In our present politics, the concept of wealth is surrounded by questions and confusions, down to the very definition of the word. Whenever the topic comes up, we are met with certain questions: “How can we determine who is wealthy and who isn’t?” “At what precise income does one officially become wealthy?” “Who is charged with making this determination?” “Shouldn’t the owner of the property make this determination” “If not, then why not?” “Is wealth good, evil, or both?”
In the end, the conversation spirals into a strange parody of Pilate’s immortal dodge: “Alas, what is wealth?”
And just as it was with Christ at the crucifixion, the conversation is thereafter short-circuited—and, really, I cannot help but suspect that such was the point of the questions in the first place. Pilate absolved himself of the whole problem of truth, and men today do the same thing with the problem of wealth. It is, we are told, simply one of those transcendent mysteries, shrouded in an impenetrable fog and hidden in the Holy of Holies where no mortal can approach.
Now all of this is, of course, as much nonsense as Pilate’s question. There are, in fact, various means of penetrating that veil and dispelling the fog. Here I only want to mention one—which is the theological concept of “occasions of sin”—since I have found it particularly useful in shining some light on the golden calf:
According to the Catholic Encyclopedia: “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.”
These occasions can be either “necessary” or “voluntary,” the difference being that the latter is an avoidable circumstance, while the former cannot be escaped without at the same time neglecting the responsibilities that come with one’s station in life. A voluntary occasion of sin, then, might involve living next door to a liquor store (if you happen to be a man prone to drunkenness) or to a strip club (if you happen to be…well…a man). Necessary occasions of sin, on the other hand, are those which may come from one’s normal vocation.
Obviously wealth—or the state of “being wealthy”—qualifies as a necessary occasion of sin: It involves “external circumstances” of “things” which because of their “special nature” as well as the “frailty common to humanity” will tend to “incite or entice one to sin.”
If we adopt this point of view—that wealth represents a necessary occasion of sin—certain problems immediately come into focus. Wealth is not necessarily evil. It is “necessary,” and because perfect equality is impossible without the abolition of private property, some degree of inequality and wealth is therefore also “necessary.” This also means that rich people are not automatically evil simply for being rich.
So far, then, we have absolved those who have wealth from any unnecessary condemnation.
And yet, the second conclusion of what we have said is that which has been the constant caution offered by Christ and the Church: wealth, although not a sin in itself, represents a very distinct occasion of it. Logically speaking, then, the more pronounced the circumstance, the more pronounced the occasion, and the more pronounced the occasion, the more dangerous the temptation. Hence, we should expect to stumble upon certain sayings like “Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God" (Matthew 19:24).
This is also why, in the past, it was thought necessary and wise to tie wealth to social responsibility. A nobleman in the 12th century may have large funds at his disposal (although, to be truthful, he often did not have even that), but because of his function he had to dispose of those resources in favor of the public good. He built roads and bridges, for example. Moreover, he not only fought in the wars (the peasants did not), but he funded the wars himself.
The principle was that a disproportion in wealth ought to be equaled by a disproportion of social responsibility: Your income may be exponentially higher than the next man, but so will the duties laid at your door by that wealth.
In this way, the “necessary occasion of sin” was institutionally tempered. Aristocrats could be—and certainly were in many cases—greedy, but there was magnanimity demanded in the midst. The greed which the occasion of wealth can foster was placed within limits, minimized, and the rich man was forcibly directed outside of his own interests toward those of others.
Wealth will always be a necessary occasion of sin. If anything has changed through history, it is that the aristocracy of our regime has managed to escape the structural responsibility that had always been attached to its wealth. Owners of wealth no longer translates to “fighters of wars” or “builders of roads” or “providers of feasts.”
Naturally this has certain awful social consequences, dividing men and destroying solidarity along class lines, creating hate, and fueling jealousy. But there is more than enough in the body of Catholic Social Teaching to make all those points. Here I just want to point out what this means for today’s wealthy. By liberating the right of “ownership” from the duties of “use,” we can perhaps say that a wealthy man today, from a certain theological standpoint, is worse off than he’s ever been. Never mind the peasants, the modern aristocrat is in danger, and the eye of the needle is shrinking.