Distinguishing the Wealthy from the Worldly

Our Lord never despised the rich. Throughout his life, he moved among different classes of people with authority and ease. He converses with poor fishermen, but also with the scholars in the temple. He heals blind beggars, but also responds to the request of a centurion with a household full of servants. He was born among the poor, but at every turn his life is ornamented by the gifts of the virtuous rich, from the gold and frankincense of the Magi to the private tomb of Joseph of Arimathea.

When Christ addresses the rich directly, his words are not scornful, but cautionary. In the Sermon on the Mount he declares (Matthew 6:24) that we cannot serve both God and Mammon. In the Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13:22) he depicts riches as thorns that can choke the Word and make the plant unfruitful. He tells the rich young man (Mark 10:23) that it is hard for the rich to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven. Taken in context, this is not an indictment of wealth per se so much as a reminder that everyone, rich or poor, must turn to God for salvation. But the story also serves to warn us that material prosperity can breed overconfidence and a false sense of security.

Clearly, we must be wary of excessive attachment to material goods. This general principle, however, does not dictate a specific lifestyle, and we often find ourselves presented with hard choices when we try to discern what we really need, and what it is appropriate for us to want. We cannot serve God and money, but money can help us to serve God, and especially those whom God has put into our care. When does a legitimate effort to support one’s children bleed into materialistic over-indulgence? When does the genuine appreciation of excellence mutate into worldly attachment?

These questions can be particularly troubling for residents of wealthy Western countries, because we already have a love-hate relationship with our stuff. In part, this reflects the difficulty of sorting out questions of justice in a complex global economy. But it also reflects the way that we are constantly bombarded with messages concerning our material goods. On one side we find the commercial world urging us to feel deprived and inferior if we don’t have the right stuff. On the other, an army of politicians, preachers and private charities explains that we should feel very bad about all that stuff we have, and should atone for it by subsidizing other people’s stuff.

 

Over time, all of this trinket-dangling and envy-stoking and guilt-tripping can create quite a strain. One way or another, most of us do find a way to live with our stuff, but we also live with a load of stuff-related guilt which is easily exploited by politicians and hucksters and kids selling expensive cookies. Even our parents once contributed to this angst when they enjoined us to clean our plates “because children are starving in Africa,” leading to complicated moral reflections about whether we really are ingrates for not wanting that last greasy fish stick.

Is it possible to escape from the perpetual cycle of desire and regret? Unsurprisingly, a number of people have tried, and there are plenty of books on the market that promise to uncomplicate this moral quandary. One shelf belongs to the prosperity preachers, who assure us that God wants us to be wealthy and that we can glorify him precisely by getting that promotion and enjoying that mansion home. Who wouldn’t pay $13.99 (the list price of Your Best Life Now) for that kind of liberation? Randian libertarianism puts an appealing philosophical varnish on prosperity, explaining that we have a moral right to whatever we have contractually earned. Moving to the liberal end of the spectrum, Rawlsian arguments persuade many that statist redistribution is the blanket solution to inequality. Ironically, this offers wealthy liberals the opportunity to discharge their stuff-related guilt and anxiety simply by voting for the Democrats. Give your blessing to the tax man, and get back to shopping for whirlpool tubs and Mini Coopers.

All of these perspectives share a common flaw, which Catholics ought to recognize. All aim to relieve individuals of the responsibility to evaluate the appropriate place of material goods within their own lives. The truth is that there is no simple formula that can tell us whether we own too many things or too few. This question can only be answered within the context of an individual life, and it requires a realistic appraisal of the actual value of the goods involved.

St. Thomas Aquinas was characteristically pragmatic about material wealth. In his exploration of the sin of covetousness in the Summa Theologica, he points out that “good consists in a certain measure.” This is a reference to Aristotle’s advice to locate virtue as a mean between two opposing extremes, valuing material goods neither too much nor too little. A person will be virtuous when he seeks material goods as a means to a further end, only “in so far as they are necessary to him to live in keeping with his condition of life” (ST, question 118, article 1).

Readers may be inclined to object that this advice raises more questions than it answers. They will be right. St. Thomas’ Aristotelian reasoning forces us to consider what our “condition in life” really is and should be, and to evaluate our use of material goods in light of that understanding. These are hard questions, but they are the right hard questions. We should resist all efforts to take those salutary debates off the table, regardless of what political ends those justifications might serve. When we have mindfully considered how our lifestyle can best reflect the demands of virtue, we will be immune to the envious taunting of the less prosperous, but also to the spurious justifications of the profligate.

Where much is given, much is expected, and Americans as a people have been given much. For many in human history, it took considerable exertion just to survive and fulfill basic human obligations to family and community. For us, the choices are much more numerous. Mostly this is a blessing, but it also means that we are burdened with the task of discerning the best way of making use of the talents, resources and opportunities available to us. Living in a wealthy nation, we are frequently tempted to indulge in excess, and we ought to be mindful of this spiritual danger. It is also possible, however, to lose oneself in joyless self-flagellation, or to seize the anti-materialistic spirit in a selfish way, as when a person uses the danger of materialism as an excuse to pursue a personally fulfilling, but not lucrative, ambition at the expense of financial security for his family.

Ultimately we should endeavor to be Christlike in our ability to move among rich and poor without experiencing either envy or unwarranted shame. Being born into a prosperous nation is neither a misfortune nor a sin. It does, however, burden us with certain obligations of stewardship. As faithful Catholics and proud Americans, we should shoulder those burdens with dignity, and try to use our share of mammon as a means to serving God.

Rachel Lu

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Rachel Lu, a Catholic convert, teaches philosophy at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota where she lives with her husband and four boys. Dr. Lu earned her Ph.D. in philosophy at Cornell University. Follow her on Twitter at rclu.

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