Moving as often as we have in the past ten years (five times since ’01 counting the move this summer), my family has had the unique opportunity to get rid of a lot of stuff. We’ve been fairly successful at paring our belongings to a necessary minimum, mostly voluntarily but sometimes involuntarily when things are lost or broken during shipment. Consequently, there are very few things that are truly precious to me, and most of those things have sentimental rather than monetary value.
Each time strangers come to my house to put our things into boxes, then load them onto a truck, we have to come to grips with what’s really important. Legal and official papers, jewelry, and a few religious articles go with us in the car; with the rest we hold our breath and entrust those same strangers to deliver them to a new house at a new assignment. When the house is empty once again and all the papers are signed, watching the truck drive away forces a man to remember that “it’s only stuff”…we’re offered the opportunity to practice a little temperance.
The Catechism defines temperance as the virtue that “disposes us to avoid every kind of excess: the abuse of food, alcohol, tobacco, or medicine” (#2290). In citing the “usual suspects” of drugs and alcohol, the Church is exhorting us to learn to govern our appetites and passions.
The amassing of “things” becomes an appetite for some, especially in the affluent West. Just like the appetites for pleasure and sustenance, the appetite for comfort is something we must temper and master. This is a tall task in our postmodern consumer culture. And because we are so affluent as a society, it becomes easy to attach ourselves to those things that our consumer culture offers. Consumer goods are easy to come by and cheap to obtain. Resisting the attachment to those things is not so easy.
The Catechism continues, In economic matters, respect for human dignity requires the practice of the virtue of temperance, so as to moderate attachment to this world’s goods; the practice of the virtue of justice, to preserve our neighbor’s rights and render him what is his due; and the practice of solidarity, in accordance with the golden rule and in keeping with the generosity of the Lord, who “though he was rich, yet for your sake . . . became poor so that by his poverty, you might become rich” (2 Cor 8:9) (#2407).
It’s not a sin against temperance to be rich, but it is a sin against temperance to allow our possessions to own us instead of vice versa. Furthermore, if we own a lot of things we don’t need, or place a value on possessions that far outweigh their value, then perhaps an examination of conscience is in order. And if we have possessions that we don’t need, does someone else need them more?
Our goal as Christians should be to attach ourselves to Christ, and not to our possessions.