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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  • It is one of those things that has to be pretty much immediately qualified, but I’ve made a similar point before.

    Shorter/sloppier version: material prosperity is great, but when the rules are written to maximize material prosperity that sucks all of the moral oxygen out of the room and is bad for the common good. Mirror image version: doing what is best for the common good involves making a vast number of decisions, and sometimes those decisions will necessarily limit the production of material wealth. (E.g., do I spend my time helping this widow or do I build a shed?)

    So maximally-wealthy implies contrary to the common good.

  • Ted Seeber

    Here’s my objection to it: Wealth, like Welfare, is imaginary.

    That is, it stems from a bad theory of private property, and the proper uses thereof.

    It is the misuse of wealth, that creates the need for welfare. IF in a free market, everybody contributed all of the money Americans normally spend on wants to charity, there would be plenty to take care of the needs of all 7 billion humans currently alive on earth- plus a bit left over.

  • Dante Aligheri

    I agree with the above. Debate over how to interpret these passages was acute during the Middle Ages when the Church was trying reform herself – i.e., the Spiritual Franciscans. Out of that debate wealth was decided to not necessarily be evil in itself (which Dan pointed out). Nevertheless, I agree with Dan that wealth poses a great spiritual danger that one must be very careful with. Pope Pius XII, I believe, said that all of one’s “surplus” wealth – that is, more than one needs to support himself and his family – belongs to the common good. Therefore, property is first and foremost not a comfort but a responsibility and an opportunity for an individual to participate in the creative act and make something of himself for the community. Property ownership and the accumulation of wealth is more about the chance given to human beings as individuals to creatively contribute to the common good than about pursuing one’s own selfish ends. I think in our modern society property and wealth is often seen more as the space of negative freedom to do what one wants without interference or bothering with others (and God) rather than a great burden, and gift, to be used wisely. I keep thinking of C.S. Lewis’ depiction of Hell where the damned drift further and further apart from each other – always turning further on themselves. Laissez faire capitalism represents nothing more than a legitimization of that ethic above the common good.

  • quasimodo

    No. The fall causes immorality. Uniformly … regardless of social status.

    The problem is when elephants make love, the grass gets trampled.

    • Dante Aligheri

      I agree. The imperfect nature of human beings means they do not use their wealth as they should – as a lease from God for the betterment of the community. This is one of the sins – a particularly grievous social sin common in Jesus’ time and our own – the rich must contend with, but the poor do not have.

    • Agreed that the thesis, as stated, is incorrect. However, taken as hyperbole for “Wealth is one of the most dangerous temptations, and material prosperity is a near occasion of sin,” I think his point stands.

      • Patrick

        “Wealth is one of the most dangerous temptations, and material prosperity is a near occasion of sin”

        I agree with this view. To think that wealth *causes* sin is as silly as thinking the demon rum *causes* drunkeness rather than the guy who refuses to drink it temperately.

        Nevertheless, wealth is a much more dangerous temptation because it allows you to hide the truth from yourself fairly easily.

    • Rosemarie


      Exactly. The Fall causes immorality. Everyone sins regardless of their socioeconomic status.

      “Give me neither beggary, nor riches: give me only the necessaries of life: Lest perhaps being filled, I should be tempted to deny, and say: Who is the Lord? or being compelled by poverty, I should steal, and forswear the name of my God. ” – Proverbs 30:8-9

  • Sean Roberts

    “Now I realize that it is possible for the rich to sin by coveting the privileges of the poor.”
    – Lady Marchmain

  • Dale Price

    In addition to saying woe to the rich (which, admittedly, she admonishes a good deal more often), the Church also says to those who are idle without excuse:

    “For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies.”

    Sin offers many, many traps, for rich and poor alike.

    The problem with the market system is that is amoral, and will only be as good as the people who operate within it. A social welfare state, while admirable in many respects, also has its dehumanizing features: e.g., the nearly 15,000 elderly who died in a heat wave in France in 2003, largely because it was assumed the system (other people) would be looking out for them, but did not.

    • ivan_the_mad

      Dale, 2 Thes 3:10 deals with people who had been misled into not working because they’d been led to believe the return of Christ was imminent, like what happened with devotes of Harold Camping recently. I would be wary of applying it to contemporary issues at face value.

      • I agree.

        For that matter, the same Church that gives us 2 Thes 3:10 also gives us Acts 4:32.

        • Dale Price

          I could also wave away the Acts passage with “but that’s clearly a product of an early church also in apocalyptic mode,” except that it would elide the truth. And make a trifle of the monastics and religious who so live in common right now.

          I’m not saying that the Thessalonians passage is some kind of economic manifesto, but it states a truth about the importance of work. Not least of which is that greed comes in many forms and afflicts us all.

          Believe me, I’m not trying to engage in some apologetic for the rich here. But let’s look at the greater global picture. The conversationalists in this thread are, almost to a man, residents of the richest nation that has ever been. Our official definition of poverty would provoke bitter laughter and envy in many regions of the world. Sure, we have our poor, but compared to the average resident of Bangladesh who is, say, drinking arsenic-laced water every day because it beats the stuff that’s basically sewage, or the trash dump village outside of Manila, they are comparatively wealthy. Even those on assistance.

          Not all of them, to be sure. We do a piss-poor job of caring for too many people. But if we consider the bigger picture, the biblical condemnation of the wealthy would fall on the majority of Americans, I am greatly afraid.

          • Thank you. I can’t speak for anyone else here, but my criticisms are aimed as much at the middle classes as the uber-wealthy. More so even. It’s why I refer to 3.5% returns and extra coats in the closet, and not privately owned islands or megayachts.

          • ivan_the_mad

            “But if we consider the bigger picture, the biblical condemnation of the wealthy would fall on the majority of Americans, I am greatly afraid.” I can’t argue with that, Dale.

      • Dan C

        Those individuals referred were likely “apocalyptics.” Some other aspects of the letters (in which Paul notes he works for a living) would suggest he may have been referring to self-appointed professional “churchmen” who would serve the Church and then need support.

    • Mark Shea

      Well, yeah. Except that Paul’s instructions are “in house” and meant to tell Christians not to be mooches. They are not in the slightest intended as the basis for a political ideology about how to treat the poor outside the Church: For that, the closest analog we have is Jesus telling us to “give to whoever asks of you”. Period. Full stop.

      • yan

        Not to be TOO snarky but I am told [not being an expert in the matter myself] there are no periods in the original Greek. Moreover in my English version there is a comma, not a period full stop: “Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away.” I think that puts a little context to the divine command which may be important when considering how to apply it.

        Just saying…

        • You do know that “Period. Full stop.” is an idiom for “this statement needs no more context”, right? I admire a man who admits he’s being a little bit snarky though. 😉

    • I think that a distributist oriented political economy is a wonderful idea. I think pretending that it is possible to have that under the reign of secular liberalism is more than a little delusional: the result – as we’ve seen with Obamacare and the HHS mandate, just as one example – is increasing power to be used against the Church and the consciences of good people.

      Liberalism has to go first, before any reasonable political economy will be even possible. I agree completely and on principle and without reservation with the preferential option for the poor. But we have to start the war from here.

      • At first glance, it looks like you’re calling the PPACA an attempt at a distributist oriented political economy.

        I think what you’re trying to say is that, when some distributist/Catholic principles (like the basic right of each person to basic health care) are attempted by a liberalist political economy, it comes out looking like the PPACA. Am I reading you rightly?

        In any case, I agree that the main problem with distributism is the “how to get there from here” issue.

        • Robert King:
          AFAICT you read me perfectly.

    • Dale Price wrote:
      The problem with the market system is that is amoral, and will only be as good as the people who operate within it.

      I actually don’t agree with that statement. The concept of a value-neutral political economy is a myth; and the deeper you dig the more you realize that it isn’t just a myth in a practical sense, it is a fundamentally incoherent idea.

      • Dale Price

        A market system with participants acting according to Catholic moral/social principles would be a vastly different beast from, say, that staffed by Randians. Or even from what we have now.

        I’m missing the incoherence.

        • Dan C

          How can an economic system, the transfer and exchange of the goods of Creation, be “amoral?” This is fundamentally against Caritatas in Veritate which indicates economic activity is primarily a moral activity.

        • Dan C

          Another thought: what sexual activity is “amoral?” Why does economics get a pass for moral evaluation?

        • Yes, I know that you are missing the contradiction inherent in the idea “amoral market system”. But it is right there, between amoral and market. The presumption that any political economy can be value neutral is wrong.

          • Would this be because a market is a human artifact, something made by human minds and not something occurring in nature?

            I’ve never quite understood the “pure capitalist” notion that a market is something not to be touched by human hands, when a market is exactly something built by human hands. It obeys laws which human legislators have put into place, including the “law” of supply and demand, which is nothing but a consequence of buyer and seller deciding to haggle – that is, it is an artifact, something made by people, just as the “law” of musical harmonies is an artifact.

            So the rules of the market are human rules, which means that they are moral acts and contain within themselves a structural bias toward or against one good or another. It is true that, in most markets, the individual agents can exercise a great deal of freedom in choosing what goods to pursue or how to pursue them; but the structure of the market, its philosophical bias, will eventually and in aggregate guide agents in general according to its design. In this sense, an “amoral market system” is oxymoronic.

            • All of that. Also markets are based on property, and property, even though it is a natural law concept prior to Man in a sense, is an inherently moral

              The idea of markets as a value-neutral “game” that can be good or evil based on whether the players are good or evil is pervasive but wrong. Modern people try to avoid the question of moral right and wrong by framing things in terms of value neutral rules enforced by a disinterested law of contract. But this faux moral neutrality just creates perverse distortions, because the question of what is morally right and what is morally wrong cannot be avoided.

  • Dante Aligheri

    Ted, I agree with you. Sinful human beings in this City of Man do not make the best use of their wealth. Nevertheless, poverty remains an injustice. At this point, then, I think the government as the protector of the common good has the right and obligation to create a welfare system to counteract the sinfulness of the community. The issue becomes whether and when (there certainly is a need for a healthy balance) bureaucratization leads to a lack of subsidiarity and overwhelming of the proper functioning of the community. Yet clearly the government cannot stand by and do nothing because otherwise we would be back in the 19th century. What ought we do?

    • Ted Seeber

      Voluntary Poverty is not an injustice, for Blessed are the Poor.

      But yes, the real problem is a lack of subsidiarity that occurs any time a government exceeds a few thousand citizens.

      To me, that indicates that to have small government, you need small geography.

      I would not mind going back to the early 19th century. I would not mind going back to the 13th century when it comes to economics.

      But failing that, the best we can do is heavy taxes on the rich to create goods to distribute to the poor.

      • Dante Aligheri

        I should have made that distinction. I did not mean the voluntary poverty (as if the moral opposite would be an absolutely equal distribution of a high standard of material living) but rather than squalid conditions in which basic necessities to preserve life are denied through no fault or choice of the individual. Ted, I do have a question, though. If voluntary poverty is blessed (which I believe it is – given the Franciscan ideal), then why should not everyone strive for such a goal? Or, is there a distinction between the types of voluntary poverty which the laity practice in the world, especially when supporting a family, versus the poverty of the religious clergy and/or secular clergy? I may not be understanding these positions correctly.

        I agree on 13th century economics.

        • Ted Seeber

          “If voluntary poverty is blessed (which I believe it is – given the Franciscan ideal), then why should not everyone strive for such a goal? ”

          I believe everyone SHOULD strive for such a goal- within their God-given abilities and talents. I know I do. At present time, I’m sitting about 20% above what I truly need to be charitable to family in income. I balance that out by being charitable to church, to the poor, and to other members of my extended family. As such, I have just enough life insurance and retirement to ensure my family will be able to stay in the house and bury me.

          “Or, is there a distinction between the types of voluntary poverty which the laity practice in the world, especially when supporting a family, versus the poverty of the religious clergy and/or secular clergy?”

          That too is correct. The first duty is to family. The second, to wider society. This too is subsidiarity and solidarity.

          I’d even include the small businessman that on paper at least, earns less than the upper half of his employees do.

          • You can get those burial costs down ridiculously low if you preorder a simple pine box. The break down flat as an ikea product, and can be assembled much easier with dovetail mortise and tenons. Your local Orthodox Rabbi will know just where to get one, or you can order a box from the monks at St Meinrad, in Indiana. I did spring for one small luxury for my family though. The inside lid was laser etched “Credo in Resurrectionem Mortem” by the private cabinet maker who produced mine. I’ve heard they make great coffee tables for the living in the meantime but that is too morbid for me. In the rafters of my sister’s shed is sufficient.

  • “Christianity even when watered down is hot enough to boil all modern society to rags.”

    I love that quote. It ought to be burned into the brains of every Pro-Life Conservative Catholic who shrugs his or her shoulders and says we *must* choose the lesser of two evils, or else we’re throwing our vote away.

    • Dante Aligheri

      Where did that quote come from? That’s one I would like to use one day.

    • It’s in the extended Chesterton quote that Mark used, above. The entire passage is from Orthodoxy, either the last chapter or the next-to-last chapter.

  • Let’s all say it together: Universal Destination of Goods!

    • ivan_the_mad

      Shh, taken with subsidiarity, that might mean that government has a role to play in society beyond enforcing contracts and national defense (never mind that Leo goes on to affirm exactly that), and we all know that for the Rank Heresy that it is.

      • Ted Seeber

        I say once you’ve got a government enforcing contracts, you have too much government. Subsidiarity and Solidarity should come *before* enforcement of contracts, not after.

        • Dan C

          Interesting thought.

          So you propose that defense and maintenance of order is not a priority over the governmental execution of “solidarity?”

          • Ted Seeber

            Yep. Feed your people first. Then contracts to make your people prosperous. Only when other nations are envious of you, do you need to even to begin to worry about defense.

            People that have their needs met, are orderly, for the most part. It’s when you have unmet needs, either physical or spiritual, that people become disorderly.

            • I’m not seeing the objection to government in this. The fact is, people have unmet needs, and people (and society) is in fact disorderly. To govern is to set in right order; so government is necessary where there is disorder.

              I’ll grant that Subsidiarity and Solidarity are logically prior to government, and ought to determine the form government takes; but temporally and practically, it seems to me that they arise simultaneously with government.

              • Ted Seeber

                Maybe that’s because I have the Church’s understanding of subsidiarity and solidarity and thus don’t object to the idea of government; just the ordering of priorities and great skepticism of whether a government of more than 10,000 citizens can even begin to claim to practice subsidiarity or to meet those unmet needs. Or that the unmet needs can even be known in any anonymous situation.

  • Mark R

    Wrong. Immorality is an equal opportunity offender. It can keep the poor miserable as much as it can keep the grand in power. (I work with people from poor backgrounds, and our customers are mostly rich — I have a little first hand knowledge.) That said, lots of folks from either background are not exceptionally immoral.

  • Here’s what I think I know:

    We cannot affirmatively say that any individual is in hell, save one. (Pun acknowledged.)

    Jesus told a *story* in the Bible that is often mistaken for a parable. Two points on that: 1) the Bible-writers never call it a parable, and 2) parables don’t contain names, especially not names of known persons.

    The story I’m talking about is of the “rich man” and Lazarus.

    We only definitively know of one man in hell, and he was identified by Jesus as “the rich man.” Telling, I think.

    • yan

      A very good priest I know, who, not being a Jesuit, is not rich, interpreted ‘hell’ here to me to mean purgatory. Probably like you, I am doubtful of that….

  • Marthe Lépine

    I am surprised that nobody so far in this combox has argued: But… To talk of “redistribution” (if I am not mistaken, this word appears a few times in Caritas & Veritate) is actually to covet the money and goods of the rich, and for this reason it is really a sin… But… taxing the rich a little more heavily than the ordinary working people (and after all, a billionaire being taxed at 50% or more would still be considerably more comfortable than the average worker…) is actually punishing people for their success… as well as being, as stated above, the sin of coveting other peoples’ money…

    Congratulations, Mark, I think you are attracted the “right” kind of readers. What is now badly needed is a correction to the “conservative dictionary” that consistently offers “socialism” as the real definition of “redistribution”…

    By the way, I am using the “dread marks” around “conservative dictionary” in order to prevent the kind of response I have often seen to such remarks as mine, and which goes: “Please show in which dictionary and on which page this false definition is to be found.” Which is a good way to avoid thinking about what is actually being said.

  • In 35 years of life, I have spent 30 in one form of material poverty or another. The first 18 were spent in material poverty as judged by the world, but not by the Spirit. We had no indoor plumbing for much of that time, much less other amenities, and we, a small family of 3, lived on an average of $5,000 per annum (gross). We and our extended family were the poorest people in our community, but very much loved and highly respected, both for our knowledge in healing, and because we who had so little gave away so much of what we had. Even before the Chickamauga culture which I inherited, my greatest family inheritance is the day the president of the largest bank in the State of Alabama, at that time, upon seeing my name and home county at an awards banquet for adolescent writers, asked if I was my grandfather’s grandson. He told me my grandfather, then dead 14 years, was the only man on this planet he would have loaned $10 million to, on a mere handshake, because “If Bill said he could pay it back, I know he would.”

    The next 3 were spent in material poverty and spiritual poverty, in the US Navy. Then 5 years of financial wealth and spiritual poverty, riding high on my success in developing aDSL as an internet technology.

    Since then, it has been almost a decade where each year I make more than the previous year, and always well above the poverty line, but it has also been a decade where I buy everything I can’t make or make do without second or third hand, embracing Lady Poverty like Francis suggested. I have little to nothing to show for this decade, except an education in a valuable trade, a profession that I love actively doing, and the memory of the faces I have squandered my earnings feeding, and clothing, and sheltering and comforting.

    I’m not interested in debating this. Among all of you, I am one to be most pitied, for my weakness and wrath and a long list of other sins. But I do take Holy Mother Church seriously when she says the faces of the poor are the face of Jesus and that to live in solidarity with them is the shortcut to sanctity. But then I see how everyone else has control of their tongue, and control of their will in ways I cannot help but envy, and I wonder how they have all these things I am working for, and yet do not really seem to care for the poor.

    No judgments, just a mystery I struggle to understand.

  • ivan_the_mad

    “the Deserving Poor” and “the able poor” (from another thread).

    I’m assuming the people in this group stand in contrast to welfare mommas and mooches. Not that the sorts don’t exist, but I’d certainly not want the responsibility of deciding who falls into that category and who doesn’t when I stand in judgment on the last day. IVAN, I SAY TO YOU, YOU DECIDED THAT MS. X WAS NOT OF THE DESERVING POOR, AND RENDERED HER NOT JUSTICE NOR MERCY. WELL, IVAN, I’VE DECIDED YOU’RE NOT OF THE SAVED. BYE BYE *toilet flushing*

    • Ted Seeber

      The homeless ministry I serve on the board of, is proud of not keeping a record of the identity of those we serve. We are entirely reliant upon the intuition and working of the Holy Spirit in a single woman for the service you describe.

      I’ve taken a walk with her. People I would’t have thought to be even hungry, let alone deserving, got a sandwich and socks and sometimes other goods from her. People I later found out to be quite homeless- some of which had not changed their socks in over a month, let alone anything else.

      If she’s erring on the side of caution- then let us all do so.

    • yan

      Ivan, do you perhaps take your Christian name for purposes of blogging from Ivan Karamazov? Work your except here into a several-page-long tale about the Second Coming and you have the beginnings of an important novel on your hands…

      • ivan_the_mad

        Ha! No, although I love Dostoevsky, and I’m totally keeping my ticket.

        • yan

          Can I take your idea then?

  • yan

    I always thought that Lady Marchmain’s opinions about the compatibility of riches and Catholicism were more than a trifle self-serving.
    This is a great and timely topic; we just had the gospel about the rich young ruler a couple weeks ago.
    First, I think that most of even the so called poor in this country are rich by Bible standards and in danger of their salvation. They are fat, have plenty to eat, don’t work enough, and have all kinds of gadgets which distract them from the actions they should be taking in order to fulfill their duty to love their neighbor. So, this issue doesn’t really bear upon the political conflict about how much we should tax and how much we should spend in precisely the way one might assume.
    Second, while the homeless suffer many indignities on a daily basis, most of the ones living in cities seem to be doing fairly well in a material sense [although, like the Son of Man, they may have no place to lay their head], and with little motivation to stand up on their own. ‘If any one will not work, let him not eat.’ Not to sound too protestant here, but work is important for salvation too. See Genesis 3 for instance, and a Pauline epistle or two.
    Third, there are individuals who are poor and who work hard. They may have to endure crushing debts caused by family break ups which they didn’t want to happen resulting in lawyer fees child support and alimony. These are the real invisible poor, IMO. I don’t see anybody publicly caring about them. They are victims of CHOICE. And we love choice. This is America.

    • “Second, while the homeless suffer many indignities on a daily basis, most of the ones living in cities seem to be doing fairly well in a material sense [although, like the Son of Man, they may have no place to lay their head], and with little motivation to stand up on their own. ”

      I pray God will forgive your breathtaking ignorance of the homeless. You should go out and live with them for a time, in real solidarity. Endure their marginalisation. Enjoy their malnutrition and lack of basic healthcare you take for granted (like clean dry feet and toilets and showers whenever you require them.) Face their actual temptation to escape this misery by whatever means avail themselves. Unless you are already sainted, I give you a month, 6 weeks tops, befor eyou yourself are a drunken lazy bum, sunk in a pit of despair.

      • yan

        Actually, I’ve been there, once, for several months. Sleeping in doorways and train stations and fields; often cold, and often hungry, and not often clean. And not in a major city; so, I did get a little skinny. And I did eat from trash. But I was young and otherwise in good health. However, I did experience great doses of marginalization, which, to some extent, was probably deserved. But not entirely. The impressions from that experience will hopefully stay with me forever, because they helped me to find Jesus Christ.

        It’s definitely different for those that are older, I grant you that. And it could have been worse and, I did have an opportunity to change my situation, which I took. Don’t misunderstand me as judging any homeless person. I still think it is true, however, that many of them have their material needs, by biblical standards, mostly taken care of, if they live in major cities. Some, in addition, have grown remarkably arrogant, with an attitude of entitlement. I don’t remember things being that way when I was younger.

        As for showing solidarity with the homeless, I thought the way you do when I was younger. There is something to be said for that. There is also something to be said for working. If there is a choice between the two, I will take work.

        Anyway, thanks for your prayers, my friend. I found your story to be inspiring and thought-provoking. Hang in there.

        • You can work and still live in solidarity with the homeless. Catholic Workers do it regularly.

          I admit my only experiences with homelessness were my own in San Diego, for 8 weeks (though homeless in San Diego for me was really just choosing to sleep on the beach to save my dough for booze) and my current experiences with the homeless of urban Atlanta. Maybe every other city is different, but in Atlanta, things are not at all as you describe them.

          • yan

            I am surprised that things are bad in Atlanta. I have seen a great deal of charity work done for the homeless in my city. I have been part of that from time to time [during penitential seasons] not in any big way, and I have never seen any homeless person turned away, or even denied a second portion, because we ran out of food. And BTW the food was and is damn good and plenty nutritious and I eat it when I am done with my shift.

            The charity is located conveniently in the middle of the city so that any able bodied homeless person can eat and drink there if he or she chooses to do so. It is well stocked because it is a Catholic charity and the people in the town are generous. There is also an evangelical run rescue mission nearby that those so-minded may go to if they prefer to hear a homily before they chow down. When I was evangelical, I used to be a part of that part of the operation on occasion.

            What I see is that some people, a lot of people, actually choose to live on the streets, even when given the opportunity to get off the streets. Many are mentally ill and many have substance abuse problems. The latter mostly stay on the streets by choice. As for the former, I think we have a serious problem on our hands.

            So, I don’t think that homelessness is an indictment of our society, except perhaps that we should probably try to find a better way to deal with the mentally ill in a way that does not violate their constitutional rights. Not so easy, actually.

    • Ted Seeber

      Most of the homeless I’ve run into serving with Our Peaceful Place, are working.

  • DB

    “Wealth creates immorality.”

    Now there’s some awesome “logic” for you. Let’s add this irrational statement to others of a similar kind:

    “Only white people can be racists.”
    “Guns kill people.”
    “Only the government can solve the problem of poverty.”
    “I’m not in favor of abortion. I’m pro-choice.”
    “Anthropological global warming will destroy the planet.”
    “Catholic Social Teaching really means justice for the poor and nothing else.”
    “It’s impossible for poor people to be greedy.”
    “St. Augustine never really claimed that government is a necessary evil.”

    God Bless!


    • Mark Shea

      Thank you for the reflexive regurgitation of irrelevant culture war talking points. I was asking for a debate, not a barf-fest of knee jerk tropes beloved by Talk Radio programmed brains. Please note what other participants in the thread are doing and try to imitate. Or leave. Your choice.

    • Dan C

      For context, this was in a thread in which the conversation turned to the defend in varied ways the point that “Welfare creates immorality” (in which the favored immorality of choice was described-breakdown of the family, crime, sexual immorality, etc.). I noted that the Gospel speaks differently than, say Robert Sirico’s more recent book, in which wealth is not only defended but praised and advanced in varied forms as a sign of virtue or a sign of God’s favor. (While he advances divine responsibilities on the wealth-holder too, he does not do this extensively or too often.) I advanced the point differently, that from Luke “Woe to the rich.” Or read Acts (also by Luke.) And then one can read every other psalm and see similarly.

      That is the context. There is another saying “Money is the root of all evil.” It is not necessarily a left-wing culture war trope. I would think this saying pre-dates the culture war.

      • Mark Shea

        Sadly, DB will not be returning. I prefer respectful commenters, not insulting jackasses, on my blog

  • Evan

    I disagree that wealth *creates* immorality. As others said earlier, the fall and human nature creates immorality. And immorality leads to greed and to man worshiping mammon. I do agree that wealth is an occasion of sin that often leads to people choosing to be greedy. But usually, those choices begin long before one is wealthy.
    King Louis IX of France along with Queen Elizabeth of Hungary are saints, so it is possible for the rich man to enter heaven, just extremely difficult. If wealth actually created immorality, I think it would be safe to say all rich people are in hell.

  • Mark S. (not for Shea)

    “For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.” You can’t put it any simpler or truer than that, and yet we Americans instinctively wince at it. In fact, we bend over backwards to “yes, but…” the whole truth of it.

  • Pathfinder

    I’m not sure if wealth in and of itself creates immorality — it probably provides a great temptation due to the wealthy having more means to debauch themselves with, plus greater opportunity to insulate oneself in a little bubble of pleasure and privledge which eats away at awareness of a greater world outside the gates and which destroys one’s humility and grace…to be wedded to the material things of this world above all other things, even God.
    However, the greatest moral danger appears to be within the idea of the righteousness of wealth — that somehow the wealthy man is more moral, more deserving of the blessings (which are usually material of nature) due to greater sanctity, due to the amount of wealth they have. Conversely, that the poor are somehow deserving of their degraded state (possibly deserve to be degraded further) because they are somehow immoral, unholy, and mean because they are poor.
    That, it would appear to me, to be the greatest affront to God — to think of one’s fellow man as a subhuman all because he does not have material wealth.

  • Marthe Lépine

    Re: Pathfinder. I have a question, not just for Pathfinder, but for whoever is able to answer me. Is not the idea that a wealthy man is somewhat more deserving and that such wealth is a reward from God, and that the poor are somehow deserving of their degraded state, coming from some aspects of Protestantism? Calvinism comes to mind, but I could be mistaken and I do not want to attack any denomination, but I have seen Calvinism mentioned in some of the material I have read about poverty, particularly an old book by Canadian journalist and historian Pierre Berton (entitled, if I remember correctly, The Smug Minority – published around 1969) I would really like some clarification, or a link to some material about this.

    • Dante Aligheri

      Yes. Unfortunately, this can be found in the Prosperity Gospel theology. I think it ultimately goes back to the Calvinist idea of predestination and the so-called Protestant Work Ethic – namely, that one of the signs of being among the elect was material blessing from God. In the past this was sometimes connected with Social Darwinism, too. Like you said, not all Protestants hold to this idea. Admittedly, sometimes the stories of the Patriarchs in the Old Testament do sound like this idea – that moral righteousness is rewarded with material benefits. While this is not incorrect, sometimes this is misinterpreted, I think, to mean material benefits imply righteousness, and, therefore, poverty (and other misfortunes) are the results of sin.

      • Marthe Lépine

        Thank you, I appreciate your taking the trouble to reply.

    • beccolina

      I’m not an authority by any means, but I’ve heard that this was part of Hebrew belief. One of our priests talked about how Jesus’s statement about how hard it is for the rich to enter the Kingdom was quite shocking, because the Hebrew PoV was that God had blessed and favored the rich, so they were MORE likely to go to Heaven. Tax collectors and foreigners were exceptions, of course.

      • Marthe Lépine

        And thank you too. This is a good point.

      • The traditional Jewish understanding of the Covenant through most of history has been that it is about here and now. If you read it, God does not promise them life eternal, He promises them material security and flourishing in this life commensurate to the degree they keep the law.

        Jewish understandings of the afterlife are not at all what one would assume based on Christian beliefs. And ignorance of the jewish beliefs leads some Christians to error. For example, many protestants deny purgatory as a Catholic innovation, when nothing could be further from the truth. A place of purgation before going on to the Beatific Vision has always been understood by Jews, at least by pharisees, from which most all Jews today are descended in praxis.

        Hell is the shocking new teaching from the founder of Catholicism though. It was so novel to His audience, our Lord had to use the local garbage dump/incenerator to even begin to demonstrate what such a place would look like.

  • I am torn. Wealth, the store of value, creates material well-being. Depending on the owner, this well-being can be shared by many.

    Here are two examples.

    A waste disposal company in a US state proudly boasts to its shareholders that no new garbage tips have opened in its state since 1991. Well, frankly, that sucks. Shareholders get wealthy at the expense of people in the state who pay monopoly fees to the non-state monopoly owner. Wealth and wealth production is corrupting.

    On the other hand a man convinces some people, but not many, to build an iron ore mine in Australia. Most people say he’s mad. He succeeds, creates lots of jobs and pays a lot of tax. He himself becomes very rich.

    He’s created wealth and well-being for a lot of people by supplying a need in the market efficiently. The collective would never have undertaken this risk. Benefits should flow to him.

    The likelihood, however, is that he too and his children will be corrupted by this wealth.

    I don’t know. I think there are various ways in which you can make your money either virtuously or not but ultimately wealth does corrupt. But wealth also does a lot of good and it’s not clear to me that the collective is well disposed to creating wealth. I really don’t know but I thank you for making me think about it.

  • Andy S

    Is wealth accumulation dangerous in itself? Or, is the real concern with the wealthy that don’t tithe to their parish and don’t support other charitable causes? When is the line to gravely dangerous wealth accumulation crossed? Once you have accumulated $15,000? $150,000? $1,500,000? Can one be a good steward of the talents/blessings received from God, as opposed to a greedy money grubber?

    • The line is when you think first of the wealth and second of people. That can happen at $0.01, if you allow greed to infect your mind. As soon as accumulating wealth becomes a goal in itself, you have crossed the line.

      So yes, one can be a good steward even of vast material blessings from God, but only by thinking first of whom you may serve, and by not concerning yourself with how or how much God will provide the means. For us sinful fallen men, that’s no easier than shoving a camel through a needle’s eye.

      • But you can’t accumulate wealth while being concerned for people. The reality of it makes it impossible. The wealth that would accumulate flows through your fingers so quickly because the needs surrounding us are so great. There are always the sick to be visited, and the captive to ransom, and the hungry to feed and the naked to clothe and the homeless to shelter. No matter how many opportunities you create for others to provide for themselves, there is a fresh and endless supply of widows and orphans, the blind and lame, not to mention good old fashioned mendicants for the sake of the Kingdom. If you are giving to whoever asks of you, you never have the chance to stockpile an extra coat, much less a hefty 401k.

  • Kristen inDallas

    Hmmm… interesting discussion. Personally, I think that all of us our rich (in some sense of the word) and all of us are poor. For example, a man without a job may be poor in cash, but he is simultaneously rich with free time. A man high up the career ladder may be rich in money or power, but often poor in free time, relationships or spirit. We all have our crosses to bear and we can all participate in making another person’s life better by offering up the thing that we have in abundance. A well off friend with a busy schedule and a family may offer money or a meal, while the unemployed single friend may offer an evening of babysitting and everyone is lifted up. I’m not suggesting that all these balances of excess should be quid pro quo transactions, just that everyone is capable of being a good neighboor/good friend regardless of their situation. On the flip side, we are all capable of offending God by either hoarding/squandering the thing we have in excess or covetting the blessings of another. (Covetting doesn’t just mean asking for help, but thinking we are somehow more deserving entitled to another person’s gifts, usually while ignoring our own gifts). As a single working mom, I don’t really have an abundance of wealth or time, but I can meet my needs, and I know that it is wrong when I get envious of the stockbroker. It’s equally wrong when I am envious of the welfare check.

    When it comes to giving back, I try to just figure out what it is I DO have in abundance: love, purpose, dignity, I have them in spades. (and yes it IS possible to hoard purpose, just note any mom who likes to play the martyr, pretending the family can’t run without her and everyone “needs” her). So I try to give those things back at least. If I have a dollar to spare the homeless guy, I want to do that to, but I live in an area where I pass more homeless people in a year than I have dollars, so most of the time, all I have to give is a smile, a good morning, a “hang in there,” a blessing. It may not seem like much, but people with a shortage of money often get shortchanged on dignity too. And that is something I can give away easily, so there’s no excuse not to. Sometimes I think we focus too much on these big sacrifices that we ought to make but don’t, or maybe on the one time we did make a painful sacrifice as an excuse to sit back and feel righteous. The little easy insignaificant gifts we give, the ones that we give for the sake of the other and don’t even take credit for because we barely even notice it, I think those might just be the most important things we do.

    • Yes, this is the problem with asking how much of my material wealth should I give to charities!!!

      I never give a homeless man a dime, unless I already know him very well. I walk with him to the nearest diner, or even a gas station since most have decent food these days, buy us both a bellyful and sit and listen, and sometimes talk. You wouldn’t believe what it does for a man to be able to walk into a place he has been driven from in the past as a no goodnik and a beggar, with his newfound friend beside him, not to bother anyone, but to sit down like a normal human being in this society and just enjoy a plate of eggs.

      And God literally speaks through these people. I have made several important life decisions on the basis of nothing more than the advice of a ragged drunkard. What city to live in, what job to take, whether or not to put that gun to my own head. The poor are the greatest blessing on this earth, even the smelly, ugly mean ones.

      • Exactly, Zeki. The only charity that works are the ones where we get our own hands dirty.

        • Of course. And the demand that government intervene in bettering the lives of the poor is not rooted in charity but in justice.

          This is why I keep recommending the Social JUSTICE encyclicals to you and your confreres.

          • (going to be hard for this to not sound snarky but it is honest inquiry)

            You’ve mentioned before of being a native american, so I’ve been wondering, how is the social justice of the Bureau of Indian Affairs for you and your people? What of it do you think would best help out the others needing social justice?

        • But this is why I am wholly unimpressed with talk of Romney’s charitable giving, for example. Poor people entering his pantry should be seeing his face, he should be there to greet them, to welcome them, sleeves up, hands dirty. He lacks the time, getting involved instead in that thing you profess to despise, the use of guns to tell folks what they ought to do.

          • So we can both unite and agree on our dislike of Romney.

            (then again, I think you’ve hit upon why we’ll never get to vote any saints into office – they’re too busy with the important stuff)

            • I’m more and more becoming a christian anarchist everyday. If God wanted men to vote, He would have given us candidates. I work toward a pacifist revolution, where society is changed one soul at a time through encouraging industry and thrift and love, values definitely not lacking in the poor and downtrodden, if ‘society’ and ‘government’ would just quit trodding them down.

            • And would you mind terribly not calling me “Zeki”? “Hez” is fine though.

              • Or you can call me as my family calls me when I behave poorly, “Wart”.

                • “Wart”? Isn’t that the proto name of Author (remembered especially from Disney’s Sword in the Stone) 😉

                  • Dan C

                    Wart is how King Arthur was referred to in “The Once and Future King,” the first part of which became Disney’s “The Sword in the Stone.”

                  • It is an insult derived from my proper ‘name’, “He giggles like a frog” literally, or usually in English, “Laughing Frog”. My grandmother named me such because I laugh at inappropriate times, and it does sound kinda like a bullfrog, “Chuh-huh, Chuh-huh”.

                    “Wart” is what happens when a frog pisses on you. So when I behave poorly, that is to say pretty regularly, my family calls me Wart.

  • caroline

    Did any of you ever read probably in grade school the Aesop’s Fable about the man who went to market with his little boy in order to sell the donley and how in the end the donkey winded up dead because the man kept taking the pious advice of everyone he met? I think even Our Lord would have been amused at that story.

    • I don’t recall any of it being pious, but it is a great illustration of subsidiarity. The man and boy who owned the donkey are best able to determine the donkey’s needs and their own simply because they knew the donkey in question. But it was also evident, by the end, that not thinking for themselves left them mushyheaded. When people objected to the burden of the poor donkey in carrying a grown man and his pudgy son, it was downright stupid to tote the donkey on a pole.

  • Elaine S.

    I think I get what everyone is trying to say here, but the nagging question I have is, if “wealth creates immorality” then why are communities and neighborhoods with a lot of poor people such dangerous places to live and work? Wouldn’t we all be eager to raise our children in public housing or trailer parks or ghettos, where they could be exposed to much better role models than in an expensive suburban community, if that were the case? Now I realize that there are many good people, perhaps even many saints, living in poor and crime-ridden communities, performing acts of charity and encouragement far more heroic than I could ever hope to do. But overall, if wealth equaled evil and poverty equaled virtue, I would think that would translate into a poor neighborhood being a safer place to be at night than a wealthy gated community, and we all know that’s not the case.

    • The majority of the crime in poor neighborhoods is attributable, not to poverty, but to a combination of the entrepreneurial spirit and laws which protect the prerogatives of wealthy suburbanites at the expense of the poor. That is to say drug dealers, pimps and muggers. Or in other words, local businessmen. As long as it is safer to sell crack and engage in “white slavery” than it is to sell hotdogs or jam, you’re going to see such crime.

      • Elaine S.

        Another reason to call into question the value of over-regulating, licensing, permitting and credentialing businesses. It’s one thing to demand a certain standard of education and licensing for highly specialized professions such as medicine and law. But when you have to have a license to be, say, a hairdresser or a plumber or to repair cars, that means you have to spend money on taking the required courses, then you usually have to pay a licensing fee to the state, then you have to spend MORE money on getting the license periodically renewed — all of which in effect keeps poor people or people having financial difficulty out of these professions. (In some states, people who owe back taxes or are in arrears on child support payments are denied professional licenses, which really makes a lot of sense — punish someone for being in debt by depriving them of their main means of getting OUT of said debt.) While professional licensing is often presented as a way of protecting the public from “unscrupulous” or “unqualified” vendors, practitioners, etc., rarely is it the public who demands these measures; more often than not it’s others in the same profession/industry who are mainly interested in reducing their potential competition.

        • Irenist

          Amen, Elaine, amen!

        • Exactly, and it’s a lot of these measures that end up making welfare and crime more profitable than honest work. (and in my opinion, all the examples you provided are just another form of “tax” by the government)

  • Dante Aligheri

    Interesting points. I think that sin and immorality can be far more subtle and pernicious than overt violence – that is, the “lukewarm,” the quiet acceptance of the present immoralities which are taken for granted and passed by. The passing priest in the Good Samaritan parable was not particularly violent, just inactive. In short, evil does not always manifest itself in violence. This is dangerous because the so-called “everyday,” “middle-class” person does not even recognize these evils nor do we recoil at it collectively via the media, etc. Yet one could say they are just as prone to sin as those in impoverished areas – just different types of sin and lending to the possibility of an pharisaic blindness to social responsibility and more subtle, inter- and intra-personal sin. One could live the perfectly “respectable” life of Ebenezer Scrooge and still be a miserable human being. Wealth, I think, can facilitate these “lukewarm” attitudes as does a “live-let live” mentality. Also, one could argue that poverty is, much of the time though not all the time and especially in an affluent country, a symptom of a misuse of wealth and creative freedom. In addition, one could argue that the glorification of wealth and the consumerist, individualist, hedonist lifestyle it produces (please do not make too much of this generalization and following statement as it may stereotype too much) equally infects the poor so that they are disordered in their desires to participate in the disordered image projected by the wealthy, mainstream cultural elite. Wealth might trap them, too (like in people trying to live beyond their means for no good reason, as in the “quick loan” industry and which contributed to the Recession of 2008; I do not know specific circumstances so this might be a generalization, too).

    • I wish I could remember precisely where Chesterton talks about this (it may have been Day or Maurin for all my memory is working today…) but I am pretty sure Chesterton goes to some lengths about the injustice of making the destructive, sinful habits of the upper crust available to the poor. One of his chief examples I recall was no fault divorce, that because rich men can hire PI’s and lawyers to cover up their perjury in acquiring divorce under the old laws, it was decided this was unfair to the poor that they also couldn’t destroy their families on a whim, and so divorce laws were laxed and then no-fault instituted.

      Maybe Mark or Sean Dailey remember the passage?