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Stewardship as The Blob

by Tony M.

In 1958, Steve McQueen starred (if it can be called that) in the movie “The Blob”. It was the typical 1950s new-kind-of-monster movie. All you need to know about the Blob is that, like its name implies, it had no integral parts or structure, but its appetite was voracious and universal. Now you know exactly how the movie plays out.

In the modern Church, if you pay attention to the right issues, such as property and charitable giving and use of resources, you run into the concept of “stewardship”. It is a perfectly good word, with perfectly good meaning and application in the Church, with perfectly good provenance, no less than St. Peter:

"As each one has received a gift, use it to serve one another as good stewards of God's varied grace" (1 Pt 4:10).

Unfortunately, because in the modern Church you are hard pressed to find anyone who stewardships* his mind, the concept has become like The Blob: without any internal structure, and of universal and voracious appetite. EVERYTHING good is “stewardship”.

(*Beware nouns, especially nouns in the universal / conceptual form, that become verbs).

Don’t get me wrong: nearly everyone has a partial sense of the word: it’s “taking care of” something. To exercise stewardship (no, you may not say “to stewardship”, and anyone who does from here on out will be shot and then executed) means to take care of something. Fine.

Somehow, they all seem to have lost the other half of the concept, which is the that for which the caretaking is assigned. The purpose, the end, the point, the objective, the goal: nobody in the modern Church talks about the purpose of stewardship of any specific good. Indeed, in many places they seem to speak as if carrying out stewardship well IS the purpose.

But it’s not. There’s the rub. The word doesn’t mean that. Dictionary.com:

the position and duties of a steward, a person who acts as the surrogate of another or others, especially by managing property, financial affairs, an estate, etc.

In particular, the steward manages property on behalf of another. This is in two senses. First, (A) the steward manages the property to achieve with the property what the owner / assignor intended. Secondly, (B) the steward manages the property in order to benefit those whom the owner / assignor eventually intended to benefit with the property. And, in fact, in intention (A) is dependent on (B): the owner assigns the stewardship in order to achieve a benefit for some stated person(s) or purposes.

There are two critical features of stewardship here. First, there has to be a definite beneficiary (either one or a class) of the property cared for. Then, the property eventually has to be made available for, and to the benefit of, that beneficiary. The beneficiary of the care taken by the steward may be the original owner, or some other. But there has to be one. And at some point the purpose of the property in use, to benefit someone, has to come about, and thus the period of stewardship of that property comes to an end: it is a temporary assignment, a temporary duty. The property ceases to be in the hands of the steward, and in the hands of the one who benefits from it.

But none of the resources on stewardship mention the beneficiary or the purpose or the end of the period of caretaking. They don’t believe in it. Because they are using it wrong.

Who is a Christian steward? One who… • Receives God’s gifts gratefully • Cherishes and develops God’s gifts in a responsible and accountable manner • Shares God’s gifts in justice and love with others • Returns God’s gifts, with increase, to God

Nope. That’s not it: God does not benefit from the increase, nor from the property. He is not the beneficiary.

The Bible contains a profound message about the stewardship of material creation: God created the world, but entrusts it to human beings. Caring for and cultivating the world involves the following:

 Joyful appreciation for the God-given beauty and wonder of nature;

 Protection and preservation of the environment, which would be the stewardship of ecological concern;

 Respect for human life—shielding life from threat and assault, doing everything that can be done to enhance this gift and make life flourish; and

 Development of this world through noble human effort—physical labor, the trades and professions, the arts and sciences. We call such effort "work." Work is a fulfilling human vocation.

Again, not a shred of indication of who the care is FOR. And “joyful appreciation for the God-given beauty and wonder of nature” is all fine, but it is not the role of steward qua steward. (More on this later.)

A stewardship way of life involves the following: • Becoming more and more aware that everything is gift and blessing—that all that we are and have is a gift from God. This means accepting the biblical truth that we own nothing. Scripture reminds us that we come into the world with nothing and we leave the world with nothing (Job 1). A stewardship way of life involves recognizing God as the sole creator and owner of all that we are and have, and accepting the fact that we are merely the stewards or managers of God’s gifts and blessings. Our job or mission is to manage and use wisely and responsibly all that God has placed in our care.

Again the sole attention is on the “caring for” and not “for someone to benefit”.

Here is the worst example, I think:

After Jesus, we look to Mary as an ideal steward. As the Mother of Christ, she lived her ministry in a spirit of fidelity and service; she responded generously to the call. We must ask ourselves: Do we also wish to be disciples of Jesus Christ and Christian stewards of our world and our Church?...

Leave it to the USCCB to make the worst of it. I have no doubt that Mary was indeed a good steward when she executed that role, but they cite NOTHING about her actually behaving in a stewardship capacity. And her most illustrious virtues were those of humility and faith, which are not those of stewardship. It's The Blob: if it was good, it must have been stewardship.

Anyway, practically all of the websites that come up in a search for stewardship in the Church are reading from the exact same play book, and whoever put the book together hadn’t a clue what stewardship is FOR. (I think it is the International Catholic Stewardship Council, who put out the first quote above. Their format shows up over and over.)

Nor is the Vatican immune to the problem. Pope Francis in his encyclical letter Laudato Si talks much of stewardship but studiously avoids trying to come to grips with either who the beneficiary is of the stewardship, or when the caretaking is over so that the property can be of benefit. (Caution: I could only get ¾ of the way through it before I was unable to go on. If he manages it later, I might have missed it. I have found no commentary that mentions it, either.)

Liberals cannot stand the answer: MEN are the beneficiaries of the stewardship assigned to us by God. In a generic way, the whole of mankind is the “class” of beneficiaries, but for the purposes of each person’s individual assignment, definite individuals and subsets of mankind are the primary beneficiaries**. Humans. Men and women. Not animals. Not plants. Not bacteria. Not rocks and air. Not “the planet”. Not “the ecology” or “the environment” except insofar as men benefit.

(**Secondary beneficiaries include, in a certain way, future people such as one’s descendants. In a still more removed and limited way, all of the future generations of mankind are the tertiary beneficiaries. The sense in which these are to benefit is to be carefully understood in a larger context that limits them as an object of our caretaking.)

Liberals hate this view of the physical part of creation, this “speciesism”. That’s why they never mention it. Or obscure it. Or obfuscate about it (such as saying that we are “giving back to God” as our stewardship.) Or just plain outright lie about it, sometimes.

There are 2 parts to showing God setting this up. The first is in the very design of human nature: we are above every other (physical) living thing, and we have worth that exceeds in kind every other living thing. Indeed, in the moral order, a single human being is worth more than the entirety of the physical universe. There is simply no comparison. The truth of this overwhelming status is attested to in 2 places right at the beginning of Scripture:

“So God created man in His own image”

It wasn’t until God had done this that the world was “very good”. God doesn’t say this of anything else in creation, just of men. It is a likeness of a whole different order than that of the rest of what was created.

Secondly, God brings all the animals before Adam to be named:

brought them to Adam to see what he would call them. And whatever Adam called each living creature, that was its name.
To name someone was to be over them. It implies true superiority.

Then, God confirms that man is indeed over the rest of creation, by an explicit conferral:

And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”

Here, God is not merely pointing out that man is more excellent than the rest of creation, but declaring that man is to hold dominion over it. Then, he confirms that this dominion is not only in the sense of ruling (i.e. deciding), but also that ruling was for man’s benefit:

And God said, “See, I have given you every herb that yields seed which is on the face of all the earth, and every tree whose fruit yields seed; to you it shall be for food.

This is because God intends that man use the earth and the things in it for man’s benefit. MANKIND (to speak generically) is the beneficiary of man’s ruling over the earth. It’s not for God’s benefit. He doesn’t gain when we are good stewards. Men do. And using something for one's own benefit is not stewardship, it is dominion.

So if you are going to use "stewardship" at all for what God is doing handing over the goods of the earth, you have to apply it in a careful way. When the person to whom the care is entrusted is also the person whom the property is to benefit, we call this “gift”, and it isn’t normally classed under “stewardship” but “ownership”. For, when you make a gift of something because you want them to benefit by it, their “obligation” to use it for that intended benefit is a different kind of obligation than the steward’s fiduciary obligation of caring for a property so it can be turned over to some OTHER beneficiary. Specifically, it is NOT that of a fiduciary obligation. When the donee mis-uses a gift, it is a violation of the virtue of gratitude, not the crime of malfeasance.

The reason Peter calls us stewards is that we are, each one, stewards of some property on behalf of some other persons. So, it is not correct to view God’s gift of the earth to humanity as that God has entrusted the earth to humanity as a whole for the sake of humanity as a whole – that was a “gift”, not “stewardship”. His gift of the earth to humanity was a gift of the whole, but with respect to each individual, he is entrusted with some goods for the sake of certain others, who are also in the general class “humanity”. It is a confusion to speak of the WHOLE of mankind as being stewards of creation: I am stewards of some goods for certain people. You are steward of other goods for the sake of other people. I am not the steward of the whole earth, and neither are you.

Also, normally we are not stewards of specific goods on behalf of the WHOLE of humanity, but of specific individuals and subsets: our spouse, our family, our boss or customers, our students. The goods committed to us qua stewards are directed to the benefit of SOME people.

However, some of the goods put into our hands are directed there for OUR OWN benefit. This is “dominion” simply speaking: if I prefer my bread toasted darker than my family, then when I toast for myself I disregard my family’s “good” (i.e. their preferences) and decide the use of the property for myself. This is not an example of stewardship, except in a secondary sense: by taking care of myself, I also prepare to be able to take care of others later. But others can hardly be bettered or harmed by my choice to toast lighter or darker: so, this is not “stewardship” in any significant sense.

Naturally, in taking good care of property for others a man must know how that property will benefit others. So he has to know how it stands as “good” to them. This implies, then, that he is capable of perceiving (and acting for) the good that the property will have for them. What is not necessary, for the steward qua steward, is that he “appreciate” the good itself, as his own enjoyment. The excellent butler (one who has care of the butts) has to know good wine from bad, and which wines go with pheasant and which with roast beef. He must comprehend the goodness of the different wines. It is not, qua steward, that he is to be one who partakes of the wines to enjoy them himself for his own sake. So, it simply is not true that in stewardship we exercise “joyfui appreciation for the God-given beauty and wonder of nature”. That’s for the beneficiary. Or, for us when we exercise due and proper dominion outright, which is not stewardship.

Hence, the sense in which we are stewards of this earth is derivative from the sense in which God gave the earth to us for our dominion. The stewardship depends first upon the ownership.

Comments (12)

"Hence, the sense in which we are stewards of this earth is derivative from the sense in which God gave the earth to us for our dominion. The stewardship depends first upon the ownership."

And the ownership depends upon the fact that Creation is a gift. Gifts that are intended for use should be used. But no gift-giver appreciates seeing his gift abused.

I think that "stewardship" is primarily a bad semantic choice for the idea that there is a middle way between non-use and bad use. If stewardship doesn't exactly mean "caretaking" or some such, dominion certainly doesn't mean tyrannical rule. That Earth First! is frightfully wrongheaded doesn't imply that Francis Bacon and his contemporary followers are any less so.

And the ownership depends upon the fact that Creation is a gift. Gifts that are intended for use should be used. But no gift-giver appreciates seeing his gift abused.

I completely agree. God's gift is not of the sort "feel free to do whatever you like with it". He can't give that way. He is not just a giver of gifts, he is also, at the same time, the originator of our natures and our being, and is also the end and summit of our objectives, our final purpose in life. Because of that, everything he gives to us as gift must necessarily come with implied strings attached: "use this in certain ways". We must use everything in ways that FIT with our natures, which are rational as well as animal, social as well as personal. There is a coherency to our natures, a coherent hierarchy of what is good for us, which necessarily means that there is a structure to what is good for us to do with what has been given to us.

As a result, our misusing God's earthly gifts to us is not merely the sin of ingratitude, (which is what is true when we misuse a gift from another human), because of our being oriented to God as a moral compass point: we are not oriented toward "satisfy your friend's wishes" with our whole being the way we are oriented toward "do as God intends" with our whole being. So, when God gives us gifts, we are morally obligated to use them in certain ways.

I think that "stewardship" is primarily a bad semantic choice for the idea that there is a middle way between non-use and bad use.

Thank you, I think this is a very worthwhile point, an excellent clarification about what's going on. They are indeed trying to express that middle way, they just didn't latch on to the right model. Stewardship is involved, but it's not the whole story.

Another way of trying to explain this, which I read in a book this month, is to say that God is the only true owner of the world and everything in it, and he only loans parts of it to us for our use. So we are only granted such use as God has loaned out the goods for. I believe this is another very mistaken explanation, or at the very least it is extremely unfortunate semantics. It is true that God remains absolutely sovereign over all creation, but this does not lead to the conclusion that only God owns things and he merely loans them to us for our temporary use. For one thing, this makes hash of God's declaration in Genesis "have dominion over..."

More importantly, I think that it involves a really basic metaphysical flaw. God is indeed the ultimate sovereign; for anything to exist, it is necessary that God sustain it in existence. And for anything to act, it is necessary for God to grant and sustain its power to act. But these do not imply that God's is the only kind of sovereignty. He grants to creatures a creaturely sort of sovereignty that is real though subject to His.

The most obvious example of this is His delegation of authority to men to rule society. The authority that men wield is real authority, not a pretense. Subjects are truly morally bound to obey their human governors. It is not a pretense of authority where we are only obligated to obey the governor when God comes along afterwards and confirms by saying "yes, I do want you to obey that". (As in the pretense of authority when the king makes his 5-year old son "king-for-a-day" on his birthday, asking everyone to "go along with it".)

Even more fundamental, I think, is the fact that although God is needed behind the order of secondary causes to sustain their causality, giving them "to cause", it is not therefore true that "secondary causes do not really cause". This theory, 'occasionalism', is a fallacy. It is just as important, really, as the refusal to agree with Parmenides, and with the pantheists, that "there is only The One Being, all that is is The One, there could never be anything except The One". For one thing, it is necessary to grant to secondary causes their own modality of causing to be real, for otherwise you run into the absurd conclusion that God directly causes sins, and that he directly wills them. God really does give to secondary causes "to cause", and thus they are real causes, not mere appearances.

So, as God grants to us our (creaturely, secondary) sort of causality, and grants to human authorities their delegated authority, both of which are REAL even though they are not ultimate, so also he grants to us real dominion over the earth and its goods. And, just as it is metaphysically impossible that he grant moral beings secondary causality without the moral string attached that says "but do what I intend with it", and it is impossible that he delegate authority without the string attached that says "but do with it what I intend for delegated authority", so also it is impossible for God to give us the gift of goods in the earth without the strings attached that say "but do with them the things that fit with your social nature". Hence we have social obligations with regard to our use of goods, because of our relationship to God who makes the gift of those goods.

And, just as God really does allow us the room to morally err with our free will in whether to obey him and whether to adhere to him as our final end, so also he really does allow us the room to err in the exercise of dominion; not that it is "our right" to misuse the goods of the earth, any more than it is "our right" to misuse our free will, but that it is our gift to freely chose to abide by the terms of his grant by using it as He intended. This is his grant of (delegated) dominion.

"As a result, our misusing God's earthly gifts to us is not merely the sin of ingratitude"

True, although ingratitude seems to be part and parcel of that misuse, and therefore a generally present signal of it. What was it Dostoevsky said about a good definition of man being "a creature that goes about on two legs and is ungrateful"?

~~so also he really does allow us the room to err in the exercise of dominion; not that it is "our right" to misuse the goods of the earth, any more than it is "our right" to misuse our free will, but that it is our gift to freely chose to abide by the terms of his grant by using it as He intended. This is his grant of (delegated) dominion.~~

Yes. The environmental "left" errs in its idea that all human use of nature is suspect, given our tendency for misuse, while the "right" errs in that it often blurs the line between proper use and abuse. The writers on the subject that I most appreciate are those who see both extremes and strive to avoid them. I'd put Laudato Si in that category -- on the whole I liked it very much, despite the odd quibble here and there.


Very helpful analysis,Tony, and insightful comment that lefties don't want to acknowledge (nowadays) that stewardship is for the benefit of other humans. This is, I believe, somethng of a shift in the rhetoric of left-leaning environmentalists. I'm pretty sure that in the 60s they still talked as if the point of environmentalism were human well-being, and they still do talk this way when raising money. When the Sierra Club boys come to your house to ask for donations, you'd never think "speciesism" were even a concept that had entered their heads! It's all supposedly about "clean air and water" for *us* to enjoy, as though without the Sierra Club's noble efforts our country would descend into a hellhole of blasted heaths and poisoned water sources.

As far as Catholic fuzzy talk of "stewardship," I'll just make the unoriginal comment that this seems to result from a loss of the rigor in analysis that is a hallmark of the work of someone like St. Thomas in an older Catholic tradition. Obfuscation and vagueness are now valued instead.

Nice, I like a lot of what I read in Laudato Si, what he says in it is a welcome correction to the materialist mentality, that the only value there is to earthly things is our consumption of them. Still, I cannot recall a single instance in which the Pope chooses to be clear, or even point in the direction of, our use of the earth as being for our own good as proper to our (limited, delegated) dominion.

Pope Francis has a habit of being obscure or ambiguous. It is almost certainly in some sense intentional: though he also admits to being careless, one doubts that it can be carelessness when he never succumbs to precision or clarity on certain points. It is of course impossible to say exactly why he doesn't say anything about it - it is hard to nail down not saying something. One can wonder all day long, and speculate, but it is usually wiser not to speculate out loud. So I won't.

NM, you may be interested in the book I mentioned, which is "Property", by Wolfgang Grassl. It is by no means perfect, but on the whole he gets more right than wrong. The kindle version is fairly cheap - I think $3. He very laudably makes an honest and decent stab at melding the two streams of the Church's teaching on property, which includes an early heavy emphasis on the "common" origin of goods, and then for the more recent period a more concerted emphasis on the natural origin of property. He needs more work, but I think he is mostly right that in the final analysis we have to say that private property stems from the natural law but that natural law also provides important limits to it, what he calls the "mortgage" on property for social claims.

Thanks, Tony. I'll take a look at Grassl. My thoughts on these matters have been largely shaped by the agrarians (the Burkean variety, not the radical environmentalist sort), the distributists, and a few recent Catholic writers like Christopher Franks and Wm. Cavanaugh. Roger Scruton's recent writing on these issues has been very good as well.

Several Catholic friends of mine, none either a knee-jerk Francis supporter or detractor, have described Laudato Si as more of a prophetic or pastoral document than a doctrinal one, even while granting his penchant for ambiguity. They tended to view the encyclical as diagnostic rather than prescriptive, so to speak.

Re: the word 'stewardship.' I wonder if its overuse is partly due to the lack of another word that handily fits the bill?

Fyi, Amazon currently has Grassl hard copy for $6.00. The fact that it's from Acton makes me suspicious (same as it would if it were from Orbis) but I'll still give it a look-see.

Several Catholic friends of mine, none either a knee-jerk Francis supporter or detractor, have described Laudato Si as more of a prophetic or pastoral document than a doctrinal one, even while granting his penchant for ambiguity. They tended to view the encyclical as diagnostic rather than prescriptive, so to speak.

Maybe it was intended that way, more as prophetic or pastoral than doctrinal. In my opinion, though, a pastoral encyclical makes sense when the doctrine is clear enough and doesn't need much in the way of further explanation. In this case, the doctrine certainly does need further explanation. Trying to give pastoral in that situation without attempting to clarify just about guarantees getting the actual practices wrong in many cases, because people will attempt to follow the "direction" and fail because it is too ambiguous. Amoris Laetitia is a perfect example of the same thing: different bishops, trying to interpret it and be guided by it, are veering off in completely opposite directions. It is not sufficient, for example, to merely say "love one another" all the time: St. John said that, but he did so in a context in which Peter and Paul had already suffused the Christian communities with their epistles which are much more particular.

The fact that it's from Acton makes me suspicious (same as it would if it were from Orbis)

Given that the book is from Acton, I was a bit surprised when I actually read it. It does not read like something you would expect from e.g. the pen of Michael Novak. It is far more respectful of the "property is for the good of all" side of Church teaching than one might assume.

I've ordered it, so that's good to know.

If I may recommend a book in return (another small but valuable one, actually), have a look at William Cavanaugh's Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire. He looks at modern economics through an Augustinian lens and ascribes many of its problems to an incorrect, non-Christian understanding of human desire. Quite thought-provoking.

Well, I went ahead and bought the Cavanaugh book. Looks interesting to me.

He looks at modern economics through an Augustinian lens and ascribes many of its problems to an incorrect, non-Christian understanding of human desire.

It seems common parlance that Adam Smith and the "classical" economists explicitly deny any proper limits on human desire. I think that some of the later ones say that, ( indeed, it might be more the neo-classisists) but to me it sounds foreign to Smith, and is foreign to "The Theory of Moral Sentiments". Certainly all of the Popes of Catholic Social Doctrine, starting with Leo XIII, reject that view.

All the same, I tend to view with concern economists and philosophers whose POV seems to be that the excesses of desire found in today's world can be stated merely from the fact great absolute wealth. Or from other facts that, to me, demand further questions such as "compared to what" and "with what end".

I recall that Cavanaugh discusses Smith but I'd have to look at the book again to remember exactly what he says.

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