Cardinal Francis George was once asked what he thought of the radical pacifism of people like Dorothy Day and Daniel Berrigan, prophetic figures who believed in absolute non-violence. How can this be practical, he was asked. It’s naïve to believe that we can live without police and soldiers.

This was his reply: the world needs pacifists in the same way as it needs vowed celibates. They’re not practical. They’re out of place in this world. But they point to the eschatological world, the world of heaven, a world within which there will be no guns, where relational exclusivities will not exist as they exist now, where family will not be based on biology, blood or marriage, where there will be no poor people and where everything will belong to everyone.

I thought of that recently as I was conducting a workshop on religious life for a group of young people who were discerning whether to enter vowed religious life. My task was not to try to persuade them to join a religious community but to help them understand what that life, should they join it, would entail. That meant, of course, long discussions about the three vows that people take in religious life: poverty, chastity and obedience (classically termed the evangelical counsels).

What’s to be said about poverty, chastity and obedience in a world that, for the most part, places its hope in material riches, generally identifies chastity with frigidity and values individual freedom above all else?

Well, no doubt, poverty, chastity and obedience are seen as radically counter-cultural. But that’s mainly because they are generally not very well understood (sometimes even by those who are living them out). For the most part they are seen as a drastic renunciation, the sacrificing of a full life, the unnatural denial of one’s sexuality, and the adolescent signing over of one’s freedom and creativity. But that’s a misunderstanding.

Poverty, chastity and obedience are not a missing out on riches, sexuality and freedom. They are rather a genuine modality of riches, sexuality and freedom.

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