OF THE CHURCH
1. The principles of Christianity concerning poverty set forth in the preceding chapter should be completed by the teachings of the Gospel concerning material goods and the use we should make of them.
God, the Creator, said to the first couple: "Fill the earth and subdue it; and rule over the fishes of the sea, and the fowls of the air and all living creatures." [Gen. 1: 28].
The Psalmist sang of this dominion of man over the whole of nature with these expressions of gratitude to God. "Thou hast set him over the works of thy hands. Thou hast subjected all things under his feet, all sheep and oxen: moreover the beasts also of the fields. The birds of the air and the fishes of the sea that pass through the paths of the sea." [Ps. 8: 7 -9]. Thus did God give to man the right to occupy the earth, to till it, to enjoy its fruits and to make the very animals serve his uses and needs. In sum, He gave him the right to use all material goods as a means for the conservation of life.
But material goods not only serve to satisfy the legitimate needs of life; they also serve to satisfy desires and to provide comforts and pleasures. That is why they are so easily abused by man.
2. All men have the right to possess and to enjoy the goods necessary for life.
The right to life, indeed, carries with it the right to the possession of material goods. We will treat of this more fully in the following chapters. Here we should, however, point out that material goods are unevenly distributed. This accounts for the social phenomenon of poverty, which we have already examined, and the contrary phenomenon of wealth, which we are about to examine.
Wealth is the condition of those who possess abundant means, beyond what is sufficient for life. We also give the name wealth to the goods themselves that produce wealth. How must we look upon wealth in the light of Christianity? What are the teachings of Christ and the Church concerning its use and its distribution?
These are questions which we propose to answer. And in order to set forth more clearly the originality, the nobility and the benefit of the teachings of Christ on this subject, we will first consider how wealth was regarded and employed in the pagan world.
Riches in the Pagan World
1. Before Christ, the wealthy man could use and misuse his goods without any limitations and without any consideration for others. Even in the midst of starving people, he could destroy the wheat with which his granaries were bulging. Pity for the poor, help for the needy and almsgiving were generally unknown, neglected and often despised as acts of weakness.
Pagan philosophy and religion imposed no duty upon the rich toward the poor. Dives, gorging himself and letting Lazarus starve at his door [Lk. 16: 19-31], is the type of the rich man in pagan times.
Such was the idea, and such the use of riches in the pagan world. The greater the riches, the greater the reveling, was the order of the day. And what of those who had nothing? "Let us not speak of them, but look and pass:"
2. Consequently, in those days there were a few immensely wealthy men, living in luxury, surrounded by an immense crowd of poor suffering people. The writers of those times describe the fabulous riches of the Roman patricians ----- numerous mansions and villas with all sorts of luxuries, lands and rich furnishings without limit.
A wealthy Roman possessed hundreds of garments. The poet Horace tells us that Lucullus ----- celebrated for his sumptuous banquets, known as Lucullan ----- on one occasion loaned to a theatrical agent five thousand mantles which he kept in his wardrobe for family use, while in the poor quarters of Rome thousands upon thousands of poor wretches languished and shivered from cold. And ----- horrible to say! ----- one of the chief items of the long list of assets of these owners was represented by human flesh, by men ----- chattels, slaves. The wealthy Roman owned thousands of them. The famous writer Pliny tells us that under Emperor Augustus, a rich landlord by the name if Isodor Sicilius, in spite of having lost a considerable portion of his wealth during the civil wars, still had 4,116 slaves when he died.
Jesus and Riches
The Divine Redeemer also heals this social sore of Mammonism [the cult of Mammon -----the god of money].
He does not condemn riches; He proclaims the dangers of them; He teaches their proper use and points out the advantages of such use.
1. HE DOES NOT CONDEMN RICHES
One day a rich young man comes to Him and says: "Good Master, what good work shall I do that I may have life everlasting?" Jesus replies: "Keep the commandments:" All that is necessary for salvation is to keep the commandments of God: one need not give up his goods.
But the young man insists: "All these I have kept . . . what is yet is wanting to me?" And Jesus answered: "If thou wilt be perfect, go sell what thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in Heaven; and come follow me." [Matt. 19: 16-21].
Therefore, whoever wishes to be perfect must not only keep the commandments but also strip himself of all his goods. This, however, is a counsel, not a universal precept. Jesus wanted His Apostles to abandon everything: home, their few belongings, wife and children, in order to follow Him. But among the disciples of Jesus during His apostolic travels, we find also some pious women, "who used to provide for them out of their means." [Lk. 8: 1-3]. To these He does not enjoin absolute poverty. Lazarus of Bethany was rich, and yet Jesus calls him friend. [Jn. 11: 11].
2. HE PROCLAIMS THE DANGERS OF RICHES
The Gospel tells us how that rich young man, upon the final proposal of Jesus, "went away sad, for he had great possessions:" And the Divine Master then said to His disciples: "Amen, I say unto you, that a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of Heaven." [Matt. 19: 22-23].
Riches make it difficult to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.
(a) Because by affording us many comforts here below, they more easily make us forget God and Heaven.
(b) Because they afford us many means of gratifying our most exigent and dangerous passions.
(c) Because they are likely to render us proud and covetous by making us neglect the grave duties that riches impose, as we shall see presently.
Here is how St. Paul, faithful interpreter of Christ's mind, comments on the advantages of poverty, contrasting them with the dangers of riches.
"But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into this world, and certainly we can carry nothing out; but having food and wherewith to be covered, with these we are content. For they that will become rich fall into temptation and into the snare of the devil, and into many unprofitable and hurtful desires, which drown men into destruction and perdition. For the desire of money is the root of all evils, which some coveting have erred from the faith, and have entangled themselves in many sorrows." [1 Tim. 6: 6-10].
3. HE TEACHES THE PROPER USE OF RICHES
"With difficulty," said Jesus, "will a rich man enter the Kingdom of Heaven."
But difficult does not mean impossible. The rich man, too, therefore, can and must be saved. Indeed, he can attain the highest degree of perfection, making good use of his wealth. Among the Saints, there were many rich men. But in order to be saved, one must make proper use of riches. For that purpose Jesus teaches that it is necessary:
(a) To keep one's heart detached from earthly goods, that is to be poor in spirit if not in fact. The latter is required of a few, the former of all. "Blessed are the poor in spirit" [Matt. 5: 3], said Our Lord: and poor in spirit are also the rich whose hearts are not attached to their riches.
Jesus said: "You cannot serve God and mammon" [namely riches]. [Matt. 6: 24]. He did not say that one cannot possess, but that one cannot serve wealth. That is, we may not make a master or an idol of money, sacrificing everything to it, even our conscience. We may possess money without being possessed by it.
(b) Before God we are to consider ourselves not as owners, but only as tenants of our goods.
"Or what hast thou that thou hast not received?" asks the Apostle Paul. [1 Cor: 4:7]. The absolute master of everything is God, who grants us the use of some of His goods. Of this use we must render Him a strict account: "Give an account of thy stewardship." [The Parable of the unjust steward: Lk. 16: 1-8].
Now our Heavenly Master wants us to use His goods for our legitimate needs, not to gratify our passions.
(c) Furthermore, He wants us to give what is superfluous to the poor:
Already the Precursor, foreshadowing the mind of Christ, had told the people of Israel: "He that hath two coats, let him give to him that hath none; and he that hath meat, let him do in like manner:" [Lk. 3: 11].
The Divine Redeemer is even more absolute with this precept of His: "Give that which remains as alms" [Lk. 11: 41]; in other words, that which is not necessary for the support of oneself and his family, according to each one's social condition.
On this point Leo XIII explains: "No one is obliged to distribute to others that which is required for his own needs and those of his household; nor even to give away what is reasonably required to keep up becomingly his condition in life; 'for no one ought to live in a manner that is not becoming.' [St. Thomas]. But, when necessity and convenience have been satisfied, it is our duty to give what is left over to the poor. It is not a duty of justice, except in cases of extreme necessity, but of Christian charity." [Encyclical Rerum Novarum].
Unjustly persecuted by the police, without a cent in his pocket, having given his last pennies to some starving beggars whom he met on the road, Renzo leaves his native town and goes to his cousin Bartolo to ask for help. "Very well, you may count on me. God has blessed me with goods that I may do good:' [The Betrothed, Chap. 17]. How much wisdom and Christian charity in those words! Everyone who has been favored with goods from God should repeat both in words and in fact: "God has blessed me with goods that I may do good."
The famous apologist Tertullian said that the rich man was created to be God's treasurer upon earth. Now when the rich man gets to be like that we can well speak of the dignity of the rich, as we have already spoken of the dignity of the poor.
4. HE POINTS OUT THE ADVANTAGES DERIVED FROM THE PROPER USE OF RICHES
Riches, far from being an evil, become an instrument of good, a source of merit, when rightly used. The benefits of their right use, and particularly of alms-giving are indeed many. Let us review some of them.
1. The right use of riches opens the Kingdom of Heaven to us.
Jesus, in fact, will say to the elect on the Day of Judgment: "Come, ye blessed of my Father, possess you the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me to eat; I was thirsty and you gave me to drink." [Matt. 25: 34-35]. It is noteworthy that here Jesus identifies Himself with the poor.
These explicit words are also of Jesus: "Make unto you friends of the mammon of iniquity; that when you shall fail, they may receive you into everlasting dwellings." [Lk. 16: 9].
2. The right use of riches merits for us the help and blessings of God.
Jesus said: "Give, and it shall be given to you . . ." [Lk. 6: 38]; you shall receive not in Heaven only, but also on earth, for God does not allow the charitable man to lack the necessities in life. The Holy Spirit says: "He that hath mercy on the poor, lendeth to the Lord:" [Prov. 19: 17].
And he who lends to the Lord, receives a very high rate of interest, and puts his money in a bank that never fails.
The widow of Sarephta says to the prophet Elias who asks her for food in the days of the great famine, because of the long drought: "I have no bread, but only a handful of meal in a pot, and a little oil in a cruse." Nevertheless, with the little that she had she prepared a cake, and from that day, through the special intervention of God, "the pot of meal wasted not and the cruse of oil was not diminished" till the rain came. [3 Kgs. 17].
How true the proverb: "You will never grow poor by giving alms."
The Teachings of the Church
1. The Church has always re-echoed the teachings of Christ concerning the use of temporal goods. She has never preached nor required perfect economic equality [ideally desirable and in keeping with the principles of human brotherhood] for the reason that such equality is practically impossible. Nevertheless, She has always condemned great inequalities that give rise to overabundance on the one hand and misery on the other. If the distances that separate the various social classes cannot be eliminated, they can at least be shortened. This is both possible and a duty.
Among the teachings of the Church on this subject, we will cite only two: one from the early days of Christianity and the other from modern times.
2. In the primitive Church it was the custom to hold agapes, or love feasts, in which all the faithful of every social class took part by mingling together the foods they brought with them [the rich more, the poor less] and all eating at a common table. However, at Corinth -----as St. Paul tells us -----instead of mingling their foods, each one brought and ate his own supper, so that it sometimes happened that the poor suffered hunger while the rich ate and drank more than necessary and even to excess. "One is hungry and another drinks overmuch;" the Apostle complains, adding this severe reproach: "You despise the Church of God and put to shame the needy:" [1 Cor: 11: 20-22].
3. This sharp contrast between one who has too much and is wasteful and one who is without the necessities and suffers was accentuated in modern times by the capitalist system, giving rise to the so-called distribution and not of production of wealth. Pius XII, in his broadcast referred to above, commemorating Rerum Novarum, categorically declared that "the goods created by God for all men must be made available to all in an equitable manner; according to the principles of justice and charity."
And he added: "The economic wealth of a people does not properly consist of abundance of goods, but rather in a fair distribution of goods. If such a fair distribution were not obtained or should be brought about only imperfectly, then the true end of national economy would be attained, for, no matter how helpful a fortunate abundance of available goods might be, the people, never having been called to share in them, would not be economically rich, but poor. On the contrary, see to it that such a fair distribution is actually brought about in a lasting way and you will see a people, even with smaller available resources, become and remain economically sound."
Pius XII championed an equitable distribution of goods, not only among individuals and social classes, but also among nations. He said: "In the field of a new order founded on moral principles, there is no room for narrow selfish calculations tending to hoard economic resources and materials, destined for the use of all, in such a way that nations less favored by nature are not permitted access to them."
Let us be thankful to the Divine Redeemer that among other blessings He also brought us this: the right use of riches for the salvation of the rich and for the relief of the poor. Let us bear in mind the teachings of St. Paul: "For we brought nothing into this world, and certainly we can take nothing out; but having food and wherewith to be covered, with these we are content." [1 Tim. 6: 7 -8].And let us likewise impress upon our minds this teaching of Leo XIII: "God did not create us for these frail and perishable goods, but for the celestial and eternal, and the earth was given to us by Him as a place of exile and not as a fatherland. Whether you have riches or other earthly goods in abundance or whether you are deprived of them is of no importance as far as eternal happiness is concerned, but the good or bad use of those goods, that is supremely important."
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