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Wealth and the Spirituality of Social Solidarity

July 6, AD2016

possibleSt. Matthew, Patron Saint of Bankers, Pray for Me.

This is how I have become accustomed to opening and closing each day. For most of my adult life, I have been a banker and in the business of buying and selling money. There is a common misconception among the faithful that having money is bad, and having a lot of money is really bad. Conversely, it is thought that not having money (or enough money) is somehow morally sanctifying. While this attitude is widespread, it misses the point: Money is not really about money at all. In fact, understanding the true nature of money — and, more broadly, wealth — and its role in our journey through the material world is key to more fully understanding God’s plan for each of us.

Take a deep breath. At first, this may sound shocking—especially for people of faith.  But there is something important that you need to know.  There is a real and certain spiritual aspect of money.  This does not mean that people should in any way worship money.  It is only to say that money is not exactly what you think, and that it contains multiple dimensions of meaning.  Spirituality in this context means both a metaphysical and an ontological reality with relation to how we relate to others and how we stand before God.

What Is Wealth?

At its core, money is a medium of exchange that facilitates the transfer of goods and services. Recall the example from Economics 101: I have a sweet tooth, so I trade my guitar for your bicycle so that I can get across town to trade the bicycle to the winemaker (who needs a non-motorized means of transportation). In exchange for the transportation help, the winemaker gives me a bottle of fine wine to exchange with the pastry chef (who is a connoisseur), which enables me to finally get the crème brûlée that I am craving. The inefficiency here is obvious. Clearly, I am better off selling my guitar and using the money to buy my sweet indulgences directly. At its essence, this is what money is: a lubricant to increase the velocity of exchange.

Money provides the means to meet our basic needs — food, shelter, clothing, and transportation — but only if others are willing to produce the things that we need. While it is popularly thought that money makes us independent, the opposite is actually true. Currency makes us interdependent because it only functions if others accept its value and are willing to use it in exchange. Simply put, money is a sign of the interdependence of man– a type of social solidarity.

How Much Money Is Enough?

We can all agree that if a person does not have enough money for the basic needs of himself and those dependent upon him, he does not have enough money. Beyond the benchmark of meeting basic needs, the answer to the question of how much money is enough is a very personal and often difficult question to answer. These three steps will help you come to a conclusion.

  • Step One: Evaluate the genuine needs in your life. Genuine needs are those things in life that you must have to develop into the kind of person that God has called you to be. Education is an example of a genuine need. Although education is not a basic need for survival, we know that it is impossible for us to reach our potential as productive members of our society without it. In conducting an accounting of your own life, these needs become clear.
  • Step Two: Beyond the meeting of our own basic and genuine needs, as business professionals, we must also contend with another set of needs often referred to as profession-related needs. These needs are those things that are required of us in order to fulfill our profession in life. An example of a profession-related need for a banker may be a professional wardrobe suitable for serious business meetings, or a set of golf clubs to facilitate client interaction and business dealings. Again, this type of accounting is very personal.

The challenge comes next. What about the money that is left? How are we to understand the excess above these core needs?

  • Step Three: We must consider the money needed for acquiring what can be termed as beneficial goods. These are goods that would improve us as persons but are not critical to our personal development. They are not essential and are truly discretionary. Here is where we often find the most challenging questions about how we use our money and how much money is enough. It is in this area that the exercise of the virtues is critical — particularly the virtues of temperance and prudence.

Ultimately, how much money is enough is a prayerful question between you and God.

How Does God Understand Wealth?

Most business-minded Catholics are aware of Christ’s admonishment of the wealthy man in the Gospel of Matthew (Mt 19:24). Unfortunately, this is often where they begin and end their investigation of what our faith has to say about wealth.

In the story, Jesus instructed a young man who inquired about how to obtain eternal life to keep the commandments. When the young man pressed further by insisting that he already observed the commandments, Jesus countered that if he wishes to be perfect, he must “go, sell what you have and give to [the] poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” The Gospel goes on to say that the young man was saddened by Jesus’ response because he had many possessions. Then addressing His disciples, Jesus said: “Amen, I say to you, it will be hard for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

The message is clear and challenging: Riches are a distraction and hard to share if one is too attached to them. This is both a warning and a reminder: Wealth comes with great responsibility and risk, and the person of means must always be spiritually vigilant.

But dangers aside, wealth is not inherently a bad thing. In On the Love of the Poor, St. Gregory Nazianzen encourages the wealthy to…

“[g]ive thanks to God that you are among those who can do favors and not among those who need to receive them; that you need not look up to the hands of others but others to yours. Do not be rich only in your wealth but also in your piety; not only in your gold but also in your virtue, or better still, only in the latter.”

He wasn’t alone. Origen, in his Commentary on the Gospel of Saint Matthew, outlined the various ways Christians can obtain God’s forgiveness of transgressions. The third way (or path) calls for the giving of alms as a method of cleansing one’s soul; the sixth path requires an abundance of charity, citing the Sermon on the Mount’s passage, “Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy” (Mt 5:7).

We all have an obligation to exercise charity (love). For the wealthy, this love is to be manifested not only in the relief of temporal sufferings of the poor but also in helping create opportunities for the poor to escape their material poverty. Similarly, the poor have an obligation to always maintain the spirit of hope that God stamps into us all. This hope in the midst of desperate circumstances serves as an example and inspiration to the wealthy to remember that all of us must rely on God.

Christianity requires social solidarity. In his Homilies on the Gospel of Saint Matthew, St. John Chrysostom allows no loopholes:

[I]f in world matters no man lives for himself, but artisan, soldier, farmer, and merchant, all of them contribute to the common good, and to their neighbors advantage, much more must we do this in spiritual things. For this is, in the true meaning of the term, to live. He, who lives for himself only and overlooks all others, is useless. He is not even a man and he does not belong to the human race.

As business people, we have a vocation to create wealth to use in service to our fellow man. By taking advantage of our God-given talents (and the resources those talents generate) in the marketplace, we facilitate the productive interdependence of all God’s children. Furthermore, we serve God by helping create a society where the needs of our brothers and sisters are met not merely at a level of sufficiency, but with the hope for abundance rooted in the understanding that productivity is part of God’s plan for all of us.

Photography: See our Photographers page.

About the Author:

Dawn Carpenter is a banker with the heart of a teacher and scholar. She is a veteran of Wall Street who studies what Christian theology has to tell us about the nature and value of work and the responsibilities of wealth. Using the experience of her nearly 25 year banking career, Ms. Carpenter serves as a Practitioner Fellow at Georgetown University’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor. She is also a founding Advisory Board member to the School of Business and Economics at Catholic University of America, chairman of the Investment Committee and member of the Finance Committee of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Black and Indian Mission, and as the Co-Chair of the Advisory Board of DC Habitat for Humanity.

Ms. Carpenter is currently working toward a doctorate in Liberal Studies at Georgetown University where her groundbreaking research investigates the nature of work and the responsibilities of wealth. She has previously earned a M.A. in systematic theology from the Notre Dame Graduate School of Theology at Christendom College, a M.P.M. in public finance from the University of Maryland, and a M.A./B.A. in political science from American University. Ms. Carpenter and her family reside in Washington, DC.

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  • adam aquinas

    A justification for wealth? Only if it’s all to be given to serve the poor, hungry, homeless….Matt 19:24 …23 Then Jesus said to His disciples, “Truly I tell you, it is difficult for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” 25 When the disciples heard this they were greatly astonished and asked, “Who then can be saved?”…

    I would suggest reading: Bankers: The Only Profession That Drove Jesus to Violence
    A True Story of Lies, Deceit, and Deception
    by Jody D. Kimbrell
    https://www.tatepublishing.com/bookstore/book.php?w=978-1-61739-164-4

  • Toad

    “go, sell what you have and give to [the] poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
    Instead of all the rationalising and cheeseparing above Dawn – why not simply do as God says – give it all to the poor and go follow him? Isn’t that simpler and more efficient?
    “wealth is not inherently a bad thing.”
    Then why does Christ expressly tell us to get rid of it? How many bank accounts did He have?