Using the world as not using it fully

I tell you, brothers and sisters, the time is running out.
From now on, let those having wives act as not having them, those weeping as not weeping, those rejoicing as not rejoicing, those buying as not owning, those using the world as not using it fully. For the world in its present form is passing away.

I Cor 7:29-31

Trust law is, quite frankly, a specialty I fell into by accident of several less-than-intentional twists in my career. But perhaps there was a higher intention to that happenstance, for I’ve found that understanding trusts provides an excellent model for us as Christians to balance our responsibilities to God and our fellow man. It can help solve the paradox discussed in the Poetic Pedagogue’s last post of bringing the radical surrender of the desert into the domestic life. It can help us put our roles and duties as parents into perspective so that we neither neglect our children nor objectify them as our creation. It can teach us how to be in the world but not of it.

A trust begins with a creator, a grantor. He decides what will be gifted to the trust. He decides who will be the beneficiaries of the trust. He decides the goals and limitations of the trust. He decides who will be the trustee of the trust, and how much latitude or specific direction to give the trustee. In some types of trusts, he can amend or revoke the trust or change the trustee. He can add or substitute assets of the trust after its initial creation.

God’s role as grantor in each of our lives is obvious, at least if we believe His Word. He makes each and every person the trustee of some of His gifts, each with unique talents and opportunities entrusted to him or her, each commissioned, through a particular vocation, to benefit other persons and all of creation. That humankind is uniquely entrusted in this way has been clearly communicated by God to us “from the beginning” in Genesis 1 and throughout Scripture.

The interesting thing about trust law is that trustees have most “incidents of ownership” but they are answerable to a judge for using that “ownership” according to the purposes laid out by the grantor and on behalf of the beneficiaries. To everyone else, the trustee is indeed the owner. She can buy and sell assets, distribute them to beneficiaries or to others on their behalf, and make productive use of property. A person buying a property from a trust buys it from the trustee for all intents and purposes, and has no obligation to ask if the trustee’s decision to sell the property on those terms is in the best interest of the beneficiaries, or who the beneficiaries are.

Though a trustee appears to everyone else to be the owner of the trust assets, in a very real sense those same assets do not belong to the trustee at all. She is not to use them for her personal benefit, but solely for the benefit of the beneficiaries of the trust, for the purposes defined by the trust. This is referred to as the duty of loyalty, and it is ultimately a loyalty to the grantor who created the trust to care for family and loved ones. The trustee also has a duty of prudence, to make decisions that are reasonable after diligently researching and analyzing the circumstances. Together, the duties of loyalty and prudence are referred to as fiduciary duties.

Interestingly, some grantors make the same person both trustee and primary beneficiary. What is the point of the trust then? Why not just make a gift to the person, no strings or responsibility of being a trustee attached? Typically this is done to preserve some of the assets for future generations and protect against hostile creditors taking the assets of the trust so they’re no longer available to other present and future intended beneficiaries. But a judge will not recognize a trust as protection against creditors unless a trustee who can distribute assets to herself as a beneficiary is limited by an “ascertainable standard.” In other words, she must be following the instructions for her own allowance given by the grantor. The standard most often given in trusts, at least under U.S. law, is “health, education, maintenance, and support,” sometimes adding words such as “according to the manner of living to which they have been accustomed.”

In an eschatological register, this is what the Church calls the “universal destination of goods.” God invites us to use His gifts for our own benefit to the extent needed to maintain our health, educate and develop our own capacities, take care of our basic necessities, and maintain dignity and do what is “reasonably required to keep up becomingly one’s condition in life,” as Rerum Novarum puts it. Beyond that, we have an obligation to preserve and grow the gifts we’ve been given for the benefit of others.

This also explains how the Church can both affirm the right to property and the obligation of just distribution of goods in one breath. A trustee has every right to prosecute her property rights against wrongful takers and to make productive use of property as she sees fit. And yet she is answerable to a judge if in that exercise she transgresses loyalty or prudence. It is an obligation of justice to both recognize other people’s property rights and to use our own property for the benefit of others. The latter is not charity, it is indeed justice, so a just legal structure sees to it that those who have inadequate resources entrusted to them for their personal needs are assisted by those who have more entrusted than they need for their own. And whether or not any earthly authority judges wasteful use of God’s gifts, the perfectly righteous Judge surely does.

The trust analogy provides much-needed perspective to parenting too. Parents have “rights” to their children as against third parties who would coerce them to be educated in a certain place or manner, undergo unwanted medical procedures, or take away a parent’s custody of their child. But even less than economic goods or personal talents, our children do not “belong” to us, for no person can rightfully possess another. They are entrusted to our care to benefit from our love and the education and resources we can give them so that they in turn can become trustees of their own vocation. Between us and our children, we have responsibilities and our children have the rights.

When God entrusts children to us, we are obligated to make them primary beneficiaries of the goods He has given us, to the extent these goods are needed for their health, education, and support. But many parents are not gifted with adequate resources to provide these things for their children themselves, so again, they are rightful beneficiaries of other people’s trusts, and there is no shame for their natural parents in receiving assistance justly due to them and their children. The gift of a child in and of herself is a beautiful and infinitely valuable gift entrusted to her parents, not guaranteed to come with the gift of material resources, nor contingent in value upon them.

Realizing all this can help us let go of prideful concern about whether we are capable of giving our children what they need without assistance from others, or whether we have raised the child with the best grades or athletic skills or even the most pious behaviors. Our duty as trustees of our children is to benefit the world with another person who can be trustee of her own talents, in whatever measure God has granted. This cannot happen if we try to mold our children in the shape of the trust we would like to write for them, instead of giving them the freedom and the nurturing to discover the terms of the trust the Creator has written for them.

As beneficiaries and trustees in training, our children also have the right to advocate for their own needs from their parents and others. This is not a right that magically appears on their 18th birthday, but an inherent human right present from conception that gradually unfolds in the child’s capacity to discern and articulate these needs. Sometimes that even means appealing to a judge to override the decision of a parent. Contested questions of education and custody should always be about discerning a child’s needs, not a parent’s “rights,” recognizing the parent is the presumptive guardian of those needs, but may be overruled or replaced as trustee of the child if they fail in faithfully carrying out their parental duties.

So what does this all have to do with the call to live by radical dependence on God even in the rhythms of the home, or the Epistle reading quoted at the beginning of this reflection? It is to realize that the corpus of good that God entrusts to us is pure gift, something we cannot claim by right but that we have responsibility to steward for the destiny of all, which is the communion of love in the Body of Christ. This is not escapism from this world, but a full embrace of our responsibilities within it.

When St Paul tells us to live as if we do not have a spouse or possessions, he does not mean we should renounce the goods God has given us, for that would be abdication of our fiduciary duties to their intended beneficiaries, whether that be our children or our immediate neighbor or remote persons in need. He means we should not act as if we have any rights to these goods.

If God has given us the goods of a spouse and children, we must not abandon those goods, or the material means we have been given to be good trustees of their development. We must not give our children’s bread to the dogs until after our children are adequately fed. And yet, sometimes God gives us dependent family members without giving these material means, which becomes an opportunity to receive the gifts of others in humility and gratitude. Material poverty combined with parenthood is a severe mercy given to some, and a call to others to not over-indulge themselves or their own offspring so that they can share more with those in need.

Our society so often shames parents who need assistance, as if that is a failure on their part, or even suggests they shouldn’t be parents at all. Though certainly there are some who are poor because of squandering their inheritance from God, even for these He always waits with desire to welcome them home at any time, without condition. And it is an evil lie and sin against justice to presume that parents in need are at fault for this. God unevenly distributes His gifts to teach us to give and receive, to step outside our own desire to possess and dominate, and instead to enter into fruitful cooperation and communion with each other. Poor parents have doubly blessed the world by giving of all they have out of their poverty, and they are doubling deserving to be beneficiaries of the excess of others.

All this is radically countercultural, even though it is quite logical if we start from the presumption that everything good we have is a gift from God, and our vocation as humans is to participate in God’s generous acts of creation and providence. If we are to call ourselves true believers in the Word, we must always strive to act as faithful trustees, rejecting the temptation to act as if anything or anyone is our private possession. Let us be a sign of contradiction for our neighbors in how we deal with the goods God has entrusted to us.