The Proper Attitude Toward Wealth
a. A necessary occasion of sin
Leo XIII warned that “those whom fortune favors are warned that riches do not bring freedom from sorrow and are of no avail for eternal happiness, but rather are obstacles.” In saying this, he expressed the traditional attitude of Christianity toward wealth, which is that it represents a “necessary occasion of sin.”
Occasions of sin are “external circumstances—whether of things or persons—which either because of their special nature or because of the frailty common to humanity or peculiar to some individual, incite or entice one to sin.” By calling wealth a “necessary occasion,” it is acknowledged that wealth has a valid role to play and that to be wealthy is not, in itself, sinful. Yet wealth does confer a degree of responsibility. It is best to return here to Leo XIII and quote him at length on this aspect of the problem:
“Therefore, those whom fortune favors are warned that riches do not bring freedom from sorrow and are of no avail for eternal happiness, but rather are obstacles; that the rich should tremble at the threatenings of Jesus Christ—threatenings so unwonted in the mouth of our Lord—and that a most strict account must be given to the Supreme Judge for all we possess.”
b. The distinction between ownership and use
Implied in the words of Christ is an important point about wealth: the right to private property does not confer the right to use one’s property however one sees fit (or refuse to use it, as the case may be). This is the classical distinction between ownership and use. To continue Leo’s words:
“The chief and most excellent rule for the right use of money is one the heathen philosophers hinted at, but which the Church has traced out clearly, and has not only made known to men’s minds, but has impressed upon their lives. It rests on the principle that it is one thing to have a right to the possession of money and another to have a right to use money as one wills. Private ownership, as we have seen, is the natural right of man, and to exercise that right, especially as members of society, is not only lawful, but absolutely necessary. ‘It is lawful,’ says St. Thomas Aquinas, ‘for a man to hold private property; and it is also necessary for the carrying on of human existence.’ But if the question be asked: How must one’s possessions be used? – the Church replies without hesitation in the words of the same holy Doctor: ‘Man should not consider his material possessions as his own, but as common to all, so as to share them without hesitation when others are in need. Whence the Apostle with, ‘Command the rich of this world… to offer with no stint, to apportion largely.’ True, no one is commanded to distribute to others that which is required for his own needs and those of his household; nor even to give away what is reasonably required to keep up becomingly his condition in life, ‘for no one ought to live other than becomingly.’ But, when what necessity demands has been supplied, and one’s standing fairly taken thought for, it becomes a duty to give to the indigent out of what remains over. ‘Of that which remaineth, give alms.’ ”
c. Private charity vs. government action
Leo’s distinction between ownership and use comes to our aid in many contemporary debates. For example, much is made today of the role of “private charity” when it comes to succoring the poor and needy. Some go so far as to say that, if we would only cut government programs and leave the taxes which support them to be used at the discretion of the taxpayer, then the problem of poverty would be alleviated more efficiently. Let us, then, put forward the Catholic understanding, first of charity itself, and then of the State’s role in the task of relieving poverty.
d. Justice before charity
First, although charity is normally considered something of a “private virtue,” to be cultivated by the individual rather than coerced by the State, we must also recognize that it still operates in relation to justice, and justice itself has the prior claim. What this means is that if the requirements of justice are not met, then charity has not yet entered the picture, and so what the State extracts from the rich in terms of taxes is not necessarily a matter of coerced charity, but of coerced justice. Coerced charity would be inappropriate, but coerced justice is not. In the words of Benedict XVI, charity goes beyond justice:
“Charity goes beyond justice, because to love is to give, to offer what is ‘mine’ to the other; but it never lacks justice, which prompts us to give the other what is ‘his’, what is due to him by reason of his being or his acting. I cannot ‘give’ what is mine to the other, without first giving him what pertains to him in justice. If we love others with charity, then first of all we are just towards them. Not only is justice not extraneous to charity, not only is it not an alternative or parallel path to charity: justice is inseparable from charity, and intrinsic to it. Justice is the primary way of charity or, in Paul VI’s words, ‘the minimum measure’ of it.”
The Catechism echoes in agreement, citing various authorities on the subject: “Not to enable the poor to share in our goods is to steal from them and deprive them of life. The goods we possess are not ours, but theirs.” “The demands of justice must be satisfied first of all; that which is already due in justice is not to be offered as a gift of charity.” “When we attend to the needs of those in want, we give them what is theirs, not ours. More than performing works of mercy, we are paying a debt of justice.”
Those who try to place charity in opposition to justice, and to use the one to escape the other, are trying to divide two sides of one coin:
“There is no gap between love of neighbour and desire for justice. To contrast the two is to distort both love and justice. Indeed, the meaning of mercy completes the meaning of justice by preventing justice from shutting itself up within the circle of revenge.”
e. “You didn’t build that.”
Perhaps it is the attitude of the “meritocracy” which leads to the perceived opposition between charity and justice. It is imagined that nothing is due in justice to anyone who did not “earn” whatever is given to them, and it is suggested that whatever I legally possess is mine purely and simply because I earned it, and it is therefore unjust to suggest that I part from it. But here Scripture gives a warning:
“When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the Lord your God for the good land he has given you. Be careful that you do not forget the Lord your God, failing to observe his commands, his laws and his decrees that I am giving you this day. Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the Lord your God…You may say to yourself, ‘My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.’ But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth…”
In an absolute sense, all that we have is a gift from God. In a more immediate sense, all that we have is a product of the society in which we live, and in which we’ve been able to participate, live, learn, labor, and reap fruit. No man is an island, or so the saying goes.
While it is legitimate to lay claim to ownership, and to take credit for the labor one has contributed, it is purely illusory to imagine that we produced everything we have in a vacuum and we owe it to nothing else but our own individual merits. Precisely the same actions, aptitudes, and ideas that can earn a man a fortune in a developed nation, for example, would have very different results in the third world, so preponderant is the role of providence in our accomplishments. St. Ambrose speaks to this:
“ ‘My own’, you say? What is your own? When you came from your mother’s womb, what wealth did you bring with you? That which is taken by you, beyond what suffices you, is taken by violence. Is it that God is unjust in not distributing the means of life to us equally, so that you should have in abundance while others are in want? Or is it not rather that He wished to confer upon you marks of His kindness, while He crowned your fellow man with the virtue of patience? You, then, who have received the gift of God, think you that you commit no injustice by keeping to yourself alone what would be the means of life to many? It is the bread of the hungry you cling to, it is the clothing of the naked you lock up; the money you bury is the redemption of the poor.”
f. The velocity of money
St. Basil likened wealth to a great spring: if the water is drawn frequently, all the purer it will remain; yet if it is left unused it becomes foul and stagnant. Now this is of interest to us because of its economic parallel, which is the concept of the velocity of money. This concept says that money, if it falls into the hands of a poor man, will almost immediately leave his hands, either for rent or for lunch or for some other pressing need. If it goes into the hands of a very wealthy man, it may go into a bank account to draw interest, or it may go nowhere at all for a very long time. Now, economically speaking, the first is best, at least from the standpoint of a healthy, vibrant, functioning economy, while the latter is poisonous and leads to stagnation. The point is that even if the rich man spends and invests with frequency, he cannot possibly equal the velocity of the poor man. And so, at least from a particular point of view, great wealth is very literally a “drag” on the economy, while the more money enters the hands of the needy, the better.
 Delany, Joseph. “Occasions of Sin.” The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 11. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. 19 Dec. 2014.
 St. John Chrysostom, Hom. In Lazaro 2, 5: PG 48, 992.
 St. Gregory the Great, Regula Pastoralis. 3, 21: PL 77, 87.
 Deut 8:10-18.
 Will Durant, The Age of Faith (New York, 1950), p. 630.
 Cf. Saint Basil the Great, Homilia in Illud Lucae, Destruam Horrea Mea, 5