Money, Vices and Virtues
Ronald Reagan once said that you can get anything done in Washington, as long as you don’t care who gets the credit. The converse is also true: You can solve any problem more quickly if you don’t obsess over whose fault it is.
Too often when a crisis happens, the first response is, “Whose fault is this?” In some crises, the answer is clear. But usually, the answer is too complicated and the blame-finding exercise wastes precious time and energy.
Ultimately, we know what’s at fault when bad things happen: sin. And it is rarely any one person’s sin that caused it, but the same old seven deadly sins that have always caused problems. When the sin isn’t obvious, usually it’s because particular sins have become perfectly acceptable to the world. Here are a few of the sins at the root of the financial problems we face:
Covetousness is an excessive desire for worldly things. Such was the problem that many homeowners got themselves into. Either they were willing to take on a mortgage that, looking at their situation objectively, they would be unable to pay — or they piled debt onto the mortgage they already had, until the bubble burst and they owed more on their house than it was worth.
“Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s goods” is the lowly Tenth Commandment — last in the list, which is in order of importance. Now we see why God put it on the tablet at all.
Of course covetousness on the part of financial institutions also played its role. But that’s better called …
It’s often falsely charged that the Church once condemned usury and no longer does. That’s because of a misunderstanding of the word. Usury isn’t simply the charging of interest — it’s the unjust charging of interest such that a customer is being asked to pay twice for a product.
St. Thomas Aquinas explains it in the Summa Theologiae:
“To take usury for money lent is unjust in itself, because this is to sell what does not exist, and this evidently leads to inequality, which is contrary to justice. In order to make this evident, we must observe that there are certain things the use of which consists in their consumption: Thus, we consume wine when we use it for drink, and we consume wheat when we use it for food. … If a man wanted to sell wine separately from the use of the wine, he would be selling the same thing twice, or he would be selling what does not exist; wherefore, he would evidently commit a sin of injustice. In like manner, he commits an injustice who lends wine or wheat and asks for double payment — one, the return of the thing in equal measure, the other, the price of the use, which is called usury.”
Apply what he says about wine and wheat to homes and loans. Lenders were all too willing to sell homes to those who couldn’t afford them, then sell the loans to third parties, such that a system was built on trading not in homes, but in loans and the use of the loans. That’s not just selling the use of something or selling the same thing twice; that’s selling the use of the thing over and over again.
We see how covetousness and usury affect thousands. People who were allowed to run up unpayable mortgage and credit card debt now must spend their time working not to save money for the future, but to service the loans of money that they spent in their past.
All of this is part of a system Pope John Paul II warned about 10 years ago, on the eve of the 21st century. He warned against consumerism, calling it the “exaltation of the individual and the selfish satisfaction of personal aspirations become the ultimate goal of life.”
“Before our eyes we have the results of ideologies such as Marxism, Nazism and fascism,” he said in his World Day of Peace message. “No less pernicious, though not always as obvious, are the effects of materialist consumerism.”
“Who is responsible,” he asks, “for guaranteeing the global common good and the exercise of economic and social rights? The free market by itself cannot do this because in fact there are many human needs that have no place in the market.”
What are the answers to a problem caused by such sins? The opposite virtues.
We began to apply the phrase “the American dream” mainly to homeownership. At its root, this is optimism — but in its corruption, it becomes covetousness, usury and consumerism. How about a return to those other American virtues that fueled our country’s expansion: self-sacrifice, respect for others and generosity?
Or, to put it another way: How about love?
That’s what Pope Benedict XVI counsels in his 2005 encyclical Deus Caritas Est (God Is Love):
“Love — caritas — will always prove necessary, even in the most just society. There is no ordering of the state so just that it can eliminate the need for a service of love. Whoever wants to eliminate love is preparing to eliminate man as such. … The state that would provide everything, absorbing everything into itself, would ultimately become a mere bureaucracy incapable of guaranteeing the very thing that the suffering person — every person — needs: namely, loving personal concern.
“We do not need a state that regulates and controls everything,” he said, “but a state that, in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity, generously acknowledges and supports initiatives arising from the different social forces and combines spontaneity with closeness to those in need. The Church is one of those living forces: She is alive with the love enkindled by the Spirit of Christ.”
“Love” in Catholic social teaching means building a just economy on prudence and community spirit that expands along the lines of the Golden Rule: Lend to others as you would have them lend to you.
- October 12-18, 2008