The Judeo-Christian understanding of wealth and poverty has vacillated between two attitudes. One attitude, rooted in Old Testament Wisdom literature, sees abundance as a sign of God's favour and poverty the result of laziness. "A slack hand causes poverty, but the hand of the diligent makes rich" (Proverbs 10:4).
The second biblical attitude sees poverty as a symbol of the situation of humanity before a God whose greatness and goodness know no bounds. The rich man is one who places his trust in possessions rather than in God. God, however, favours those who recognize their own spiritual poverty.
The fathers of the Church, who wrote in the first centuries after Christ, focused on the existence of poverty as a call to conversion of the rich, rather than an incitement to social transformation.
"How could we ever do good to our neighbour, if none of us possessed anything?" asked St. Clement of Alexandria. Implicit in St. Clement's question, however, is not only a call to the rich to exercise virtue, but also the assumption that wealth is meant to be shared.
Modern papal social teaching has tended to focus on the need for social reform and transformation. But even under such notions as "structures of sin" lies the understanding that evil social structures are the result of numerous selfish acts. Social reform is bound up with a growth in moral virtue.
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Sharing of our wealth marks a solidarity with the weak and poor
In the 20th century, the key economic question was whether capitalism or socialism represented a better alternative. For the Church, however, that was never the question. The Church has never seen socialism as a moral option. It has always upheld the importance of private property to the common good. Property is important to family life and to people's full participation in society.
But neither has the Church been an advocate of laissez-faire capitalism. Capitalism has meant the concentration of property in fewer and fewer hands thus excluding the majority from the goods of the earth.
Wealth creates self-indulgence and self-indulgence has fostered social injustice. Greed has been a major engine of modern economic development. Such development has often been wasteful, creating artificial needs to further enrich the wealthy and turn the hearts of the masses to consumerism.
This unlimited consumption leads people to reject their social responsibilities and any public authority that stands in the way of their indulging their desires. Self-gratification, in this view, must be defended against any moral claims. The individual is sovereign, and God and the common good are, at best, killjoys.
The light in the midst of rampant consumerism is that there remains a large reserve of voluntarism and moral virtue. Despite powerful social forces pushing people to be self-centred, a large percentage of the population continues to be motivated by solidarity with the weak and the poor.
The dark side is that such a reserve may not endure indefinitely. Further, to rebuild an allegiance to the common good among those who have been caught up in consumerism will not be an overnight task. It could take generations.
Pope John Paul II stated clearly that the Church is not seeking "a third way" that is between or above capitalism and socialism. It seeks rather to strengthen the bonds of solidarity and to replace unjust social structures.
The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church states, "Faith in Christ makes it possible to have a correct understanding of social development" (n. 327). Of course, being a churchgoer does not in itself qualify one to be a social reformer. The split between faith and life has affected all of us to a greater or lesser extent.
Morality and economics should not be divided into two mutually exclusive spheres. To knit them together requires us to see economic activity not as an opportunity to get ahead, but as a grateful response to God's goodness. Our talents are to be used to make economic expansion secondary to human development.