Amidst a two-year economic downturn, a stock market that sheered most pension plans by a quarter and almost double-digit joblessness, a “Catholic perspective on overcoming money worries” is especially timely. Whether this is that book, or the book readers expect, are two separate questions.
Regarding the latter, Jeffrey lays out his cards (albeit on page 111): “You may have purchased this book hoping for financial advice and instead — by design — I’ve led you on a journey inward. Financial freedom is not found in any amount of money, but in the trust one has in God’s providence. It’s impossible to make peace with money until you make peace with God. That is the real solution to the ailment” (emphasis original).
Admittedly, Jeffrey also says something similar in the last paragraph of Chapter 1: “That’s what this book is about: making personal peace with money. I will show you how to do that. Not how to make money, but to make peace with money. And God.”
St. Thomas Aquinas defined sin as “aversion from God and inordinate conversion to a creature.” These two aspects are but two sides of the same coin: I can turn to God and away from inordinate attachments to things, or I can turn to things and turn my back on God.
Jeffrey makes a similar argument: Seeking the cause of financial anxiety is usually not a matter of insufficient money, but inadequate trust in God. Because trust often presupposes a surrender of self-control, people really do not want to trust if the price is letting go of money-cum-security. And, to the degree I hold back from God, I am likely to hold on to things, with the paradox that our hearts — “restless until they rest in Thee” — remain unquiet with substitutes.
This book is a spiritual guide designed to put money and the things it buys into perspective. That perspective also involves other character traits, not least of which he identifies as simplicity, generosity, humility and mercy. Do I really need that much house that I cannot afford? Is my generosity to my parish an expression of my trust or a measured, riskless calculation of “my fair share?” Can I really honestly tell myself “I’m worth that $5 million bonus?” Is my love for another, despite the cost, without measure, real?
The book asks how money fits into, and what it says about, our lives. “Everything you own you will one day give away. The only question is to whom you will give it, and whether it will be with a warm hand or a cold one.”
In an economic downturn that largely began because we were living beyond our means on consumerist values, this book reminds us that a good part of our financial dilemmas come from spiritual disorders expressed in misplaced life priorities.
But I am also plagued by a feeling of Pollyanna disconnect with reality. Perhaps that’s my own need for conversion. But when I consider 60-somethings facing retirement with depreciated 401(k) plans or families struggling to keep children in Catholic schools while Dad is laid off and replacement jobs offer nothing like the old position’s security, I don’t find Jeffrey’s treatment sufficient. Trust in God’s providence is also essential in these cases, but I don’t see a message tailored to those caught in the vortex of our current economic hurricane. Likewise, there are virtues that accompany the responsible use of money, e.g., thrift, and that topic is absent. Without that side of the coin, a statement like “research suggests that beyond $20,000, added income actually has little direct impact on self-reported levels of happiness” rings naive.
Although Why Enough Is Never Enough seems incomplete, the book brings a refreshing and insufficiently heard perspective.
Register correspondent John M. Grondelski writes from Bern, Switzerland.
WHY ENOUGH IS NEVER ENOUGH
Overcoming Worries About Money — a Catholic Perspective
By Gregory S. Jeffrey
Our Sunday Visitor, 2010
191 pages, $15.95
To order: osv.com