Wealth and Giving It Away

American Christians are said to be at ease in our secular consumer culture. But didn’t Christ talk about giving away one’s worldly goods and living as the lilies of the field, not pursuing wealth and luxury?

The New Testament isn’t a textbook in economics or politics. The New Testament is interested in the poor. But it is also interested in rich young men who are asked to give their wealth to the poor and to follow Christ. In this invitation, the emphasis is not so much on giving riches to help the poor but on the impediment riches can, but need not, become in our effort to follow Christ. Christ could just as well have asked a poor young man to give up what he had to follow Him with the same result.

Wealth is to be used for our families and our local purposes, but it also should be used for the stranger who is in need. In order to meet the needs of the poor, we need a society that can produce both material and spiritual wealth. How to do this must be learned. The reason the poor are poor is not because the rich are rich. The only way the poor can be helped on a massive scale is for them to learn from those who know how wealth is produced. Essentially, we want to establish all political societies as wealth-producing societies that can take care of themselves. We want most people, most of the time, to take care of themselves.

Chesterton remarked that Christianity is different from what Aristotle taught because it has realized that sometimes it is not the “mean” that counts but the extremes. Thus, in the case of the family, it says that there should be room in society for both monogamous marriages with good families and for those who have no families and no wealth. There has always been within Catholicism, at least, this notion that there is a difference between a “normal” life and the life of the religious vows. Moreover, it is dangerous to mix the two. In practice, St. Thomas Aquinas remarked, when we expect too much from ordinary people, “the majority of whom are not perfect,” we end up corrupting or discouraging them by giving them goals that seem hopeless to achieve. Following the counsels was a hard and difficult life, but it is one that the Lord wills for some in order to keep transcendence before us.

Some might ask, Why don’t we just distribute the world’s goods to the poor? This question implies that the poor are poor because of maldistribution. In general, if we took the wealth of the world and simply distributed it equally, we would undermine economic incentives and capital concentration. What would happen is that all would be poorer because the growth dynamism for all would be undermined. It is not the purpose of Christianity to make everyone abject. Rather, a Christian society assists everyone in producing and distributing sufficient wealth for legitimate human purposes.

That some will always be richer than others is not by itself a sign that anything is wrong with the world. Christ did not tell Joseph to close up his carpenter shop. He did take the apostles from the fishing business. Rich men, poor men, men in the middle, all had their places. All could save their souls. Each could be concerned with one another. Each could fail.

When Christ talked about the lilies of the field, He told us to see how they grow. He noted that the Heavenly Father took care of them as lilies, with the implication that He would take care of us as men, that is, after the fashion of men. The fashion of men is to learn to do things, to know what produces wealth and what does not, and to learn what is good for us and what is not. The corruption of our culture is not in its wealth but in some of its principles. Wealth challenges us to learn both how to moderate our desires and how to aid others. We as Christians are the kind of “materialists” who think matter matters. Surely this is one of the things the Incarnation was designed to emphasize.

 

This article originally appeared in the June 2002 issue of Crisis Magazine.

Rev. James V. Schall, S.J.

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Rev. James V. Schall, S.J., taught political science at Georgetown University for many years. His latest books include The Mind That Is Catholic from Catholic University of America Press; Remembering Belloc from St. Augustine Press; and Reasonable Pleasures from Ignatius Press.

  • Gian

    Why are rich people of the richest society ever afraid?. And why the discontent if the growth rate of the GDP languishes awhile?
    Isn’t a preoccupation with nonstop increase in material possessions a textbook definition of greed?
    And greed is certainly not good, contrary to Adam Smith.

  • Cord Hamrick

    Gian:

    I’m not rich, but I admit I’m afraid about the lack of growth in GDP.

    I don’t want GDP languishing because, in a recession, the poor are hurt the most. The rich always get by being a little less rich; but the poor can starve for lack of a job.

    And jobs only come from growing economies; specifically, from the people who’ve benefited most from that growth! (Nobody ever got hired to a lucrative job by a poor man.)

    You’re right that to become preoccupied with increasing one’s own material possessions is a sin.

    But to do one’s work diligently and skillfully enough that one’s fellow man rewards you well, and to put that to use improving the lot of your family and insuring future security for wife and children and grandchildren? That’s not only not sinful; it’s a moral obligation for most persons, if it’s within their power.

    And to make enough money that one can both provide some financial security for one’s family AND have money to give to the poor and to the church? That’s a very great blessing: It is, in fact, the very purpose for which God gives some people large incomes.

    So let’s all hope the economy improves so that we can all put our increased incomes to the purposes of God: Benefit for our families, our parishes, and the needy around us.

    Now I myself am intending to vote for the politicians who, in addition to being pro-life, are also in favor of policies which will reduce the centralization of government intrusion in the economy. Why do I vote this way? Because to do otherwise would be equivalent to stabbing poor people in the back.

    After all, the economy is currently hamstrung by government interference, high tax burdens, and a future regulatory-expenses environment which is so uncertain that businessmen can’t figure out whether hiring a new employee will cost them $100,000 over that employee’s salary, or $500,000. With such a wide swing in possible costs, and the knowledge that unexpectedly high costs for a hire will cause any prospective business expansion to fail, businessmen are (quite reasonably) opting not to hire. Thus jobs are not created; and thus the ranks of the jobless grow; and thus the poor are made ever poorer.

    Now it also happens to be true that, if the economy gets better, rich people have more income. If they are rich liberal/progressive leftists, they (on average) will give 2-3% of that income to charities. And if they are rich right-conservatives/libertarians, they (on average) will give 6-7% of that income to charities. Both percentages tend to be higher when income taxes are lower, too.

    So in addition to the poor benefiting from an improved economy through the mechanism of reduced joblessness and increased wages, they would also benefit from increased almsgiving from their more-prosperous neighbors.

    It is therefore an act of love towards the poor to hope (and vote) for policies which promote economic recovery. It is an exercise of what the Church calls the “preferential option for the poor.”

    The really sad thing we should all be complaining about is not the fact that the rich folk hope for a better economy. We should all hope for that, for the sake of the poor folk who suffer so much in bad economic times!

    No, the thing we should all be complaining about is the fact that not all otherwise committed Christians in America consider 10% of their pretax income to be a starting point for their annual giving to Church and charity. We should worry that Christians sometimes have iPhones and XBoxes, but feel they cannot afford to tithe.

    That is where our status as one of the wealthiest societies in the world serves as a rebuke to us. The Church, in her Catechism, does not make a 10% figure an obligatory minimum on all the faithful because the Catechism is directed equally to Americans and Somalians…and she would not lay any heavier burden on the third-world poor than their state of life already imposes. But that doesn’t mean we Americans, for whom this traditional Christian norm is much more easily within reach, have any excuse.

    Granted, conservatives in America come much closer to this standard than left-liberals do…but coming close to a standard isn’t the same as meeting-or-exceeding it.

    So let’s all chip in, for the maintenance of the parishes and for the provision to those in need through such organizations as St. Vincent De Paul. Whether we’re rich or poor, whether the economy picks up or not, whatever God blesses us with, we can put Him first by honoring Him with the firstfruits of His gifts to us.

  • Gian

    Are poor Americans in danger of starving?
    I am all for voting for less State interference but the concern for GDP growth still escapes me.
    For countries like China or India, GDP growth is vital for the sake of peace but I don’t think it so in US.
    Unemployment is a concern in US and it is a pity that US is so over-regulated that an unemployed man could not
    start a taxi or a food stand (as it is common in Third World).

    “improving the lot of your family and insuring future security for wife and children and grandchildren” is “it’s a moral obligation for most persons”

    I would just put “provide for family” rather than “improving the lot”. “Improving” could justify greed.

  • Kathleen

    I worked with Mozambicans prior to the Marxist/Leninist government in the mid-70’s. Anyone from a capitalist country was not wanted. The very people the missionaries supported in liberating the people from colonialism turned on them and confiscated Church properties.

    I thought alot about this over the years. The Italian missionaries really believed in the goodness of the poor, but they did not give them hand outs. My parish and theirs worked to get fund to buy them tractors and help create cooperatives.

    There is such a thing as a just wage. The common laborer needs sufficient wages to provide for one’s sense of autonomy. And although I am a woman, I do believe in the old capitalist system of paying stable, responsible men more –as a bonus– so they can have a family and provide for them so the mother can raise the children in faith and good morals, and not let the secular state do it.

    The other fair wage is just compensation. If a person takes great sacrifice to work through college to gain a professional degree that requires alot more skill and liability, then they deserve a higher wage that reflects all the effort…and loans they took out…to serve society.

    So you can’t have flat wages or else you destroy a person’s incentive to improve and reach higher.

    But there are classes of people who want to work, but live a very simple and even spiritual life, and this class of people can be best served by cooperatives.

    So I think society has to restructure itself, people maintain their own sense of choice and self-esteem, and have an integrated economic system that is part capitalist — that is supposed to create jobs and give people incentives to reach more and that which is cooperative…

  • http://printsofgrace.blogspot.com Trisha Niermeyer Potter @ Prints of Grace

    I agree that the corruption of culture is not in its wealth but in some of its principles, many of them actually. When the sanctity and dignity of each human life is not recognized, respected, and protected, then there will be a great disparity in wealth that does stem from greed, materialism, ignorance, and arrogance. The more people who accept that each person is made in God’s image and needs to be treated with that in mind, the more people who will open their eyes to their neighbors in need and stop being so self-centered. To promote the culture of life, includes ensuring fair wages for work, providing for the sick, the disabled, the elderly and those genuinely unable to work, and seeing that all of our money, resources, and materials belong to the Lord. If everything we have is God’s, then we will know the best way to use what He’s given us is to carry out His will, which He’s more than happy to convey when we’re ready to listen.

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