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John F. KavanaughNovember 14, 2011

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?

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Mike Evans
11 years 4 months ago
It is pretty clear that Jesus cast his lot with the poor and not with the rich. His challenging statements should make us all cringe a bit everytime we indulge ourselves. Perhaps the Occupy movement will succeed in drawing attention to the need to provide for the poor and design our economic and political systems to accomplish those ends. The voice of the church is helpful, but hardly very loud or, as it seems, very persuasive to those committed to preserving the privileges of wealth. Wonder what Jesus would say?
Robert Killoren
11 years 4 months ago
Father John,

Thank you so very much for exposing the hypocrisy of the likes of George Weigel. They pound the table calling for orthodoxy and adherence to the magesterium. However, they are extremely selective in what they add to their Catholic Cafeteria tray. Face it, George Weigel is the Catholic mouthpiece for the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party. The thing I find distressing is that whenever I preach on social justice themes in homilies that arise directly from the readings of the particular Sunday, I get angry attacks after Mass from those who have been brainwashed by the right wing media. They mouth the same talking points that Mr Weigel uses - virtually word for word. Their justification for ignoring the magesterium is always that the statement in question (for instance treatment of immigrants or the Church's 150 year old teachings on unions) has no official standing in Church doctrine and can be totally ignored. Weigel says they are all "rubbish, rubbish, rubbish." Crisis magazine is another Republican mouthpiece that tries to wiggle out of the authoritative teaching of Curial offices and Bishops Conferences by saying that their statements don't carry any weight, except of course when the statements happen to agree with what they believe, then they are very weighty. Desperately they fall back on the old line that these teachings are not infallible. Well, other than the doctrines of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption, there have been no infallible issuances. These incredibly intelligent men are also masters in taking statements from the Catechism and twisting them in all sorts of incredible contortions to reject anything that sounds like concern for the poor or equitable distribution of wealth and resources, and to push anything that promotes the interests of capitalists, the wealthy, and their corporations.
Robert O'Connell
11 years 4 months ago
Today's Gospel reminds us that we are accountable for our stewardship (of what are actually His gifts to each of us anyhow and not our own private, earned entitlements). 

We are, however, not all bound to a vow of poverty!  Moreover, I do not recall Jesus telling anybody they have a right to some other person's property.  Think of the parable about the virgins and their oil.  Our duty to give is one thing.  I am reticent about the notion that we have a right to spend other people's money, especially in ways they might sincerely believe are wasteful or, worse yet, merely lining the pockets of special interests.

No wonder Jesus said, "Forgive them, they know not what they do." 
Robert Killoren
11 years 4 months ago
The stewardship that God calls us to is far cry from the shrewdness of this world. When the master commends the deceitful steward he is hardly endorsing his actions. Jesus certainly isn't recommending that we act like him. The crook just ripped off the master to feather his own nest - guess what... the master may have commended him, but I doubt he's going to get away unpunished.

The modern day stewards Jesus is pointing to are the Wall Street investment bankers and the Wall Street wizards who shrewdly made billions while ruining the lives of millions of ordinary Americans. And they totally got away with it - why? Their banks are too big to fail and they themselves are too big to jail. Yes, we can all commend them on their shrewdness. You might say they lifted themselves up by their own bootstraps, right? The private wealth they hold was truly amassed by their own hard work... Not! It was the wealth of the middleclass and the poor who earned it by their sweat and blood and had it stolen right out from under them by these shrewd capitalists. 

The wise virgins in this Sunday's Gospel must keep their oil to themselves because they must welcome the bridegroom. The others didn't get it because they were foolish and didn't think ahead. The people who had their wealth redistributed to the rich in the past forty years were not foolish - except to the extent that they thought they would be treated justly and fairly by the American system. No, the oil those very un-virgin bankers have was stolen, and now they don't want to share much less give it back in restitution. Millions of Americans are struggling and suffering while banks and large corporations sit on billions and billions of dollars that once belonged to the workers, and the shopkeepers, and the teachers and firemen. 

The Gospel is filled with stories about the rich and money and they don't look too kindly on the rich. In fact, it is easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than to enter heaven. That's pretty strong language and pretty clear. But Jesus knows that wealth and power corrupts. A few are good stewards like Lazarus and his sisters and Joseph of Arithemea; and others change their ways like Zacchaeus the tax collector, as Fr John reminds us. And God does call upon nations, not just individuals, to be just and willing to share: he calls on Israel to care for the poor, widows, and orphans and to treat immigrants fairly and kindly. He doesn't rob money from the rich and give it to the poor. He asks the rich simply to share the wealth they have with all. All who want to be my disciples, Jesus says, must give up everything and come and follow me. 
annmarie pettenon
11 years 4 months ago




11 years 4 months ago
It is clear that Jesus cared tremendously about the rich man's soul.  However, I don't think he ever recommended that the goverment force the rich man to give his money to the goverment with threat of force and jail time.  In fact this does nothing to help the rich man get to heaven.  I would also argue that this does very little for the poor person since the goverment has a very poor track record in spending money wisely.

Father John,

Rather than encouraging the goverment to force the rich man to give his money to social programs, you need to care about the rich man and convince him to use his time, talent and treasure in order to help the poor.  His salvation depends upon it.
11 years 4 months ago
I continue to be caught by Stephen Colbert's take on this from last year: "Because if this is gonna be a Christian nation that doesn't help the poor, either we've got to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we've got to acknowledge that he commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition - and then admit that we just don't want to do it."

This year, it will be part of the penitential rite for Mass for Christ the King, maybe next weekend too. 
Robert O'Connell
11 years 4 months ago
Please accept my apologies for a postscript:  How should we view Matthew 25:14-29, the parable about the men with five, three and one talents?

Jesus also speaks vigorously and unambiguously about "these least brothers of mine" and the "accursed" who "did not do for one of these least ones" but he leaves it for us to ascertain, and be judged by, how we love our neighbor.  It is not always so clear: we have no difficulty knowing that a ten-year war to protect against weapons of mass destruction that fail to exist is an error, or that the Solyandra loan, albeit far less so, was also - but what about the way we deliver Medicaid, Medicare or Social Security.  Or what about the way virtue is overlooked? 

How can we each respect the dignity of those who disagree with us, how be we love our enemies and our neighbors effectively?  How do we best "follow" Jesus? 

Fr. Kavanaugh notes that "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" and asks, "But why is there such resistance even to bringing up the topic?" which, in turn, leads me to ask if we sincerely address each other when we talk or write on the problems of our time. 
Virginia Edman
11 years 4 months ago
In canada the Conservative government is "gradualy dismantling post-modern Liberal imprints on the nation"  according to writer Kevin Libin in the National Post.  Ayn Rand's ideas remain relevant to the new Conservative drive to make government smaller and leave the poor to struggle on their own.  It is so reminicent of the Republicans who boldly talk of dismantling Medicare and Social Security while saying "no, absolutely no" to more taxes on the rich. 

Another reporter. TV host Brian Lilley from Sun News Network (the Fox News of Canada) argued that the government should not be doing these programs for the poor because Jesus said in Matthew 25 that we are called to do the corporal works of mercy and not the government.  He quotes Rick Santorum on welfare reform and states that governments should not be taking care of people.  He says that ""Aside from visiting the sick and those in prison, the rest are all covered today by government social programs."  This is not good for our souls, he continues.

I do believe that Pope Benedict XVI would support government social programs as the gospel of Jesus. ?
11 years 4 months ago

Thanks for the article about wealth and riches that stirs so much commentary, Fr. Kavanaugh. After nearly 30 years of pastoral ministry among God's people, I am "stuck in the middle" of the comments made. On the one hand, I note that the "entitlement mentality" of the American, and for that matter, Western European, people is at an all time high. I have seen the American work ethic, so prized by our immigrant ancestors, erode before my eyes; it is alive in the newer immigrant communities of Bosnians, Vietnamese and Mexicans who don't take for granted economic productivity or social stability. It is clear to me that taking responsibility for one's own life is at an all time low; our health crisis partly fueled by the American epidemic of obesity is symptomatic of entitled society.

On the other hand, capitalism itself breeds among us addictions to high living through our wanton consumption of energy, electronic gadgetry, and lots of other stuff. Our international dysfunction with China is symptomatic of our capitalistic "incurvatus in se" (Augustine's definition of sin): we consume more and more Chinese stuff, so that they can invest in our T-bonds; as we consume less because of the prolonged recession, the Chinese have less to invest in our Treasury, thereby threatening our ability to service our humongous national debt. And Chinese manufacturing of consumer goods, because of their lower labor costs, trumps American manufacturing because of our higher labor costs.

"Incurvatus in se," indeed. Curved in on ourselves, we consume ourselves to death. O Lord Jesus Christ, open our eyes, help us to find a way out of this avenue of death!

C Walter Mattingly
11 years 4 months ago
Mike Lydon (10),
Thank you for your two paragraph response to the problems. The first, which highlights the entitlement mentality which in its fully developed form produced a bankrupt, socialist Greece, as well as your second paragraph critique of a society excessively dedicated to materialism, both observations coming out of your extensive experience in ministry, are clearly applicable to the problem.

As I have cited elsewhere, Nicolas Kristof reported in the NYTimes that conservatives are far more generous in contributing money and time to the needy than liberals. The main study he cited made clear this was not a democrat/republican phenomenon; rather, the surveyers merely took the response of their clients who identified themselves as conservative or liberal. The greatest correlation as to which factor determined who was most generous was church attendance. Those who regularly attended church gave the most to charity, even when church contributions were excluded from the totals. They also gave more blood, time at food banks, etc.

Coupling this information with Niall Ferguson's observation that the gross, widespread underperformance of our public school systems across the nation, resulting in our undereducated population being increasingly unable to compete with foreign, particularly Asian, cheaper and more skilled labor, and we can postulate a promising solution. Stop simply feeding the person the provided fish.  Teach him to fish on his own. The same religious instruction that effectively encourages those attending church to look out for their fellow man can also provide moral life values other than materialistic consumption. Like Norway, we can return religious and moral instruction to the nation's public classrooms. And we can create welcome competition for our heretofor complacent school unions and administrations by further successful promotion of vouchers and charter schools.

This, along with resurrecting the bipartisan Bowles/Simpson recommendations, which President Obama disastrously discarded, in place of this vote getting class warfare 1% distraction which simply avoids confronting the spending cuts and tax issues that must be addressed, would go far to rectifying the malaise that has been growing in the nation  these recent years. 
Camille Devaney
11 years 4 months ago
Very thoughtful.  We all need to rethink our wealth.  True without the means to help, charity minimally becomes impossible.  Yet are we, am I willing to use my blessings to help in charity and work toward justice or do we/I continue to speak of but act in our own best interest.
11 years 4 months ago

Jesuit priest, Professor John F. Kavanaugh in “Blessed Are The Rich” says, “… it is iniquitous when we amass more and more to ourselves while others have nothing.” He further says, "… They make matters worse … (because) they themselves are loath to do anything that might jeopardize their own privilege.”

I think these words are applicable across the board, with a few exceptions, to politicians, corporate, civic and sadly  religious leaders too, sometimes inclusive as well to those vowed to Religious Poverty,   but who  strive “to be poor in such a way as to want for nothing!”  And even to ordinary folks like me who may be   at  least  “greedy and avaricious at heart.” In some way or the other, we all tend to fall short. Trying to make the  ideal tangible, is so very  illusive!

Within the corpus  of Christianity objectively lived, Poverty is a virtue, a strength, the utter opposite of the attachment to the “fool’s gold” glitter of accumulated mammon. From start to finish Jesus practiced the virtue, the strength of Poverty.  As the Gospel tells, Providence in the stepforwardedness of local  people, especially women, took care of his needs, providing lodging, food, washing his clothing etc., reminiscent of his words, “The Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head!”

Destitution is a sin against the virtue of Justice. Jesus, of course, was never destitute, even on the Cross when he cried out, “Why have you abandoned me?” Even in that extreme Jesus always had his Father into whose good hands he placed himself – his Mother too, thinking of her to the very end and we too, the Church, in the person of the Apostle John.

As Jesus was never destitute, neither are we, nor should we be . And  just as Jesus was an example in Poverty in detachment from the follies of materiality,  so should we be.

But yes, “It is iniquitous when we (the Church especially) amass more and more to ourselves while others (like struggling families a few steps from sumptuous parish tables) have nothing!” And so much more. This reality hurts so much to observe, to talk about –it seems so hard to correct because “they themselves are loath to do anything that might jeopardize their own privilege.” A sumptuous, self-centered Christianity is a grave sin and an insult to Jesus Christ!
Edward Visel
11 years 4 months ago
While I can sympathize with your sentiments, I fail to see the critique as useful on a large scale. Yes, individuals can be more generous, but ultimately, the Bible provides us with an awful macroeconomic model. If we did all live as Jesus did, we would not have had any of the advances that make life better today than a millenium ago. Without the concentration of capital, funding anything - including good things, like scientific research or global health charities - is impossible.

We cannot all give away our belongings until everyone in the world has exactly $47 dollars worth of things, as Rawls showed us. Rather, we need economic diversity as a motivating factor for us to better ourselves. Yes, we do work harder to get that high-paying job, but along the way, we get a better education. Whether motivation by money is moral is doubtful, but it is an everyday reality in our lives.

If we all deny the pull of the temporal realm, society will fall apart. Instead, we as Catholics really need to reexamine what we believe, and how we can reconcile it with what is. Denial of what is without espousing a productive alternative threatens to prove Nietzsche's rebuke of the Church apt, just as acceptance of capitalism without consideration of its conflicts with our beliefs robs Catholicism of its moral teeth.

The question, then, is how can we be good Catholics in a world that is functionally capitalist? I do not know, but it bears further investigation.

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