Does that title feel jarring? It probably should not, since great wealth is among the new beatitudes, including “blessed are the impure,” “blessed are the war-makers” and “blessed are those who obtain vengeance.”
I am not raising this touchy topic to condemn all rich people. I would have to condemn my own comfortable and secure life (and maybe I should). I would have to ignore the evidence of wealthy people who generously serve others and share their bounty. More foolishly, I would have to ignore the fact that Jesus counted the wealthy Lazarus and his sisters among his friends and warmly welcomed Zacchaeus, who promised to give back anything unjustly accumulated as well as half his largess.
But if one seriously considers the Gospels, it is an inescapable fact that Jesus had major issues with the accumulation of riches—especially in the midst of human suffering and poverty. Like other human goods, riches can enslave us; but unlike the softer or warmer mortal sins, our blind adherence to riches can harden us in self-righteous selfishness, creating a chasm between ourselves and the poor as well as God—the fate of the rich man, “Dives,” in Jesus’ parable.
I could fill this column just with sayings of Jesus concerning wealth and poverty, and they might burn our ears. Maybe that is why we do not hear much about those texts. Let it rest, however, that Jesus himself, in a description of history’s upshot and of our own destiny, said that it came down to clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, visiting the sick or imprisoned and other acts described in Matthew 25. It is clear that Jesus wants people to have good clothing, food and shelter. But it is iniquitous when we amass more and more to ourselves while others have nothing.
It is worth remembering these things as we hear from Christian politicians the smug sound bites that the poor have caused their own problem, that if they are poor they should work harder, that the way to solve our economic problems is to tax them for a loaf of bread—the same amount a millionaire might pay.
I am making here no brief for President Obama or the Democratic Party. If anything, they make matters worse by using the rhetoric of advocacy for the poor while they themselves are loath to do anything that might jeopardize their own privilege.
The Gospels are also worth remembering when we witness the hostile reaction of some Catholics in the face of any challenge from the Vatican to unbridled capitalism. The most recent statement from the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace is a great example. It is titled “Towards Reforming the International Financial and Monetary Systems in the Context of Global Public Authority.” As the document itself clarifies, it is an attempt to respond to “the needs of all peoples.”
The document’s preface makes clear that we are called to make “a thorough examination of every facet of the problem—social, economic, cultural and spiritual” with the one goal of implementing the work of Christ. Echoing Pope Paul VI in “Populorum Progressio” (1967), it is centered on the universal value of human dignity and the quest for the common good.
Now, there may indeed be different prudential judgments as to how we might ensure human dignity and the common good in the face of human need. But why is there such resistance even to bringing up the topic?
In The National Review Online, the Catholic commentator George Weigel goes out of his way to denigrate the recent document: “The truth of the matter is that ‘the Vatican’…called for precisely nothing in this document.” Weigel calls it a “‘note’ from a rather small office in the Roman Curia.” This is the same rhetorical tactic he used in his attempt to diminish Pope Benedict’s encyclical “Caritas in Veritate” as “incoherent sentimentalism” concocted by justice and peace advisors exploiting the “gentle soul” of Benedict, “who may have thought it necessary to include in his encyclical these multiple off-notes.”
I often wonder what George Weigel or Newt Gingrich or Representative Paul Ryan, Catholics all, might say of the multiple “off-notes” that Jesus sounded in the Gospels. Is he “outside his area of competence”? Is he stoking “class warfare”? Or is he calling us to a way of life that does not have capitalism as its bottom line?