Saturday, March 29, 2008

What's Really Wrong With Riches?

by Thomas Storck

Holy Scripture contains a number of striking denunciations or warnings regarding not only riches but directed at the rich themselves, for example, Proverbs 23:4, Micah 6:12a, Matthew 19:24, Luke 1:53b, I Timothy 6:8-10, James 5:1-3a. What are we to make of these? On their face, they certainly ought to make those who are rich quite uncomfortable. If a rich man hears that it is "easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God" (Matthew 19:24), and if he is really concerned about his eternal salvation, then he certainly might be moved to do something drastic in order to avoid damnation. But generally today we do not take these passages of Scripture too seriously, and we usually resort to various devices to explain them or perhaps explain them away. One common way is this: It's not the possession of riches that is in question here, but the use we make of riches, the extent to which riches control your life. Or, in other words, it's not how much wealth you possess, but how much your wealth possesses you. Considered in this way it is possible for a poor man to be more covetous than a rich man, for certainly a poor man can greedily desire riches and hoard the little that he has.

And I do not entirely disagree with this interpretation. It is true - up to a point. But I think that if we simply dismiss the biblical warnings about riches by saying to the rich, Don't worry, just be detached from your money, we do Scripture and our Lord himself, an injustice. For it seems to me that the point of these scriptural passages lies in the doctrine of near occasions of sin, and the evil and deceit that so easily flow from the human heart.

The doctrine of the near occasion of sin is not mentioned much today. Rarely do we hear how immodest female dress provides an occasion of sin to men or how prolonged company keeping is a danger to chastity. The easy association of the sexes in the work place has pretty much obliterated any sense that married people should maintain a certain reserve toward those persons of the opposite sex with whom they must associate on a frequent basis. Indeed, I am sure that I will be thought old-fashioned for mentioning this. But in addition to matters of chastity, on the subject of riches we have also forgotten this healthy doctrine of occasions of sin. This is because we have given the one-sided gloss on Scripture that I noted above.

The point, I think, of Jesus' warning, and those of his apostles and other inspired writers, is that for most men the possession of great wealth in itself constitutes a temptation they are likely to succumb to. It is fine to preach detachment from our wealth, but how many of the rich actually attain it? Just as it would be an occasion of sin to the average man to be around women in states of undress, so it is an occasion of sin to the average human being to possess great wealth. No, it is not in itself a sin to possess wealth; yes, it is possible to detach oneself from riches, but it is difficult, and, I would argue, morally almost impossible for most of us. How easy it is to rationalize those extra luxuries or that fat bank account and stock portfolio. How many of us even realize the common teaching of moral theologians - well before the 1960s - about the binding duty of our use of superfluous wealth? A little discussion on this will help us understand the question.

The traditional teaching of Catholic theologians was that a man's income could be divided into three parts. The first, what was known as "necessary," constituted what we need to obtain the food and shelter and other goods necessary to maintain life. The second was what we need to live up to the reasonable standards of our state in life. From this second class we must give some as alms. But the third, anything over and above what we reasonably need to maintain our state in life, was the truly superfluous. And of this third, we are actually more stewards and administrators of goods that belong to the poor than we are possessors of our own wealth. As Msgr. John A. Ryan, one of the greatest of American moral theologians wrote, "the entire mass of superfluous wealth is morally subject to the call of grave need" (Distributive Justice, chap. 18). And considering the many in the world today who are truly in such grave need, it would seem that their claims on our superfluous income are greater than any desire we might have to advance our welfare to a higher standard of material living.

To anticipate possible objections, I freely admit that in the second class of income noted above we obviously must include provision for the future, for possible loss, etc. Nor do I deny that often it is difficult to make this threefold division neatly and easily. But how easy it is to estimate these needs for more than they are in reality! I know it is true for myself, and I imagine that if I had great wealth, I could suddenly persuade myself that I needed most of it to protect my newfound position in society or to provide for unforeseen disasters. But if I am doing okay on my present income, how many of these newly discovered needs would really be legitimate? As St. Paul wrote, "if we have food and clothing, with these we shall be content" (I Timothy 6:8). Given the tendency of fallen humanity to self-deception, how many of us can say with complete assurance that he truly needs all the money he keeps? I know I cannot. Let us listen again to Msgr. Ryan.

The proposition that men are under moral obligation to give away the greater portion of their superfluous goods or income is, indeed, a "hard saying." Not improbably it will strike the majority of persons who read these pages as extreme and fantastic. No Catholic, however, who knows the traditional teaching of the Church on the right use of wealth, and who considers patiently and seriously the magnitude and the meaning of human distress, will be able to refute the proposition by reasoned arguments. Indeed, no one can logically deny it who admits that men are intrinsically sacred, and essentially equal by nature and in their claims to a reasonable livelihood from the common heritage of the earth.

But this applies all the more to someone who is in the process of increasing his income and wealth by huge amounts, for in that case it is hard to escape the conclusion that he is appropriating for himself what in fact belongs to others. Again, Msgr. Ryan:

Those who acquire a surplus over their present absolute and conventional needs, generally devote it to an expansion of social position. They move into larger and more expensive houses, thereby increasing their assumed requirements, not merely in the matter of housing, but as regards food, clothing, amusements, and the conventions of the social group with which they become affiliated. In this way the surplus which ought to have been distributed is all absorbed in the acquisition and maintenance of more expensive standards.

But how often do we read or hear of Catholics who rise in the world, as the saying goes, whose income increases by fantastic amounts on Wall Street or in the practice of law or otherwise? Is there no application to them in these traditional but difficult moral doctrines?

We Catholics are sometimes exhorted to live in a counter-cultural manner, for example, to reject the standards of the world about divorce, the number of children we have, and so on. And this is correct. But I would maintain that in this matter of wealth we have something even more counter-cultural than in the matter of chastity, for generally American society looks upon an ever-increasing standard of living as somehow our birthright. But how different was the conception of St. Paul.

If we have food and clothing, with these we shall be content.

But those who desire to be rich fall in temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and hurtful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all evils; it is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced their hearts with many pangs.(I Tim. 6:8-10)

Moreover, there is another aspect to this queston of riches that I want to bring up. For just as there are rich persons in nearly every society, so among the various nations of the earth, there are rich societies. I would not be accounted rich in the United States, but in comparison with many, doubtless most, of my fellow humans, I could rightly be considered rich. And if this is so, does this create any duty of pondering the question of whether my riches have become a near occasion of sin to me and of any obligations I might have regarding surplus income? Do most Americans - and western Europeans too - not just those accounted rich, need to look carefully at the use we make of wealth? Of course it is true that the cost of living is higher here than in many countries, and our unnatural and complex way of life necessitates many expenses that, for all practical purposes, we cannot avoid. I acknowledge this, but I still raise the question: Do the scriptural warnings about riches apply only to isolated individuals who are more wealthy than their immediate neighbors or do they also apply to those who inhabit a rich society, who use so much more of the world's resources than seems their fair share? Does our national fascination with big cars and big houses raise any moral questions? Should the fact that most of our petroleum use is for our vehicles be a concern to those who claim to be followers of Jesus Christ? Ought we to ask ourselves: Suppose we stopped consuming anything, except for necessary items such as food or soap, for an entire month or even longer - would we honestly suffer any true hardship? How often do we throw away items, such as clothes, just because we are tired of them? Are such questions irrelevant to those who call themselves Christians? And as a collective society, are the new malls or the new roads we seem to be always building entirely necessary to our well-being? If we really set our "minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth" (Colossians 3:2), could we somehow manage to live, both individually and collectively, without so many gadgets, so many new clothes, so much luxury? Do we remember the words of John Paul II, that in order to help the poor of the world, rich countries may have to make "important changes in established lifestyles, in order to limit the waste of environmental and human resources, thus enabling every individual and all the peoples of the earth to have a sufficient share of those resources" (Centesimus Annus, no. 52)?

Although an individual can easily decide to use his income or wealth according to the mind of the Church, it is not so easy in the case of national wealth or national income. If a rich country collectively has more wealth than is reasonably necessary for it, who is to make the decision to make "important changes in [its] established lifestyles"? Who has that kind of moral authority? This is a hard question to answer and probably differs from country to country. But one thing I am certain of: That our bishops need to begin to address themselves to this question, to instill in priests and seminarians some consciousness of the right use of riches, to begin to diffuse such knowledge among the Catholic people as a whole. For if we, who have the fullness of Christ's teaching available to us, do not recognize the demands of the situation, we can hardly expect others to do so. So as in many other cases, our efforts must begin with education, with forming of consciences, with a simple awareness that St. Paul's teaching on riches deserves our attention even today.

For most Catholics of this time and place, questions of our use of wealth, either personal or societal, do not figure much in our moral calculations. But if we are to be faithful to the teaching of the Church, to the witness of the Fathers and the medieval scholastics, to the agreement of solid theologians of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, this question of riches must loom larger in our self-examination that I fear it has hitherto done. For it is not a light question. Morality is more than chastity, and the capacity of riches to deceive is a sign of man's fallen nature just as powerful as lust or anger. If we want to embrace the whole Gospel, even if we want to save our souls, we cannot ignore questions of the use and possession of riches. Again, as John Paul wrote,

It is not wrong to want to live better; what is wrong is a style of life which is presumed to be better when it is directed toward "having" rather than "being," which wants to have more, not in order to be more but in order to spend life in enjoyment as an end in itself.(Centesimus Annus, no. 36.)

Originally published on Traditional Catholic Reflections and Reports, October 2005

©Thomas Storck
Thomas Storck writes from Maryland.

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