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For Debate

For Debate October 24, 2012

Reader Dan C (who, to head off Thing that Used to Conservatism Class War ad hominem, is not poor [he’s a doctor] and is not “driven by class envy”) offers the following proposition:

Wealth creates immorality. No one is attending to this. Possession and greed dominate a market system. Wealth, more than welfare, is the problem.

I would submit that, for most of the history of the Church, and in most places outside of Conservative Christianville, America today, this is still taken as common sense by any Catholic who takes the Tradition seriously. Yes, I’m aware of the standard caveats about it being the *love* of money, not money itself, that is the root of all evil. But seriously, Jesus is *full* of warnings about the immense spiritual dangers of wealth and curiously silent about the immense spiritual dangers of poverty or of giving to the poor. He says you cannot serve God and Mammon, without the elaborate mummery of making sure we all know that money itself is not bad. He says it is harder for the camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for the rich to enter heaven. He says, without qualification, “woe to you who are rich” and (also without qualification) “Blessed are you poor”. He is positively reckless in his failure to counsel us to only give to the Deserving Poor when he counsels us to “give to whoever asks”. The entire emphasis of his teaching is not on the menace of the poor or on the dangers of generosity to them, but on the dangers faced by the rich. It is an emphasis that seems to me to be 180 degrees diametrically opposed to virtually all American conservative Christian discussion of the economy today, with its perpetual warnings about the bogey man of welfare queens and its zeal for the tender feelings of “wealth creators” in the Ruling Class. Chesterton seems to me to simply be repeating the common sense of the whole Catholic tradition when he says:

Only the Christian Church can offer any rational objection to a complete confidence in the rich. For she has maintained from the beginning that the danger was not in man’s environment, but in man. Further, she has maintained that if we come to talk of a dangerous environment, the most dangerous environment of all is the commodious environment. I know that the most modern manufacture has been really occupied in trying to produce an abnormally large needle. I know that the most recent biologists have been chiefly anxious to discover a very small camel. But if we diminish the camel to his smallest, or open the eye of the needle to its largest—if, in short, we assume the words of Christ to have meant the very least that they could mean, His words must at the very least mean this—that rich men are not very likely to be morally trustworthy. Christianity even when watered down is hot enough to boil all modern society to rags. The mere minimum of the Church would be a deadly ultimatum to the world. For the whole modern world is absolutely based on the assumption, not that the rich are necessary (which is tenable), but that the rich are trustworthy, which (for a Christian) is not tenable. You will hear everlastingly, in all discussions about newspapers, companies, aristocracies, or party politics, this argument that the rich man cannot be bribed. The fact is, of course, that the rich man is bribed; he has been bribed already. That is why he is a rich man. The whole case for Christianity is that a man who is dependent upon the luxuries of this life is a corrupt man, spiritually corrupt, politically corrupt, financially corrupt. There is one thing that Christ and all the Christian saints have said with a sort of savage monotony. They have said simply that to be rich is to be in peculiar danger of moral wreck. It is not demonstrably un-Christian to kill the rich as violators of definable justice. It is not demonstrably un-Christian to crown the rich as convenient rulers of society. It is not certainly un-Christian to rebel against the rich or to submit to the rich. But it is quite certainly un-Christian to trust the rich, to regard the rich as more morally safe than the poor. A Christian may consistently say, “I respect that man’s rank, although he takes bribes.” But a Christian cannot say, as all modern men are saying at lunch and breakfast, “a man of that rank would not take bribes.” For it is a part of Christian dogma that any man in any rank may take bribes. It is a part of Christian dogma; it also happens by a curious coincidence that it is a part of obvious human history.

So, resolved:

Wealth creates immorality. No one is attending to this. Possession and greed dominate a market system. Wealth, more than welfare, is the problem.

Debate, class.

Small update:  Do remember to distinguish between “money” and “wealth”.  Some have made the argument that just as guns are instruments and morally neutral (“Guns don’t kill people. People kill people”) so money is an instrument and is therefore also morally neutral.  Granted.  But the Church also notes that there is nonetheless a moral danger in the accumulation of arms:

2315 The accumulation of arms strikes many as a paradoxically suitable way of deterring potential adversaries from war. They see it as the most effective means of ensuring peace among nations. This method of deterrence gives rise to strong moral reservations. The arms race does not ensure peace. Far from eliminating the causes of war, it risks aggravating them. Spending enormous sums to produce ever new types of weapons impedes efforts to aid needy populations; it thwarts the development of peoples. Over-armament multiplies reasons for conflict and increases the danger of escalation.

Likewise, there is a grave moral danger in the accumulation of riches, as Jesus warns time and again.  So the conflation of mere money with wealth is, I think, something that needs to be guarded against in this discussion.

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