Today we see two men; one is very rich and the other is Lazarus, a very poor beggar (Luke 16:19-31). The rich man lives magnificently and the poor man lies at his gate, covered with sores, which the dogs lick. One feasts on good food and drink every day and the other wishes that he had the scraps from the rich man’s table. The Gospel states that the wealthy man was “well off in his life time and Lazarus was in misery.” As the story concludes, we see God’s sympathy for Lazarus, who is taken to heaven while the rich man is sent to hell for his insensitivity and selfishness. As simple as the story is, it manifests the deep truth of God’s attitude towards a society divided between the privileged and the poor.
St. Thomas Aquinas explains that having what is needed for the necessities of life is a human good (1a2ae. 2, 1). However, even though Thomas is not usually given to demeaning language, he describes those who consider that everything obeys money, as “a multitude of fools” (ad multitudinem stultorum), since they know nothing more than life on a material level (1a2ae. 2, 1, ad 1).
As a general principle, according to Thomas, “The common good takes precedence over the private good, in the same category” (2a2ae. 152, 4, ad 3). St. Thomas states: “The temporal goods which God grants us, are ours as to the ownership, but as to the use of them, they belong not to us alone but also to such others as we are able to help out of what we have over and above our needs” (2a2ae. 32, 6, ad 2).
Thomas asserts that not providing necessary help for the poor can be a serious sin: “There is a time when we sin mortally if we omit to give alms; on the part of the recipient when we see that his need is evident and urgent, and that he is not likely to be helped otherwise – on the part of the giver, when he has superfluous goods, which he does not need for the time being, as far as he can judge with probability” (2a2ae. 32, 6, ad 2).
Thomas identifies “going too far in getting or keeping material things” as the sin of “avarice.” Hording in this way is a sin against our neighbors: “With material possessions it is impossible for one man to enjoy extreme wealth without someone else suffering extreme want, since the resources of this world cannot be possessed by many at one time” (2a2ae. 118, 1, ad 2).
- C. O’Brien comments: “One cannot but be impressed by the unqualified principle of social and economic justice, so flatly stated in the 13th century, that still remains an unfulfilled, even revolutionary ideal” (Summa Theologiae New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1972, 243, n. b.)
Avarice is a sin against oneself because one’s desires are immoderate. It is a sin against God because “for the sake of an earthly good a person rejects the eternal” (2a2ae. 118, 1, ad 3).
Even many Catholics are unaware of the Church’s critique of social structures that perpetuate systems of injustice and poverty. For over a hundred years, the popes have been calling attention to endemic social injustices. For instance, in 1975, Pope Paul VI spoke of peoples who are condemned to “remain on the margin of life” because of “famine, chronic disease, illiteracy, poverty, injustices in international relations and especially in commercial exchanges, situations of economic and cultural neo-colonialism sometimes as cruel as the old political colonialism” (Evangelii Nuntiandi, 30).
The Pope asked, “How in fact can one proclaim the new commandment without promoting in justice and in peace the true, authentic advancement of man?” (Evangelii Nuntiandi, 31). In his letter, Populorum Progressio, in 1967, Paul VI stated clearly that the Church maintains each person’s right to self-fulfillment.
“In God’s plan, every man is born to seek self-fulfillment, for every human life is called to some task by God. At birth a human being possesses certain aptitudes and abilities in germinal form, and these qualities are to be cultivated so that they may bear fruit. By developing these traits through formal education of personal effort, the individual works his way toward the goal set for him by the Creator. Endowed with intellect and free will, each man is responsible for his self-fulfillment even as he is for his salvation” (Populorum Progressio, 15).
In his letter, Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict XVI writes:
“Awareness of God’s undying love sustains us in our laborious and stimulating work for justice and the development of peoples, amid successes and failures, in the ceaseless pursuit of a just ordering of human affairs. God’s love calls us to move beyond the limited and the ephemeral, it gives us the courage to continue seeking and working for the benefit of all, even if this cannot be achieved immediately and if what we are able to achieve, alongside political authorities and those working in the field of economics, is always less than we might wish. God gives us the strength to fight and to suffer for love of the common good, because he is our All, our greatest hope” (Caritas in Veritate, 78).
Pope Francis appeals to the teachings of Thomas Aquinas: “One also sees the need for policies which can lighten an excessive imbalance between incomes. We must not
forget the Church’s teaching on the so-called social mortgage, which holds that although it is lawful, as Saint Thomas Aquinas says, and indeed necessary ‘that people have ownership of goods’, insofar as their use is concerned, ‘they possess them as not just their own, but common to others as well, in the sense that they can benefit others as well as themselves’”(December 8, 2013).
Mother Teresa (Saint Teresa of Calcutta) wrote:
“God has identified Himself with the hungry, the sick, the naked, the homeless; hunger not only for bread, but for love, for care, to be somebody to someone … Let each of us … become a true child, a carrier of God’s love, let us love others as God has loved each one of us, for Jesus has said love one another as I have loved you … Therefore, I appeal to every one of your – poor and rich, young and old – to give your hands to serve Christ in His poor and your hearts to love Him in them. … and since love begins at home maybe Christ is hungry, naked, sick or homeless in your own heart, in your family, in your neighbors, in the country you live in, in the world” (Life in the Spirit, pp13-15)
Denis Vincent Wiseman, O.P.
References to St. Thomas’ Summa Theologiae give the part of the Summa, such as the first part of the second part. Then the question is given, such as question 2, and then the article, such as the 1st. If the reference is from Thomas response to an objection, the number of the objection is added, with the Latin word, ad, meaning “to,” such as the reply to the third objection.