You meet a well-dressed man with a dynamic personality. Through the course of your conversation, you realize that he is very wealthy. Later, you learn he is Catholic.
Now let’s add another layer to the new acquaintance. He’s involved in a Catholic business, perhaps working in Catholic media, or selling religious goods, or as a business consultant for Church schools. Has your impression of him changed? After all, what is he doing making so much money off our faith?
Let’s take it just one step further. What if he works directly for the Church? Your likely reaction: What? The Church can’t pay enough for someone to be wealthy! But even if he is independently wealthy and works as a hobby, suspicion continues. If he’s living the Catholic life so fully, what’s he doing with all that money?
We like our priest and nuns with vows of poverty or at least simple lives, and we tend to think that anyone working in and around the Church should be happy with low wages or find another career. Our heroes are our saints. If they began with wealth, they walked away from it. The few kings and queens that became saints cared greatly for the poor and lived humbly.
The Bible tells us: “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” (1 Timothy 6:10). Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters. You cannot serve both God and money” (Matthew 6:24). But is it possible to be a good Catholic and be rich?
Our Catholic Catechism teaches that holiness comes from poverty of the heart. “Jesus enjoins his disciples to prefer him to everything and everyone, and bids them "renounce all that [they have]" for his sake and that of the Gospel. Shortly before his passion, he gave them the example of the poor widow of Jerusalem who, out of her poverty, gave all that she had to live on. The precept of detachment from riches is obligatory for entrance into the Kingdom of heaven. (CCC 2544).
Non-Catholic Christians often cut their followers more slack in the money department with the “prosperity Gospel.” The famous evangelist Oral Roberts made wealth acceptable for Christians. When he died 6 years ago at the age of 91, USA Today referred to him as a “pioneering voice” for the health and wealth Gospel movement. He took the psalmists words to heart to "delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart." And Jesus seemed to seal the deal with: "Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added unto you."
Televangelist preacher Joel Osteen and others picked up the prosperity ball and make no apologies for living in multi-million dollar mansions. It’s not unanimous, however, since other Protestant leaders disagree with such a message. Rick Warren, evangelical pastor and author of the best selling The Purpose Driven Life often asserts, "I don't think it is a sin to be rich. I think it is a sin to die rich." However, given that no one knows their number of days, they might end up like the rich man in Luke 12:20 who God told: “You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you.”
Protestant pastor Rick Henderson warned that the prosperity Gospel is detrimental to long-term growth as a follower of Jesus. According to him, it uses good actions to leverage material blessings from God.
Poverty of Heart
While the aggressive accumulation of wealth is debated in Protestant circles, there is no Catholic prosperity Gospel. The late Marist priest, seminary instructor and author of over 20 books, Fr. Thomas Dubay, explained the Catholic understanding of the Gospel and money in Happy are the Poor: The Simple Life and Spiritual Freedom.
The goal is not destitution, he explained, but the love of frugality and loving our neighbors as ourselves so as not to turn away from their poverty. He explained that means sharing what we have as John the Baptist told people: "If anyone has two tunics, he must share with the man who has none..." (Luke 3:11).
Dubay pointed out that most people share in a way that does not inconvenience, but real giving means reaching the point of sacrifice to share. “That is real love and sound logic,” Dubay said, “and any honest person should be able to see it. To live it requires radical conversion.”
Our Church does not outline the specifics. Thus, we have no right to judge the outer appearances of wealth in others. Consider for instance, St. Thomas More, the Lord Chancellor of King Henry VIII. He seemed to live a comfortable life. Yet, he served the poor in many ways and known only to his daughter who laundered his clothing, he wore a hair shirt. More also died a martyr rather than compromise his faith, for refusing to publicly support the King’s immoral remarriage.
Consider also that behind so many of our Catholic institutions and Catholic media are wealthy donors. Ultimately, we need to simply concern ourselves with what God is asking of us. To live poorly but then to sneer at the wealthy is still the sin of pride.
Rather than judge those who have a lot or a little money, we must personally strive to detach from it. The day I heard that the Beatles’ George Harrison had died, the thought crossed my mind: “Well, he’s no different than a cleaning lady now.” His soul lay bare before God with no earthly fame and fortune to lean on. Just as it will be for us one day.
Ultimately, the relationship between money and Catholics is awkward because it is supposed to be. We are to be in the world not of the world. It’s less about the money and more about the challenge of detachment. Whether we work in an around the Church or not, we should be no less committed to the Gospel.