” Obedience does not mean submission in the normal sense of the word. It does not mean that husbands or wives lord it over each other, boss each other around, or that one makes all the decisions regarding work, the household, and the raising and education of children.

Obedience means that the spouses are truly open to each other, to the wisdom that each one has. Both recognize that it takes two to make a marriage, raise children, and run a household.

In the sixth-century Rule of St. Benedict, the monk is called to be obedient not only to the abbot, but to all the members of the community. This means that each monk has a constant ear for the good of the community. This is called “mutual obedience”–a concept which can serve as a model for every Christian.

Msgr. Mannion is pastor emeritus of St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in Salt Lake City. Reprinted by permission of Catholic News Agency.

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