Wednesday, February 03, 2010
by John Zmirak
Over the course of many months thinking about the deadly sins and opposing virtues, I've ranged pretty widely. In dealing with Greed and Generosity, I have drawn (so far as I know) the only direct connections yet between Chinese Communism, elves, ostrich farms, and the mortgage crisis. But that's what being Catholic (from katholikos, or "according to the whole") is all about -- learning to look at the whole world in all its dimensions, exploring its murkiest shadows in the light of remembered truths. And most questions that vex current politics can be best understood by understanding the relationship of justice and mercy. In theory, it's a simple one: Justice is the foundation of the house and its stress-bearing walls, while mercy provides the windows and the doors. Neglect the first, and you live in a tottering ruin; the second, and you're in a prison.
But the point of these reflections isn't to change the way you vote but to help you achieve the Golden Mean of virtue in daily life. That means avoiding the sin of Greed without lurching over sideways into Prodigality, learning to give liberally without enabling the wasteful. We must not, to paraphrase Scripture, eat up our substance with prodigal giving -- particularly when we're speaking of wealth or rights that belong to our fellow citizens. Taking part in a partly free economy, many of us are offered frequent temptations to act greedily, and it's hard to know where or when to stop. In a culture that has tacitly decided (long about 1688) to shelve religious questions and concentrate on getting rich, it's all too easy to see accumulating property as a virtuous end in itself. Dostoevsky, of all people, called money "coined freedom," and who wouldn't want more of that? Well, Dostoevsky for one, who threw his wealth away most prodigally at the gambling tables, and only embraced Christianity while serving in a labor camp.
So we're ringed round with paradoxes, and the issues aren't simple. In search of those clinking little icons of liberty, we can easily enslave ourselves to workaholic habits, or corrupt our friendships and even our families by commercializing them -- for instance, when you try to recruit your college pals into a pyramid scheme, or nix your chance at marriage by wrangling over a pre-nup. Perhaps the best approach is one proposed by Catholic philanthropist Frank Hanna, whose book What Your Money Means proposes a deeply biblical approach. Going back to the parable of the talents (Mt 25:14-30 and Lk 19:12-27), he suggests we think of every natural good that God has given us as something precious we've been entrusted to use in unique way. Had God other plans for each gift, He would have given it to someone else. With that fact in mind, we should husband our resources prudently, aware that on Judgment Day we'll be called to account for each of them. That's not the time you want to be on your hands and knees with a trowel.
Keep that image in your head as you take my Trademark-Busting Cosmo-Style Quiz™, to see where you fall on the Gordon Gekko Scale. Take out your pencil and score yourself carefully -- the answer might affect your credit rating.