Dear Fr. Donagh

I would like your advice on a question that has been percolating in my mind. I realize that you are extremely busy, so I understand if it takes some time to get around to my question. Basically the question is this. Is wealth something to be avoided as followers of Christ?

A friend said to me recently that nowhere in the Bible does it say that wealth is wrong. I remember passages by John the Baptist where he seems to denounce a wealthy lifestyle, and I know the passage about the eye of the needle, and it being easier for a wealthy man to get to heaven than pass through the eye. Then there is the passage about the rich young man who cannot leave his riches to follow Jesus and turns away sad. 

On the other side of the coin, (pardon the pun) are the evangelical preachers who seem to think that wealth is a virtue, more commonly known as the prosperity gospel.

When I was in Medugorje the franciscans were very adamant that having large amounts of money in savings was wrong as it showed a lack of trust in God's providence and it also negatively affected one's prayer life. The common sense way that I would answer this question would be to say that it is a matter of balance. It is ok to have some savings but not excessive amounts. But where does one draw the line. I don't ever remember Jesus talking about the 'middle way', but I know that in the old testament it says do not be too wise lest you harm yourself. I think the Franciscans point was that money stored in banks as savings would be better used if they were shared with the poor of the world.

Your thoughts would be much appreciated. Or if you prefer you could refer me to somewhere else where I could read more about the subject of wealth and property, and the christian approach.

Yours Gratefully, Mark

Dear Mark,

We often hear that “money is the source of all evil.”  If that were literally true, then it would be a very wicked thing to give any of it away!  It would be like giving poisoned sweets to a child.  No, it’s not money that is the problem; it’s us!  It’s human greed. 

Greed for money is just like any other form of greed: it’s the exaggeration of a natural appetite.  We need food to live, and there’s nothing wrong with eating.  For Jesus, food is the medium of all the deepest things: the kingdom of God, he said, is like a banquet; and the Eucharist is a meal.  He multiplied loaves as a symbol of the abundance of God's gift.  But greed is when we consume more than we need and more than the world can afford to give us.  Greed for money is like this, but it is different in one important respect: it is abstract.  Our stomachs tell us when we have had enough to eat, but we have no internal organ that tells us when we have enough money: people addicted to it just keep on collecting more and more of it – more than they need, and more than the world can afford to give them. 

Wealth is not an absolute right.  A starving person is entitled to steal.  This is the teaching of Thomas Aquinas.  The wealthy are obliged to come to the aid of the poor; and when they do, this is not charity but justice.  Wealth itself is not the problem, but the unjust distribution of it.  There are some very wealthy people who give large amounts of money to charity.  Think of Bill Gates, for example.  He’s distributing some of the world’s wealth much more thoughtfully and with more compassion than many a government. Do you remember that a certain Prime Minister taxed the money raised by Live Aid for the Third World?  It’s amazing that in our time it takes business people and even rock stars to goad governments into generosity – or rather, justice – to the poor.  We know that such people don’t leave themselves short of a few bob, but they’re not pretending to be saints.  They use the power that wealth gives them, and they use some of that wealth in the interests of the poor.  If they shame other wealthy people into sharing their wealth, they’ve done good work.  They give people hope.  Meister Eckhart said that a truly wealthy person is not someone who has accumulated a lot of wealth, but someone who has given away a lot. 

“Is wealth something to be avoided?” you ask.It’s important to remove shame from wealth as such and place it where it belongs: on the vice of greed.  Some people retain a sort of puritanical disgust for money, even while they glut themselves with it.  This only makes them feel still emptier, and so they continue to accumulate more and more, like a parched man drinking seawater.  In the passages of Scripture where wealth appears to be condemned, the context makes it clear that it is the attachment to wealth that is the problem – attachment to it and dependence on it.  This is where it becomes an obstacle and even an idol.  “You cannot serve God and wealth.”  The problem is when people serve wealth – when they become its slaves.  

As you said yourself, it is a matter of balance.  You are in good company when you express it this way.  St Paul wrote, “Remember how generous the Lord Jesus was: he was rich, but he became poor for your sake, so make you rich out is poverty.  This does not mean that to give relief to others you ought to make things difficult for yourselves: it is a question of balancing what happens to be your surplus now against their present need, and one day they may have something to spare that will supply your own need.  That is how we strike a balance: as scripture says, ‘the one who gathered much had none too much, the one who gathered little did not go short.’” (2 Cor 8:9, 13-15).   

A useful source of clarity about Catholic teaching is the CCC – the Catechism of the Catholic Church.  It’s available online.  It’s the fruit of the work of hundreds of scholars worldwide.  I notice that it has some paragraphs on poverty and wealth. 

I hope these few lines will be of some help, Mark.  Take care. 

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