First published in the Umatuna, the newspaper for the Archdiocese of Agana, Guam, 12/18/99.
Judging by the response, my column last week, "Are There Any Wealthy People In Heaven?" seems to have caused a bit of distress or at least discomfort amongst some readers. During the week I also had a chance to address Fr. Dan Mulhauser’s morality class at UOG on the same topic and was told later by a student that it was good to hear "the other side".
I found the words "the other side" both amusing and a true summation of my point in the original article: that the creation of wealth is somehow considered to be un-Catholic or even un-Christian. I believe the anxiety with my position lies in the definition of the word "wealth", which for many of us, is defined by the media, where examples of the misuse of wealth sell, and stories where the responsible use of wealth make no news.
But at further issue is that "wealth" is really a relative word. We may think that the man with the house on the hill and a yacht down at the marina is wealthy and hold him in contempt, labeling him with the dreaded "M" word (materialistic). But what of the poor family that lives on the side of the railroad tracks in Manila? Are we with our flush toilets and refrigerators not wealthy in their eyes? Are we not "materialistic" in comparison? So materialism is relative too, and is usually defined where our paycheck ends.
What’s really amusing to me is that so many of these heart-rending discussions over the world’s poor and the evils of materialism take place in multi-million dollar university buildings where the air-conditioning bill for the duration of one class alone could feed that hungry family on the side of those railroad tracks for half a year.
For the sake of discussion, let me propose a definition of wealth, or at least the generation of revenue, as a by-product of having performed some service that others find worth trading their dollars for, be it mowing a neighbor’s lawn or the creation of a computer program. That, in essence, is the definition of capitalism as employed in the free-market economy upon which our country was built.
I believe that many of us Catholics run into trouble trying to rationalize the real world of bills and financial responsibilities with what we are taught in parishes and universities because the people we learn from do not live in this free-market economy. Priests don’t get fired, and university professors have to mess up pretty bad before they are asked to leave. And their pay is not directly contingent on the quality and quantity of production (at least not on the day to day basis) as is ours in the private sector.
I am no economist and I propose no grand solution, but I do believe that there is much in the Gospels that points to the responsible generation and management of wealth, particularly the story of the talents (Lk.19:11-27) Meanwhile, I recommend that we who so easily demand that the "haves" give more to the "have-nots", become "haves" ourselves, so that we ourselves can give to the "have-nots".
But I would urge Catholics to go beyond even this. For I believe that the truly charitable thing to do is not only to give monetary assistance to the truly helpless, which is definitely our Gospel responsibility, but to give an example to the many who would pick themselves up if only they knew that they could.
And why not be a financially prosperous and responsible Catholic? It would cut down on the fundraisers.
December 18, 1999