Saturday, January 4, 2014

Catholics and Wealth

“How do people get rich?”

It was an innocent enough question coming from a young boy overhearing the conversation I was having with his grandfather.  We’d talked about the Fed, banks, quantitative easing, cronyism and more.  The boy was naturally curious.

What happened next is what prompts this post.

His grandfather challenged in a surprisingly emphatic, nearly accusatory tone of voice: “What does Jesus say about the rich?”

I nervously polled my own memory and recalled His teaching about the camel passing through the eye of the needle.  Then there was the parable of Dives and Lazarus.

The uneasiness welled up inside of me.  Whatever the answer my friend was looking for, his intention was to preempt his grandson’s curiosity before it led him astray.  A teachable moment was about to be extinguished in the name of the Lord.

“Jesus said that it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven” came the answer.  The boy hung his head and nodded in assent.  It hadn’t been a question worth asking.

But, it had been.  It also deserved a better answer than the question he received in reply.

A camel cannot pass through the eye of a needle.  Jesus couldn’t have meant that no wealthy person can enter the gates of heaven, however, or wealthy kings and queens would not be canonized saints.   Yet, many are.  I’ve heard that the “eye of a needle” was a forbidding rock passage or gateway on the road to Jerusalem.  It might have been challenging, but camels must have gotten through, perhaps by resetting their packs.

There are a million ways to answer the original question.  Why pick the one that kills a boy’s intellectual curiosity?  Why saddle him with prejudices against making, using, having, accumulating, enjoying and profitably deploying money?  Especially, why do it in Jesus’ name, the author of all creation including wealth?

It was even more unfortunate in this specific instance because the boy is one of several children in a big, loving, Catholic family.  They’re going to need lots of money to survive, and he’ll see his parents spend themselves toiling to earn it.  Moreover, if the Catholic lesson takes root about big families corresponding to generous hearts and personal happiness, he’s going to need lots of it to protect his family and raise his own children.

What is there to do if it’s wrong to have wealth?  Must he always be dependent upon others who know the answer to his question, whose girths are supposedly too broad to enter heaven but not too broad to provide him with work and sustenance?  Are the laborers standing idle in the marketplace never to aspire to being householders with vineyards of their own to tend with hired help?

We might have answered this boy with a brief primer on the marvels of compound interest.  There is, after all, a technical answer to his question.  We might have sung the glories of entrepreneurship, and regaled him with tales of Steve Jobs.  That might have inspired him to a particular type of greatness.  We might have preached the efficacy of deferred consumption and prudent investment.  That might have caused him to open a mutual-fund account for his retirement.  We might have preached the virtue of industry and value of hard work.  That would have edified him and inoculated him against fatalism.  We might have taught about the grace of God, lady luck’s attraction to effort and the benefits of perseverance.  That might have placed his enquiry in context.

We could have followed that up with an exhortation to fulfill the duties incumbent upon those who prosper.  “To whom much is given, much will be required; to whom much has been committed, more will be asked.”

Instead, my friend preempted all that with an imagination-dowsing splash from Jesus the wet blanket.

This boy learned that Jesus doesn’t want him to be rich and doesn’t want him to know these things, or even ask about them.  And he learned it from someone he loves very much, and who loves him even more, grandpa. 

It’s not the particulars of this incident that compels me to write about it.  My friend is a wonderful man who’s been able to keep his big family together and in the faith long after the children have grown, married and spawned big families of their own.  He might simply have been underscoring a primordial truth to a grandson, that love is more powerful than money.  Alternatively, he might have known that this boy needed this lesson.  I don’t know his grandson’s predilections, inclinations, dispositions and history; he does. 

Rather, I fear something general was at work: that this vignette plays itself out all too frequently in the Catholic world.  It’s indicative of Catholic attitudes regarding money, business, markets and the economy.  It speaks to Catholic feelings of guilt over having something that others don’t, or even over not feeling guilty that they don’t.

So many ills, so much suffering could be ameliorated with more widely produced and broadly disseminated wealth.  How do people get rich?

What if the boy had asked why men marry women?  Would it have been appropriate or beneficial to challenge, “What does Jesus say about women,” and answer “If you look at them with lust, you’ve already committed adultery”?   Then he’d learn that it’s better to pluck his eyes out than to ask that question again.

Lust is a sin.  It would be a travesty to learn it at the expense of marriage and family, however.  Greed is also a sin, though one need not learn it at the expense of prosperity.

Not every desire for a woman is lustful.  Similarly, not every desire to excel or serve the real needs of people—both very helpful inclinations for producing wealth and growing in excellence, even holiness—is greedy.  In fact, if they’re honest motives for economic activity, they’re not indicative of greed at all. 

Wealth can serve human dignity and the common good.  Why raise children to think there is something intrinsically wrong with it?  More broadly, why foment prejudices against it in a Church of a billion people who all need to eat, bathe, clothe, weather the elements and fruitfully occupy themselves?   Why fill people with guilt over it?

Is it because too many people suffer from a lack of material wealth?  Surely, the solution to that problem is not to increase their numbers.

Is it because riches can work against human dignity and the common good as well as in favor of them?  Is it because we can dam ourselves through excessive devotion to them?  Then, better to instruct our children in how to avoid those pitfalls, e.g., service, almsgiving, mortification and broader senses of purpose and responsibility.

The difference between a beneficial or harmful possession of wealth is the quality of a human heart (not the size of one’s bank account), which will never improve as long as it is attached to mammon rather than God.  To renounce allegiance to mammon, however, is not to obviate the need for it.  We all have to pay our bills and keep the wolves from our doors.  Mammon is useful for that.  It is one device through which God answers our prayers.

Sanctity and wealth are simultaneously available to those who pursue them in that order, and seek the latter for the sake of the former.  You don’t have to be poor to love the Lord with your entire heart, soul, mind and being or to love your neighbor as yourself.  Neither is poverty a guarantor of holiness.  

Rather, all believers are called to live a spirit of poverty and detachment from things whether they have money or not.  Professional excellence, generosity and a spirit of service are all in accord with Catholic faith; sneering at the rich is not.

Christian believers know that it’s foolish to place one's faith in burgeoning silos.  There is nothing permanent in this life.  That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t fill our silos, however.  They come in handy for God’s purposes--when there are seven years of famine, for instance.

In order to live by Jesus' teachings, we need not poison our children’s intellectual curiosity or mentally obstruct their access to wealth that is generally available in our American system of political economy.   I more readily envision him admonishing us to apply our talents with hard work, prudent risk-taking, deferred gratification, and self-sacrifice; to overcome our fears and set out into the deep with eyes fixed on Him and apostolic hearts set on bringing many people along with us.  In America, we might even get rich doing so, thank God.


  1. One of your best posts. When you think about it, what are the alternatives to striving for excellence? If we don't use our talents and gifts, isn't that just as bad as using them for the wrong ends?

  2. I see your point. But, letting ground lie fallow is not the same as poisoning it; leaving a house abandoned is not the same as demolishing it. Similarly, being lazy and being actively pernicious are not the same thing.

    Not using your talents and gifts is a waste that Christ admonishes against. It's thus best not to let them languish. Excellence is a word from our Hellenic inheritance. I often imply that the ideas are interchangeable. Both signify that fruition is not possible without it. But, Christ's warnings carry a supernatural import that hellenic philosophy doesn't.