Wealth in the Church

This is a transcript of an interview between Logos Staff and Yale Professor Carlos Eire on October 8th, 2015. It deals with Jesus’ teachings on wealth, society’s means of alleviating poverty, and the Church’s interpretation of Jesus’ teachings. Certain edits were made for clarity and approved by Professor Eire. The Logos’ staff member who conducted the interview has his questions in bold and Professor Eire’s responses are in normal text.

During his life, Jesus often defended the poor and chastised the rich, so does this mean it’s wrong to accumulate wealth?

Well, there have been various interpretations of that throughout Christian history. Especially because, as the church grew and started appealing to what we might consider upper class people, they wanted to make room for that too. Plus, from day one, the rich or so-called rich have been the source of most of the charity dispensed by the church. And, we know from the first century on, certainly from the second  century, one of the ways that Rome achieved such  importance in the church as a whole was that the Church of Rome could dispense more charity than any other church because of its connections to rich people. So, for the first few centuries, the debate  went forth about wealth and poverty and so on and so forth. One extreme [was that] by the fourth  century when emperors became Christian and you’ve got people at the very top who are Christian who are shakers and movers who dispense charity and so on and so forth. Anyway, to cut to the chase, monasticism is one of the church’s responses to the poverty and wealth issue because the monks, they’re all about giving up the world, they’re all about giving up property, and they have to take the vow of poverty. So, what  happened when the church became ‘the world” in the Roman empire and everybody was included— it included people at the very top, people at the very bottom—there were some Christians that were  upset about this. The Church never pronounced wealth a sin; the Church never pronounced private  property a sin but the monks and nuns opted out of the economy by going aside and doing their  own thing and having no private property. But the Church has never condemned wealth. What it has condemned is when the wealthy  don’t contribute to charity and don’t help the poor.

Then do people with wealth have a  responsibility to help those in  poverty? What kind of responsibility?

Well, I don’t think the Church has ever spelled  out a specific kind of responsibility but it has always taught that you’ve got to do something. And one  way that used to be promoted throughout  the entire medieval period and the early modern  period, you know before industrialization, wealth was always tied to land, right? So, where did the church get most of its land? From rich people. Where did the monastery get their lands? From rich  people. Where did they get the funds to build  churches, monasteries, hospitals and so on? Rich people. And the land that was donated to the church generated income. So, during the middle ages and into the early modern period, the Church as a whole became very wealthy because of the land that it had and the treasures that were given to it by rich people. So, the Church for two millennia has  depended on rich people for its funding. It never specified a special kind of giving, right, but it always makes suggestions like, you know: “we need to build a school here, can you help? Can you contribute? so on so forth.”  Something else that happened that is now no  longer visible because they no longer exist is  confraternities. These were private associations of  lay people who would dedicate themselves to  perform either works of charity or certain rituals.  But works of charity, until industrial age, most of  the hospitals and orphanages and almshouses, all  these charitable institutions that were run by  the church, many of them were run by lay people  and the money came from wealthy people  who established those things. Now, there was  always a payback to anyone who donates, of course, because the work of charity is a  meritorious work. So, literally, you score points with God. You also, for instance, if you donate land to a monastery—say, take this whole plot of land and  build a monastery on it—then the monks are gonna  pray for you and for your family. So, I think it’s  impossible to get away from the give and take. The Church needs property, it needs an income. If the church were composed strictly of poor people,  it’d be very hard to run a church. So it has  always needed rich people. It has never proclaimed  that property is a sin. Radical Franciscans in the 13th century, some of them, declared private property a sin and they were declared heretical.

Interesting. Here’s the next question: Does a capitalist society create paradigms  that are contrary to Christ’s message?

Every society creates paradigms that are contrary to Christ’s message. It’s not just capitalism; it’s every  society. Totalitarian socialist or communist societies  create paradigms that violate Christ’s teachings more intensely and with much more cruelty than  capitalism. So, it’s human nature that’s the problem;  it’s not the economic system that’s the problem. It’s human nature; it’s human selfishness. Monasticism  is the perfect example of why socialism and  communism will never, ever work. Ever. Because, even though monks and nuns have been committed  to poverty, individual poverty, they have always  fallen into corruption in one way or another. And  the history of monasticism is nothing but a long history of establishing a religious order or a  monastery falling into corruption, reform,  corruption, reform, corruption because human  selfishness is impossible to overcome. Absolutely impossible. So, running a monastery involves dealing  with human selfishness. However, here’s the  difference between monasteries and socialist or  communist economies. People in a monastery or convent are there willingly. They’ve decided to have that kind of lifestyle and, even so, they fall into  corruption. A communist or socialist society where everyone is forced to live like a monk or a nun  requires violence because people are selfish, and if you can’t get a monastic order to practice what it preaches a hundred percent, which is voluntary, how are you going to get an entire population to share, right? And to have everything be equal? You have to use force; you have to use violence. Plus, on the  other side, capitalism actually spreads wealth.  Socialism and communism put a limit on wealth, which means you will always have a higher number  of poor people under a socialist and communist  system than you will in a capitalist system. This is not to say that the inequality in capitalism  is excusable, but it’s simply to point out an  obvious thing: capitalism generates wealth,  socialism and communism especially, do not. And you end up with a class system anyway. You end up with haves and have-nots and no middle class.

That’s also a good way to move onto the next ques­tion, which is that the issues of privilege and in­equality are talked about very often here at Yale. So how would Christ encourage people to ap­proach issues of socio-economic inequality?

Give to the poor. Give to charity. You know, do what you can. But actually, you know, for instance, to say as Pope Francis has said, that capitalism is somehow  an un-Christian system, is not to realize, not to  understand, that capitalism creates jobs in a way that no government ever can. And, if you want to lift people out of poverty, really truly lift them out of  poverty, you create jobs. And, private enterprises can  create many, many more jobs than government ever has. And it’s been proven throughout history that  prosperity, genuine prosperity, is never produced  by communist or socialist economic systems.

Inequality is a fact of life, and Jesus said, “You will always have the poor among you”—always. Now, if you consider Jesus divine and consider what he said truly prophetic then you have to begin, I think, from that statement of Jesus: “You will always have the poor among you.” And, actually, he says that in  response to a complaint: “Why are we eating this meal here? why are we eating so nicely when that money could be given to the poor?” And, Jesus says, “You will always have the poor.” Without actually saying it literally, well, “We need something too,” is what he’s saying. Nothing in the Gospels points to inequality as something that can be overcome in this world. It’s just a fact: You will always have it. As a matter of fact, there are also other statements that are kind of hard to take such as, “to him who has, more will be given,” “to him that has not it will be taken away.” Of course, that has a spiritual interpretation. It can also have a very material interpretation: that it’s just a fact of life.

I think this will be my last question: the American Dream is to earn enough money  to live a comfortable life and to be able to  support one’s family. Is this idea compatible with a Christian notion of living a meaningful life?

Sure it is. They’re not mutually exclusive. Not at all. I mean, what’s more meaningful than providing for one’s family? What’s more meaningful than being able to have one’s children, work their way up to a different  socio-economic level where they will be able to  provide the same thing for their children and their children and their children, and so on, and have it spread, you know? There’s nothing incompatible with that. If one is Catholic, and one is disturbed by private property or doesn’t want to have economic success as a goal, one can always join a religious  order. Right? The option is always there. And for many centuries the Church has built the system with a kind of escape valve, and that’s what’s very interesting  about monasticism. And, Protestants don’t have  monasticism, so they have a harder time with this, but for Catholics, you always have the option. Well, you want to help the poor, live like the poor, and help the poor as a poor person? Come here. But, in  order to do that, in order to fund, let’s say a mission to the poor, to run a hospital for the poor, to give food to the poor, those monks and nuns have to get money from someone because they’re not generating  income, generally.

Now, in the Middle Ages,  monasteries generated a lot of income through  farming back when land was the source of wealth. Nowadays, it’s very different; you can’t [have] nuns and monks running farms and using the income from those farms to run hospitals, and so on. I don’t know of any case where they do that, you know? It’s always donations from people who have some  surplus or what we call “disposable income.” That’s the key: to run charities you need disposable income.  Now, in the modern, post-industrial world what happened was the churches stopped being the main source of charity for the poor. Governments take over that function and this begins with the Protestant  Reformation. They get rid of monasticism, you know, and they get rid of confraternities. So, who takes care of the poor? The government. In some catholic  countries they tried to do that, but they realized it didn’t work as well as having the church dispense charity. But now in the post-industrial world, you know, you have taxation and you have some of that money go and help the poor, but it’s never enough. So that’s why, for instance, here in the United States, you still have many Catholic hospitals. And, when you think about it, it’s kind of strange. Why should you have a Catholic hospital? What does the Church have to do with hospitals? Well, it’s because this is how it began. The Church was often the first  institution in many places to establish hospitals,  orphanages, schools and so on and so forth. And to this day, another example is the fact that the Catholic Church runs many schools in poor areas where that school is usually far superior to the public schools. And, there you have, again, the difference between  taxation and government control and private  initiative where the private initiative is proven over and over again, in most cases though not all  cases, to work better than the government agency.  And, it’s always there as a safety net for  governments, especially here in the United States; the Church or churches plural, are always there as a safety net, extra safety net, for the poor.

Well, thanks again, Professor.

Sure, sure. It’s a tough, thorny problem.

Carlos M. N. Eire is the T. Lawrason Riggs Professor of History and Religious Studies at Yale University.


Wealth in the Church

Image credit: Madeleine Witt – The Yale Logos, Winter 2012.

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