Material goods really are good. There’s nothing wrong with riches, only with attachment to riches. “You must not love this passing world or anything that is in the world. The love of the Father cannot be in any man who loves the world, because nothing the world has to offer — the sensual body, the lustful eye, pride in possessions — could ever come from the Father but only from the world” (1 John 2:15-16). Notice that Christ defines the “world” in terms of concupiscence: it is not the body, but the sensual body, not the eye, but the lustful eye, not possessions, but the pride in them that prevents a man from having the love of the Father.
For those who have taken vows of religious poverty, it is theoretically very simple to give up the attachment to worldly things. Simple — not easy. To paraphrase the American military’s ninth principle of warfare, “Everything in the spiritual life is simple, but the simple thing is difficult.” It would seem that the problem is less simple when there is a family involved. Parents cannot simply eschew wealth: they must have enough goods to provide for their children, and they must responsibly manage these goods in the hopes of keeping the family from falling into squalor and want.
It’s very tempting to think that these responsibilities soften Christ’s teachings about money. After all, it’s not possible or morally responsible for a father to follow Jesus’ advice to “go and sell what you own and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me” (Matt 19:21-22). Or is it?
St. Paul makes an interesting point: people should provide first for their family and for their friends, because if someone you love is in need it is less humiliating for them to receive from you than for them to go out begging. A parent is someone who has in their house a number of very poor people. Children do not have wealth. They don’t earn money. They exist in a state of natural mendicancy. A parent holds certain goods in trust for their children; just as you can’t rob from the poor to give to the poor, you can’t sell the things that your kids need in order to give them to others. This does not contradict Christ’s saying about selling everything.
It also does not mean, however, that parents can justify a life of luxury and excess simply on the basis that they need to buy things for their children. Detachment from temporal goods is essential to family life — just as essential as it is to religious life. The Pontifical Council for the Family points out that “Parents must trustingly and courageously train their children in the essential values of human life. Children must grow up with a correct attitude of freedom with regard to material goods, by adopting a simple and austere lifestyle and being fully convinced that man is more precious for what he is than for what he has.” Children learn how to interact with material goods by watching their parents. A child’s demands not only can be refused, they must be refused if the child is ever going to learn self-control, patience, or moderation. Parents who are not, themselves, detached from riches are doing their children a disservice if they use their parenthood to justify passing the addiction to stuff on to the next generation.
Many parents feel frustrated and even enslaved by the constant demands of their children for more and more things. These demands arise because the children are accustomed to getting what they want and because they have modelled their own relationship with material goods on the example set by their parents. In many families, serious conflicts arise because the parents do not moderate their children’s desires. The mother feels lonely and undersupported by the father, and in order to alleviate her frustrations she goes shopping. The husband feels pressured to earn more money in order to keep up with the financial demands of his wife, and as a consequence he overworks himself and is unable to be emotionally available to his family. If the issue comes to a head, the woman will claim that she is only spending money to buy the things that the children need, and the man will say he can only work so many hours a week. Thus the cycle is perpetuated.
Children who grow up in such households come to be addicted to material goods and simultaneously to resent the goods given to them by their parents. Fathers who have spent their entire lives working to provide good things for their children, but who have defined “good things” primarily in terms of material goods, are often frustrated when their children reject them in adolescence and adulthood. This rejection is the result of a perception on the part of the children that they have been loved improperly: that their fathers didn’t care enough to support the family spiritually and that they were trying to “buy love” by showering their children with material possessions.Attachment to material goods also prevents parents from being generous in giving life. Many parents justify the decision to contracept or even to abort their children on the basis that if they had more, the existing children would be impoverished. They believe that their children would benefit more from being able to wear brand new clothing and have the latest video games than they would from having more siblings. This attitude on the part of the parents is inevitably passed along to their children, who come to believe that material goods are more important than human beings. This leads to enslavement to transitory pleasures and an inability to form real relationships later in life. Children who have not learned to have a proper respect for the dignity and primacy of the value of human life will inevitably lack a sense of their own value.
Excerpted from Slave of Two Masters
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