One of my birthday presents was the four-volume Liturgy of the Hours, which has enabled me to pray the Office of Readings a little more regularly. Hence yesterday I ran across the following passage from the Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes:

Human activity, to be sure, takes its significance from its relationship to man. Just as it proceeds from man, so it is ordered toward man. For when a man works he not only alters things and society, he develops himself as well. He learns much, he cultivates his resources, he goes outside of himself and beyond himself. Rightly understood this kind of growth is of greater value than any external riches which can be garnered. A man is more precious for what he is than for what he has. Similarly, all that men do to obtain greater justice, wider brotherhood, a more humane disposition of social relationships has greater worth than technical advances. For these advances can supply the material for human progress, but of themselves alone they can never actually bring it about.

Hence, the norm of human activity is this: that in accord with the divine plan and will, it harmonize with the genuine good of the human race, and that it allow men as individuals and as members of society to pursue their total vocation and fulfill it. (emphasis added)

To put part of that in my own words, perhaps a bit more strongly than the original: material progress without spiritual progress is an illusion.

I couldn’t help thinking of that later in the day yesterday when I had a conversation with a friend about the “Little House” books. He wondered what Charles Ingalls would make of the world today, with all its gadgetry, its undeniable and spectacular material and technological progress, and I thought immediately that he would notice even more the spiritual regress that is equally undeniable and spectacular. Can anyone really imagine he would let his innocent, intelligent young daughters attend a movie or turn on a television in 2009? Over his dead body.

I cannot help thinking of it too, today, after Mass. One of the young women who traveled to Guatemala on a mission trip from our parish spoke after Mass about how moved she had been by the simplicity of the lives of those she met and by the profound role family plays for them. They have no gadgets; their lives do not revolve around sports practices. Always they come home to family.

I cannot help thinking of the economic crisis that everyone is so focused on, and understandably so, as there is much pain and suffering. The anxiety of unemployment is a terrible cross, let alone the real hunger and want that many experience. But we pass so blithely over the deeper spiritual poverty of our culture, barely finding it worth a mention, when our “total vocation” is not to be fat and happy here but eternally happy in the next life. Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta pointed out this terrible poverty a decade ago, noting that poor Calcutta was spiritually richer – that is, richer in the way that matters most.

Perhaps if nothing else, the economic crisis will remind us of something many to the political right and left have forgotten – that economies exist to serve persons and families, and not the other way around. “Just as [human activity] proceeds from man, so it is ordered toward man.”

And perhaps in bearing the trials of this present hour we may learn the need for the kind of spiritual progress that will make the material recovery we all hope for actually meaningful beyond tomorrow.


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