'No servant can be the slave of two masters. You cannot be the slave both of God and of money.' This is one of the better known quotes from the bible. God and money do not go together. It is perhaps the inspiration for one of the three promises made by Dominicans in our religious profession: poverty.
Money can certainly distract us from the godly; when we are tempted to pursue money rather than justice. Hopefully the religious promise to maintain poverty encourages Dominicans to pursue what is godly. It is not the case though we can divorce ourselves from wealth altogether. We are expected maintain ourselves so that we can carry out our ministry.
Not everyone can be the poorest person the world: that would be a logical impossibility beyond even God's omnipotence. Poverty is relative rather than absolute. This is not relativism where all opinions are held legitimate and reasonable, rightly criticised by the Holy Father, but the obvious relativism that what is considered poverty in one comparison would be considered wealth in another. Dominicans from a wealthy society may seem poor in comparison to their neighbour, but a summer placement in some poor part of the world would provoke less favourable comparisons.
There will always be arguments about what qualifies as poverty. Refusing to own a car may look impressive, but if it means refusing any work outside walking distance, then perhaps it is self-defeating poverty. What qualifies as poverty will change according to circumstance. Perhaps continually examining and assessing our wealth against our commitment to poverty is what a promise of poverty amounts to. If we get it wrong, then most will think us hypocrites.
It is not only money that distracts us from God and justice. There is also sex and power, which happen to be the concerns of Dominicans' other two promises: chastity and obedience.
A catholic priest meets with some very strange reactions nowadays. Looks of incredulity from some people when they realise that catholic priests still exist, or they find out for the first time that a catholic priest is celibate. The celibacy concept is almost, or actually is, beyond their comprehension.
Is enslavement to the pursuit of sex preferable? Perhaps priests and religious, freed from such enslavement, find it easier to pursue God and promote justice. This isn't to say that you need a vow of chastity to keep sex in perspective, or that all who take such a vow succeed in keeping sex in perspective, but it is a way for some to deal justly with those around them.
Also, as with poverty, differing opinions are voiced as to when a promise of chastity is broken, in marriage as well as religious life. Many may say it is broken with sex outside a chaste relationship, but surely the mind can be enslaved without the act itself? Again, opinions change by location and over time.
Power is another major distraction from doing what is just. If we are in control then we feel safe, but the danger is that we wield power to the harm of others. Like money, power is not something we can avoid completely. We all make decisions that affect others. Some individuals, if we are to live in the ordered society that we want, have to take positions of authority, where they will wield power over others.
Such power has to be kept in perspective. Power can become all-consuming, and you end up oppressing the people rather than helping them. The Christian tradition, where those in authority are encouraged to see themselves as the servants of the people, is helpful in keeping power in its proper place.
Dominicans see obedience as their most important religious promise; perhaps because it should free us from corruptive power. Strangely enough though, there is an opinion on the breaking point of the vow of obedience for every Dominican.
Dominicans do not make promises of poverty, chastity, and obedience to make life more difficult or less enjoyable, or to impress people. Some will always criticise and have good reason to do so. Dominicans adopt the promises to provide a framework to life that directs their attention to God and a just love for their neighbour.
We don't all need to make these promises, but some kind of framework to life that nudges our attention away from wealth, sex, and power and towards God and justice for our neighbour benefits all. True freedom is not the liberty to oppress others, but the ability to free them.