Approaching a Christocentric View of Wealth

The massive size, undeniable beauty, and historical significance of St. Peter’s Basilica make it the de facto heart of the Roman Catholic Church, and a quintessential example of Christian beauty. Ralph Waldo Emerson, leader of the transcendentalist movement and critic of organized religion, was nonetheless struck with awe during his visit to the basilica:

It grieves me that after a few days I shall see it no more. It has a peculiar smell from the quantity of incense burned in it. The music that is heard in it is always good and the eye is always charmed. It is an ornament of the earth. It is not grand. It is so rich and pleasing: it should rather be called the sublime of the beautiful.[i]

And yet this universal sense of wonder and reverence at the church’s magnificence often gives way to a more sinister interpretation. To many critics, secular and otherwise, St. Peter’s Basilica epitomizes the unholy alliance between Christianity and wealth: a testament to excessive opulence, an extreme concentration of power, and the vast socioeconomic chasm between clergy and laity. To the casual onlooker skeptical of the Catholic Church’s wealth, the concern is not how beautiful their churches are, but the cost at which they were built.

Obviously, this problem is not restricted to the Catholic Church. The intense media scrutiny on the fortune of Orthodox patriarchs in Russia and megachurch pastors and televangelists in the United States points to a recurring element among Christians of all stripes – many Christians, whether Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox, are extremely wealthy.[ii] What’s more, these Christians pursue and maintain their wealth in the light of biblical teachings that seem to elevate generosity and poverty above the worldly pursuit of wealth. Critics frequently evoke Jesus’ declaration that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” as an attack on the accumulation of wealth.[iii] Subsequently, the early church’s excessive generosity in the Book of Acts only reinforces the image of a religion that glorifies poverty and demonizes wealth.[iv] This criticism of Christian hypocrisy concerning wealth, therefore, amounts to a very sweeping indictment. It condemns the clergy and the laity, the rich and the middle-class, and anyone unwilling to take a vow of poverty or charity. The implication, if true, is a vast paradigm shift in the Christian understanding of vocation, and would be a huge disruption to the comfortable lives of many devout Christians.

At first glance, this criticism seems to overextend itself. Even among outspoken critics of Christian wealth, most reserve their ire for the clergy and the ultra-wealthy. Still, this broader indictment of comfortable Christians is not only poignant but also reasonable, in large part because Christians themselves disagree on the proper role of wealth and its place within Christian theology. Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, saw the attachment to material goods as a distraction from God. Thus she eschewed material goods and advocated voluntary poverty for devout Catholics.[v] On the contrary, John Wesley, in his sermon The Use of Money, saw wealth as a useful tool that could be utilized for good.[vi]

Regardless of the chasm between these two popular viewpoints, polarized disagreement does not mean that an answer to the question of wealth cannot be found. A proper Christian conception of wealth reconciles the scriptural passages that support both sides of the debate into one coherent whole, ultimately revealing a more nuanced picture of wealth that recognizes its value while warning against taking it too seriously.

Of course, defining wealth is an important first step in building a proper understanding of its place in the Christian life. A proper understanding of wealth will allow us to discern whether wealth itself has any moral quality, which will inform an incisive examination of claims of hypocrisy in Christian institutions. This means that the value of wealth is a deeply philosophical question, in addition to its theological implications. Within the history of Western philosophical discourse, one of the more nuanced portraits of wealth also comes from its most influential thinker. Aristotle, in his work Nicomachean Ethics, distinguishes between two types of goods – intrinsic and instrumental. An intrinsic good is an “end pursued in its own right,” whereas an instrumental good is “an end pursued because of something else.”[vii] He defined wealth as an instrumental good, on the account that no person seeks wealth for its own sake, but rather for the sake of using that wealth to obtain other goods.[viii] Money is the quintessential proxy for wealth, as people pursue money not for its intrinsic qualities, but for its ability to purchase goods such as food, water, and shelter. But food, water, and shelter are also instrumental goods in the sense that we still pursue them for external ends, namely health and protection. Furthermore, both health and protection are still instrumental; their ultimate end is to promote eudemonia (“happiness”). To achieve eudemonia is to live the “good” life, a life filled with virtuous activity that cultivates the rational part of the soul.[ix] If the ultimate end of wealth is eudemonia, then excessive wealth may not be desirable if its accumulation cultivates vices such as greed, selfishness, and decadence. Thus Aristotle, in this context, does not define wealth as strictly money, but rather uses wealth to encompass all material goods that serve to fulfill particular basal needs, which in turn orient the person towards a life of virtue if used deliberatively.

Aristotle’s nuanced portrait of wealth can be valuable when used to examine the seemingly contradictory portraits of wealth within Scripture. The New Testament in particular contains many implicit criticisms of wealth and those who hold it. Mary’s Song in the Gospel of Luke describes God as one who “filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.”[x] Jesus notably dichotomizes the love of money and the love of God, saying that the two cannot coexist, and so to forgo one’s love of money is a prerequisite to living a righteous life.[xi] The wealthy are frequently depicted in Jesus’ parables as unrighteous, greedy individuals in need of repentance.[xii] These passages, and many others like them, prima facie do not seem at all to correspond with Aristotle’s conception of wealth. Whilst Aristotle criticized excessive wealth, he at least saw some use in its ability to promote the good life. By contrast, the Gospels take a distinctively critical look at wealth, and wealth’s function is often relegated to it being an expression of one’s generosity. In fact, judging by Jesus’ lifestyle and his rejection of material wealth, it is not surprising that many people extrapolate these passages as a universal condemnation of wealth altogether.

Nevertheless, a theology of wealth based on a non-contextual reading of New Testament verses fails to address Aristotle’s account directly and unfortunately ignores its persuasive force. Indeed, a relationship between the biblical attitude towards wealth and Aristotle’s position becomes clearer once the Old Testament is taken into account. A frequent trope that recurs throughout the Old Testament is God’s tendency to bless faithful people with riches. For instance, God blesses Job with extraordinary wealth by giving him “twice as much as he had before” as a reward for his faithfulness in the midst of his suffering.[xiii] On another occasion, God promises Solomon both wisdom and riches in response to his request for only wisdom, making Solomon one of the richest kings of the earth.[xiv] Lastly, the Old Testament frequently evokes poetic imagery of “milk and honey” when describing the land God promised to all the Israelites, which signified wealth and prosperity in ancient times.[xv] These few examples serve as a reminder of the truism that wealth is an object of instrumental value. Its existence is not only condoned in the Old Testament but is sometimes associated with virtuous behavior. This means that wealth cannot be simply discounted as a fetish of greedy, corrupt men. Rather, God’s occasional use of wealth as a blessing and a reward for virtue provides a warrant for the Aristotelian idea of wealth as an instrumental good.

Likewise, the New Testament passages that seemed to denounce wealth are in fact condemning its abuse. Those passages are not condemning wealth, or even riches, per se, but rather the ascendency of wealth as a replacement for God. The rich in those parables were condemned because they failed to see wealth as an instrumental good, instead seeing it as an intrinsic good that was to be pursued for its own sake.[xvi] There is no doubt that the possession of extreme wealth can distract one from living the good life, which is why Jesus acknowledged the difficulties the rich face when trying to reach salvation. But salvation and goodness are by no means exclusive to the poor, and the positive accounts of rich individuals in the Old Testament mean that the rich are not intrinsically excluded from heaven. What this does mean, however, is that there is a difference between the human economy and “God’s economy.” Human economy consists of material wealth, pleasure, and power. But God’s economy is fundamentally relational – measured by one’s personal relationship with God and lived out by the virtues that one develops and cultivates over the course of one’s life. If there is a place for wealth in God’s economy, it only exists in a tangential sense. When considered properly, wealth can be a particular way of experiencing blessing that empowers the individual to then turn that blessing outwards and show it to others.

But even this view left unattended carries the risk of viewing wealth too seriously. Richard John Neuhaus, former Editor of First Things, criticized the moralizing and theologizing of economic matters that was “dramatically evident in America in the Social Gospel movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries… [and] in the liberation theology of some Roman Catholics.”[xvii] In this view of wealth, good economics is invariably tied with good theology, because work itself is directed towards definite ends that have theological consequences. This phenomenon is not strictly a socialistic development, and is also found within many capitalistic conceptions of wealth. Andrew Carnegie, steel magnate and philanthropist, saw the administration of wealth by the rich as a moral responsibility. In his Gospel of Wealth, Carnegie praised capitalism as the main driver for progress and growth while calling his fellow businessmen to put their money towards the public good. He believed that a truly ideal society emancipates capitalism while having its elite attend those who are left behind in society’s collective pursuit of wealth.[xviii] Success, therefore, is not measured by the wealth one accumulates, but rather how that wealth is given away. Both directions, while opposite in application, are nevertheless grounded in a common source – that wealth, being the primary means of attaining the good life, is determinative of everything else. Far from being a Christian view of wealth, it is an Aristotelian view embedded with a theological tinge that is stretched to its logical endpoint.

For what separates the Christian view of wealth from a strictly Aristotelian one is the emphasis on a relationship with God as the ultimate good and the de-emphasis on wealth as something that matters in an ultimate sense. In response to the theologizing of economics, Neuhaus proposed an alternative perspective of “Pauline lightheartedness” with respect to wealth. Appealing to Paul’s letters to the Corinthians, he draws three observations. First, Paul displayed an unusual playfulness with respect to worldly goods, reminding the Corinthians that “time is short,” and therefore they should live without concern, “for this world in its present form is passing away.”[xix] Second, Paul believed that Christ fundamentally transformed the Christian’s essence because of his status as a “new creation: the old [of which] has gone” through Christ’s saving grace.[xx] Lastly, Paul taunts the world’s standards by juxtaposing the world’s perspective of the church with God’s standards. While the world sees the church as “dying…beaten…sorrowful…[and] poor,” the truth is that the church perseveres through the richness of its faith, rejoicing in Christ’s glory and eternally hopeful for what is to come.[xxi]

Neuhaus aptly characterizes this relaxed approach as an “easy come, easy go” attitude. According to Paul, wealth does not really matter. What does matter to Paul is the focus on God as the ultimate good, and the irrelevance of wealth as a pathway to that good:

The folly of the “wisdom” of the world…is in failing to recognize that the wealth that really counts is the wealth of God and of life in God. References to riches in Paul apply almost invariably to God, Christ, and the Christian community. It might be said that Paul “spiritualizes” wealth, but it is more accurate to say that he “eschatologizes” wealth and thereby radically relativizes its importance. Christ is the true plousios, the word of God dwells “richly” in the community, and Christians are made rich through the poverty of Christ, which in the mystery of God is true wealth.[xxii]

Thus Christians are called into a state of radical poverty. Far from being a measure of material wealth, to be radically impoverished is to be liberated from the concept of wealth as an important feature in one’s life. This by no means condemns the accumulation of wealth, but it does compel a sense of indifference to having it. Paul, rather than moralizing about the rich or riches, is proposing something conceptually simple and yet practically challenging. To accumulate true wealth is to simply follow Christ, but in doing so one must reject the worldly wisdom that trusts in the importance of possessions. Fortunately, the realization that true riches lie in God and the subsequent pursuit of him leads one to genuine eudemonia.

Given this understanding of material goods, it is clear that Christianity is not intrinsically opposed to wealth. Rather, insofar as Christians are not attached to it and give generously to those in need, Christians are free to have wealth and produce it for themselves. Of course, it is hard to separate the act of producing wealth and the context by which it is being done. While Christianity holds that wealth itself neither helps nor hinders one’s standing before God, it nonetheless holds to the Aristotelian view that if one does have wealth, it must be used in a way that is oriented towards a virtuous life. Still, this raises the question of whether the Church is doing such a thing. A common criticism against the Catholic Church is that, rather than using its wealth for charity, the Church uses it to invest in rare artifacts, extravagant buildings, and priceless artistic collections. Before investigating whether this claim is true, it is important to note how the Christian view on wealth actually makes authentic generosity possible. According to Neuhaus, a Pauline lightheartedness towards wealth still means that “the Christian is not freed from obligations in the world; indeed he is freed to fulfill such obligations.”[xxiii] Central to this notion is the idea that denying wealth’s intrinsic value frees the Christian from desiring it, and removes the anxiety associated with losing it. Pauline lightheartedness reorients one’s priorities away from wealth and towards a relationship with God. By emancipating oneself from this anxiety, generosity is no longer a sacrifice between two competing goods but a consistent desire towards the one ultimate good.

The biggest problem with this accusation of hypocrisy is the narrow view of generosity that it presupposes. The claim assumes that the only way one can measure an institution’s level of generosity is by its amount of charitable giving. But this assertion is disingenuous, even ignoring the Catholic Church’s status as the largest charitable organization in the world.[xxiv] In particular, this measure ignores the intangible benefits of beauty and spiritual fulfillment and the role the Church has played in providing these needs for the community. Duncan G. Stroik, professor of architecture at Notre Dame, correctly recognizes the value of beauty and its importance to the poor:

Do the poor need beauty? Yes, maybe even more than other people do. The poor need beauty to ennoble them, to raise them up out of the morass of this fallen world… Their own houses may have been simple, but their communal home sought to be a work of art, full of iconography and richness… where do they find the richness of culture and the majesty of nature but in the dome of a cathedral or the stained glass of a church?[xxv]

The power that beauty has to infuse our lives with meaning and dignity attests to its essential role in the formation of human experience. The desire that humans have for aesthetics is different from the desire for food and drink; while sustenance fulfills our ends as animals, beauty fulfills our end as rational creatures. Christianity not only recognizes beauty’s importance, but also sees it as a reflection of God himself, and thus it can be a means to draw nearer to him. The Church, in funding beautiful churches, does so with the intent of sharing this beauty with the wider Christian community. Liquidating the Church would only further concentrate these treasures into the hands of private wealthy collectors. The public display of art transforms the Church’s wealth into a public good, providing the opportunity to participate in this rich culture to those who would otherwise never afford it. Thus to be truly generous, there must be a way to not only provide the poor with sustenance but also allow them to experience the beauty that many people take for granted. The Church, in providing both physical and spiritual charity, fulfills this role in a balanced way.

Addressing each accusation of hypocrisy against every Christian denomination would be impossible, and there is no doubt that there are hypocritical Christians within every denomination that preach poverty but practice excess. At the same time, it is important to note the difference between institutional wealth and personal wealth. There is a difference between a wealthy man who consumes for his own sake, isolating himself from the poor, and a wealthy Church that invites the poor inside and provides for their spiritual needs. The Church’s wealth does not belong to its pastors and priests in any relevant sense – and those who do exploit the Church’s wealth for their own selfish gain can rightly be called hypocritical.[xxvi] Regardless, critics of the Church that level these allegations against members of the clergy unfortunately draw the false conclusion that an indictment against a person is an indictment against the Church as a whole.

What these critics often forget is that the Church recognizes that her stewards are imperfect; in fact, it is almost expected. The Apostle Paul wrote that, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”[xxvii] Our sinful nature precludes us from ever approaching the ideal standard of Christian living – a perfect communion with God that is fully dependent on him. Thus someone who considers wealth to be inherently contradictory to Christianity must also consider that many benign actions also divert one’s attention away from God. If any action that has this effect is “hypocritical,” then this question is ultimately meaningless. Presumably, the critic is claiming that a wealthy Church is not only hypocritical but immoral. But it is clear that wealth is not inherently immoral and the accumulation of such does not prevent one from acting virtuously. At the same time, the call to Pauline lightheartedness indicates that material wealth is in some way contrary to the ideal. But this classifies wealth in the Church as a product of humanity’s wounded nature, rather than something deserving of moral indignation. The acts that many people rightfully consider worthy of ire come from the equation of God’s economy with the human economy. To escape this hypocrisy, there must be a detachment from wealth that makes one’s human economy subordinate to God’s. In doing so, the virtuous man is free to pursue a poverty that is truly radical.

 

i. Joel Porte, comp., Emerson in His Journals (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1984), 103.
ii. “Russia’s Patriarch Kirill in furore over luxury watch,” BBC, 5 April 2012, <http://www.bbc.com/ news/world-europe-17622820>; “Televangelist asks followers to buy him $65 million jet,” CBS News, 21 May 2015, <http://www.cbsnews.com/news/ televangelist-creflo-dollar-under-scrutiny-asking-for- 65-million-private-jet/>.
iii. Matthew 19:24 (NIV).
iv. See Acts 2:42-45; Acts 4:34-35; Acts 11:29.
v. Nancy L. Roberts, Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker (Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 1984), 10.
vi. Jennette Descalzo, ed., “The Sermons of John Wesley – Sermon 50: The Use Of Money,” Wesley Center Online, last modified 1999, <http://wesley. nnu.edu/john-wesley/the-sermons-of-john-wesley- 1872-edition/sermon-50-the-use-of-money/>.
vii. Aristotle, “Nicomachean Ethics,” in Classics of Western Philosophy, 8th Edition, ed. Steven M. Cahn (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2012), 279.
viii. Aristotle, 277.
ix. Richard Kraut, “Aristotle’s Ethics,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta, 21 June 2014, <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/ sum2014/entries/aristotle-ethics/>.
x. Luke 1:53 (NIV).
xi. See Matthew 6:24.
xii. See Luke 12:13-21 (The Parable of the Rich Fool) and Luke 16:19-31 (The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus).
xiii. Job 42:10 (NIV).
xiv. See 1 Kings 3:11-13; 2 Chronicles 9:22.
xv. See Exodus 3:8; Deuteronomy 6:3; Joshua 5:6.
xvi. For instance, Jesus’ condemnation of the love of money is entirely consistent with the Aristotelian view of wealth as an instrumental good. It is an indictment against the elevation of money over God, which would make money an intrinsic good rather than an instrumental one.
xvii. Richard John Neuhaus, “Wealth and Whimsy: On Economic Creativity,” First Things (August 1990).
xviii. Andrew Carnegie, “Wealth,” The North American Review 148, no. 391 (1889): 663-664.
xix. 1 Corinthians 7:29-32 (NIV).
xx. 2 Corinthians 5:17 (NIV).
xxi. 2 Corinthians 6:9-10 (NIV).
xxii. Neuhaus, Wealth.
xxiii. Neuhaus, Wealth.
xxiv. “The Catholic Church in America: The working,” The Economist, 16 August 2012, <http:// www.economist.com/blogs/newsbook/2012/08/ catholic-church-america>; “Who We Are: Foundation Fact Sheet,” Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, last modified 31 March 2015, <http:// www.gatesfoundation.org/Who-We-Are/General- Information/Foundation-Factsheet>; The Catholic Church spends $98.6 billion on healthcare in the United States in 2012, twice as much as the entire endowment of the Bill & Melinda Gates foundation, the wealthiest secular non-profit in the world.
xxv. Duncan G. Stroik, “Beauty is for the Poor, Too,” Crisis Magazine, 27 June 2014, <http://www. crisismagazine.com/2014/beauty-poor>.
xxvi. “Bishops, church groups set pay scale for priceless priests,” Catholic Review, 1 July 2007, <http://catholicreview.org/article/play/travel/bishops-church-groups-set-pay-scale-for-priceless-priests>; If we assume that all priests are paid the maximum rate ($31,000), and add $10,000 for associated benefits, priests would still only make the equivalent of $19.71/hour.
xxvii. Romans 3:23 (NIV).

 

Joshua Tseng-Tham ’17 is from Toronto, Ontario, Canada. He is a double major in Economics and Philosophy.

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